Ancient Tea Horse Road: a recent coinage?

Tea Porters, Early Republican Period

The Tea Horse Road is ancient and modern at the same time. Ancient because it’s been around a long time, estimated by some to be over 2,000 years old. Modern in that the term “ancient tea horse road” is a relatively recent coinage, circulating in print for over ten years and first proposed in the early 1990s by six scholars in Yunnan who travelled across the border regions of Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet. These six scholars became known as the “six gentlemen.”

Among the countries and regions that traversed these trade routes included Sichuan, India, Burma and Afghanistan. Tong Enzheng (1935 –1997), a Chinese archaeologist and historian suggested the term “Southern Silk Road” because some of the earliest commodities included cloth and silk from the Kingdom of Shu (present-day Sichuan).

The “Southern Silk Road” was divided into eastern and western routes that both started in Chengdu. Trade routes westward included Lu Shan, Ya’an, Hanyuan, Xichang, Huili, crossing the Upper Reaches of the Yangtze River (Jinsha) to Dayao, continuing west to Dali, Baoshan, Tengchong before crossing international borders.

The routes eastward from Chengdu included Pengshan, Leshan, Yishan, Zhaotong, Daguan, Qujing, Kunming, then northwest to Baoshan, Tengchong, Burma connecting Central, Western and Southeast Asia. These eastern and western trade routes were the antecedents of the tea horse routes.

Every muleteer can remember meeting robbers and bandits or being eyewitness to other muleteers being killed by them. The muleteers therefore carried firearms. Li Zhengxiong, an elderly man of the Bai cultural group from Sanyibei Village in Heqing County, Dali Prefecture, remembers his grandmother, a head muleteer during the Republican Period (1912-1949).

Her caravans were well equipped with rifles and knives of varying lengths to protect themselves against bandits and robbers. Smaller caravans, however, did not usually carry firearms or other weapons.

–Yang Ningning “The Cultural Meanings of the Ancient Tea Horse Road,” Southwest Minorities’ University Journal, 2011, issue no. 1, pp. 1-8.

–translated and edited by peter micic



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