Saturday, May 15, 2021

A mesmerising meander: The Tea Road

I had the pleasure, mingled with frustration, of reading Martha Avery’s The Tea Road recently. The subject of this book, which describes the history of the northern trade route that went across Siberia between Russia and China, is very much so worthy of interest. Indeed, the subject is quite near and dear to my heart. The Russian Mission in Beijing, today the Church of the Holy Dormition, was the place where I was chrismated into the Orthodox Church. I also lived in Inner (or ‘Front’) Mongolia for two years, and visited places like Pingyao that were integral to the Tea Road trade. What’s more, it’s clear that this subject is near and dear to Dr Avery’s heart! It’s clear she has put an enormous amount of time, effort and research into this volume. As with a number of other scholarly monographs on specialist topics of historical interest, however, I dearly wish she had hired a decent copy editor before it went to print.

At its core, The Tea Road is the story of how trade in this particular cash crop across Asia, which began in earnest about one thousand years ago during the Song Dynasty, shaped the way in which steppe empires rose and fell, the way in which both Chinese people and government do business with foreigners, and even the way in which the modern nation-states of Russia and China behave toward each other and toward their other neighbours. Dr Avery spends a great deal of time and emphasis in this book analysing the particular history of the Mongol people and state, and their particular rôle in shaping the land-based tea trade. Indeed, Avery’s general approach is basically to analyse the Tea Road trade from the perspectives of the people who lived in the middle of it or beside it, not necessarily the people on either end.

Eighteenth-century business office in Pingyao, Shanxi

This is very much to be applauded. The story of the Tea Road is not just a story about Russians and Han Chinese, after all – although the Treaties of Nerchinsk and Kyakhta are key to that story. The Tea Road also involved Tanguts, Turks, Tibetans, Mongols, Manchus, Arabs and Persians. And one of the strong points of this book is that Avery highlights a number of the intriguing characters that the Tea Road produced, even ones who were not rulers. Kublai Khan’s finance minister Ahmad Fanâkatî; Bosnian-Serb diplomat for Russia and fort-builder Graf Sava Raguzinskii; the founder of the first Chinese megacorporation Da Sheng Kui, Pedlar Wang; the ‘Mad Baron’ Roman von Ungern-Sternberg; and the Archimandrites Iakinf Bichurin and Palladii Kafarov… all show up prominently in the book. Avery for the most part allows their actions to speak for themselves and illuminate their characters.

I also enjoyed reading the nitty-gritty œconomic accounts of how the tea trade across Siberia actually worked. Avery goes into fine detail regarding the history of tea cultivation; the evolution of the Chinese government’s tea monopoly; the developments in tea processing and shipping that allowed for transcontinental transport; and the various forms of measurement and valuation (as well as price-gouging and subterfuge, like shaving the corners of tea bricks or mixing the tea with twigs) that merchants on the Tea Road used on each other. Avery provides vivid descriptions of how tea was stored, packed and consumed. The most popular form of tea was in hard-packed bricks of dried leaves, which were initially made by rolling tea leaves tightly together inside hollow segments of bamboo. These bricks would then be stored in horse-hide bags; when it came time to brew it, flakes would be chipped off the brick and ground with a pestle before being added to boiling water and served with milk. These bricks were even used as currency or as collateral. There were, as well, different grades of tea, with the highest grades coming from specific plantations in northern Fujian (as indeed they still do). To a tea fan like yours truly, these are some of the more interesting parts of the book.

The political aspects of this book will also be of interest to readers, and problematic for anyone who wants to draw a neat-and-clean version of North Asian history with clear victims and villains. The œconomic and political nature of the Tibetan lamaseries and their specific rôle in granting theocratic legitimacy to the Mongolian khans in their rulership over the northern Silk Road route is noted. As is the competition between the Dalai Lamas and the Bogd Khans in favour of their respective political favourites. This rather deflates the ‘Shangri-La’ mythology of a pure and otherworldly spiritual kingdom at the top of the world wantonly destroyed by Chinese invasion. Likewise, although Avery clearly does sympathise rather strongly with her Mongolian hosts, she doesn’t paper over their historical flaws or missteps, particularly when it comes to political organisation and interactions with their neighbours. The interactions between Mongols, Manchus and Russians on the Central Asian steppes, the Mongolian gobi and the Siberian taiga are intriguing, but they are far from flattering – indeed, cultural misunderstandings and miscommunications between the three are not just a comic aside, but indeed form a significant part of the story.

A map of the Tea Road route, showing Kalgan, Urga, Kyakhta and Irkutsk

However, speaking of which… Avery herself says this in her introduction: ‘History is more a layered montage than a straight story, and cultural history does not follow a straight line. This book follows suit.’ Although the first sentence is and ought to be true for any honest historian, it is still a historian’s job to attempt to sort the layers and provide an interpretive lens for the reader for them to make some sort of sense of that history. One of the weaknesses of The Tea Road is that its ‘loosely geographic’ and ‘loosely chronological’ format tends to be a bit too loose, and Avery tends to go on long asides and tangents that cause the reader to lose track of the thread before she picks it up again. In many cases, as can be clearly seen above, these asides and tangents can be informative, illuminating and diverting. But even some of the interesting ones – like Avery’s careful exposition of the variegated and colourful etymologies of place-names, titles and terms of art on the Tea Road – lack a broader justification for themselves. This was somewhat frustrating to me. Although there is indeed a thematic progression in the book that loosely follows gæography and chronology, the deliberate shapelessness of Avery’s narrative often leaves the reader, at least in my case, asking himself: ‘okay, this is all very interesting… but why is it here?

Even so, for anyone interested in the history of northern Eurasia, this book is a valuable resource. It’s clear to anyone who reads it that it was a labour of love. It also contains such a colourful wealth of detail that the reader will assuredly come out of it with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the places, cultures and historical strands it describes. It should also provide some needed context for understanding modern Chinese and Russian business practices. Despite my occasional frustrations with the lack of direction in Avery’s prose, it was still very much a worthwhile read.

Resurrection Cathedral, Kyakhta

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