Tea Road and the Inherited Glory of a Family
   2011-10-17 10:41:07    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Liu

This photo taken during an interview with CRI on October 14, 2011 shows Zhao Jiguang, general manager of the Mansion of the Chang's in Yuci, Shanxi Province, speaking highly of the accomplishments of the Chang family in opening the Tea Road. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com]

by Zhang Zhang

Without Shanxi merchants, the Tea Road wouldn't have existed. Without the tea trade, the success of Shanxi merchants wouldn't have had the same impact on Chinese and world history.

Foreign trade through the Tea Road lasted for nearly 300 years until the early 20th century. It cemented economic ties between China and Serbian and European Russia and also built an enduring reputation for Shanxi merchants, who were responsible for an unparalleled commercial culture in ancient China.

The Chang family used to be a leading tea trader in Shanxi and have been widely recognized as the major explorers of the Tea Road.

Zhao Jiguang runs a tourist attraction today at the renovated mansion of the Chang family in Yuci, Shanxi Province. In his eyes, the Changs were responsible for some remarkable accomplishments.

"Their most important contribution was to open an international trade route that shared almost equal prominence with the Silk Road that prospered in the Han and Tang Dynasties."

As China's second international trade channel after the Silk Road, the Tea Road stretched more than 6,000 kilometers from Wuyi Mountain in southeastern Fujian Province to Maimaicheng, a trading outpost across the Kyakhta River from the Russian town of Kyakhta during the Qing Empire's rule of Mongolia.

As trade on this road rapidly developed, the family separated the tea transactions from their traditional businesses of grain farming and the sales of fur and mountain products.

From that point on, their tea business kicked into full gear.

"In its heyday, the family once contributed 40 percent of the country's tea export volume that made up nine tenths of the Qing government revenue at that time," said Zhao Jiguang.

Chang Shixuan, a descendant of the family, ascribed the success of his forefathers to the correct judgment of the situation and a sagacious decision to switch from their traditional businesses to the tea trade.

"Tea products accounted for the largest portion of Chinese exports at that time and brought tremendous profits. But there were few people engaged in the international tea trade."

The 70-year-old Chang family member remains deeply impressed with the persistence of his ancestors that helped make the family outstanding in the tea export business.

"The market at Maimaicheng and Kyakhta was shut down three times due to unrest in the border area or fire emergencies. Many merchants quit the business for fear of future risks, but my family held on and benefitted later from higher margins in the trade."

Today, more than 3,000 descendants of the Chang family live all over the world. But like most offspring of other ancient Shanxi merchant clans, few of them manage businesses as large as those run by their forefathers.

The Chang family's mansion used to cover an area of 600,000 square meters, but only one quarter remains. Despite this, its majesty still persists.

Now retired, Chang Shixuan rarely returns. Every time he goes there, he must battle with mixed emotions over the glorious past of the family.

He appreciated his ancestors not only for their exploits in trade, but also for the great importance they attached to education, a point that distinguished the family from any other merchant clans in Shanxi.

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