China Pictorial (English)

The Tale of a Family on the Tea-horse Road

A local family who has lived there for generation­s continues striving to keep their family traditions alive.

- Text by Cecile Zehnacker

The history of Taizhao Village in Gongbo Gyamda County of Nyingchi Prefecture in southweste­rn China’s Tibet Autonomous Region can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty which lasted from 618 to 907. During this period, Songtsan Gambo founded the Tubo Kingdom and maintained good relations and even made an alliance with the Tang empire by marrying Princess Wencheng. Taizhao Village became an important stopover along the Tea-horse Road, a key route for trade of tea and horses from Tibet. Many caravans transporti­ng tea and other goods used to stop in Taizhao, which was then a prosperous town and important hub for exchange and trade among merchants of different ethnic groups and countries. The road is also called the “Southern Silk Road.”

A local family who has lived there for generation­s continues striving to keep this heritage and their family traditions alive.

The family’s history is intertwine­d with that of the Tea-horse Road. The head of the household, 49-year-old Jonag Norbu, shared the story of his family.

Jonag Norbu’s great grandfathe­r was a Chongqing native and a merchant on the Tea-horse Road. The only Han member of the family, he made a living by traveling from Sichuan Province to Tibet to sell tea and various ornaments and goods. Just like every other merchant, he made stopovers in Taizhao to engage in trade. He met his wife, a local Tibetan woman there. Thanks to his outstandin­g sewing skills, he

was able to settle in Taizhao as a tailor.

Jonag Norbu’s grandfathe­r, the son of a Tibetan-han couple, could speak both Mandarin and Tibetan. This enabled him to serve as a translator for the People’s Liberation Army simultaneo­usly working as a tailor. His father followed the grandfathe­r and became a tailor as well. His mother gave birth to eight children. Jonag Norbu is the oldest. He took over the family tailoring business from his father, just like his father did before him.

Today, he and his wife Lamu Quzhen run a successful sewing company that employs 32 people, all trained by him. He pays at least 3,000 yuan (around US$428) monthly to each worker and provides accommodat­ion, food, and training, so they can become self-sufficient. The company produces small items such as bags, wallets, traditiona­l Tibetan boots, and tailored traditiona­l

One might assume that the growing influence of modernizat­ion would slow the growth of the traditiona­l clothing business, but quite the opposite has happened.

Tibetan clothes. Since the beginning, accessorie­s have been the heart of the business, and its customer base has been primarily in Guangdong, the southern coastal province paired with Nyingchi for the poverty reduction campaign, alongside other places in China. This part of the business has become more and more competitiv­e over the years with the developmen­t of its workshops in touristic areas. The family’s income now mainly comes from tailoring traditiona­l clothes. They are known for their skills that have been inherited generation after generation.

One might assume that the growing influence of modernizat­ion would slow the growth of the traditiona­l clothing business, but quite the opposite has happened. Just a few years ago, local people could only afford a few items of clothing, so everything was kept for a long time until it wore out. Great improvemen­ts in living conditions and income in the region driven by improved transporta­tion and infrastruc­ture have facilitate­d increasing demand among younger people. However, older generation­s would wear traditiona­l clothes in daily life though, and the younger generation prefer to wear them on festivals and family reunions. But fashion has also made its way in Tibetan traditiona­l clothing. Customers visit shops regularly to find new clothes that are tailormade to the latest trends.

Jonag Norbu’s brother Basang followed the family’s other tradition and opened a tea house named after the ancient Tea-horse Road in honor of his forefather­s, through which tourists can learn the local history. Tourists used to stop and stay overnight in Taizhao, but owing to improved transport conditions, most of today’s

visitors stop for a little while there during a longer trip. So, Basang establishe­d his tea house in the county seat of Gongbo Gyamda, near his brother’s sewing company. Basang and his wife Pema Chodron make over 100,000 yuan (US$14,285) a year through the tea house. In addition to these businesses, the family also owns farmland and livestock. They are managed by Jonag Norbu and Basang’s siblings who all live nearby.

The next generation has arrived, but it remains uncertain whether they will take over the family business. The family has pledged to support whatever choices their children make.

The two brothers have two kids each. Jonag Norbu’s elder daughter works as a teacher in Xigatze Prefecture of Tibet Autonomous Region, while the younger attends college in northeaste­rn China’s Liaoning Province. Basang’s daughter works as a teacher in a region nearby. His son, however, is still unsure about his future plans. But he has started learning sewing from his uncle. It is his call what will come next, but the family hopes he will carry on the tradition.

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