The celebrations for Chinese New Year (it’s going to be the Year of the Rat) are about to begin so I went out last night to join in the fun here in Singapore — and an excellent night out was had by all, I have to add. Wandering through some of the market stalls in the evening, I came across a stall selling “lucky coins”. Naturally, I bought some. It turned out to be lucky for the stall owner (who got $2 for three old coins worth, essentially, nothing) and lucky for me too, because they gave me something to write about on the blog when I couldn’t think of anything else. The coins were cash, in the truest sense of the word.
The wén (Traditional Chinese: 文, English: cash) was the currency of China from 6th Century BC until 1889 AD and continued to circulate into the 20th century.
The Chinese currency was referred to as “cash” by the English when they came across it. It’s a wonderful linguistic intersection, because the English word “cash” comes from the Middle French “caisse”, meaning a box or chest. But the local South Asian word for the metallic circulating means of exchange was the homophone (to English ears) derived from the Tamil kāsu, a South Indian monetary unit. So “cash” it was. Traditionally, these coins were cast in copper, brass or iron. The coins took on different kinds of shapes as hoes and knives, known as spade money and knife money. The most common formation was the round-shaped coin with a square or circular hole in the center. The hole enabled the coins to be strung together to create higher denominations, as was frequently done due to the coin’s low value. These were the coins I bought in the market (it wasn’t explained to me whether the red string holding them together is lucky as well):
And just to prove that I was actually there…
Who isn’t interested in this region’s contribution to the history of money? My lucky coins trigger thoughts about China’s key role in the story of money’s evolution, not so much because of the strings of cash but from the government issue of paper money under Kublai Khan in the mid-13th century. Here’s what Marco Polo had to say about it…
“The emperor’s mint then is in this same city of Cambaluc, and the way it [money] is wrought is such that you might say he has the secret of alchemy in perfection, and you would be right. For he makes his money after this fashion. He makes them take of the bark of a certain tree, in fact of the mulberry tree, the leaves of which are the food of the silkworms, these trees being so numerous that the whole districts are full of them. What they take is a certain fine white bast or skin which lies between the wood of the tree and the thick outer bark, and this they make into something resembling sheets of paper, but black. When these sheets have been prepared they are cut up into pieces of different sizes.
All these pieces of paper are issued with as much solemnity and authority as if they were of pure gold or silver; and on every piece a variety of officials, whose duty it is, have to write their names, and to put their seals. And when all is prepared duly, the chief officer deputed by the Khan smears the seal entrusted to him with vermilion, and impresses it on the paper, so that the form of the seal remains imprinted upon it in red; the money is then authentic. Anyone forging it would be punished with death. And the Khan causes every year to be made such a vast quantity of this money, which costs him nothing, that it must equal in amount all the treasure of the world.
Furthermore all merchants arriving from India or other countries, and bringing with them gold or silver or gems and pearls, are prohibited from selling to any one but the emperor. He has twelve experts chosen for this business, men of shrewdness and experience in such affairs; these appraise the articles, and the emperor then pays a liberal price for them in those pieces of paper. The merchants accept his price readily, for in the first place they would not get so good an one from anybody else, and secondly they are paid without any delay. And with this paper money they can buy what they like anywhere over the empire”
I’m surprised this story isn’t part of Ron Paul’s campaign to restore the gold standard, since the great Khan’s monetary system ended up collapsing in the 14th century because of the irresitible temptation to over-issue the paper money. I’ve just started to read my modern reprint of the famous (to money nerds) “History of Monetary Systems” written by Alexander Del Mar in 1886, which discusses the Mongol monetary experiment in more detail, so I shall use my newly-acquired lucky cash as a bookmark for his comments:
Population and trade had greatly increased, but the emissions of paper notes were suffered to largely outrun both, and the inevitable consequence was depreciation. All the beneficial effects of a currency which is allowed to expand with a growth of population and trade were now turned into those evil effects that flow from a currency emitted in excess of such growth. These effects were not slow to develop themselves. Excessive and too rapid augmentation of the currency, resulted in the entire subversion of the old order of society. The best families in the empire were ruined, a new set of men came into the control of public affairs, and the country became the scene of internecine warfare and confusion.
Whoops. Best stick with the either metal cash or the virtual stuff.
These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]