History of The Ancient Tea Horse Road

The ancient Tea Horse Road was a network of caravan paths winding through the mountains of southwest China. It was used as a commercial passage for transporting tea, salt and other commodities. Sometimes Chinese tea would be exchanged for Tibetan ponies. Historically, the ancient Tea Horse Road was almost the same as the western frontier of China.

Early Ancient Times 

Chinese tea was originated in Sichuan province(四川省). Tea was traded more than 2,000 years ago during the western han dynasty (206 bc-ad 24). Chinese traders often traded local products, such as tea for yaks, with tibetans living across the dadu river. At that time, the trade road was called yak road, that is, tea horse ancient road. However, the custom of drinking tea has not been widely developed in China. Instead, tea is used as an important part of some medical treatments. As a result, it is not often used by tibetans. Therefore, in early ancient times, tea was only sold in limited quantities in Tibet.

The custom of drinking tea, however, had not yet developed widely in China and instead, tea was used as a valuable component of certain medical treatments. It was therefore not very commonly used by Tibetans. Consequently, tea was sold only in limited quantities to Tibetan areas during early ancient times.

Tang and Song Dynasties 

Tang Dynasty 

During the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), the Tibetan Tobo regime thrived in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, absorbing a great deal of the advanced culture around it. When Princess Wencheng married Songtsen Gampo (the 33rd Tibetan emperor, in 641 AD) and later, when Princess Jincheng married Me Agtsom (the 36th Tibetan emperor, in 710 AD), tea-drinking was gradually introduced to the Tobo area (now Tibet). At first, however, tea was only served as a precious medical product used by the royal family, not as an ordinary drink. Slowly, it also became popular with the Tibetan upper classes and with monks.

Tea-drinking  further developed  in the Kaiyuan period (713-741 AD). As the contact between the Tobo and the Tang increased, especially as lots of Zen monks from the inland areas went to Tobo to preach, tea-drinking was introduced to more Tibetans.

In the late Tang dynasty, because the relations between the Tobo and the Tang regimes became stable, friendly and peaceful, the Tang government needed horses and cows from Tibet to carry textiles and tea. Thus, this promoted the trade relation between the two regions. More and more cheap tea flowed into Tibet, making it more convenient for Tibetans to get it.

Song Dynasty

During the Five Dynasty period (907-960AD) and the Song dynasty (960-1279AD), war broke out frequently. The central government needed to buy war horses from Tibet and strengthed the relations with tribes in the Tibetan area through tea trade.

Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties

Yuan Dyanasty

During the Yuan Dynasty(1271-1368AD), the Tobo regime was controlled by the central government. The Yuan government decided to set up many stations in the Tibetan region in order to promote transportation between Tibet and inland areas. 

Ming Dynasty

During the Ming Dynasty(1368-1644AD), government attached much importance to the tea supply in the Tibetan region. As a result, a lot of tea-laws was carried out for the region to keep tea trade under government supercision and control. 

Qing Dynasty

During the Qing Dynasty(1644-1911AD), Sichuan played a very important role in ruling Tibet. Sichuan and Tibet had  developed a closer relations of tea-for-horse trade.

In the 41st year of the Kangxi Emperor’s reign (1702), the central government set up the Chaguan (Tea Pass) in Kangding, making it a collection and distribution center for tea transportation to Tibet, and an important center on the ancient Tea-Horse Road.

Ancient Tea Horse Road Today

For more than a thousand years, the Tea Horse Road — a thoroughfare of commerce between China and Tibet – was one of the harshest trails in Asia. The ancient passageway stretched almost 2,250km across the tea-growing region of China’s Sichuan Province to Lhasa, the 365m-high capital of Tibet. Beginning in the 10th Century, Chinese porters and pack animals inched up switchbacks to cross Tibet’s Zar Gama Pass to trade Chinese tea for Tibetan horses. Today, most of the original Tea Horse Road is gone and what is left of the old route is now travelled by car or truck.

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Edited by Ziwei Chen/陈紫薇