Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Don't Spend All Your Tea in One Place

I bought a tea brick to use as a prop, and I was surprised at how beautiful it is.  But tea bricks also have a rich history.

Tea was used in China as money since ancient times (early on, they were used to pay taxes to the Emperor).  It also became an important element for trade with Tibet and other surrounding nations -- and eventually, with the English.  Tea bricks were an important commodity on the Silk Road.

The brick form made it easy to transport, and the bricks could be broken as needed to make change (often determined by weight).  However, it was harder to set a standard value on the bricks, as they varied in quality (though some of the resources I have been looking at have listed standard exchange rates, such as one tea brick being worth eight Tibetan Tangka coins, or one horse being worth twenty tea bricks in Russia. 

The quality of the tea tended to improve the farther from China the tea was going to be used.  Some of the finest bricks were intended for use in Russia, and they weren't often preserved in bick form, so bricks with Russian writing are considered the most rare.  Some of the lowest quality bricks included impurities ranging from wood to dung.  The recipient of a tea brick also had to be careful, as soot was sometimes added to make inferior tea bricks look richer.

In some areas where vegetation was hard to come by, tea bricks could fill a nutritional need.  Pieces of the brick would be roasted, then consumed in a soup-like form, with added savory ingredients.
While tea bricks were prefered by some cultures (such as the Cantonese), they were eschewed by the American colonists (so no tea bricks were thrown overboard during the Boston Tea Party).

Tea bricks are considered collector's items today, and some of them can be worth thousands of dollars.  Fermented teas (such as pu-erh) are still usually sold in brick -- or some other compressed shape -- form.

 According to this resource:  Tea Money of China: http://www.charm.ru/coins/misc/teamoney.shtml
the design with a Chinese image and chinese characters on one side and the distinctive break marks with swirls could be pre-WWII (and considered "original") or it could be from the mid 70s to mid 80s, when they were sold as novelty pieces in grocery stores.  Or, it could be used for a current brick, as you can buy similar designs new from any number of on-line resources. While I bought mine on Etsy, I'm pretty sure it is a current design.

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