Ya'an in Southwestern Sichuan province lies on a tributary of the Min River. It is a tea center for Western Sichuan and a highway hub for the Eestern Tibetan plateau. From 1950 to 1955 it was the capital of Xikang province.
Ya'an held the key to the tea supply to Tibet and other minority areas since it held a monopoly over the trade, authorized by the imperial court. This is because of Ya'an's proximity to areas inhabited by ethnic groups, including Tibetan, Yi, Qiang and several other ethnic minority groups. Also, Ya'an has been a major tea producer thanks to its location on the fringe of the Sichuan Basin, that favors tea growth. Much of the tea produced in Ya'an historically went to Tibet.
A temple-like government office set up in 1047 during the Song Dynasty to manage the tea-horse trade still survives in Mingshan, one of the eight counties under Ya'an. At the time, some 7,500 tons of tea went to Tibetan inhabited areas from Sichuan every year, mostly via Ya'an.
The tea was exchanged for horses during the ancient dynasties. Normally a horse was traded for 50 kilograms of tea but sometimes, as in the Reign of Yuanfeng (1076-85) of the Song Dynasty, for just 20 kilograms of tea. The Office of the Tea-Horse Department in Mingshan could handle 2,000 traders a day.
Although demand for horses declined after the downfall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the route was still used for transporting tea, which was traded for other commodities. Statistics dating back to 1934 show that 2 tons of musk, 15 tons of Chinese caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps sinensis, a precious ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine), 2,750 tons of wool and 60,000 samples of medicinal herbs, worth more than 4 million taels of silver, were transported from Kangding to Ya'an annually. It was a considerable trade volume during that time.
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