How Tea Transformed China’s Countryside

An ancient legacy of tea trading is reinvented for the 21st century – Matt Chitwood

Deep in the mountains of southwestern China, where tea was likely first discovered, a trail begins. Over the course of a thousand years, it has been carved step-by-step through some of the world’s most diverse and rugged terrain, traversing the lush tropical forests of what is now Yunnan province – a botanist’s playground – and up into the Himalayas, through treacherous river gorges and snowy mountain passes. The carving was done by mabang, trade caravans comprised of humans, horses, mules and yaks that carried daily necessities such as salt, sugar and medicines as well as luxuries like textiles and cigarettes. But most important, they carried tea. 

Compressed for easier transport, it was a vital source of nutrition for those living in the harsh climate of the Tibetan plateau. For tea-producing regions, it was a critical means of obtaining Tibetan warhorses that would help distant dynasties administer their borderlands. For both regions, it was the centerpiece of social interaction. Tea begat trust and trust begat trade: the virtuous cycle which built the route we know today as the Ancient Tea Horse Road. In fact, it was more a network of trails than a single road. Its branches diverged and converged, even extending down to Southeast Asia and west to Nepal and India. It remained a lifeline across the region well into the mid-20th century until the advent of motor vehicles led to its disuse and disrepair.

Little Red Podcast

Power Pandemic

How facemask diplomacy became China's soft power play

An episode of the Little Red Podcast

China's Covid diplomacy – dispatching facemasks and respirators overseas – is being hailed as the ultimate soft power play. But is this really soft power? To answer this question, we're joined by the man who coined the term – Joseph Nye, the former dean of Harvard Kennedy School of Government – as well as Bates Gill, professor in the Department of Security Studies at Macquarie University, and Natasha Kassam, a research fellow in the Diplomacy and Public Opinion Program at the Lowy Institute:


Xue Yiwei: In Search of Universal Values

A Chinese novelist talks to Jeffrey Wasserstrom, introduced by Amy Hawkins

My uncle, Xue Yiwei, is a Chinese novelist. Having moved to Canada in 2002, his translated works include Dr. Bethune’s Children, an epistolary novel addressed to Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor in wartime China, and Shenzheners, a collection of short stories inspired by James Joyce’s Dubliners but set in Xue’s hometown of Shenzhen. Xue thinks that his latest novel, King Lear and Nineteen Seventy-Nine, is the one that he was born to write. It tells the story of “the most extraordinary peasant” in rural China during the Cultural Revolution, whose love of King Lear leads him to a participate in a production directed by a visiting British poet-scholar (apparently William Empson was a prototype). The novel takes in all of Xue’s interests: Chinese culture, the interchange between “high” and “low” culture, and the role of the individual in the capricious tides of history. As relations between China and the West grow ever more tense, Xue imagines a world in which the flow of knowledge across borders is harmonious.

He started thinking about the book (which is currently being translated into English) when he was just eight years old and found a copy of Shakespeare’s tragedy in his grandfather’s desk. His grandfather lived a life of almost Shakespearean drama himself, from working with the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek, being branded as a landlord by Mao Zedong to being finally rehabilitated by Deng Xiaoping. Such a trajectory is common in recent Chinese history. In this interview with historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom – who in turn introduced an interview I did with mu uncle that appeared in the LARB China Blog, a precursor to the China Channel, several years ago – Xue talks about the varied people and works that have inspired him, from Lao She to James Joyce. – Amy Hawkins

Chinese Corner

What’s in a name?

The case for and against weird names in China – Eveline Chao

Nominal Determinism is the notion that your name determines your destiny. The idea dates back to the times of ancient philosophy and adds a whiff of fatalism to, say, meeting a woodworker surnamed Carpenter, or reading about Amy Winehouse’s alcoholism. It also ties in to a debate in the US about whether African-Americans should avoid giving their children stereotypically “black”-sounding names like Dante or Shaneequa – names that are perceived as being typical of someone poor and black – lest they then get treated by teachers as, well, poor and black. The idea is that if children are treated like they aren’t going to do well in school, they’ll fulfill this expectation in reality.

Personally, I think people should feel free to choose any name they like (except maybe those white parents in New Jersey who named their baby “Adolf Hitler”). But I’ve always found it interesting that Asian immigrant parents in the U.S. tend to choose safe, “all-American” names for their kids, like Michael or Stephanie. (An Asian-American named Grace Lee even made a movie that touches on this phenomenon, called “The Grace Lee Project,” after noticing the prevalence of other Grace Lees out there.) Behind these names lies an instinct to help your kid assimilate quickly so they can succeed in American society.

Chinese people believe in the importance of an auspicious name.

Hidden History

Gottfried Leibniz, the 300 Year-Old China Hand

A scientist, sinophile and bridge between east and west – Matthew Ehret

Many people would be surprised to discover that Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), a German polymath and logician best known for his discovery of Calculus, was one of the most important sinophiles of the 17th century, whose writings were instrumental in bringing the idea of Chinese culture and civilization to Europe.

Leibniz recognized the value of Chinese culture after an extensive study of Confucian texts provided to him by Jesuit scientists in Beijing. Inspired by the moral and practical philosophy that kept this ancient civilization alive (while European societies suffered nearly constant warfare), he created a journal called Novissima Sinica (News from China) in 1697. The journal was followed by an organizing effort across Eurasia to bring about a vast dialogue of civilizations, driven by the pursuit of scientific discovery and economic development.

In the first issue of the Novissima Sinica, Leibniz wrote:

“I consider it a singular plan of the fates that human cultivation and refinement should today be concentrated, as it were, in the two extremes of our continent, in Europe and in China, which adorns the Orient as Europe does the opposite edge of the Earth. Perhaps Supreme Providence has ordained such an arrangement, so that as the most cultivated and distant peoples stretch out their arms to each other, those in between may gradually be brought to a better way of life. I do not think it an accident that the Russians, whose vast realm connects Europe with China and who hold sway over the deep barbarian lands of the North by the shore of the frozen ocean, should be led to the emulation of our ways through the strenuous efforts of their present ruler [Peter I].”