The Stakes of Engagement: Borders and Exchanges in Late Imperial and Modern China
Thirst for Security: Tea Economy and Borderland Defense in Western Sichuan
Saturday, March 26, 2022
10:30am – 12:00pm EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
Washington State University, United States
Abstract: As the Chinese state lost firm political control over Tibet from the late Qing to the early socialist period, the regional tea economy in western Sichuan became an indispensable instrument of borderland security for preventing severance of ties with Tibet in the absence of other viable means for projecting influence. State monopoly over production and commercial supply increased, recalling previous policies under the Song and the Ming, but with a new mix of modern statecraft under a new geopolitical context. This paper focuses on the region of Ya’an in Sichuan, a center of production of “border tea” for Tibetan markets and a point of origin for tea distribution from the late Qing to the 1960s. In spite of favorable ecological and labor conditions, the region’s tea economy suffered depression under the strictures of state regulations that disincentivized investment in production and quality control. At the same time, state policies did not revert back to a bureaucratic system of permits as under earlier regimes, but incorporated the new elements of corporate capital, horticultural and transportation technologies, media promotion, and collectivized agriculture. Although these measures had limited effectiveness in securing political or military control over Tibet, they were effective in fashioning tea into a national security commodity none could replace for controlling the avid Tibetan tea consumer and an identity for Ya’an as a center of tea history, culture, and production.