Guozhuang Trading Houses and Tibetan Middlemen in Dartsedo, the "Shanghai of Tibet"

Yudru Tsomu, Center for Tibetan Studies, Sichuan University
Oil painting of Chöying Drölma (Ch. Mu Qiuyun), the famous female head of Gyarongsé achak khapa by Wu Zuoren, 1944.
Download Article (750.56 KB)

Within the field of Sino-Tibetan frontier studies, there is very little in-depth scholarly discussion about commerce, trade, and the people who facilitated these activities across the Sino-Tibetan border; studies in English are particularly sparse. This article contributes to a wider and deeper understanding of the nature of trade on the Sino-Tibetan frontier and the role of women as facilitators by looking at some of the actual “dealmakers.” In the border town of Dartsedo—the “Shanghai of Tibet”—guozhuang (trading houses, Tib. achak khapa) not only evolved into convenient spaces for travelers to come to rest, but also were spaces of flux. It was in these trading houses that traditional notions of gender, class, and hierarchy were called into question and played out in unexpected ways. Women came to dominate the guozhuang because the work was likened to managing a household and therefore viewed as a lower-status occupation. This notion was reinforced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Chinese values and customs were introduced into the local society through frequent intermarriages between Han and Tibetan inhabitants in Dartsedo. 

Keywords: achak khapa, guozhuang, trading house, Dartsedo, tea-horse trade, middlemen, brokers, Tibet, Sino-Tibetan trade, gender