In the object collections at MAA I found nine tea bricks. Conventionally, these are blocks of whole or finely ground black, green, or fermented tea leaves that have been packed in moulds and pressed into brick form. Seven of the nine tea bricks at MAA are from China and two from Tibet. Five have inscriptions on them – three in Chinese and two in Russian. Having read about the export of tea and brick tea from Yunnan and Sichuan to Tibet and further west to India for the last two weeks, it made sense to me to encounter tea bricks with Chinese inscriptions on them. Encountering tea bricks with Russian inscriptions, however, did not make sense. I was led to question: were tea bricks also produced in Russia? Or were they produced in China and just as they travelled to Tibet and India, so too did they travel to Russia? Did Russian brick tea through the Tea Horse Road connecting Tibet and China, or was there another such road connecting China and Russia?
I returned to the object itself to find clues to help me answer these questions. A small label on the back top right corner reads:
‘Brick of tea used as money in Central Asia. The monogram ПБ с PB, initials of Peter Bogdonoff, a Russian trader. Given to me by A.C. Haddon 29 Dec. 1900’.
The label raised more questions: who was Peter Bogdonoff? Who was this object given to? And, how did Haddon come to acquire it? Furthermore, the author of the label translates the monogram as ‘PB’. But ПБ с actually translates to ‘PB with’ – was the monogram then intended to be a dedication? Was it meant to be ‘PB, with best wishes’ or ‘from PB’? Why else was ‘with’ pressed onto the tea brick with Peter Bogdonoff’s initials?
Aiming to answer the first question, I searched Google for ‘Peter Bogdonoff’, but this led to a dead end. So, I searched for ‘Russian trader and brick tea’. This led to a plethora of sources on the Russian brick tea trade in Hankou, China, from the 1860s to until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
The Russian brick tea trade was made possible due to the Treaty of Tianjin. It was signed in 1858 by the Qing dynasty with the Russian Empire, Second French Empire, United Kingdom, and the United States, allowing each of the parties involved to open more Chinese ports to foreign trade. Consequently, Russia was able to set up a concession in Hankou (now part of Wuhan city) in July 1896 and become a direct producer of tea.
Even before they set up their concession however, the Russians were manufacturing brick tea in Hankou. A few years after the Treaty of Tianjin was signed, Russian tea merchants established brick tea factories in the British Concession in Hankou. The first such factory, S. W. Livinoff & Co. (Shun-feng Yang-hang) was established in 1873. It was followed by Tokmakoff, Molotkoff, & Co. (Xin-tai Yang-hang, or the Asiatic Trading Corporation, Ltd.) in 1875, and Molchanoff, Pechatnoff, & Co. (Fu-chang Yang-hang) in 1878.
I mentioned earlier that MAA has two tea bricks with Russian inscriptions on them. It so happens that the inscription on the second one reads – ‘ТМиКо’, and translates to ‘TMandCo’ – the initials of Tokmakoff, Molotkoff, & Co.
Of the four factories in Hankou, Molchanoff, Pechatnoff, & Co was the largest (although a different source claims that Tokmakoff, Molotkoff, & Co. was the largest). It was owned by J. K. Panoff, a relative of Tsar Nicholas I, and an active member of Hankou high society. In addition to Hankou, he had established branches of his factory in Fuzhou, Jinjiang, Colombo, and Moscow. Fuzhou dominated the production of brick tea before this market shifted to Hankou. Jinjiang was the second main centre of brick tea production after Hankou. And Colombo in Sri Lanka was where Russian manufacturers imported tea dust from, for the production of brick tea.
Brick tea produced for Russia was different to that produced for Tibet. Wolfgang Bertsch, who has researched the use of tea bricks in Tibet, quotes a number of sources which explain this difference. One source explains that tea bricks for Tibet were made using unground, coarse, green tea leaves and stems. By contrast, Russian tea bricks were made using broken and refused tea sent by tea-farmers to brick tea factories. These parts were first ground, sifted, and weighed into a cloth, which was then laid on a perforated plate over a cauldron of boiling water and covered for a few minutes. The mixture was then poured into a wooden mould and half-pound of finer dust was added to it as a surface. The mould was then covered, put under a screw-press, and clamped shut. The bricks remained in the moulds for six hours to cool. They were then removed, weighed, and stacked in rows in an upper story to dry and shrink, before being wrapped in paper, furnished with labels in Russian, and packed in baskets.
There is another tea brick in MAA with no inscriptions, but with paper partially adhered to its surface. Given that Russian tea bricks were wrapped in paper and furnished in labels, this tea brick could also have been made in one of the Russian brick tea factories in China.
At first, the tea dust used in producing brick tea was made using the disposed parts of fine tea. But as the trade progressed, better quality was required and machinery was installed to mill fine tea into dust. In later years, considerable quantities of tea dust were imported from India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. Panoff’s branch in Colombo allowed him to do just this.
By the end of the 1890s, brick tea factories such as Panoff’s constituted the largest industry in Hankou. It employed hundreds of Chinese labourers, though sources disagree on the number, with some claiming that at least 1,400 – 9,000 Chinese labourers worked in the brick tea industry. The industry also employed hundreds of Russian managers and between 1900 and 1920, the Russian population in China increased, especially in places such as Hankou and Jinjiang. The fact that there was a Russian population in China at this time allows us to draw a relationship between the Russian inscription on the tea brick with which I began this post, and its Chinese sources. Based on this Russian presence, we could say that Peter Bogdonoff, whose initials have been pressed into 1927.84, was probably based in China, and most likely in Hankou or Jinjiang, the two centres of brick tea production. Plausible indeed.
