Sunday, 13 May 2012

tea for horses

tea horse (photo from

Song dynasty: the Chinese were vulnerable because they had inferior horsemanship leaving them vulnerable to nomads and conquerors from multiple directions. The solution: tea. The Tibetans in particular fell prey to the power of the leaf. By giving them a taste of the brew, the Chinese of the Song dynasty actually got their adversaries hooked on the stuff.

'...With the burgeoning tea trade, however, China discovered a new weapon (for caffeine addiction is a subtle but powerful, persistent force) in its Sisyphean attempts to appease and bridle the nomads. This was the beginning of the fabled tea and horse trade, which turned the Tibetans into the most copious tea-guzzlers on the planet, opened up some of the world's most daunting trade routes, and remained a cornerstone of China's foreign policy until the end of the Qing dynasty.'

(source: The True History of Tea p.70 by Victor H Mair & Erling Hoh)

This is a fantastic development. You may be wondering why I'm so fascinated with this. Well, it just so happens that I'm visiting family in Texas over the next few weeks and I've just come up with a brilliant idea.

tea for horses

I wonder how much really excellent Long Jing I'd have to part with to get a halfway decent mare. The book keeps mentioning a measurement of tea that I'd never heard of. A 12 3/4 hand horse in China would have set me back 132 catties. How much tea was there in a catty? Could it have been that much?

Now, I'm trying to imagine the conversation I might have in cattle country with a horse trader.

Me: Howdy there, fine sir.

Horse trader: *eyes me with skepticism* *grunts*

Me: I was hoping to do some business with you today...although I must admit it's a bit unorthodox. Might you be interested in a creative transaction involving your livestock?

Horse trader: *raises his eyebrow*

Me: You see, I was reading in a book about the Chinese and their inability to procure acceptable horses. It was the Song dynasty, and it was causing the Chinese rulers a lot of trouble. They were being attacked repeatedly by their neighbours, who were superior horsemen. It turns out the only thing the Chinese had that was worth trading was tea. 

Horse trader: *looks surprised*

Me: You know the phrase 'All the tea in China'? Well, these Chinese had a lot of tea to trade. So my proposition here is that we recreate this manner of trade and I give you a certain number of pounds of tea for one of your better horses. 

Horse trader: Ah don't drink tea. 

Me: Yet! You don't drink tea yet. I was actually prepared for that eventuality. And the truth is that it doesn't matter that you don't drink tea. The Tibetans didn't drink it either when the Chinese first arrived.  But they learned. Eventually, they made up for lost time. Tell me, my good man, do you drink coffee? Enjoy a daily cup of Joe?

Horse trader: Yeah, I drink coffee. What of it?

Me: Do you ever have a cup or two of coffee and feel your heart start to race and your mouth go dry? 

Horse trader: Uh, well actually...yes. I like the taste of coffee, but it doesn't always seem to agree with me. 

Me: Well, that doesn't happen with tea. Not at all. The caffeine doesn't hit you all at once. It eases into your system and makes you both alert and calm at the same time. Here - I just happen to have a flask of hot, delicious tea right here...

And...scene...can you just imagine? Not only am I going to get a horse, but I'll be simultaneously luring someone over to the leaf-side. This is going to be great.

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