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Archive → April, 2011

20th Anniversary Ancient Tea Horse Road Conference March 2011

“I venture to suggest that the moral reform and social improvement—for which the present age is remarkable—have had their basis in TEA.” Leitch Ritchie (1848)

What more can one say? Make Tea Not War! 要泡茶不要炮弹!

Conference Opening Ceremony

From 20th to 23rd March I attended the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road and the Bridge Head: The Thouroughfare Connecting Chinese Culture and Economy to the World’ (茶马古道与桥头堡:通达世界的中国文化经济大通道). The notion of ‘Bridge Head’ (桥头堡) is a political slogan meant to indicate the importance of Yunnan’s position as a ‘bridge’ between China and Southeast Asia, more on this below. The conference also celebrated the third anniversary of the Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Research Institute at Yunnan University (云南大学茶马古道文化研究所) (which was to host and organiser) and twentieth anniversary for the coining of the phrase ‘the Ancient Tea Horse Road’ by a handful of scholars in the early 1990s (including Professor Mu Jihong, the Director of the Research Institute). The conference took place on the main campus of Yunnan University in central Kunming, just a stone’s throw away from the charming ‘Green Lake’ (翠湖) home to one of China’s earliest modern style military training academies. The conference attracted scholars from a wide range of disciplines including history, ethnic studies, conservation management, socio-linguistics, tourism management, tea culture, and cultural heritage preservation, too name but a few. Schoalrs came from all over China and a small number of international participants such as myself were also in attendance. As with other conferences on this theme that I have attended in recent years (this is now my third conference on the Ancient Tea Horse Road) there are always a large number of participants from related industries such as tea factories, tea shops, tourism providers and the media (such as Puer Magazine 普洱杂志). I find this combination of academia and the ‘real world’ very refreshing as it gives the meeting a practical applied edge as well as forcing scholars to get their message across in everyday language (easier for some than others!).

With Professor Mu Jihong

With Professor Mu's Masters students on the field trip to Fumin County.

The conference consisted of two days of papers and seminars. The first day was made up of short reports (approximately 15 minutes each) from scholars and other invited speakers. There were some excellent presentations from historians of Southwest China (the conference did unashamedly focus on Yunnan) which I found particularly valuable in putting the whole ‘tea road’ into regional perspective. Professor Deng Qiyao (邓启耀), from the Department of Anthropology at Sun Yat-sen University (中山大学人类学系),  gave a very informative presentation on the state of tangible cultural heritage preservation of historic towns and villages along the tea road. Latami (拉塔米), our Mosuo colleague from Lijiang who I have mentioned several times on this blog, gave a great overview of the place of tea in the ritual life of the Mosuo (摩梭族). It was also fantastic to hear and meet Mr Zhang Xilu (张锡禄) from Dali, one of the co-authors of the ground-breaking book Horse Caravan Culture (马帮文化) which I’m still making my way through. It was also quite thrilling to meet Professor Li Xu (李旭) from the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences (云南社会科学院). Professor Li was one of the ‘six gentlemen’ (六君子), which also includes Professor Mu Jihong, who all those years ago approached their teachers with the proposal to explore the ancient trade networks linking Yunnan and Tibet. Professor Li is still very active in the field and keeps pumping out books making the task of keeping up with his work very difficult! He gave a fascinating presentation of his new research project which is investigating the lives and times of some of the more influential trading families along the tea road and their international connections (to Myanmar, Nepal, India and so on). There were also two excellent presentations on the role of Yunnan in both Chinese and world history with particular emphasis on trade networks, with some focus on Western penetration into Yunnan in the 19th and 20th Centuries (via the ‘tea road’ of course). And in this connection someone also spoke on the history of the famous ‘flower hunters’, Western explorers and botanists who came to Yunnan to collect new specimens of flowering plants to satisfy the gardening desires of Europeans (and no doubt many Australians and Americans too). Keeping on the botantical theme someone else discussed the penetration into China of new plant species only the tea road (including useful crops such as maize and also many plants which have now become pests). Part of the second day was devoted to a number of ’round tables’ in which scholars and other participants introduced themselves and their connection to the ‘tea road’. There were lots of good exchanges and I had the good fortune to meet someone from Puer in the process of establishing a ‘tea road tourism company’.

