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Mongols, Marco Polo, and Pu’er Tea: China’s Southwest Silk Road as a Gateway to Southeast Asia

November 1, 2017 @ 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm

James Anderson

Speaker: James Anderson, Ph.D.


In the northeast corner of Dali Prefecture in modern-day Yunnan one finds “Stone Gate Pass (shimen guan)” in a steep mountain valley along the ancient Southwestern Silk Road. Located in the southern region of modern-day Yanjin county on the southern foot hills of Dali Mountain (Dalishan), the pass is located on a mountain section of the trade route which runs along the western bank of the Guan River (Guanhe). The pass and this trade route, known as the “Five Foot Road (wuchi dao)” in the Qin period and the “Ancient Bo Road” in the Han, mark the site of imperial expansion and local resistance through the era of Mongol conquest. The first Qin emperor and Han emperor Wudi both fought in vain to conquer the pass and gain control over their empires’ southwestern frontiers. In 794 Tang authorities marked their reentry into the region through an alliance with the Nanzhao kingdom by leaving a cliff face inscription on Stone Gate Pass. Following the fall of the Dali kingdom, Marco Polo reportedly traveled through the pass with his Mongol escorts during his excursion into Southwest China. Trade through this region began in early times. Trade of pu’er tea may date back to the Tang period. Stronger evidence for the sustained trade with central China begins with the period of Ming conquest in the Southwest. The Shimen Pass is important locally as the primary point of trade contact between the indigenous peoples of the Guizhou and Yunnan regions.


However, imperial authorities were not alone in viewing Stone Gate Pass as strategically important. When imperial power waned, local leaders rushed in to take advantage of political and economic opportunities. The Cuan, descendants of the indigenous Bo and Yi communities, dominated the region through the 8th century, but other non-Han peoples occupied Stone Gate Pass for a variety of reasons. In this paper, I explore the interplay between imperial authorities and local leaders, and argue that material and cultural exchange over time provided the foundation for an interdependent relationship of the type found elsewhere along the better known northern Silk Road network of trade routes.


James Anderson is an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. An historian of premodern China and Vietnam, Anderson’s first book is The Rebel Den of Nung Tri Cao: Loyalty and Identity Along the Sino-Vietnamese Frontier (University of Washington Press, 2007). Anderson is currently completing a new book on the Southwestern Silk Road between China and northern Southeast Asia during the 9th -13th centuries. Anderson is the co-editor, with Nola Cooke and Li Tana, of The Tongking Gulf Through History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) and co-editor with John Whitmore of China’s Encounters on the South and Southwest: Reforging the Fiery Frontier Over Two Millennia (Leiden: Brill, 2015).


This event is presented by the John Hope Franklin Center, and Duke’s Global Asia Initiative. A light lunch will be served. Parking is available in nearby Trent Rd. and Erwin Rd. parking decks. The series provides 1 hour parking vouchers to guests.