Time frames in Chinese history are rather stretched out compared to the West, where the US is still a recent, mere 250 year old, creation. So, it may seem hard to picture how China was dominated in its military strategy by an unceasing and increasingly urgent two-thousand-year arms race, and that the entire governance of the tea trade was driven by it for at least five hundred. The longest continuous travel highway in the world – well, high way at least – was the 1,200-mile mountain path whose name captures the Empire’s dilemma: The Tea Horse Trade Road.

The problem China faced, that is well-documented from three thousand years ago, was that while it invented printing, gunpowder, pizza, tea, iron smelting, paper money and other odds and ends, it never managed to breed war horses. It could mobilize huge armies of infantry and limited light cavalry but was in the position of a modern army bereft of tanks while facing racing, well-armored and highly mobile opponents. It was an agrarian society, with little arable space for horse breeding. Its loose soil and flat lands did not begin to match the terrain of the mountain steppes of Tibet and Mongolia, where horses were small, barrel-chested and with stocky legs. They were not fast but had stamina and were very hardy, able to go for days and even weeks without food or drink, even in the arid deserts.


 The warriors of the steppes, most notably the Mongols, came in hordes. They were able to live off the land, carrying with them dried food. They got liquid nutrition from their mares’ milk. Their short bows  unleashed volleys as they rode at high speed. They traveled with 3-4 horses and could outpace and outflank foot soldiers. The above image is representative of the Mongol professional. 

The Empire had to deal with the weapons deficit as early as 400 BCE. Nomadic raiders were like the Vikings of the European Dark Ages. They struck brutally and escaped rapidly. If it wasn’t the Xiongnu confederation (against whom the Great Wall was targeted), it could be Donghus, Khagans, Yuehzis or perhaps the Xianbeis. One kingdom, Ferghana, was famous for its “blood-sweating” Heavenly Horses (probably from parasites, if not mythical). When its ruler shut down their export, the Ch’in Emperor in 100 BCE sent 40,000 Chinese warriors three thousand miles across the desert. After major battles, sieges and destruction, 3,000 horses were taken back to China, with only 1,000 surviving the journey. The peace treaty established an annual tribute of two Heavenly Horses.

Moving ahead some centuries, at the turn of the calendar from BCE to AD a Han general summarized the geopolitical reality: “Horses are the foundation of military power… should that falter, the state will fail.” Around 1000 AD, a scholar continued the plaints: “… We lose every battle… [the court leaders] do not realize that without horses we can never create an effective military force.” As late as 1600, the extraordinary Jesuit missionary and Ambassador Matteo Ricci, the first European to enter the Forbidden City, noted that the Chinese armies had countless horses, but they were “so degenerate that they were put to rout by the neighing of the Tartar steeds and practically useless in battle.”    

Military solutions failed. Tea became the only way out. The Mandarin ethos of the Chinese Imperial bureaucracy had always disdained trade just as much as it regarded foreigners as too inferior to even acknowledge. Over six centuries, tea moved to the very center of its policy, to the extent that century after century senior officials, generals and governors argued for the unification of tea and horse planning, administration, control and pricing under a single authority.

The resources of the Empire were increasingly focused on agreements with Tibetan and other steppe regions. Markets were established in tightly controlled border locations and the Silk and Tea Horse Roads emerged as the trade route (salt was the other main good) linking Sichuan and Yunnan’s tea growers to the horse centers of Tibet, where tea became an addiction. Buddhist monasteries were used as warehouses and shipment centers. The estimated annual trade was 7,500 tons of tea for 10,000 horses. That works out at around 300,000 tea bag equivalents per horse. At today’s prices, that would be about $60,000.

Porters carrying tea bricks back to Tibet, along the Tea Horse Road.
Porters carrying tea bricks back to Tibet, along the Tea Horse Road

Cheating was rife, in terms of both horse and tea quality. Smuggling, corruption, price fixing, bureaucracy and incompetence added to the stresses on the system. Government control was aggressive. Any attempt to smuggle seeds to Tibet, where farmers naturally wanted to grow their own tea, was a felony punished by 3 years of hard labor. Efforts to bypass selling to the central Tea Market Agency meant 1 year for a single tea chest, then escalated to loss of a hand, strangling and decapitation, the traditional Imperial social incentive mechanisms.

The system was cumbersome but critical for the Empire’s survival. China tea for Tibetan plateau horses was a perfect match. The tea traded was (1) portable, (2) a de facto currency across Central Asia, (3) a trade weapon, (4) nutritional, and (5) desperately needed by the nomads of the steppes.   

