Tea Money Of China

Ken Bressett
      At the meeting of the International Primitive Money Society held at the Chicago International Coin Fair, April 28, 2001, Ken Bressett gave a fascinating program on brick tea money, an update of his presentation in Portland in 1998.

      It is hard to imagine that tea was ever actually used as a form of money. When I first read about this I surmised that it probably was a trade commodity, sort of like the tobacco leaves that were valued highly in our own country in early Colonial times. That was easy to understand, but I had a problem believing that tea was ever used in the same way as coins or paper money. Even in a world full of strange forms of money ranging from stones to feathers, tea had to be one of the most unusual.

      Nearly every book dealing with odd and primitive money has a paragraph or two about tea money. In 1936 Stuart Mosher pretty well summed up the then current knowledge about tea bricks when he wrote about items in the Knox collection at the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences. This is the way he described it:

      "In Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet and Chinese-Asian marts, cakes of compressed tea resembling mud-bricks circulate as money. This "money" which is manufactured in Southern China, is made of leaves and stalks of the tea plant, aromatic herbs and ox blood. It is sometimes bound together with yak dung.

      "Tea is compressed into bricks of various sizes and stamped with a value that varies depending upon the quality of the tea. It usually increases as the bricks circulate farther from the tea producing country. The natives of Siberia prefer tea-money to metallic coins because of lung diseases prevalent in their severe climate, and they regard brick tea not only as a refreshing beverage but also as a medicine against coughs and colds."

      After reading that I was more convinced than ever that this form of tea could hardly have circulated very far beyond a group of natives who thought of it more as a medicine than money. It wasn't until much later that I learned the this form of brick tea was actually some of the normal grade tea and the inclusion of twigs, blood and dung didn't seem to offend anyone who used it. I guess when you are in a really cold Siberian winter anything warm must seem good.

      Phares Sigler in his 1954 booklet on odd and curious money took the ingredients to a lower level by describing bricks made of inferior leaves, sweepings from the tea warehouse floors, and small twigs. He also explained that the leaves supply variety to the diets of people living in areas where vegetables and herbs are scarce, thus the tea bricks are of value beyond just a simple beverage. In Tibet they were so much in demand that swords, horses and other property were sometimes priced in a given number of tea bricks. For some smaller purchases, pieces were broken from the bricks and passed by weight.

      Do these accounts mean that tea bricks were an actual form of currency? Webster defines money as "anything customarily used as a medium of exchange and measure of value", and as such they should qualify. But I was still dubious and made an effort to learn more about when, where and how this form of money was used. To my surprise I found that tea bricks have been frequently mentioned in literature over the past hundred years, and there is no doubt that they circulated widely throughout China, Russia and other parts of Central Asia.

      Many of the accounts of these unusual bricks show pictures of various types, sizes and designs to illustrate what they looked like. Most collectors, however, have never seen many because they are all quite rare today and seldom appear on the market. For the benefit of anyone who has not had the chance to examine a tea brick, let me explain that nearly every one that I have seen is different, and there were no standards of size, form or design. The most common bricks were approximately 8" x 10" by 1" thick and varied in color from brown to black. Their weights go from 2? to 5 pounds each.

      The value of the tea varied according to the fermentation, color, weight and proportion of wood to leaf. The price also depended on the distance and accessibility of the market. The highest standard brick was a dark brown and contains only the best tealeaves with no wood. Bricks of lower standards contain leaves and a few tops of small branches. Those were a dark yellow in color, and were well fermented.

      Most of the brick tea was made in China and carried by camel and yak caravans to the distant lands of Tibet, Mongolia and Siberia. Although this tea was used as a form of money during transit, when it reached Russia it was used for a beverage by the Russian army, tourists, hunters and sportsmen because of its convenient form. For that reason the bricks inscribed in Russian for use there were always of the highest quality and today are the scarcest because they were rarely preserved in their original form.

      Tea has been the beverage of choice in China for hundreds of years. There is evidence that tea drinking was popular in the eighth century, and that its use spread to Russia and Western Asia during Mongol times. By the 16th century the use of tea was well established throughout Europe, and in time English colonists brought the custom to America along with the first settlers. Today tea is used by more people, and in greater quantity, than any beverage except water.

