The research programme “Territories, Communities and Exchanges in the Sino-Tibetan Kham Borderlands (China)” has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration, European Research Council (ERC), Support for frontier research (SP2-Ideas), Starting grant n° 283870.

It is hosted by the Centre d'études Himalayennes, at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)

For further information and any questions, please contact the Principal Investigator, Stéphane Gros

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Home > Aims and Themes > Theme 1 - Trade and commerce

Tea porters (beifu)

In a reserch report published in the Special Issue of the journal Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie (2014), Paddy Booz details the hardships and experience of the tea porters that carried heavy loads of tea from lowland West Sichuan to the Tibetan frontier town of Dartsedo.

This paper presents the main elements in the life of the beifu 背夫 (“bearer”), tea carriers who for 250 years delivered immense volumes of tea from the Chinese border counties in Sichuan province to the Tibetan market town of Dartsedo དར་རྩེ་མདོ་ (Dajianlu 打箭爐, Kangding 康定) in easternmost Kham. It looks at the human factors of a transportation system that was created to shift more than 13,000,000 jin 斤 (7,200,000 kg) of tea annually, all on foot as remorseless labour.

As a group, the tea porters comprised a unique body of men (and sometimes women and children) who endured great hardships as they made their way westward. Once beyond the barrier range that historically separated China from the geographically and ethnically complex zones on the far side, they felt vulnerable and powerless. For them, the summum bonum was to arrive safely in Dartsedo, deposit their crushing loads of tea, receive payment, and return as quickly as possible to the familiarity of the home counties. The hardships, insecurity and isolation of these Han Chinese carriers in Tibetan areas encouraged them to head back eastward posthaste.