Chinese Tea Brick

18th-19th century
Coins & Medals, Gallery 37

 


Focus on the Object

Tea money
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.

The 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.

The 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.