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Interview with Professor Mu Jihong

Professor Mu Jihong (木霁红教授)

On 24th April 2010 I interviewed Professor Mu Jihong (木霁红), Director of the Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Reseach Institute, Yunnan University. Professor Mu, a Naxi (纳西族) from Lijiang, graduated from Yunnan University in the early 1980s specialising in Chinese literature. In the late 1980s (as is described in the interview below) he became interested in the Ancient Tea Horse Road. Professor Mu is one of the recognised pioneers in this field of research. The State Administration for Cultural Heritage has generously funded Professor Mu to conduct large-scale research on the tea road and its cultural heritage. He has published over thirty books and countless journal articles on different topics ranging from Confucianism in Yunnan, the early history of Yunnan, histories of Lijiang and Shangrila, and of course on the Ancient Tea Horse Road and tea culture (especially puer tea in which he is a world authority). He has supervised more than seventeen postgraduates to completion and has many more in the pipeline. The Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Research Institute was founded in 2007. The Institute has a broad research agenda covering the history, cultures, customs, languages, and economics/business of the Ancient Tea Horse Road.

A map of the trading routes on the tea road with Puer as the starting point. The main routes go to Lahsa, Myanmar (Burma), Beijing (Tribute Tea) and Vietnam.

Q. Professor Mu thank you very much for your time today. Let’s start from the very beginning: ‘What is the Ancient Tea Horse Road’?

A. We can understand the Ancient Tea Horse Road [hereafter also referred to as the chamagudao and ‘tea road’] in both a broad and narrow sense. In the narrow sense it refers to roads used in the long distance transportation of tea by horse [mule] caravan. It refers to the transportation of tea from the tea producing regions in Yunnan and Sichuan to Tibet. In these mountainous regions it was not possible to use carts or vehicles and the rivers are treacherous and not navigable. The only option available was to use horses [mules]. In the broader sense the chamagudao within China refers to the extensive trading networks in and across Yunnan, Sichuan, Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu, Shaanxi, Guangxi, Guizhou and Hunan. At an international level it also includes the extension of these networks into Southeast Asia, Nepal and India.

Q. Can you give us a brief history of the chamagudao?

Entrance to an ancient salt well in Misha (弥沙).

A. In terms of research on the chamagudao we generally take the development of the tea and horse trade in the Tang Dynasty [618 – 907 AD] as our point of departure. The ethnic minority groups on the peripheries of the Tang had acquired a taste for tea and it had become a basic daily necessity for them. They relied on the tea producing regions of Yunnan, Sichuan and Hunan to acquire tea through long distance trade. The Tang [which had a monopoly on the tea trade] used tea to trade for horses. Why do we call it the ‘tea horse road’ and not the ‘salt horse road’? Salt was a short distance trade commodity with many places in Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan that manufactured salt [see here for a description on the salt well in Misha]. The trade in salt was not conducive to the development of long distance trade. Tea, by contrast, could only be produced in certain areas. So the transportation in tea was conducted on trading routes of several thousands of kilometres in length. We can certainly say that the road and trade network was already in formation prior to the Tang Dynasty for the transportation of commodities such as salt and even silk. But it was only the trade in tea that maintained a large scale and long distance over many hundreds of years from the Tang through to the Qing [1644 – 1910] right up to the first decades of the People’s Republic of China [1940s to 1970s]. So you can see that the trade in tea and the tea horse road has such an amazing longevity. Especially during and after the Ming Dynasty [1368 – 1644], by which time the Silk Road was no more, the tea horse road developed to new heights as peoples across China acquired a taste for tea. All of the different nationalities and ethnic groups of China drink tea. Then in the 16th Century foreigners, including those as far aways as the English, also acquired a taste for tea and the tea trade expands into seafaring networks as well. The tea was sent to [sea ports] in Guangxi and Fujian [and then to foreign ports via Southeast Asia].

