Stories of Yunnan: The Ancient Tea Horse Road

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

If you know the tea in Yunnan, then you must know the Ancient Tea Horse Road. If you want to know the tea in Yunnan, then it is best to know this historical route first.


What is the Tea Horse Road?

The Ancient Tea Horse Road is a very special regional title. The Ancient Tea Horse Road refers to a non-governmental international commercial channel connecting the regions in southwest China and the rest of the world during ancient times. Between the mountains and waters of the Tibetan Plateau and the Hengduan Mountains, in the mountains, valleys, and wild jungles of the "Great Triangle" of Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan, a mysterious ancient road can be found. With the high altitude, rocky pathways and narrow paths, with magnificent natural scenery, it is as dangerous as it is beautiful. It served as a corridor for economic and cultural exchanges among ethnic groups in southwest China.


The Ancient Tea Horse Road originated from the measures taken from the tea-horse exchange in the Tang Dynasty, which was a traditional trade exchange between the ancient Central Plains and the ethnic minority areas in the northwest and southwest frontiers. The tea-horse cross-market flourished in the Song Dynasty, prospered in the Ming Dynasty, and gradually declined in the late Qing Dynasty. The Ancient Tea Horse Road passes through the world's most complex and unique alpine and valley areas, horse caravans were the main if not only means of transportation. For thousands of years, countless caravans have quietly walked along this road. The Ancient Tea Horse Road has three main routes, namely the Qinghai-Tibet line, the Sichuan-Tibet line, and the Yunnan-Tibet line, which eventually extends to South Asia, West Asia, Central Asia and Southeast Asia, and the Red Sea in West Africa.


The Ancient Tea Horse Road in Yunnan is an important way of economic and cultural exchanges among Yunnan ethnic groups. The Ancient Tea Horse Road was formed in the late sixth century AD, starting from Yiwu in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province in the south, passing through today's Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-La into Tibet and reaching Lhasa directly. Some also reached India and Nepal from Tibet, which was an important trade channel for ancient China.

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-La, Yunnan
Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-La, Yunnan

What is the influence of the Tea Horse Road?

1. Channels to promote regional economic and social development.

Along with this ancient tea horse trade, not only spread the tea culture to the vast Tibetan Plateau but also enriched Tibet with a large number of inland industrial and agricultural products imported into Tibet.


The material life of the area and the advanced craftsmanship, technology, and skilled craftsmen from the interior promoted the development of the inland industry and commerce, especially the tea industry, which supported the regional economy and social development. For example, the introduction of inland tannery technology into Tibetan areas has enabled the development of the leather processing industry in Tibetan areas; a large number of inland gold panning, vegetable growing, construction, gold and silver processing and other technologies and craftsmanship have been imported through this channel, which has evolved into Tibetan farming techniques, gold mining technology and further progress of handicraft industry.


Alternatively, due to the expansion of traded goods, medicinal materials such as Cordyceps, Fritillaria, Rhubarb, Qinqin in Tibetan areas have been developed, and the production of card pads, scallops and ethnic handicrafts has also been driven and developed.

a tea room in Lhasa, China
a tea room in Lhasa, China

Similarly, the import of horses in Tibet has ensured the stability and unity of political power. The import of a large number of native products and daily necessities has enriched the material life and consumption of inland residents. The import of a large number of daily necessities in the inland has bolstered the inland industry and commerce, again helping the tea industry.


In particular, the Ancient Tea Horse Road connects countries and regions around Tibet and Yunnan. It was an important trade channel between ancient China and South Asia and the fifth channel for foreign exchanges in Chinese history. It played an important role in economic development, cultural exchanges, and its role in Chinese history is similar to that of the Silk Road in the Northwest.

Many trading markets, pack teams, business travel distribution centres, and accommodations on the Ancient Tea Horse Road have gradually formed towns where residents gather during long-term business activities, which has promoted the urbanisation of the southwestern region. Towns such as Ya'an, Kangding, Qamdo, Lijiang, and Deqin have all developed into commercial distribution centres relying on tea-horse trade.


2. Promote National and Regional Cultural Exchange.