Rutgers lecture focuses on role of tea trade in Chinese-Tibetan relations
Aside from water, tea is the most frequently consumed beverage worldwide. And the historical trade of this commodity facilitated a plethora of political and social exchanges which are still evident today.
On Nov. 8 — the same day President Donald J. Trump arrived in China, where he spoke of the vital role of trade between the United States and China — professors and faculty members joined Patrick Booz, a professor at Penn State, in his examination of the historical impact of commerce in China’s relationships with the world.
The lecture, entitled “Tea and Trade and the Heart of Sino-Tibetan Relations,” was part of the Rutgers Confucius Institute Lecture Series and the first one since Richard Simmons, a professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, became director of the Institute earlier this year.
Booz, a professor in the Department of History at Penn State, travelled to Kunming, China in 1979 following the normalization of relations with China under former President Jimmy Carter.
Booz and his mother were invited to be part of the first group of Americans to teach in China since 1949.
“The reason that we were chosen is that my mother was a Quaker. The Chinese trusted the Quakers, because during World War II, the Quakers supplied medicine and food to China, and so they were seen as a kind of good, neutral force,” Booz said.
Booz and his mother documented their year teaching in Kunming in a National Geographic article published in 1981.
Just 23 years old at the time, Booz said that the trip set his life off in a direction which inspired him to go deeper into Chinese history.
Wednesday’s lecture about the role of the tea trade in the relationship between China and Tibet was the topic of his Ph.D. dissertation, that he completed at the University of Oxford in 2012, he said.
Beginning his talk, Booz described a “broad, north-south transitional zone that extends from Inner Mongolia to Burma,” which was a vast region where the Chinese world and the Tibetan world “abutted one another.”
“It was during the Tang Dynasty that China became a tea-drinking country,” Booz said, explaining the development of the Tea-Horse Routes, or "chama gudao," by which the Chinese cultivated tea in the southwestern Sichuan province, packaged them into portable bricks that ranged in weight from 1 pound to 4.5 pounds and brought them to Tibet in exchange for horses and later for medicine and local Tibetan products.
“What’s curious to me, from the Chinese side, they delivered the tea to the Tibetans on the backs of humans,” Booz said.
This was because the cost was nearly one third less than using horses or mules, and there was a seemingly endless supply of impoverished Sichuanese who were willing to make the trek, he said.
Meanwhile, Tibetans often distributed the tea across their own country by traveling with caravans of up to 1,000 yaks, he said.
But from Sichuan into the Tibetan trading city of Kangding, the tea was carried on the backs of men, and sometimes women and children. Booz said that the tea porters carried up to 400 pounds of tea on their backs as they made the 20-day journey along windy bridges and mountain edges.
He estimated that 20 to 30 percent of these porters were opium addicts.
“There was a common phrase you would refer to the tea carriers as, ‘the short life of the thin man,'" Booz said.
Somewhere between 2 and 2.5 million Sichuanese were tea carriers over a 200-year period, until the mid 1950s, when they were replaced by trucks and Jeeps, he said.
Booz, who had the opportunity to meet many tea porters during his research, later told The Daily Targum that a parallel can be drawn to Chinese practices in modern times.
In the same way China was able to provide Tibet with tea due to low labor costs, China’s current prominence as a global manufacturing warehouse is also closely related to low labor expenses.
“This becomes part of the whole trade story as well,” he said.
The Confucius Institute at Rutgers University (CIRU) established in 2007 and is 1 of more than 500 institutions worldwide, which span across six continents and aim to promote the Chinese language and culture abroad through lectures, activities and travel opportunities for students.
Louisa Schein, a professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, told the Targum that she got involved with the Confucius Institute as soon as it came to Rutgers, because she has been doing research in Southwest China since 1982.
It was Schein who invited Booz to come to Rutgers to give the lecture, she added.
During her introduction at the lecture, Schein said that she has known Booz for nearly 40 years, having first contacted him about the National Geographic article published in 1981 as she herself prepared to travel to China for the first time in 1982.
“The relationship between China and Tibet is seen in the West through a highly political lens,” Schein said. “This talk gave us a sense of the precursors to recent history. It showed us that the trade in tea was one of the ways that (China and Tibet) became connected over millennia and provides perspective on present-day interactions.”