The impressive, but not yet complete, library on the new campus of Yunnan University.

At Southwest Forestry University.

I gave a paper titled ‘Community Development, Hiking Tourism and the Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (发展以社区为基础的茶马古道生态文化长途徒步旅游) which I’ve made available on the Academia website. It is in Chinese at the moment, but I will be working on an English version some time this year (although it will probably take a slightly different angle). A special note of thanks to Tawang and Deng Shumei for assisting with the translation. In this paper I proposed the concept of using the Ancient Tea Horse Road as a brand name for developing China’s first long distance hiking trail. To this end I introduced the experiences and examples of the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States and the Bibbulmun Track in southwest Western Australia. This was the first official instance in which I have brought together my two research interests on the tea road and the emergence of China’s hiking culture. I’m pleased to say that it seemed to go down very well. I got some good feedback. I hope next time I can deliver something more substantial on the theme of the tea road and cultural heritage preservation but I still need more field work before I can do this confidently, especially in front of so many experts. In fact through this presentation I met Professor Ye Wen (叶文) the Dean of the School of Sustainable Tourism at the Southwest Forestry University. Professor Lin gave a presentation on the development of national parks in China with an emphasis on the increasing demand for recreational use of such resources. We both started our presentations by mentioning John Muir and the foundation of the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, in the United States. Through his presentation I did gain some fresh insights into the emergence of the ‘national parks’ movement and America’s unique form of nationalism and the way in which ‘nature’ features prominently. Always very refreshing to get at a seemingly familiar object through different cultural perspectives. Although Professor Lin was flying out the next day to visit Taiwan he invited me to give a seminar to staff and postgraduates at his faculty, an offer I eargerly accepted. The staff of the the Forestry University were extremely friendly and the seminar went very well. I met some colleagues actively researching in the fields of China’s outdoor leisure industry, including a young scholar aptly named ‘Physical Exercise’ (锻炼), so we had much in common. It was an extremely valuable outcome as far as I’m concerned and I will be following up with much enthusiasm.

Students at the new campus of Yunnan University wondering what all these public lectures are about.

Mr Peng, Prof Mu's driver, attempting to drum up interest in my public lecture.

I also gave a public lecture (so a total of three presentations in as many days!) to undergraduates at Yunnan University as part of the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road Cultural Heritage Week’ (茶马古道暨文化遗产学术活动周) festivities associated with the conference. This entailed a trip to the new campus of Yunnan University way out in the outskirts of Kunming at a place called Cheng Gong (呈贡). This is a massive new campus that is still under contruction. Students must feel quite isolated out there at the moment as it is still semi-rural and there is little in the way of public infrastructure, although a subway line is under construction. The trip did reinforce my general feeling that the pace of development in Kunming has certainly quicked in recent years and that both the Provincial and Central Governments have big plans for Yunnan (as the notion of ‘Bridge Head’ implies, the term itself was raised by President Hu Jintao in 2009). I gave a student-orientated version of my paper and had some excellent interaction and questions at the end. For many of the students the whole concept of dedicated hiking trails is quite new but they seemed to take to the idea with great interest.

Villagers await for the opening of the 'East Mountain School' which now functions as a local 'Earth God Temple'.

Villager and mule off to the fields.