Q. We might say [being jocular] that this is one of the first waves of globalisation?

A. That’s right. So this new large-scale development of the demand for tea pumped new life into the chamagudao. Some of the older trading routes that had been in decline or not used for a long time regained a new vitality. Tea trade thus became a very important part of the global trade in commodities in the 16th , 17th and 18th Centuries. At that time in Europe and America we see the building of small and fast cargo ships precisely because of the rise in tea smuggling. These small vessels could carry between one to two tonnes of tea. The main vessel would anchor somewhere offshore whilst the smaller vessels unloaded the cargo to the mainland [referring to ports in Europe]. The profit margins were huge. This can all be found in the records.

Q. On the subject of records, is it true that during the Tang and afterwards that the authorities kept relatively accurate records of the trade in tea?

A. Yes. Of course it was for tax purposes but the government of the day also wanted to control the tea trade because it used the tea as a means of control the ethnic minorities on the periphery [where tea could not be grown]. Be good and we will give you tea! This policy was mainly directed at the Tibetans and the minorities in the Northwest of China, such as the Mongols, who were militarily very powerful and constantly threatened the ‘central plains’ [that is, the sedentary agricultural society of China proper].  This started from the Tang Dynasty.

A Bai Mule Team (白族马帮) cooking up a storm out on the trail.

Q. Given that you are the Director of the Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Institute can you tell us what is meant by ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture’?

A contract between a Chief Muleteer and a Mule Team from Shaxi, Dali Prefecture (2010). See the text to the right for a link to an English translation.

A. Firstly ‘culture’ refers to ‘tea culture’. The different ethnic peoples in China first started to use tea as a medicinal concoction which over time become transformed into a popular beverage. But tea was more than just a beverage it was also associated with many rites and specific practices. For example, when we drink tea what sort of utensils and vessels should be used, where and how should they be presented, and how is the water to be boiled and poured. At the same time the clothes that one wore and the state of mind one was in when drinking tea also become important. Actually the increasing consumption of tea and the importance of tea ceremony propriety stimulated the Chinese porcelain industry. And the demands towards the quality and nature of the water also developed. Different teas demand different water temperatures for infusion. The tea must also be ‘washed’ before drinking [that is, the tea is steeped in hot water at least two times and the water discarded to ensure the tea is clean of dust and so forth and to also give the tea leaves a chance to release the flavour more fully]. That’s just a very simple overview. Now in terms of ‘horses’ there is also a sophisticated ‘horse culture’. For example each caravan has a ‘Chief Muleteer’ [马锅头], a ‘First Mate Muleteer’ [大锅头], a ‘Second Mate Muleteer’ [二锅头], and so on. A sophisticated management structure was developed to facilitate long-distance commerce along the chamagudao [for an example of a contemporary contract follow this link]. The Chief Muleteer was much like the modern version of the General Manager responsible for overall operations including the procurement of commodities. The First Mate Muleteer was responsible for ‘driving’ the caravan. The Second Mate Muleteer was in charge of keeping the accounts. So it was necessary to have some experience in conducting trade and commerce along the tea road. The First Mate Muleteer, for example, needed an intimate knowledge of the road for their journey. For instance, where are the camping spots with pasture and fresh water, and how long in between the camping spots, where are the villages and towns, where can they get fresh supplies of grain and vegetables, and of course where are the centres for trade and which days are the markets held. And of course how are the horses to be cared for and driven along the road with special knowledge required with regards to traversing narrow cliff trails, crossing suspension and cable bridges and so forth. So over time develops a whole culture around the caravans.

The historic market square in Shaxi (沙溪).

Q. What about the historic staging posts along the tea road such as Shaxi [沙溪] and Lijiang [丽江], did they also have their own particular ‘tea horse road culture’?

A Tibetan mother and daughter who attend the 'Third Month Festival' market in Dali each year to sell Tibetan commodities. The Third Month Festival is the biggest market on the Puer to Lahsa tea road and continues to prosper in the contemporary period.

