Tuesday January 23, 2007 | 6 comments
Tang brick tea was the first currency exchanged throughout these regions and even in Tang times was scored for convenience of breaking into smaller sections and “making change.” These bricks were practically indestructible. According to historian Peter Hopkirk’s Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, a British explorer of the 1860s saw quantities of tea bricks “believed by the natives to be a great age” which were dug from the ruins of a Tang-era garrison town in Central Asia. “This tea, despite its age, is in great demand among local people, particularly as supplies from China have (recently) dried up.” While exploring this region in 1873 Sir Aurel Stein also noted “black bricks of tea, old and musty, exposed for sale in the bazaar” which had been dug up near Yarkand. Thus tea imported during the Tang occupation was being sold and drunk a thousand years later!
Although harmony began to return after 960 as China was gradually reunited, the new Song dynasty did not regain Central Asia. The herds of war-horses which China desperately needed now lay outside the Empire’s borders, and the Song established the policy of “controlling the border regions with tea” to obtain them. The Song laid out new plantations on a vast scale and enforced the strictest control of the tea trade throughout the border regions. A Tea and Horse Commission was granted a monopoly on all the tea produced in Sichuan, which it would exchange for ten thousand to twenty thousand horses each year. (The average horse went for fifty jin, or pounds, of tea while exceptional horses brought 120.) Sichuan had supplied Tang emperors with legendary Tribute Teas from Mt. Mengding and elsewhere, but Song poets never mention Sichuan tea, now a low-quality product produced strictly for export.
The powerful Tea and Horse Commission was to operate for almost five hundred years in western China and defying its monopoly meant death. Even the son-in-law of the first Ming emperor was compelled to commit suicide for smuggling border tea. The Commission itself, grown too corrupt to reform, was finally abolished outright in 1424. Its enduring contribution is the invention, sometime in the early Ming era, of hongcha or black tea, which the Commission developed for its barbarian customers. The birthplace first of loose leaf tea and later of black tea also was probably Sichuan. Only over the centuries to come would these tea-manufacturing discoveries be transplanted to China’s coastal provinces and provide non-Asian 10 fan from Europe with their first experience of tea.