Tea, the most wonderful beverage mankind has ever known, has always intrigued me. Its use as a currency is only a glimpse of its crowning glory. The use of strange and odd forms of currencies like stone or feathers was common in primitive times, but tea bricks has remained most unusual.
Tea bricks or compressed teas are whole leaves or finely ground tea compressed into brick form. This was the most commonly used in ancient China prior to the Ming Dynasty as a form of currency, in place of coins or paper money.
The tea bricks were highly valued in many parts of Asia, and even took the form of currency from the 9thto 20th century in China, Mongolia, Siberia, Tibet, Turkmenistan and Russia
In 1936 Stuart Mosher described it in the Knox collection at the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences.
“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.”
Some historians said that the leaves supply variety to the diets of people living in areas where vegetables and herbs were scarce, thus the tea bricks were much more than 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 wrote Phares Sigler in his 1954 booklet on odd and curious money.
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.
Tea currency had many disadvantages as well. It was very bulky and heavy. The transport of a quantity of it worth $100 would require the service of a camel. Moreover its value was unstable depending upon the quantity available.
Tea has been such a versatile beverage. Its history has amazed me. Now when I drink my cuppa I will feel like a king.