A. Most definitely! As the horse caravan trade developed and the caravans travelled in greater numbers and over longer distances the small villages along the trade routes began to grow. These communities would hold regular ‘market days’ [赶集] some of which became very large in scale and commercial value such as those you mentioned in Shaxi [read about the Shaxi market here] and Lijiang [read about Lijiang here]. And a great deal of auxillary service industry was created with regards to the caravans such as the manufacture of horse shoes, bridles, saddles, feed and so on [see the description of the ‘Third Month Festival’ market in Dali here]. Just as in America [in the modern age], once there were cars the roads were then built and then the cities grew and expanded. With the horse you soon had the horse caravan, and then with the horse caravan you had the development of the markets, with the markets developed the towns and staging posts, and so on.

Q. Can you tell us briefly about the different ethnic groups that had horse caravans?

A. Yes. The Yi [彝族], Bai [白族], Naxi [纳西], Tibetans [藏族], Pumi [普米族], Han [汉族], Mosuo [摩梭族] and Hui [回族] all engaged in long distance caravan trade. The Dai [傣族] for example did not tend to run long distance caravans and in Xishuangbanna [西双版纳] [where there is a large Dai population] Han and Hui [that is, Chinese Muslims] did most of the caravan trade. For instance in the county of Menghai [勐海] there is a village called Paxidai [帕西傣] which means ‘the place where pork is not consumed’. These are Hui people who have retained their religious faith including the prohibition on eating pork but have basically taken on all the other trappings of the Dai [e.g. language, architecture, clothes]. This community [and many like this all over Yunnan] of Hui laid down roots due to their work in the caravan trade. A lot more research needs to be done on the role different ethnic groups have played in the caravan trade along the tea road.

The old tea road outside of Bingzhongluo (丙中洛) way up the Nu River gorge (怒江峡谷). No doubt many a mule and muleteer ended up in the turbulent waters.

Q. Speaking of research can you tell us a bit about how and when the Ancient Tea Horse Road came to the attention of scholars and the general public?

A. In 1987 I went with a classmate to Diqing Prefecture [迪庆州] to do some fieldwork on this topic and we came up with the term ‘the tea horse road’ [茶马之道] at this time. Then in 1990 six of us, that is, myself, Dr Chen Baoya [now at Peking University], Xu Yongtao, Wang Xiaosong, Li Ming and Li Xu, undertook an extensive fieldtrip along the tea road from Diqing into Tibet and on the basis of that study we came up with the term ‘the Ancient Tea Horse Road’ [茶马古道]. By 1993 and 1994 we had published books and articles on the subject and gradually it begain to catch the attention of the scolarly community. For instance in 1995 Professor Fei Xiaotong [1910 – 2005, China’s most famous pioneering anthropologist/sociologist/ethnologist who studied under Bronisław Malinowski] remarked that China had two ancient trading networks, in the north there was the Silk Road and in the south there was the Ancient Tea Horse Road. So with this recognition further research was stimulated and many more books and articles began to be published. The scholars in Tibet, Yunnan and Sichuan have been particularly active. Now there are more than five hundred books and several thousands of articles on the subject!

Q. What hopes and wishes do you have for the future of the Ancient Tea Horse Road?

A. As an important part of our cultural heritage the Ancient Tea Horse Road needs to be protected and preserved [read about the recent forum on the cultural heritage protection of the tea road here]. We can learn how our ancestors engaged in the trade and commerce of tea and what tea meant for the daily life of people. And from those origins how tea went on to become the world’s number one beverage. But there is still a lot of work to do in China to study and understand the extent of the chamagudao and in turn to lay the foundations for its preservation. Whatever happens tea will continue to be important and to even grow in popularity. Look at the three ‘must haves’ of alchohol, tobacco and tea. Both alchohol and tobacco are now regarded as having adverse health effects and have gained a bad reputation. Tea however is not known to have any ill health effects, on the contrary, it appears that the scientific research suggests it is beneficial to one’s health. Actually tea may help humankind in the fight against modern afflications such obesity because it seems to be able to help in the reduction of weight and possibly in the prevention of cancer and slowing of the aging process.

