Trading Tea for Tibetan Horses

Many have heard of or read about the Silk Road between China and Europe, but I think few have heard of the ancient Tea Horse Road (also known as the Tea-Horse Trade Route), which I first read about in the May 2010 issue of National Geographic Magazine (NGM).

Legend says that tea from China arrived in Tibet as early as the Tang Dynasty (618- 906 A.D.). After that, the Chinese traded tea for horses, as many as 25,000 horses annually.

Zhang Yun writes, at The Wandering.com, “Horses obtained from the tea-horse trade between the Song Dynasty and Tibetans could be classified into two kinds: one were good horses from Gansu and Qinghai and Tibet’s Nagqu by way of the tea-horse trade, which could serve as warhorses; the other was horses given as tribute, most of which came by the Sichuan-Tibet Route or from various areas in the southwest. Most of these, however, could only be used as farm horses …”

But that isn’t what struck me the most about the NGM piece. It’s the example that demonstrated why most if not all Chinese peasants loved and possibly worshiped Mao Tse-Tung.

For more than a thousand years, men fed their families by carrying hundreds of pounds of tea on their backs across the rugged mountains into Lhasa. Some froze and died in blizzards. Others fell to their deaths from the narrow switchbacks that climbed to the clouds.

This all ended in 1949 when Mao had a road built to Tibet and farmland was redistributed from the wealthy to the poor. During China’s long Civil War, Mao promised land reforms to the landless peasants who were no better than slaves for the few who owned most of the land and wealth.

“It was the happiest day of my life,” said Luo Yong Fu, a 92-year-old dressed in a black beret and a blue Mao jacket, whom the author of the National Geographic piece met in the village of Changheba.

Discover China’s First Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, the man that unified China more than 2,000 years ago.

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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