      The use of tea as a commercial trade item probably began with the heavy demand for fine Chinese tea from the Russian nobility. It was considered very valuable and only the rich could afford it. At first, dried leaves were transported from China to Russia by caravans of camels over the treacherous silk route. In time it was discovered that a more convenient commodity could be fashioned by processing the tea and forming it into solid bricks about the size of a large book. Eventually tea bricks became an accepted medium of exchange that could pass the same as silver and other trade items both in domestic and foreign trade. At that time, 20 bricks would purchase a horse, and 12 would buy a sheep.

      There are no records of exactly when the Chinese pressed- tea bricks began being shipped outside the country. Some believe that it may date back to very early times. The first written account of the use of brick tea as both a drink and a medium of exchange was described by Abbi Huc in the account of his travels in Tartary, Tibet and China during 1844-1846. Later reports confirm its continued use as money in remote parts of Central Asia until as recently as 1935. The average brick was valued at one rupee, and used for paying wages, buying provisions, and in ordinary trading.

      In Tibet swords, horses and other property were sometimes priced in a given number of tea bricks or packets of four bricks. In Mongolia cattle and wood were likewise priced in terms of bricks. The natives in Siberia preferred brick tea money to metallic coins because of its beneficial use as a medicine. Travelers everywhere found it convenient and less prone to fluctuation in value from place to place, or loss to bandits in search of cash. It has been estimated that between Urga in Mongolia, and Kiatka in Siberia, the value of tea money in circulation was once as high as 500,000 taels at one time; the tael being roughly equivalent to one ounce of silver.

      British traveler Thomas Atkinson reported in 1860 that a chief of the Khirgix tribe served him a bowl of brick tea that had clotted cream, salt and millet meal added to it. It was boiled for a half-hour and served hot. He commented: "I cannot say that the beverage is very bad or particularly clean; still hunger has often caused me to make a very good meal of it. I think of it as rather tea-soup than tea. The Tibetans, it is said, enjoyed their brick tea by boiling it with yak butter in a large cauldron."

      Tarter tea bricks were made from the coarser leaves mixed with small tendrils. This was dried, beaten, sifted, steamed, fermented and pressed in molds into flat cakes or bricks. There were five recognizable grades of tea bricks. The lowest was called "Sing ja" or "wood tea". It contained wood chips, twigs and soot. When used, a piece was broken off and boiled with salt until the liquid was almost black.

      Tea bricks of varying quality were also made at the Russian factory in Hankow for the Mongolian market and at the Chinese factory at Ya-Chou for Tibet around 1880 when use of the bricks in trade between China and Central Asia was at its height. Inscriptions, sometimes in Russian, Chinese, Mongolian or Manchurian, were pressed into the tea bricks usually to denote the name of the manufacturer or sometimes the locality of the factory. The reverse of large bricks was usually scored for dividing into equal portions.

      The making of bricks was much the same in all factories. The tea was dried in the sun and then beaten with sticks on hot plates to break it up. It was then sifted and steamed over boiling water and pressed into molds. Sometimes a little soot was added to the poorer-quality tea to give it a richer color. In 1878 the hydraulic press came into use and produced bricks with the sharp images and designs that distinguish them from crude older pieces. By the turn of the century French, German, American, Russian and Chinese firms were brokering tea in central China, and some of them began produced the convenient bricks that were in high demand.

      The highest quality of the five grades of brick tea was made for export to Russia by steaming and fermenting the leaves in a cloth bag suspended over a boiler and the softened mash placed in a wooden mold with a little rice-water to cause the mass to adhere. As layer after layer was added the mix was compressed by powerful blows from an iron rammer. Next the coarser twigs were dried and ground into powder and sprinkled over the other mass or between the layers. After the tea was sufficiently compressed and the mold was filled it was taken apart and the cake was then fired and thoroughly dried.