And to think it all started with a cup of tea ...

Conference in Shenyang and Lecture in Beijing, August 2010

Downtown Shenyang.

From Friday 13th to Saturday 21st August I travelled to Beijing and Shenyang. You can see where Shenyang is located on Google Maps here. The teaching semester had already commenced at The University of Western Australia so I was mindful to keep an eye on things back home in Perth during my brief stay in northern China. Whereas winter was gradually receding in Perth and the first touches of spring are already upon us, it was still quite hot in Beijing and Shenyang with only the first inklings that the long cold hand of winter was approaching.

Conference in Shenyang

The main purpose of my trip was to attend the 10th International Conference on Chinese Language Teaching and Learning (第十届国际汉语教学研讨会) in Shenyang (沈阳) from 18th to 20th August. This conference is organised jointly by the The International Society for Chinese Language Teaching (世界汉语教学学会) and the Office of the Chinese Language Council International (国家汉语国际推广办公室) (known in abbreviated form as ‘Hanban’).  The International Society for Chinese Language Teaching was founded in 1987. It has 3,300 members, 840 of of whom come from outside China from 56 different countries. The Society also has 183 institutional members (which includes publishing houses, education institutions, etc). I am a member of the ‘council’ (理事会) and at present the only representative from Australia. The conference was attended by 640 delegates, including 154 ‘foreigners’ from 38 countries. Six hundred papers were submitted and only 325 selected for the conference proceedings. One hundred and thirty-two model class presentations were submitted.  Only 60 were accepted for the conference (a ‘model class’ is a presentation in which a teachers show a five minute video of his/her teaching and then discusses the particular teaching strategy and/or learning outcome).

A demonstration of the ancient Chinese art of woodblock printing given by one of the publishing houses at the conference.

The theme of the conference was ‘New Teaching Materials and Pedagogy in International Chinese Teaching and Learning’. There was a great deal of discussion on how to adapt the teaching and learning of Chinese to the needs of the 21st Century. There is a real sense of excitement that the Chinese Mandarin is now ‘going global’ . But also much anxiety that the teaching methods developed in China do not suit the tastes and learning habits of people abroad. There was a good deal of discussion about the younger generation of learners and the need to understand how to keep their attention focused in this day and age of digital media. One of the perennial topics of dicussion was how and when to introduce Chinese characters in the learning process. There is no consensus in this matter and I think personally it depends on the learning goals of the particular students themselves. There was also a strong presence from the Chinese language teaching material industry in the form of Chinese publishers and multimedia enterprises. These are at the forefront of China’s ‘softpower’ when it comes to language learning resources. Quite considerable progress has been made since the days when I first started learning Chinese in the late 1980s and our textbooks were rather bland and dull. But still a lot more work needs to be done and I think the only way forward is for Chinese publishers to work with foreign partners.

The Black Dragon warns visitors to the tombs in Shenyang that you are entering the zone of Imperial Authority.

The Dragon Throne in 'Mukden Palace'.

