Tea: not only a drink, but also a means of payment  Share

Nowadays, commercial transactions are standardized. We pay for goods and services either with coins, notes, electronic or bank money. Nevertheless this has not always been the case. It has taken time to come to this stage. The first means of payment, sometines called primitive means of payment, were merchandise:  stones, pearls, teeth, salt, … or else. In China, it could be tea. The visitors of the Museum of the NBB  can see an example of a tea brick in room 4, which is dedicated to the history of means of payments. This particular brick of tea dates from the second half of the 20th  century.


Tea ceremony (Groeninge Museum, Bruges)

Chinese primitive means of payment

Kauri shells have been used as means of payment in large parts of the world, in Asia, Africa and in Oceania. These shells from the Indian Ocean were complemented by reproductions of them in different materials, such as bone, wood, nacre, and stone, but also, silver, gold and jade as there were not enough kauris inland. The most common man-made kauri is the bronze kauri. It is called Pi Ch’ien which means “ant nose” and refers to its form.

Tools have also been used as a means of exchange. As they were valuable, but not really practical they were made smaller. The value of these small-scale models is not intrinsic, thus they are not meant to be hoarded but to circulate. Spade money  and knife money are two examples of this kind of currency.

From the 7th century BC onwards, some kind of coins have started to be used as currency. They were cast in a tree-shaped mould with branches made up of coins. These coins had a square hole in their centre which enabled them to be strung and filed, in order to make them perfectly round. Thanks to this hole, they could also be strung together into strings of a  hundred or a thousand coins. They are called sapeke in Malay and quian or cash in Chinese. Nevertheless there are various other means of payment such as tea bricks or paper money.

Tea brick

Tea bricks have been used as a means of payment from 9th to 20th century in China, Mongolia, Siberia, Tibet, Turkmenistan and Russia. The Chinese Emperor himself had the monopoly on the production of tea as means of payment. The bricks were mainly produced in Sichuan, a Chinese province, but also in Russia. They were made in various forms and sizes and transported by yaks or camels caravans.

There are five different types of quality, when it comes to tea. Each of them presents a specific stamp. What distinguishes the different ranges of products are their colour, their fermentation and the proportion of wood to leaf.

The tea of the best quality is dark brown and exclusively contains fermented tea leaves. The most common type is the third rank quality. As for the bricks of the poorest quality, their colour is dark yellow and they contain twigs, wood shavings and soot.

Making tea bricks requires different stages. Tea leaves are dried in the sun first. Then they are taken off of their stem and finally, sifted to be separated from one another. The leaves are put in a bag, steamed over boiling water and fermented, whereas the twigs are crushed. The whole is then cast in a metal mould. At this stage, the tea brick is regurlarly moistened with rice-water to avoid air bubbles. Beef blood, dung or flour is also added to act as a binder and to maintain the brick in its initial form. Finally, before being used, the brick is put through fire and aged.


Tea brick, front

Tea bricks may be, on one of their sides, divided into different sections. The one you can see in the museum is indeed divided in three rectangles. The first one contains five aligned stars. The second one presents in its center a temple with three porticos whose main one is also topped by a star. This whole pattern is surrounded with vegetation. As for the third section, it contains two rows of Chinese characters which explain the origins of the brick.


Tea brick, back

The tea brick in the Museum is on its other side precut like a chocolate bar in sixteen equivalent squares bearing the same curved lines. This procedure makes it easier to cut off one or more pieces in order to make small payments.

Being compact, easy to preserve and to carry, tea bricks are a practical means of payment used even to make trade with people from other regions. All the more so since tea is edible, it is a valuable currency with which one could also pay his taxes to the Emperor. Moving further away from the production centres, bricks became rarer and hence also more valuable.

A tea brick could also serve as a standard by which one could estimate the value of other goods. It could be eaten in times of starvation or used as a remedy  against pulmonary diseases. In Siberia e.g. tea bricks were prefered to coins for their curative qualities. Nevertheless, tea bricks could also simply be drunk like any other kind of tea. In these cases, one had just to take off a small piece of tea, roast it in order to disinfect it and to give it a good flavour, then grind it and add hot water. That is the most common way to consume tea nowadays, whether the wide range of tea comes to us in tea bags, as dried leaves or in bricks.

Valérie Pede,
Museum guide


  • Bressett Ken, “Tea Money of China”, in Newsletter of the International Primitive Money Society, nr. 44, 2001.
  • Quiggin A. Hingston, A Survey of Primitive Money. The Beginnings of Currency, London, 1949.
  • Schoonheyt Jacques, 4000 ans de moyens d’échange. Une méthodologie aux perspectives nouvelles, unpublished typoscript.