For more than a thousand years, China traded tea for Tibetan horses

April 10, 2018

If Americans count the colonial era before the U.S. Revolution as part of their history (not counting more than 15,000 years of the native civilizations that were already here when the colonists invaded from Europe), we start with the first colony at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. That’s 411 years of history for the United States, but China’s recorded history stretches back more than 3,000 years.

What that means is China’s history is overwhelming rich with stories and one of those stories is about the ancient Tea Horse Road.

How many of you have heard of the ancient Tea Horse Road? I didn’t know about it until I first read about it in the May 2010 issue of National Geographic Magazine (NGM).

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

But that isn’t what struck me the most about the NGM piece. For more than a thousand years, Chinese men fed their families by carrying hundreds of pounds of tea across the rugged Himalayan Mountains to Lhasa. Some froze solid in blizzards. Others fell to their deaths from the narrow switchbacks that climbed to the clouds.

This ended in 1949 when Mao had a road built to Tibet and farmland was redistributed from the wealthy to the poor. “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 that the author of the National Geographic piece met in the village of Changheba.

Did you know that the British stole the secret of making tea from China? That’s another story from China’s history.

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.

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