It was my first trip to the ‘north-east’ (东北). Shenyang is the capital of Liaoning Province (辽宁省) and the largest city in the northeast with a population of approximately seven million. ‘Liao’ is an ancient name for this region which derives from the ‘Liao Dynasty’ (辽朝) (907-1125). The Liao Dynasty is also sometimes referred to as the ‘Khitan Empire’ (契丹国). It is believed that the word ‘Cathay’, and ancient term for ‘China’, is derived from ‘Khitan’. Indeed, this is still the term for ‘China’ (that is, ‘Khitan’) used in Russian and many East European languages. It shows us the importance of the ‘intermediary’ states between China (the ‘central plains’) and those societies on the other side of the Eurasion land bridge. Incidentally it is through the Khitan Empire that the Russians were first introduced to ‘tea’, but that’s another story. The Khitan, one of many nomadic pastoralists in the area, ruled much of what today is northern China from the borders of Korea to Xinjiang. In Shenyang we are right on the doorstep of the Mongolian steppe and at the interface between the nomadic pastoralists, composed of many different ethnic peoples the most famous of which are the ‘Mongolians’, and sedentary Han Chinese agriculturalists who inhabited the fertile valleys, basins and deltas of eastern China. The conflicts and interactions between these two forms of social life shaped much of Chinese history right up until 19th Century (when the arrival of modern Western powers shifted the focus from the ‘grasslands’ to ‘the sea’).

Dazheng Hall (大政殿), the oldest building in the Mukden Palace was used for important regal and military occassions. In front of the building is a large square and down the sides are ten pavilions, eight of which represent the 'Eight Banners' of the Manchu military/administrative system.

A fine example of the decorative artwork in Mukden Palace. Part of the palace has been converted into a small museum explaining the techniques of construction.

The region was once a major industrial heartland in China but in recent years has lagged behind the rapid modernisation we see in the Pearl and Yangtse River deltas. Shenyang and the surrounding area is also famous for being the home of the Manchu people (满族), the ethnic group which founded the Qing Dynasty (清朝), China’s largest and longest dynasty (1644 – 1910). Before they conquered the rest of China the Manchu court established a capital at a number of sites, finally settling in Shenyang (then known as ‘Shengjing’ 盛京 – the ‘Rising Capital’) in 1625. It is at this point that ‘Mukden Palace’ was built. This is in some ways a smaller version of the “Imperial Palace’ in Beijing but with Manchu and Tibetan influences. It is not as spacious and grand as the Imperial Palace in Beijing but it is certainly more colourful and decorative. After the capital of the Qing was moved to Beijing the old palace was used as the place of residence when the Qing Emperors returned to the region and their ‘spiritual home’. The Manchu’s were also originally nomadic pastoralists and many of the Qing Emperors maintained the traditions of horse riding, hunting and living on the steppe. Shenyang is also home to a number of imperial tombs for the first Qing Dynasty Emperors. Both the palace and tombs are World Heritage listed.

Than Zhang Family Mansion. Quite a contrast to the Mukden Palace!

Shenyang and Liaoning (the latter actually only came into existence as an administrative entity in 1954, prior to that it was divided into different administrative regions) has indeed had a colourful history. It is strategically located on the Yellow Sea with the port city of Dalian (that has in recent years been a shining light in terms of economic growth in the northeast) and is surrounded by many ‘civilisations’. It is fair to say the every square inch of land in Liaoning has over time be fought over by a myriad of peoples. During the course of the 20th Century the Russians and Japanese wrestled with each other for influence with the Japanese eventually gaining the upper hand. For a time the Japanese established the puppet state of Manchukuo in which they reinstated the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, Pu Yi (溥仪), as ‘regent and emperor’. For some time during the 1920s and 1930s Shenyang and the surrounding region was dominated by the Fengtian Clique (奉系). The Fengtian Clique was basically a series of warlords who ruled the area during a chaotic period of national disunity. The most famous of these are the Zhang family. Zhang Zuolin (张作霖) (1875-1928) laid the foundations for a powerful political-military base which is son, Zhang Xueliang (张学良) (1901-2001) inherited upon his father’s death (Zhang Zuolin was assassinated by the Japanese in 1928). In his youth Zhang Xueliang was something of a ‘womaniser’ and ‘opium addict’. The corruptions of a life of ease and plenty perhaps. Of note is a gentleman by the name of William Henry Donald from, of all places, New South Wales, who was a close confidant of Zhang and helped him kick his evil habits. Soon after Zhang Xueliang pledged his allegiance to Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists. He is most remembered for the December 1936 ‘Xi’an Incident’ in which he kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek and made him join in alliance to form a united front with the Communist Party to fight the Japanese. He spent the rest of his life under ‘house arrest’ (including for the entire length of time he lived in Taiwan after 1949). He is revered in mainland China as a national hero (千古功臣) and the Zhang Family Mansion is a major tourist attraction. Unfortunately I didn’t see any references to Mr Donald and his important contribution! The mansion is definitely worth seeing as it also incorporates the old Zhang family mansion built in the traditional Chinese style. So you can see the radical changes in architecture, and by extension social development and the symbolism of power, that were already underway.

