My heart is moved by all I cannot save: So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world
Published on 25 July 2011
Feature Orignally published 23 June 2011
Application process, which could take 15 years, has drawn attention to the Ancient Tea Horse trade route
Academics in China are working to achieve Unesco World Heritage status for the country’s Ancient Tea Horse Road, a vast network of ancient trading centres, caravan trails and roads used to exchange ideas and goods throughout China and Tibet. Also known as the Southern Silk Road, these 1,400-year-old commercial routes thread through seven provinces and autonomous regions: Yunnan, Sichuan, Tibet, Guizhou, Qinghai, Shaanxi, and Gansu. Hunan province’s inclusion is currently being debated.
Largely unknown outside China, within the country the Ancient Tea Horse Road has become a popular subject, giving rise to thousands of books, romantic television dramas, package tours and tea brands. “The Ancient Tea Road has become an economic vehicle for China,” said Doug Smith, an Asian studies professor at Griffith University in Queensland. A research institute and several museums chronicling the history and significance of the roads have been established, including a private museum in Lijiang which has a remarkable 500m-long diorama charting the ancient route from the town to Tibet.
Professor Mu Jihong of Yunnan University, the man who penned the term “Ancient Tea Horse Road” a decade ago, and the leading academic in the effort to get the road listed, said: “There are three major routes: Yunnan to Tibet; Sichuan to Tibet; Shaanxi to Tibet. It is a complex network of trading routes with approximately 8,000km of major roads. If you include the extension of the trading routes to places outside of China, such as India, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand and Nepal, the network is even longer.”
Currently China is building a superhighway through Southeast Asia from Yunnan province to Bangkok that mirrors the ancient trade routes. These roads were predominantly mule trains, which crossed the region’s mountainous terrain carrying various types of goods including tea, silk, horses, wool and medicines. During the second world war the importance of these routes re-emerged when they were used to ferry supplies to Kuomintang [the National People’s Party] forces. Later the Communists used the same routes to occupy Southwest China and Tibet.
The application for World Heritage status will be made under the “cultural route” category, introduced by Unesco in 1994. China currently has two sites up for inclusion in this category: the well-known (north) Silk Route and the Grand Canal.
“There hasn’t been enough research yet on the Ancient Tea Horse Road so [taking steps to apply for World Heritage status] has been a way to give the issue a national focus. [China’s] State Administration of Cultural Heritage has held meetings about it, but [the] government has not yet put it on the tentative list,” said Beatrice Kaldun, a Unesco programme specialist for China.
Clockwise from left: the historic town of Shanxi on market day, a shrine in an ancient grotto in Shaxi, and the tea fields in Ninger, Yunnan province
Mu Jihong of Yunnan University called the application process “a very big challenge due to its scale and diversity—topographical, ethnic and cultural,” saying that it could take ten to 15 years to complete the survey and application process. “It may even provide new precedents for other such complex ‘cultural route’ applications around the world, so in that way it will make a valuable contribution to world heritage preservation,” he said.
“In the meantime the fact that such a process has been launched means that local, provincial and national authorities are now paying more attention to preserving the tangible and intangible heritage of the Ancient Tea Horse Road.” Sigley added that a likely byproduct of the application process will be investments by local governments for projects such as museums.
However, Lijiang, one of the better known trading centres along the Ancient Tea Horse Road, and already a World Heritage site, is embroiled in controversy due to its overdevelopment. Located in the Yunnan province, the main stretch of the old town is now home to a long strip of discos, pumping out ethno-techno beats to hordes of tourists.
Latami Wang Yong, an anthropologist at the University of Yunnan, said that Lijiang’s World Heritage status is now under threat. As one of only 16,000 of China’s remaining Mosuo ethnic minority, Latami has watched development in the area with concern. Issues such as tourists visiting his home villages for sex with Mosuo women is also a concern. The Mosuo are a matriarchal society. Women play a dominant role in relationships, often having multiple partners. “I believe in a few generations there will be no more Mosuo people,” said Latami.
But Mu Ga, a successful tea entrepreneur, argued: “This is how Lijiang is. It’s always been at the centre of commerce in this area…before, people came here from all over the region. People are impetuous. But it is a meeting place of cultures.”
The town is also now surrounded by huge speculative developments and five star resort hotels. There are concerns that other relatively unspoilt towns along the old trade routes such as Shaxi may be spoiled by mass tourism if World Heritage status is granted.
“Lijiang is one of those interesting cases. In 1997 there was a major earthquake and the nomination was given quickly, without much questioning, as a means to reconstruction,” said Kaldun. She added that Unesco and China decided that there was a need for a better management plan two or three years ago but that changes cannot happen overnight. “I would say Lijiang is not a very good example—not a showcase for how we would like a World Heritage site to be developed,” she said.
Preservation projects along the trail
Both independent and official conservation efforts are underway at sites along the Ancient Tea Horse Road. Brian Linden, a US entrepreneur, has bought a listed house in Xizhou, on the outskirts of Dali, and turned it into a hotel, which he modelled on the Aspen Institute, an international, non-profit organisation dedicated to “fostering open dialogue about contemporary issues”. Linden has also recently taken over an old town hall that he plans to turn into an arts centre for artists-in-residence and is building an eco-lodge in the mountains. He says the local government has a $300m budget for the redevelopment of 1930s and 1940s mansions in Xizhou but is having problems relocating the current tenants.
The market town of Shaxi has been restored with funds from the World Monument Fund and its historic centre now looks almost as it did hundreds of years ago.
Under the government’s “Road to Every Village” project, some of the few remaining stretches of the Ancient Tea Horse Road’s original stone roads, laid in the 1600s, are being preserved including the 20km stretch from Ninger to Mahei. Most of the stones were carted away by villagers once the roads fell into disuse in the 1970s.
For the Ancient Tea Horse Road there is some additional national pride involved. Mu pointed out that it was Chinese scholars who conceived the phrase “the Ancient Tea Horse Road”, whereas “the Silk Road” was coined by a foreigner. He said this shows how far Chinese scholars and scholarship have come in the study of Chinese history and culture.
Kaldun said that the concept of World Heritage is still Euro-centric and while China has made great strides, issues including overcrowding persist. “Unesco tries to promote international standards in the local context,” she said, adding: “We are not a police force, we don’t have that mechanism—it is a training and learning process.” Unesco is currently working with the Chinese to produce national material guidelines for conservation.
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