However, brick tea factories were not only based in Hankou or Jinjiang, and neither were Russian traders. Robert Nield, who has researched foreign presence in China between 1840 and 1943, found evidence of Russian brick tea factories in Tianjin. And, let us not forget that though Hankou and Jinjiang dominated brick tea production from 1870 onwards, many Russian manufacturers such as Panoff still had branches of their factories in Fuzhou. It is possible thus that Bogdonoff was based in either of these regions. To complicate things further, Russian traders were also present in each of the regions through which brick tea passed to get to Russia. And so, Bogdonoff could also have been based in either of these regions. The stamp of his initials could be a maker’s mark, or a trader’s mark.
In order to get to Russia, brick tea was first transported by steamer from Hankou to Vladivostok through the Yangtze and Shanghai, or from Hankou to Kyakhta through Shanghai, Tianjin, Tongzhou, Kalgan (also known as Zhangjiakou), and Urga in Central Asia. It would then be transported overland on camel or ox carts to Siberia and inland Russia. So much tea was transported through this route that it became known as the ‘Tea Road’ or the Siberian Route, and the tea transported as the ‘Russian Caravan’ blend.
On its way to Russia, through Mongolia, Siberia, and Central Asia, brick tea was used as currency – as is also noted on the label on 1927.84. Its weight was standardised (approx. 1.2kg) and it was easily measurable; thus it was apt for this use. Some tea bricks (like the one in figure three) were even ridged in order that they could easily be used as smaller measures of value.
Once it got to Russia, brick tea would be used as a beverage. Consumers would break a small piece from the whole brick, ground it to fine powder, and then mix it with hot water. In ancient China, the broken piece would be roasted over fire before it was ground to fine powder, to get rid of any mould or insect manifestation that may have occurred. Consumers in ancient China would also froth the powdered tea with a whisk before serving. In Mongolia, Tibet, and parts of Central Asia, brick tea was also used as food, mixed with salt, butter, cream, milk, flour, and grains such as barley. Whilst it was consumed as both food and beverage in these regions, in Russia brick tea was consumed solely as a beverage.
Russian consumers had a great liking for this tea. They believed that the journey through the cold dry climates of Mongolia and Siberia refined its taste, and the close proximity of camel caravans to countless campfires en route imparted a smoky flavour to it. It was highly sought after, expensive, and more so as it took up to two or three years to reach Russia. It was a novelty and consumed only by the Russian aristocracy. This, however, changed in 1904 with the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which allowed Russia to import larger quantities of tea in shorter time periods and at lower prices, making it available to the general population.
Up until 1916, the Russian brick tea industry in China (and Hankou especially) was at its peak, with nearly 30,000 tons of tea exported to Russia. However, from 1916 onwards, the Bolshevik Revolution increasingly constrained the industry’s market and potential for export. The Bolsheviks severed business ties with China, causing tea exports to cease completely.
Now what does all this mean for the tea brick with which I began this post? What light does this historical overview shed on 1927.84? How does it enhance our understanding of it? First of all, it allowed us to understand the relationship between the Russian inscription on it and its Chinese sources. We learnt that from the 1870s onwards up until 1910s, there was a significant Russian population in Chinese towns such as Hankou, Jinjiang, and even Fuzhou. Most from this demographic were involved in the production of brick tea for export to Russia. We speculated that Peter Bogdonoff was potentially amongst this Russian population, residing in Hankou, Jinjiang, Fuzhou, or indeed in either of the regions through which brick tea passed to get to Russia. We learnt that tea bricks such as this one, were used as currency in Mongolia, Siberia, and Central Asia. So, we can guess that 1927.84 too served multiple uses – as currency in Central Asia and as beverage in Russia. The brick, however, does not appear used – it is intact and in pristine condition. No piece of it has been broken, neither to serve as a smaller unit of value, nor to be made into drinking tea. What purpose then did it serve?
There are some questions that I have left unexplored to pursue in my next blog post on the topic (e.g., who did Haddon give this tea brick to? And what was this individual’s connection to Haddon?). But there are some for which I have no answers. For instance, how did Haddon come to acquire this object? I cannot seem to find any evidence of him having spent any time in China or Russia. Where then did he collect it? Had he been given this by Bogdonoff himself? Is this why there is an incomplete dedication pressed into the brick – ‘PB with’? Or did Haddon purchase it in the UK?
The most plausible answer is that Haddon sourced it from his contacts in East Asia, or those who may have travelled through the region. The Stores Move team at MAA have recently discovered that Haddon rarely if ever kept track of the people from whom he sourced his objects. He may have ‘collected’ this tea brick, but not from Bogdonoff nor in China, rather from a source about whom we will never find out.
Anonymous. (no date). Tea Bricks and Hides: Hankou’s Early Industrialization. Hankou to Wuhan: Histories from China’s Crossroads. Available at: https://hankoutowuhan.org/s/hankou/page/matches-tea-bricks-and-hides (Accessed: November 28, 2022).