Museum Spotlights Rich History of Silver Currency
The history of metallurgy in China goes all the way back to the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC), when the archaeological record indicates ritual use of metal vessels. It is also around that time that we find the earliest use of precious metals, particularly silver, as currency.
Now through April 3, an exhibition at the West Lake Museum highlights the use of silver in trade and finance throughout the ages. On display are a wide variety of numismatic antiques, including more than 500 silver ingots.
The exhibition is divided into five sections, each devoted to a different dynasty. The first of these sections is dedicated to artifacts from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), when silver became officially used as a national currency.
Excavated Tang Dynasty ingots are notable for their standardization, with most ingots from that time weighing either 20, 50 or 100 liang. Although this unit of weight is no longer widely used today, a liang equals about 50 grams.
And much like today’s paper bills are printed with serial numbers, ingots from that time were imprinted with Chinese characters indicating origin, and sometimes their intended use.
One type of specialized ingot now on display was meant for use among monks and nuns, who were exempt from paying taxes.
During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), the subject of its own section of the exhibition, silver ingots developed further in terms of standardization and geographic reach. They became used among both nobles and common folk in exchange for tea, silk, salt and other goods.
This dynasty also witnessed an increase in the variety of ingots in circulation. The exhibited shanggong silver ingots, for example, were minted by prefecture-level authorities who would then hand them over to the imperial court.
Another type of displayed ingot, the shengjie (literally “emperor’s festival”), were given to the emperor on his birthday.
When the Southern Song Dynasty consolidated power in Hangzhou, the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) established its sovereignty in northern China. Though it used silver ingots similar to those in the south, they were known as yuanbao, with the two corresponding Chinese characters inscribed on their surface.
In the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the royal court banned circulation of the yuanbao, although their minting was eventually reestablished in 1436. The government stipulated though that blacksmiths stamp their names on ingots to guarantee quality.
To simplify an overly complicated tax system, Ming Chancellor Zhang Juzheng merged all earlier policies and required people to pay with silver. This policy greatly boosted the use of silver in daily life.
Later, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), silver excavated from mines in the New World began making its way into China. Also imported from abroad was the custom of using round coins. With time, the Qing court would also purchase industrial minting equipment from the West and employ foreign engineers to produce coins in large scale.
During the Republic of China era (1911-1949), subject of the last section of the exhibit, silver coins began to be engraved with the portraits of national leaders. During that period, the liang was officially abolished and a new measurement unit — the yuan — came into use.
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