It is hard to imagine that tea was ever actually used as a form
of money. In the 18th - 19th centuries however, cakes of compressed
tea resembling bricks circulated as money in Siberia, Mongolia
and Tibet. This ‘money’ was manufactured in South
China, where stalks and leaves of the tea plant were mixed with
aromatic herbs and compressed, sometimes using a hydraulic press,
into bricks. Although the Chinese were the main producers of the
bricks, other tea-brokering agencies such as French, German and
Russian companies also were engaged in their production.
bricks come in various sizes and have a Chinese inscription impressed
upon them, which indicates their ‘value’ depending
on the quality of the ingredients used. Russian, Mongolian and
Tartar inscriptions are also known. The value increased as the
bricks travelled farther away from the tea-producing regions.
Ease of convenience in travel and ready acceptance in distant
trading destinations made tea money very popular.
Siberians sought tea for its medicinal properties. In their harsh
climate it came as a ready cure for coughs and colds. In Tibet,
the bricks were in such demand that swords, horses and other property
were often priced in a given number of tea bricks. For smaller
purchases pieces were boken from the bricks and passed by weight.
Along the Silk Route in the Russian Steppes, a horse could be
bought for twenty bricks and a sheep for twelve bricks.