      Prior to the Russian invasion of Tibet before World War II, it was reported that in preparation for the conquest, the invaders bought up all of the available tea bricks. They felt that by controlling the tea supply, they would be able to also control the people who relied heavily on it. Much of this hoard of bricks seems to have been in a form well known to modern collectors, showing a temple on one side and dividing lines on the other. Some of these Communist bricks were still available and being bought by collectors as recently as 1976, but few of them seem to be around today.

      In the period 1975 to 1985 molds for this design were used in the Peoples Republic of China to produce more tea bricks for sale as novelty items and tea and for drinking. These bricks were packaged and sold in grocery stores both in the United States and Europe at a cost of about $12 to $16 each. The main difference between these and the originals made in the 1930s is in the quality of tea and its still fresh odor. There is one other subtle point that helps in making a positive identification. The original bricks have a seven-character Chinese legend at the bottom of the front design, while the modern bricks have eight characters.

      Were the old tea bricks actually used as money? The answer seems to be "yes" in every sense that we know money. It was made and used at a time when the tea trade was important to many Central Asian countries, and the distribution was tied to different demands. The finest tea went to Russia, while the worst kind was eagerly bought by the Tibetans. As one contemporary writer put it "Russian tea is delicious, and that used in Tibet is nauseous trash." The significant point is that it was all a valuable commodity that could be recognized and accepted throughout an extended area the same as other kinds of currency.

      Collectors of odd and unusual forms of money treasure the old bricks that were made to be used in trade and drinking. Very few bricks have survived their original purpose, and intact bricks that still have clear images and inscriptions are valued highly. The pieces made for trade in Russia, and showing Russian inscriptions, are particularly scarce and some have sold for as much a $1,000 each. Other decorated old pieces are generally valued at $250 or more. Small or broken chunks and pieces are valued proportionately less.

      Those bricks made during World War II are considered the most common of the original pieces but still bring prices over $100. The modern bricks that were sold in grocery stores for actual use as tea are much less valuable and probably worth less than $25 today. They are, however, a nice reminder of one of the most unusual forms of money ever used anywhere in the world.

      Message from Robert Leonard (23-Jan-02):
          The text you have is almost the same (no significant difference, I think) as the one published in Newsletter Number 44, August 2001, of the International Primitive Money Society.
          What you have is the text of Ken's oral presentation. I typed it up, added a couple of illustrations of tea bricks from published sources, and edited it very slightly, mainly to fit in two pages (though I think that I corrected a minor error or two). I could e-mail you the published version. In lieu of that, perhaps you could add an image of the common recently-made Chinese tea bricks so that collectors are not induced to pay high prices for them.

      Message from Robert Kokotailo (23-Jan-02):
          There is a brief discussion of the use of tea brick money in Tibet in the late 19th century in A SURVEY OF PRIMITIVE MONEY, by a. Hingston /Quiggin, published by METHUEN & CO LTD., page 222. However he does not describe the actual bricks in enough detail to identify the variety of brick to see if it matches the type discussed here. He does illustrate one side of a brick on plate 27, but is just has a couple of simple characters on it in an oval (I am not sure what language the characters are in).
          Michael Mitchiner, in ORIENTAL COINS AND THEIR VALUES, NON-SLAMIC STATES & ESTERN COLONIES, on page 535 illustrates a modern tea brick (I know that in the 1980's bricks of this type could be bought in some department stores in the US, so I suspect they had limited use, if any, as currency bricks). His discussion of the bricks is very limited.

      Message from Jørgen Sømod (23-Jan-02):
          I am very interested in that subject. Most tea-bricks circulating among collectors in the northern Europe and possible also in the USA were sold by me 30 years ago. To my knowledge there is no catalog over tea bricks, but round in the literature is it possible to find single types mentioned and pictured.
          At my 27th birthday was served tea from a tea brick.
          If anybody will make a catalog of teabricks (and salt bricks from Ethiopia), I will be happy to contribute.

      Message from Lars Bo Christensen (28-Jan-02):
          I found a reference to the following article about tea brick money, but haven't read it: Sigler, Phares O.: Brick Tea Money. Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine v. 16, no. 1, January 1950, p. 81-85.

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