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

CEH - UPR 299
7 rue Guy Môquet
94800 Villejuif CEDEX
Tél : 01 49 58 37 36
Fax : 01 49 58 37 28

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

Theme 1 - Trade and commerce

The regional unit referred to as Kham has constantly been crossed by trade flows and commerce between Tibetan and non-Tibetan groups situated on its southern and eastern borderlands. These economic movements have largely contributed to the strategic importance of this geographic area, just as they have to its economic and demographic boom. Although the main trade routes and the historical depth of exchanges are widely known, the existence of separate networks, depending on the period, has yet to be explored, which would highlight a variable topography of trade, religious connections, and methods of control. The long history of exchanges that have shaped this region must obviously be traced to the contemporary period, which has largely redefined the economic structures, while developing a road network whose local impact has yet to be evaluated. From the caravan trade in the past to present-day motorway communication, economic dynamics have been a driving force behind interaction. A number of publications, mainly in Chinese, have recently focused on the historical trade link between Tibet and China (Sichuan and Yunnan), through the Kham region. However, no detailed work has yet been done to fully analyze how this trade was conducted and by whom. By challenging the overly Sinocentric views of this trade through history, our collective research will highlight the inter-ethnic ramifications of such trade as well as promote a more indigenous perspective. In addition, in tackling this theme, patterns of communication and circulation such as pilgrimage will be taken into consideration.

We have so far focused on the specificities of trade flows, and practicalities of the commodity chain involving tea and other products, the role played by Tibetan trading houses, and developments in transport and trade routes, from Sichuan and Yunnan into Kham. The limits and boundaries of trade routes are necessarily linked to geography and to the topographic landscape, yet the reasons for their creation, maintenance, neglect, and abandon include a great many other factors. Our research on trade has become interlaced with other themes: social networks, tulkus and monasteries, animals and land use, wealth and value, banditry, pilgrimage, political control and authority, war, and so on. The way in which trade, and some trade items, became key elements of the local structure of authority has also been considered, as well as the role debt played in the local economy. An important trade node, and the main door into Tibet, was the town of Dartsedo (Kangding). Taking Dartsedo as a case study, archival research and oral history concentrate on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when new opportunities arose for (Chinese and Tibetan) merchants operating on the Sino-Tibetan border, some of whom seized the opportunity to play leading political and economic roles.

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 (...)

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Trade routes

During his fellowship, Paddy Booz’s research has concentrated on the theme of trade routes and communication corridors that linked the Chinese border counties with Tibetan areas of Kham, Gyarong (...)

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