A Tea Brick from Fuzhou

2 minute read

Of all the tea bricks at MAA, E 1908.26 is the only one which has been embossed with the image of a dragon. Most others have been impressed with Chinese or Russian characters, or with nothing at all. The dragon is an important symbol in Chinese culture, but what are its multiple meanings in this context and what is its relationship to this tea brick? Was this image of a dragon embossed by the manufacturer to invite prosperity and luck? Or was it meant to commemorate an important social and political event? Or was it instead meant to memorialise the moment in which the trader gave (or gifted?) this brick to its collector, through whom it eventually came to MAA?

A brick of compressed tea. The centre of it has been embossed with the image of a dragon.

Figure 1. A small brick of compressed tea with an embossed image of a dragon. Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China. Collected by Reverend Garden Blaikie. MAA E 1908.26.

The catalogue record provides a simple description, but not much of a clue: 

‘A small brick of compressed powdered black tea with an embossed image of a dragon – possibly a trader’s mark.’

It does, however, mention a handwritten label adhered to the back of the tea brick which reads: 

‘E. 1908. 26. Block tea (Foochow) South China. The late Rev. Garden Blaikie, M. A.’

The back of a brick tea. It has a label attached in its centre. The top right part of it has crumbled off or has been broken.

Figure 2. A label adhered to the back of the tea brick. Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China. Collected by Reverend Garden Blaikie. MAA E 1908.26

No reference to the dragon, but there was a name: Reverend Garden Blaikie. 

Blaikie was a Protestant missionary who trained at Westminster College, Cambridge, and worked in Shantou, China from 1902 until his death in 1908 (he had a sudden death when on furlough in Britain). He married Tina Alexander, a fellow missionary in Shantou, who might have been the one to donate Blaikie’s personal collection of objects from South China to MAA, after his death in 1908. There are around 74 objects attributed to Blaikie at MAA, and each has been accessed in the year 1908. 

A woman wearing a graduate's gown, holding a rolled piece of paper in her hand, and standing beside a chair.

Figure 3. Dr. Tina Alexander, a woman medical missionary to Shantou, China, c.1898. Source: Special Collections SOAS and the University of Southern California Libraries (Digital).

After marriage, Blaikie and Alexander together conducted visitation work in the countryside surrounding Shantou, and it is possible that they acquired some or most of the 74 objects attributed to Blaikie during this period. Some of these objects, such as the various samples of official and private visiting cards seem to have belonged to him.

A red piece of paper on which something in Chinese and English has been inscribed.

Figure 4. One of eleven samples of various official and private visiting cards. It has an inscription in black ink which reads: ‘10th Nov 02 Dear Qi, We are like to see at 3 o’clock afternoon today. Yrs Sincerely [illegible] Rev Blaikie’. China. Owned by Reverend Garden Blaikie. MAA E 1908.30.1.

Others such as votive offerings used in ancestor worship might have been given to him, perhaps as the result of conversion to Christianity. 

A collage of two images.

Figures 5 and 6. A paper lantern (left) and a dish of imitation fruits (right) made from paper and painted cardboard respectively, and burnt as an offering to the spirits of the dead. China. Collected by Reverend Garden Blaikie. MAA E 1908.39.5 and E 1908.40.

And other objects such as the tea brick E 1908.26 might have been gifted to him, which was in fact not an uncommon practice, given the socio-cultural and economic value of tea at the time. 

A simple glance at E 1908.26 indicates that it is a machine-pressed brick of dark tea typical of the output from Anhua in Hunan province, though the label shows that it was acquired in the port city of Fuzhou, capital of Fujian province. Such tea bricks were usually produced by grinding dried tea leaves to a powder in order for them to compress well. A pattern would then be embossed using an iron mould. In this case, the pattern is of a dragon and it suggests that the factory which produced E 1908.26 may have pressed this design for a particular event. Museum catalogue records attribute a date – 1908 – to it. Whilst this may have been the date at which this object was accessioned by the Museum, it could also have been the date at which it was acquired by its collector, Blaikie, perhaps a few months before his death. 1908 was the year of the accession of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. There is no evidence that this tea brick celebrates this, but the event was of great national significance, and so the possibility is intriguing. 

For a tea brick more than a century old, E 1908.26 is in pretty good condition, except for a light ‘speckling’ of yellow above the dragon’s head. 

Close up of a tea brick showing a light speckling, possibly a mould, in it.

Figure 7. Detail of the tea brick with an embossed image of a dragon, showing a light speckling of yellow. MAA E 1908.26.

On closer inspection, this seems to be 金花 (Jinhua or Golden Flowers), a tiny yellow fungus called Eurotium cristatum. The occurrence of this fungi is characteristic of Hunanese dark tea under certain temperatures and humidity conditions, and is prized among tea drinkers for its effect in reducing any bitter, astringent taste in the tea, making it more mellow. It is also believed to cut through any greasiness in food, facilitate digestion, and improve gastrointestinal function. Tea experts therefore consider it probiotic and beneficial. 

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