The history of the Silk Road and tea are intertwined in ways that still affect the tea we all drink today. So for a quick view into what the Silk Road did for tea, here are 5 facts about the Silk Road.
- The Silk Road is not a single road but a series of routes that encouraged trade in many goods, including tea, as well as the exchange of knowledge and cultural habits. Many of these routes existed independently before being brought together into a contiguous network of roads during the Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE). These routes exposed various cultures and supported a lively trade in goods and exchange of knowledge. The Chinese not only gave Westerners knowledge of paper, gunpowder and silk, but received back knowledge of many western religions and irrigation for agriculture and live stock.
- The Tea Horse Road was the route through Yunnan that brought tea to the rest of China and to the West. This road is very treacherous with narrow roads that snake along the side of mountains that easily washed out and were barely wide enough for a horse or human on foot. This route gave birth to what we now call Puerh.
- Moroccan Mint was created on the Silk Road. The exchange of spices was common on the Silk Road. Mint was grown by the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and exchanged for many things including tea. During the height of trade on the Silk Road, tea was sold in crushed bricks and prepared with many spices including mint.
- Goods and people didn’t just leave China for what is now the Middle East and Europe. Many people and their cultures came into China and stayed. Along the old Silk Road in China is a hugely diverse population that include Yi, Bai, Hani, Zhuang, Dai and Mao. These ethnic groups have different languages, dress, religious beliefs and holidays. While the People’s Republic of China officially recognizes these categories, many of these categories, like the Yi group together another 30-40 ethnic groups. These ethnic minorities are many of the skilled tea workers, not just in the fields but in the manufacturing of tea in Yunnan. For some, like the Yi, their holidays are based around the tea harvests.
- One Belt One Road is China’s current plan to rebuild the Silk Road by investing in infrastructure not just in China but into the Middle East and Europe. While it is presented as a way for China to expand its international influence, it ignores how China will be influenced by those countries who choose to participate. Trade is a two way exchange when done successfully, so if the Chinese government really wants this to be successful they will have to bend and be open to the influence and culture of the other countries, which could have some unexpected outcomes for them. This will be an interesting project to watch.