On the third day of the conference we took a special field trip to nearby Fumin County (富民县) to visit a well preserved village (Pingdi Village, 平地村) and some nearby remnant ancient road. Pingdi Village is nestled up in the hills and gives a good idea as to what a typical village would have once looked like in the region. From the elaborate courtyard houses, temple structures (and a church), and wooden carvings you can see that the village was once quite prosperous. What it exactly had to do with the Ancient Tea Horse Road was a bit unclear, but it was quite fascinating nonetheless. The temple (built in 1816) had been converted into a school at one point and was still known as the ‘East Mountain School’ (东山学舍), but was once again functioning as a kind of ‘Earth God Temple’ (土地庙), which as I have explained elsewhere on this blog, is a syncretic mixture of local Chinese popular religion, Daoism and Buddhism. In the temple hall a number of deities concerned with agricultural life were on display. The main deity was the ‘King of Hell’ (阎王). In Chinese culture the ‘King of Hell’ is something like an administrative position and should not be confused with Christian conceptions of ‘hell’. Some of the villagers explained that the ‘King of Hell’ was the centre piece because it made more sense to appeal directly to him in this life rather than waiting to ‘meet him’ in the afterlife, something like ‘get in early and make a difference now!’. Very practical thinking! There was also a statue of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy (观音菩萨) no doubt one of the most popular Buddhist icons in China. A number of more ‘elderly’ villagers were making offerings to the various deities thus indicating the important place of the temple in local ritual life but perhaps also suggesting that the more ‘active’ elements seem to be amongst the senior citizens. Since 2001 the temple has been under the protected auspices of the loacl cultural relics authorities.

Farm animal deities in the local temple. Villagers make offerings for the health and safety of their farm animals.

With the interfatigable Ling Wenfeng, soon to be a proud father, on the remnant road in Fumin County.

We then made our way to the remnant road which was now in the grounds of a popular ‘resort’ complex (by ‘resort’  I mean it consists of a restaurant, basic hotel and manicured gardens). Unlike many other locals who look upon ancient remnant road as a resouce to be used (that is, to take the paving stones for use in building), the owner wisely kept the remnant road in place. According to the local historical sources (that is, local government gazettes), the road underwent major construction during the Yuan Dynasty (元朝) (1271 – 1368), which is well remembered as the Mongolian dynasty. The Mongol armies, which made their way through Lijiang and Kunming, literally paved the way for the expansion of the road network and also made possible the influx of Hui muslim traders. They also laid the foundations for the mass migrations of the following Ming Dynasty when the population of ‘central China’ started to experience relatively rapid expansion. The road through Fumin County (富民驿道) connected the Yunnan Provincial seat with the capital in Beijing (which at that time was known as ‘Dadu’ 大都). The remnant road isn’t very long, perhaps only several kilometres, but you can cleary see the deep hoof impression left by countless numbers of mule and horse caravans that would have made their way to and through over the centuries. The remnant road also has another connection to history of a more recent cinematic nature as the film location for the 1954 classic ‘When the Bells Tinkle the Caravan is Coming’ (山间铃响马帮来) which tells the story of how the Communist Party adapted to the conditions of mountainous Yunnan to win the support of the locals ethnic groups and defeat the remnant Nationalist forces. The film was made by the Shanghai Film Studio (上海电影制片厂) and is one of the earliest films made in ‘New China’ and a very important piece in the creation of a new narrative of national unity. Incredibly you can watch the entire film online here. It seems the movie has been recently remade as a television series. A local journalist from Xinhua News Agency (新华社) accompanying us for the field trip did a short piece on the remnant road and its cultural/historical significance which included a brief interview with yours truly. You can see the interview here (in Chinese).

A deep hoof impression in the stone pavement on the remnant road.

Ancient remnant road in Fumin county.

I also availed myself of the opportunity to go to the local bookstore and stocked up on related books on the tea road, about twenty in total. I’m happy to say I have enough reading now to keep me going for quite some time! If only I can find the time to do the actual reading, that would be bliss! I’m very grateful to Professor Mu for inviting me to this conference. It was quite difficult to get away as we were (and still are at the time of writing) in the middle of teaching here in Australia. But it terms of getting to know the relevant scholars in this area, meeting ‘old’ friends and ‘new’, it was certainly worth it. It was also good to see my colleagues at the Institute (all of whom were very busy with the whole event but nonetheless still all smiles) such as Ling Wenfeng (凌文峰) and Zhou Chonglin (周重林), not to mention Yang Haichao (杨海超) who is now persuing a PhD at Peking University. My next blog entry will be devoted to my research on the ‘donkey friends’ and hopefully you will see how the pieces are going to fit together.


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