Lecture at Beijing Language and Culture University

The main administration building of Beijing Language and Culture University

Before attending the conference in Shanghai I spent a few days in Beijing. I caught up with some colleagues here and there. The main purpose was to deliver a lecture at Beijing Language and Culture University (北京语言大学). The Beijing Language and Culture University was established in 1962 (after 1964 it was known as the ‘Beijing Language Institute’) as one of the first institutions in the PRC to teach Chinese to foreigners. It is the only specialised institution of higher education devoted to the teaching and learning of Chinese. It has the largest body of international students learning Chinese (I haven’t got the official figures but there are certainly several thousand international students at ‘Beiyu’ at any time). There is also a strong programme for training Chinese language teachers which attracts students from all over China, and now also from many other countries. As some of you will know this is not the first time I have lectured to Chinese language teachers. You can read about my lecture at Zhejiang University here.

With some of the volunteers and teachers

My lecture on the topic of ‘The Rise of Chinese Language Teaching and China’s Softpower’ was presented to participants in the ‘2010 Confucius Institute Teacher and Volunteer Predeparture Training Programme’ (2010年孔子学院岗前教师培训/志愿者教师培训). Each year the Confucius Institute Headquarters sends thousands of teachers and volunteers to work abroad in Confucius Institutes, universities, schools and other organisations. The ‘teachers’ are qualified Chinese language instructors who mainly come from Chinese language teaching programmes in Chinese universities and colleges. The ‘volunteers’ are generally recent graduates with little Chinese language teaching experience but a big desire to gain valuable experiences abroad. The training programme is therefore designed to equip both teachers and volunteers with the knowledge and skills they will need to function during their foreign postings.

Teachers and volunteers practicing Taiqi. They also attended classes on Chinese culture with an emphasis on folk art and cultural practices that they could 'use' in the classroom.

In 2009 Hanban (Office of the Chinese Language Council International) and the Confucius Institute Headquarters (孔子学院总部) sent 2,740 volunteer teachers to 71 countries, an increase of 32% over 2008. In this training programme there were 300 volunteers and teachers. They underwent twelve weeks of training in subject ranging from Chinese language teaching to understanding foreign customs. In my lecture I attempted to outline how Chinese language teaching is developing outside of China, with a particular emphasis on Australia. I also spent considerable time discussing the notion of ‘soft power’ and what it means for the ‘rise of China’. My challenge to them was to think about the ‘story’ that China wanted to project to the rest of the world this century. How do Chinese people want others to regard their country and civilisation? What are the ways in which one can foster goodwill? What obstacles and challenges stand in the way? I really enjoyed this lecture as it gave me futher opportunity to reflect on these questions. Through these lectures I’m beginning to develop some more sophisticated responses to the notion of ‘China’s rise and softpower’. I hope one day to put them down in more systematic form. The volunteers and teachers were very attentive and asked some tricky questions, even though it was early on Saturday morning! Thanks to all the team at Beiyu who made me feel very welcome!

The main entrance to Beiling (北陵), the 'Northern Tomb' in Shenyang. This mausoleum is dedicated to the founding emperor of the Qing Dynasty (Huang Taiji/皇台吉) and his wife. There is also a section tucked away for his concubines! It is now a public park and World Heritage site.