TEA, TRADE AND TRANSPORT IN THE SINO-TIBETAN BORDERLANDS

Patrick Booz
Chengdu, Sichuan -
September 2010
CERS has provided a three-year grant for Patrick Booz to conduct
travel and research, with the ultimate aim of a book manuscript.

The focus of my study is the tea trade between China and Tibet as it functioned in the circumscribed yet complex geographic, ethnic and political area between Ya’an and Kangding in western Sichuan and East Tibet.

Tea has been central to Tibetan social and economic life for over a thousand years. Proverbially considered one of the “four pillars of life” – tsampa, meat, salt and tea – tea is the only traditional staple of the Tibetans which has had to be imported. By the 19th century over 80 percent of all the tea imported onto the Tibetan plateau – which supplied markets as far away as Ladakh and Bhutan – came from just five tea-producing counties in the Ya’an area of Sichuan, and all of it passed through the entrepôt of Kangding/Dartsedo, from whence it was dispatched by caravan to all parts of the Tibetan plateau. This thesis examines the functioning of the Ya’an-Kangding Sino-Tibetan tea trade during the turbulent late-Qing and Republican periods, and sheds light on the often overlooked practical dimensions of Sino-Tibetan relations in the borderlands of Sichuan province.

The centrality of tea to Tibetan material culture and society cannot be overemphasized. Not only has tea served as a basic unit of value (as evidenced for example in the catalogues to the Derge editions of the bKa’ ‘gyur and bsTan ‘gyur), but it is also held to have important medicinal qualities, and is central to Tibetan social conventions in both lay and religious culture. Dipamkara Atisha, the great Bengali sage who led the second diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet in the 11th century, first encountered tea in Tibet and his praise Porter loaded with tea bricks ready for the long journeyfor the drink legitimates its centrality to monastic ritual life, in which “Tea offering” (ja mchod and gser skyem) ceremonies are a mainstay. However, Tibetan mythologizations of tea in classical texts, such as the 15th-century  rGya bod yig tshan chen mo, and in folk tales such as the famous “Debate between Tea and Chang”, mask the very practical realities of how up to 15,000,000 pounds of tea were annually transported onto the Tibetan plateau through the centuries, and the significant players in that trade, both Chinese and Tibetan.

The historical background of the China-Tibet tea trade, which has been the subject of considerable study in both Chinese and western scholarship, will be briefly outlined. Since the formalization of the so-called Ancient Tea-Horse Routes (Chama Gudao) under the “New Policies” of Wang Anshi during the Song Dynasty in the 11th century, controlling and taxing the tea trade has been an important priority of Chinese provincial and imperial administrators and has been considered a key source of leverage for the Chinese authorities as a means of economic and political influence over the unruly Tibetans. With the development of the Ya’an-Kangding route as the main conduit of the tea trade during the early Qing Dynasty, these means of control through the quota and taxation systems, and the withholding of tea, are examined and their efficacy assessed.

Based on a combination of sources – Chinese prefectural and county gazetteers, local records of the late 19th and 20th centuries, and western diplomatic reports and travelogues – the social and economic context of the Ya’an Kangding trade-route in the late pre-modern period (i.e before 1950) is then examined. The place of the tea trade with regard to the various loci of political and economic authority – the Sichuan government; the Tibetan tu si; the Shaanxi and Sichuanese business factions; the warlords; and the powerful Tibetan trading families – is assessed.

This is followed by a detailed account, based on more than a dozen fieldwork trips over the past three years to the tea plantations and factories of Ya’an, of the method of production of the distinctive brick tea for the Tibetan market, and then its transportation via human carriers (beifu) to the Tibetan border town of Kangding/Dartsedo. Extensive oral interviews with surviving beifu and explorations of the terrain through which they carried their loads will form the basis of this section.

It was in Kangding that the tea passed from Chinese to Tibetan hands. There were traditionally 48 Tibetan trading houses (guozhuang) in Kangding, each with its own network of clients and connections to different powerful Tibetan trading clans, monasteries, the Dalai Lama’s office, Yunnanese traders, and local chiefs. These trading houses had strong cultures of their own. They were traditionally run by women, and each functioned as bank, inn, warehouse, repackaging station, transshipment depot and theatre.

The Ya’an-Kangding tea trade is a nexus of Sino-Tibetan cooperation with  a long and rich history. It has never before been the subject of an academic study in any western language.