By MA LI
Heritages of the ancient Tea-Horse Road brought to life in Xiamen
Liu Liangzhen drives every week along the remnants of an ancient road 16 km from his home,a passion that has companied him throughout his life.
Liu is an expert in the research and protection of the ancient Tingxi Tea-Horse Road located in the mountain hamlets of Wulilin and Banling in the township of Tingxi, Tong’an District, Xiamen.
During the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368)dynasties, the road was used for transporting tea grown in mountainous areas, porcelain wares and other export goods to the piers at Caozai on the upper Xixi River for shipment to the city of Quanzhou, before being shipped to various countries and regions worldwide via the Maritime Silk Road. “Goods such as matches and fabrics from countries along the Maritime Silk Road passed through the Caozai pier and were transported on horseback to the mountainous regions. This ancient road was once a two-way route for trade and flow of materials,” Liu noted, adding that the pebble road witnessed trade along the ancient Maritime Silk Road connecting Tong’an and the outside world.
This ancient artery was a “paved road of 20li(10 km)long and fourchi(1.33 metres) wide,” as mentioned in historical records such as The Annals of Xiamen City and The Tong’an County Annals.
The ancient Tingxi Tea-Horse Road is connected to the Maritime Silk Road and has contributed to the prosperity of Tong’an. According to historical records, the ancient village of Banling once used to host a fair for goods trade.At that time, there were many shops, and the business was flourishing. “The inns, warehouses, and stables where the caravan horses stayed overnight during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) are still well preserved,”said Liu, adding that there was a small temple of an Earth deity built in the middle of the old road, where travellers could pray for safe passage. However, with the construction of a road through the mountain in the 1930s, the old road gradually became irrelevant and was gradually covered with dirt, tree branches and dead leaves.
To reproduce the appearance of the ancient road and preserve the history for future generations, Liu led excavation and protection work in 2013, gradually bringing it back to life. “In order to preserve the original style, we have to remove soil that flows to it after every heavy rain,” he said. According to him, the support of the Tingxi and Tong’an governments has been crucial in protecting the site.
With the progress in rural revitalisation, rural tourism has developed rapidly in Tong’an, and the ancient Tingxi Tea-Horse Road has become a must-visit site for history lovers. Visitors go in search of the relics and enjoy a simple and natural pastoral life. In the hamlet of Wulilin, every year when the rapeseeds are in full bloom, people flock to have a cup of tea near the ancient road and spend the night in an old mansion that houses a guesthouse. “For tourists, walking through the depths of the dense forest and feeling the history under their feet is like completing a journey of centuries,” Liu said,adding that more projects will be implemented to make the road more profitable, which helps to protect it in a sustainable way.
In the view of Liu, although the road has lost its former functions and prosperity, it remains a material relic to study the exchange between agricultural culture and maritime civilisation, and an optimal proof that Tong’an was connected to the Maritime Silk Road.
The rise of the ancient Tingxi Tea-Horse Road is closely linked to the export of the pearl lustre celadon wares from Tong’an. During the Song and Yuan dynasties,the special type of celadon wares travelled along this route and was shipped to distant destinations along the Maritime Silk Road. The celadon porcelain was highly prized overseas, but its production stopped during the Ming Dynasty, and the skills of the craft were not passed on to the later generations.
In 1956, Tong’an unearthed a large quantity of porcelain pieces and kilns during the excavation of the Tingxi reservoir. Archaeologists discovered the cradle of pearl lustre celadon wares, which had been buried for over 600 years. The Tingxi kiln site covered an area of 40,000 square metres, the largest in Xiamen. “An impressive number of celadon items were made here and constituted the main export of Tong’an. They have an important place in the history of Chinese ceramic culture,” said Ye Wencheng, professor at Xiamen University and former president of the China Institute of Ancient Ceramics Research. According to him, much of the production was exported to Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, and even to the Mediterranean coast.
Ye said that during the Song and Yuan dynasties, wars broke out in north China and many skilled craftsmen migrated to Fujian. They brought their skills and built kilns in Tingxi, an area surrounded by mountains with flowing rivers and close to the sea. Tong’an then became an important centre of ceramic making on the southeastern coast of the country.
In 2007, pearl lustre celadon porcelain was discovered during an archaeological excavation in a wrecked ship of the Song Dynasty in the Xisha Islands in the South China Sea. It was also found in the wreck of another Song Dynasty ship sunk in the sea area near Guangdong Province. These archaeological discoveries excited Hong Shude, a professor at the Xiamen Academy of Arts and Design of Fuzhou University at the time. A native of Tong’an, he has been researching ceramics for more than 50 years and has visited the Tingxi kiln site several times in search of useful information. “If the original method had not been rediscovered, it would have been the regret of a lifetime,” he said.
Teenagers experience pottery making in Tong’an, Xiamen
A Pearl lustre celadon bowl made with traditional technique
Hong spent almost a decade researching and experimenting. Finally, in 2008, the method was rediscovered. “I found the best solution among the different formulas of glaze and clay, which reproduced the charm of Tingxi porcelain marked by slightly visible patterns amidst celadon glaze,” he said. Thanks to his work, the technique has been listed as Fujian’s intangible cultural heritage.
The technique is gaining vitality among the younger generation. Zhuang Youyi, a native of Tingxi who grew up listening to stories about pearl lustre celadon porcelain and the Maritime Silk Road, is one of them. Like Hong, he is also an heir to the intangible cultural heritage and wants to see the product that once crossed the oceans regain its lustre with the newfound mastery of firing technique.
To popularise pearl lustre celadon technique, Zhuang established a 3,000-square-metre pottery art zone in Tingxi, combining artistic creation, display and sales,training, and entertainment. He and his team have participated in various cultural exhibitions, tea fairs and investment fairs in recent years in Japan, Singapore,Malaysia, and Russia, among others, to promote sales and further develop overseas markets.
With the support of the local authorities, he has also passed on the skills to local school children. More than 4,000 primary and middle school students have been exposed to this technique, according to him. “I believe that the best way to protect an ancient skill is to pass it on,” he said. CA