The Ancient Tea Horse Road, also known as the Chamadao or Chamagudao, was a vast network of caravan paths that spanned over Sichuan, Yunnan, and Tibet in Southwest China. This trade route dates back to the Tang and Song Dynasties and was primarily used for the exchange of tea horses between Han and Tibet. Today, it is considered one of China’s significant historical trade routes, with numerous archaeological and monumental elements remaining along the way.
Road Classification: Shaanxi-Gansu, Tanggu, Yunnan-Tibet, and Sichuan-Tibet Tea Horse Roads
The Shaanxi-Gansu Tea Horse Road served as the primary road for tea exchange in mainland China to the west, connecting the trade route with horses. It is one of the main routes of the ancient Silk Road. The Tanggu Road, on the other hand, was formed by Shaanxi merchants and the ancient tea-horse market in the southwest frontier during the Han dynasty. The Yunnan-Tibet Tea Horse Road was formed in the late sixth century AD, starting from Yiwu and Pu’er in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan’s main tea-producing area, and entered Tibet through Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, Lijiang City, and Shangri-La, going directly to Lhasa. The Sichuan-Tibet Tea Horse Road, a part of the Shaanxi-Kangding-Tibet Tea-Horse Road, starts from Ya’an, the tea producing area of Yazhou in the east, passes through Dajian Furnace, reaches Lhasa in the west, and finally leads to Bhutan, Nepal, and India. This route is over a thousand kilometers and was a crucial bridge and link between ancient Tibet and the mainland.
History: From Tea Cultivation to Trade Route
Sichuan and Yunnan are believed to be the first tea-producing regions globally, with the first records of tea cultivation suggesting that tea was cultivated on Sichuan’s Mount Mengding between Chengdu and Ya’an earlier than 65 BC. Ya’an has been an important hub of tea trading until the 20th century. From around a thousand years ago, the Tea Horse Road became a trade link from Yunnan to Tibet and to Central China via Sichuan Province. The trade network facilitated the spread of tea (typically tea bricks) across China and Asia from its origins in Pu’er County in Yunnan. The name Tea Horse Road was earned because of the common trade of Tibetan ponies for Chinese tea, a practice dating back at least to the Song Dynasty. The sturdy horses were essential for China to fight warring nomads in the north.
Trading on the Tea Horse Road
Both people and horses carried heavy loads along the route. Tea porters sometimes carried over 60–90 kg (132-198 lb.), which was often more than their own body weight in tea. Porters were equipped with metal-tipped staffs both for balance while walking and to help support the load while they rested so they didn’t need to lay the bales down. The mule caravans also carried salt and silk products from Chengdu, notably Shujin.
Historical Value: The Ruins of Guangen Bridge
Along the route, numerous archaeological and monumental elements remain, including trails, bridges, way stations, market towns, palaces, staging posts, shrines, and temples. One such monument is the Guangen Bridge, built-in Zhen Yuan County during the early Qing dynasty. The bridge is 188 meters long, with stone piers and wooden frames, and more than 50 tiled-roofed pavilions decorated with carvings of flowers, birds, and animals. It is considered a masterpiece of ancient Chinese bridge architecture and attracts visitors from all over the world.
The Grand Canal also played a significant role in China’s economic and cultural development. It served as a crucial transportation route for goods, linking the prosperous southern cities to the northern capitals. This allowed for the exchange of goods, ideas, and cultures, contributing to the growth and development of China’s economy and society.
Today, the Grand Canal is not only a historical and cultural treasure but also a popular tourist destination. Visitors can take a boat tour along the canal, passing through the beautiful countryside and experiencing the unique culture and customs of different regions. It is a must-see attraction for anyone interested in history, architecture, or culture.