Anthropology Preview: Maimachen and Brick-Tea Currency

[Note: This was originally written for last Wed., but got bumped back to make room for the post on ice packs and epilepsy.]

Last Friday we began a tour of Adolf Erman’s Travels in Siberia (Vol. 2). This entertaining work was written in 1828-9 (published in 1848,) and today’s preview features a town on the Russian/Manchu border, known as Troitsko Savask on the Russian side and Maimachen (literally, Buy-Sell-Town) on the Manchu, located in present-day Mongolia. The town itself is divided in half, with each side’s national required to back over the border at sundown.

As usual, I’ll be using “” instead of blockquotes for readability:

“The Russian escort consisted of no more than fifty Kosaks, without any artillery, only armed with firelocks, which they justly considered sufficient to overawe the Chinese troops in case of need, as the favourite and almost exclusive arms of the latter are only crossbows and darts. Some matchlocks were seen among them; but their powder is very far inferior to the Russian. …

“Three camels met us just as we passed the gate, which were much longer haired than the Chinese camels that we saw afterwards. They belonged to the Buraets of Selenginsk, who were now thronging the streets, on their way to a religious festival at Maimachen. Chinese traders, too, met us at every step. They wore long gowns of black silk, fitting close to the body ; their hats were of black felt, nearly in the shape of a crown, the part for the head forming a hemisphere, and having the brim turned up all round; a tassel of red silk falls down on each side from the top where there is a copper stud in the centre, on which a ball of some coloured stone, or other material, is fixed; this being the mode in whieh the several ranks are distinguished in China. …

Chinese merchants’ house in Miamachin (Buy-Sell-Town,) 1885

“They were all hurrying over the boundary line, for every Chinese is obliged to be in Maimachen before sunset. We followed the crowd that was pressing forward towards a narrow door in the front of a long wooden building. This admitted us into the inner quadrangle of a Russian warehouse… A corresponding door, at the opposite side of this court, opens just upon a wooden barricade, which constitutes the barrier of China. In this there is a wide portal, ornamented with pillars, and displaying the Russian eagle above it, along with the cipher of the reigning Emperor, Nicholas the First, by whom it was erected.

“The change upon passing through this gate seemed like a dream, or the effect of magic; a contrast so startling could hardly be experienced at any other spot upon the earth. The unvaried sober hues of the Russian side were succeeded all at once by an exhibition of gaudy finery, more fantastic and extravagant than was ever seen at any Christmas wake or parish village festival in Germany. The road-way of the streets consists of a bed of well-beaten clay, which is always neatly swept; while the walls of the same material, on either side, are relieved by windows of Chinese paper. These walls do not at first sight present the appearance of fronts of houses, as the roofs are flat and not seen from the street. Indeed, they are nearly altogether concealed by the gay-coloured paper lanterns and flags with inscriptions on them, which are hung out on both sides of the way. Cords, with similar scrolls and lanterns, are likewise stretched from roof to roof across the street. These dazzling decorations stand out in glaring contrast with the dull yellow of the ground and walls.

Chinese temple in Miamachin, 1885

“In the open crossings of the streets, which intersect each other at right angles, stood enormous chafing-dishes of cast-iron, like basins, upon a slender pedestal of four feet in height. The benches by which they were surrounded were occupied by tea-drinkers, who sat smoking from the little pipes which they carry at their girdles, while their kettles were boiling at the common fire. It is only the porters and camel drivers, and the petty dealers, that is, Mongols of the lowest class, who thus seek refreshment and chit-chat in the streets. Some of the poorer Russian Buraets occasionally resort there too; and both nations avail themselves of the niches or little chapels which are seen at the corners of the adjacent houses. These are dedicated to Buddha, and when the doors were open we could readily distinguish the images of the saints within. Metal dishes, like those observed by us in the tents at Selenginsk, were placed before these divinities, and filled with consecrated water; and between them were pastilles of vegetable extracts, and in the shape of slender yellow rods, which emitted no flame, but a bluish aromatic vapour; we saw reddish tapers, also, of tallow, which were occasionally lighted by some passer-by…

“Sunset was now announced from the tower by gongs, and by the faint report of gun-shots from some of the houses, so that we had no alternative but to leave the town. It is only during especial festivals that any exception is permitted to this regulation. The merchants and Mongols, of whom we made inquiries in the streets, could give us no farther information than was contained in the word pashol — go; pointing, with their characteristic gentleness, to the northern gate, which led us out of China. …

“An immediate and very important consequence of this treaty [with China] was, the permission to send from Russia to Pekin what is called a spiritual mission, and to change it regularly every ten years. In order to explain officially this important stipulation, the Russian government could allege nothing farther than a desire that the posterity of the prisoners taken in Albäsin should have the means of continuing in -the Christian faith, with the instruction of priests of the Greek church. At present, the posterity in question are hardly to be found, and still the Chinese government keeps its engagement faithfully, to the great benefit of European ethnographers and politicians, who owe to these missions the most authentic and extensive information.”

Brick-Tea Currency:

“I went early this morning to Eiakhta, and thence to Maimachen, to make some purchases there in the Chinese phusi or shops, in the view of becoming better acquainted with their contents and management. From M. Basin in Liakhta I learned, that, instead of current coin, brick-tea alone is used here for money. This article, to which I have frequently had occasion to allude, is a mixture of the spoiled leaves and stalks of the tea-plant, with the leaves of some wild plants and bullock’s blood, dried in the oven. In Irkutsk, where an imitation of it has been attempted, elm leaves, sloe leaves, and some others have been substituted with tolerable success for those of the wild plants of China.

