The father warned him, saying, “I led the army for
a long time, and now I am tired. Our people have
been drinking tea and wearing embroidered silk for
thirty years. This is a favor of the Song. We should
not be ungrateful.”

– Peace speech to Tangut Crown Prince
Li Yuan-hao (1032) from Peace, War
and Trade Along the Great Wall

Tang T’ai-tsung (600-649), the most heroic ruler in all Chinese history, overcame some 100 challengers to unite the country under his Tang dynasty. After extending his authority throughout Mongolia and across Central Asia into Afghanistan and Kashmir, he brought Tibet under Tang suzerainty by marrying his daughter to its king. The tea which Princess Wen Cheng brought to Tibet for the first time created a stronger bond between the two countries than any dynastic tie, as the inhabitants of “the roof of the world” still find China’s tea indispensable. Not only Tibet but most of Central Asia amounts to a vegetablefree zone whose inhabitants subsist mainly on the milk and meat of their flocks and herds. Tea was not only a very welcome aid to digesting such a diet, it was very nearly the only source of vitamins. Turkic nomads north of China took to tea well before the Tibetans, according to Chinese records, but tea first played a central role in China’s foreign policy under the Tang rulers. The nomad’s most important domestic animal and the item of trade most coveted by Chinese was the horse. For the Tang armies to defend their heartland, much less hold outlying expanses, it was absolutely essential for China to acquire the superior horses bred and raised in the lush pasturelands to the northwest. The most prized breed came from Ferghana, near Samarkand, and these are the horses Tang sculptors loved depicting in ceramics, with rather violent yellow-brown and green glazes, as if to show us for a moment Tang exuberance and forcefulness.

It was not tea alone that paid for the horse, the peace the horse protected, and the art the peace made possible-silk and cotton textiles and grains were also traded. But increased tea production became government policy and for the first time large government plantations appeared, chiefly in Sichuan. This became known as West Route Tea because it was destined for Mongolia or for transport along the Silk Route to Central Asia and eventually the Middle East. Most tea for Tibet came from Yunnan and became known as South Route Tea. Tibetan-style tea was never a wonderful drink, being churned then as now at elevations where boiling water is not hot enough for extraction and consumed with yak butter and barley meal added. Tibetans think of tea as a bouillon, some sort of greasy, salty soup.

To be concluded in Tuesdays With Norwood: Border Tea – Part 2