Portable: This was key. Tea was in brick form, not loose leaf, until the Ming dynasty that displaced the Mongols in the late 1300s (after the Mongol’s horse warriors had wiped out a third of the population on their way to building an Empire that extended from the Pacific to the Danube; the Heavenly Horses lost out to the Mongol Celestial ones.) This still thrives in the puehr teas of Yunnan, with the city of Puehr the starting point for the long trip to the Himalayas.

Brick teas stored well, came in units of size and weight that made them easy to use in trade and could be transported by mule, camel and person through the mountains, deserts and river valleys.

Currency: Bricks were also fungible, with silver currency rates attached to them by weight through the Tea Market Agency. They became rather like the US $100 bill, very rarely used by the average person but internationally ubiquitous, in every street money changer’s pouch, drug cartel suitcase or smuggler’s wallet. The tea brick helped spread trade to Vietnam, the Balkans and Russia. It was in use as a formal currency for centuries and even today is widespread in rural Mongolia for payments for goods and casual labor.

Trade weapon: Tea was a universal good that the Chinese could make in vast quantities but that the mountain nomad tribes could not. Their terrain was too dry, high and lacking in rich soils. The Southwest region of China, Yunnan, was and still is the home of many of China’s greatest teas. It now produces over a hundred teas from almost two hundred registered tea tree varieties. It was the factory for the tea trade, unmatched anywhere else on the globe. The trade routes, centers and tea styles that fed the demand from Tibet and later Mongolia came from its biodiverse Six Mountains, with Xishuangbanna and Puehr the source of its trade teas.

Nutrition: The special attraction of tea in the war horse Himalayas was that it offered a source of nutrition that was an absolute need in Tibet. Agriculture was limited and the inhabitants’ diet lacked vegetables and minerals. Tea provided an immense boost. It was more a food than a drink. The brick tea was used to make a paste, a stew with meat added, or mixed with mares’ milk. It was a safe food, too. The major historical driver of tea adoption across the ages and areas of the world was that water killed: dysentery, cholera, typhoid and many other bacterial diseases. The nomads avoided water and even the mares’ milk was dangerous as it soured and was exposed to heat. Tea became integral first to the nomads’ routines, with very complex and still remaining ceremonies, roles for the woman head of the household, family and guests, and patterns of exchange. In addition, if you look back at the images of warriors on horseback, it is clear how simple it was to add a pouch of brick tea to one of dried meat. Tea was part of the mobile army supply chain and its caffeine stimulus and relaxant compounds an aid to dealing with cold, fatigue and combat.

Necessity: Tea became an addiction in Tibet in the same way as in England and later Turkey, Iran, and Russia. The horse trade made it an everyday drink faster than in Europe, where it was initially the preserve of the affluent. It was less viewed as a medicine and more valued as a meal ingredient than anywhere else in the world.

China never solved its war horse problems. The Mongols destroyed the empire in the 13th century, and it was two hundred years before it was revived. This short summary is a snapshot of just a few scenes from the history. For example, it doesn’t include the extension of the Silk Road to the Arabian peninsula, where sleek, fast but decidedly non-tank like horses were available for trade, or the Imperial ban on brick tea production because smuggling, counterfeiting and organized crime had eroded government control of both the horse and tea markets; the entire craft of Yunnan gold tips and Dan Hong teas emerged from the farmers’ response.

It’s both a complex and evocative story, captured in the pottery and paintings of horses through the dynasties and the uncovering of the masses of terra cotta soldiers and war horses of the first Emperor of China. It’s brought to life in a stunning novel by Guy Gavriel Kay, Under Heaven, set in a fictional kingdom that is a very accurate portrayal of China in the Tang dynasty, 600-900 AD. The story is built around the hero receiving a gift from a nomad princess of 250 Sardian Heavenly Horses, explicitly the Ferghan real world ones. It was wealth beyond measurement. But a disaster for him. Kitan, the fictional kingdom, “lost every war… there were never enough horses.”  

The gift destabilizes the power balance among rival generals, aspirants to the Imperial throne, governors, rebels and competing tribes. Tai, the hero, faces assassins, betrayals, threats and court plots that escalate as the horses become a target for friends and enemies. It’s a beautiful story (Kay is a leading Canadian poet), moving, exciting, atmospheric and panoramic. (It adds a deeply resonant and kind boy-meets-girl tale that softens its fatalism.)  

“There were never enough horses… It was a Kitan tragedy, had been for a thousand years.” And for a thousand years, tea offered the only hope of redemption.


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