Porters laden with “brick tea” in a 1908 photo by Ernest Henry “Chinese” Wilson, an explorer botanist who traveled extensively to the Far East between 1899 and 1918 to collect seed specimens, record findings in journals and create photographic records (some sixty Asian plant species bear his name)

“In the southern provinces of China there are a number of manufactories in which this article is prepared. It is divided
into pieces weighing from three to three and a half pounds each; and having always the same prismatical form, exactly like that of our bricks, (in Russian, kirpich.) Hence, they may be called in Germany brick-tea, with more propriety than tile-tea, as they are usually styled. The Manchoos themselves never make use of this production, but to the Mongolian nomades in China, to the Buraets and Ealn^uks collectively, to the Russian peasants south of the Baikal, and to most of the Siberian Tatars, it is become as indispensable as bread in Europe. About 300,000 lbs., that is, 4,000 bales or half horse-loads… of it are brought annually to Kiakhta. This is sufficient for the supply of 10,000 people, if it be assumed that they drink brick-tea twice a day the whole year round, as they do now during the winter. Every brick or kirpich contains sixty or seventy portions, because the infusion made with it is mixed also with rye-meal, mutton fat, and with kujir or busum, that is, salt from the lakes in the steppes. The rich people among the Russian Buraets and the Kalkhas Mongols lay by stores of this article, which serve them for money, although the weighed silver bars which are used in China reach the bazaar in Urga, also, in the course of trade. In dry situations the brick-tea will remain a long time undeteriorated; and, consequently, an accumulation of it in the steppe is often thought a better and safer treasure than great herds and flocks. In Maimachen and Kiakhta it is an article of no less importance. The Russians purchase an immense quantity of it from the Chinese; but, besides, the kirpich or brick of tea is the money unit and standard of value, in which the price of every other kind of exchangeable property is expressed.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

Due to the high value of tea in many parts of Asia, tea bricks were used as a form of currency throughout China, Tibet, Mongolia, and Central Asia. This is quite similar to the use of salt bricks as currency in parts of Africa. Tea bricks were in fact the preferred form of currency over metallic coins for the nomads of Mongolia and Siberia. The tea could not only be used as money and eaten as food in times of hunger but also brewed as allegedly beneficial medicine for treating coughs and colds. Until World War II, tea bricks were still used as a form of edible currency in Siberia.[1]

Tea bricks for Tibet were mainly produced in the area of Ya’an (formerly Yachou-fu) in Sichuan province. The bricks were produced in five different qualities and valued accordingly. The kind of brick which was most commonly used as currency in the late 19th and early 20th century was that of the third quality which the Tibetans called “brgyad pa” (“eighth”), because at one time it was worth eight Tibetan tangkas (standard silver coin of Tibet which weighs about 5.4 grams) in Lhasa. Bricks of this standard were also exported by Tibet to Bhutan and Ladakh.[11] …

All tea plant tissues accumulate fluorine to some extent. Tea bricks that are made from old tea leaves and stems can accumulate large amounts of this element, which can make them unsafe for consumption in large quantities or over prolonged periods. Use of such teas has led to fluorosis, a form of fluoride poisoning that affects the bones and teeth, in areas of high brick tea consumption such as Tibet.[12]

Tea Brick presented to Tzar Nicholas II, 1891

Back to Erman:

“The merchants of Kiakhta commence their dealings, therefore, by asking those of Maimachen how many bricks the commodities which they wish to purchase are valued at; …They then put upon the squirrel skins, which they bring to market in great quantities, a fixed price in tea bricks and their fractions; and their further traffic is carried on by written bills, always expressed in the same vegetable money. Russian officers, when they wish to make small purchases in the shops of the Chinese, buy of their fellow-countrymen in Kiakhta, for Russian money, the requisite capital in bricks. In this transaction, the exchange of the rooble into the tea-brick is managed by taking the value of each as compared with the squirrels skin …

“On my return to Kiakhta I paid a visit to M. Kotelnikov. On this, as on several other occasions, I perceived, the instant I entered the house, by a peculiar smell, that Chinese were in it. Persons who have been shifted from one part of the earth to another, suddenly enough … without any gradual transition, have spoken of the smell of a country, or a national odour; and I perfectly understand what they mean, since I have myself met with several examples of it, as, in the first place, on my arrival in Russia, and again here, on the frontier of China, where even a blind man would be aware that he bad left the precincts of Siberia and Russia. To the odour of
Maimachen, undoubtedly, the pastilles in the Mongolian chapel and the fumes of the Chinese powder contributed not a little; but in a much more essential manner the Chinese themselves, every one of whom diffuses around him an atmosphere which brings to mind the strong smell of the leek. …

“In the post-house of Monakhova we found four lamas or priests of the Buraets, who were come to bring us greetings,
and an invitation from their chief, the Khamba lama. … The lamas wore pointed hats of bright yellow stuff, and wide robes of scarlet cloth. To this showy and elegant clothing, they united fine figures, and a carriage so vigorous and active, that, in Europe, they would have been taken for warriors rather than for priests. The Russians here said, that there was hardly a Buraet family of which there was not one member at least in the priesthood.”

EvX: The account which follows of his visit to a Mongolian Buddhist temple is fascinating but too long to recount here. You will just have to read the book if you want the rest of it.

 

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