The eminent Zen scholar, Daisetz T. Suzuki, in his book Zen and Japanese Culture, observes that “If tea symbolizes Buddhism, can we not say that wine stands for Christianity?” Commodities having religious significance have a propensity to take on the characteristics of money. Gold was often considered the metal of the gods and a favored gift to religious temples. Therefore it should be no surprise that tea surfaced as money in geographical areas where Buddhist culture exerted a potent influence.
In nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Tibet, which was a virtual citadel of Buddhism, sheep served as a measure of value, but Tibetans used tea as a medium of exchange. Tea bricks and sheep also acted the role of money in Sinkiang.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries tea bricks displaced sheep as currency in inner Asia, and particularly Mongolia. During the nineteenth century the Chinese paid Mongolian troops in tea bricks. Consumers went to the market with a sackful or cartload of tea bricks. A sheep cost between 12 and 15 bricks, and a camel between 120 and 150 bricks. Between 2 and 5 bricks could purchase a Chinese pipe. Credit transactions were negotiated in tea bricks, and reports were heard of houses purchased with tea bricks. In Burma a tea brick was the monetary equivalent of a rupee and circulated as such.
The weight and size of tea bricks were not always consistent, but two main sizes predominated, one weighing two and one-half pounds and a larger one weighing close to five pounds. The bricks consisted of leaf stalks of the tea plant mixed with other herbs and glued with the blood of a steer or young bull. The inferior quality tea went into the production of tea bricks intended for monetary purposes, as if additional evidence was needed to validate Gresham’s law. This unappetizing concoction was shaped into bricks and dried in an oven. Value per unit of weight was not a selling point for tea brick money. The transportation of $100 worth of tea required the sturdy back of a camel.
Asiatic Russia also furnished examples of tea brick money, particularly in areas near the Mongolian border. Goods were purchased and wages were paid in tea bricks. Sugar, iron goods, tools, and arms also circulated among various tribes, and in the 1930s jam became a favorite and circulated as a medium of exchange in these areas.
Evidence of tea money outside Asia is scanty. In medieval Russia tea became a form of payment for government officials. Paraguay under Jesuit rule was a barter economy, but there is evidence of tea currency, including for the payment of taxes.
Stimulants and depressants, concomitants of most if not all civilizations, show up frequently as money. Tobacco, cocoa beans, and various varieties of alcohol come to mind as obvious examples. Tea shares some of the characteristics of these commodities and carries a religious significance, rendering it a likely candidate to fill a monetary role.
Einzig, Paul. 1966. Primitive Money.
Quiggin, A. Hingston. 1949. A Survey of Primitive Money.