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History of Chinese Invention and Discovery

History of Chinese Invention - The Invention of Paper Money

The history of paper money is interesting not only from the idea and technolgy of printing, but also from the perspective of trading with a commodity that in itself has no intrinsic value. Clearly the issues of paper currency must inspire confidence for trading something of worth for items of no specific worth, and with the potential to be abused by the issuer as a way to increase the supply and control of items of value, thus creating inflation.

For much of its history, China used gold, silver and silk for large sums, and bronze for everyday transactions. The notion of using paper as money is almost as old as paper itself. The first paper banknotes appeared in China about 806 AD. An early use of paper was for letters of credit transferred over large distances, a practice which the government quickly took over from private concerns. The Chinese, with their great gift for pragmatism, labelled this practice "flying money". The printed notes were normally military scrip or other emergency measures issued in dire circumstances, but for the most part these notes disappeared quickly. The first real use of a paper money system was in Szechwan province, an isolated area subject to frequent copper shortages (which is a component of bronze). It had reverted to an iron currency of coins, and paper was a welcome option. Iron banks sprang up to facilitate the trade, and the government was quick to take over the profitable enterprise. Amazingly, the Chinese only used paper money on any meaningful scale for about 300 years of a 400 year period between 1050 and 1450, overlapping the Song, Yuan (Mongol), and Ming dynasties.

The Song dynasty was the first to issue true paper money in 1023, and it did so at first cautiously, issuing small amounts, used in a limited area, and good for a specific time period. The notes would be redeemed after three year's service, to be replaced by new notes for a 3% service charge, an efficient way for the government to make money.

The most famous Chinese issuer of paper money was Kublai Khan, the Mongol who ruled the Chinese empire in the 13th century. Kublai Khan established currency credibility by decreeing that his paper money must be accepted by traders on pain of death. As further enforcment of his mandate, he confiscated all gold and silver, even if it was brought in by foreign traders. Marco Polo was impressed by the efficiency of the Chinese system, as he chronicles in his The Travels of Marco Polo (Il Milione).

"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."

As is to be expected, paper money did not succeed everywhere. In Persia, its forcible introduction in 1294 led to a total collapse of trade. By the 15th century even China had more or less given up paper money. Over this period, paper notes were issued irresponsibly, to the point that their value rapidly depreciated and inflation soared. Then beginning in 1455, the use of paper money in China disappeared for several hundred years. This was still many years before paper currency would reappear in Europe, and three centuries before it was considered common.

Western civilization had minted precious metal objects and coins for trade since about 500 BC. Devaluation and inflation often destroyed a monetary system. Banking systems were cyclic with nations and rulers, and the need to transfer large sums of money to finance the Crusades provided a stimulus to the re-emergence of banking in western Europe. In Europe, the first issuer of paper money was Sweden, where in 1661 Johan Palmstruch's Stockholm Banco introduced the first banknotes. Unfortunately, the bank subsequently overextended itself and had to call in government aid. Despite this example, other European countries soon followed the Swedish lead. In 1694 the Bank of England was established and was soon printing "running cash notes".


Oracle Bones, Stars, and Wheelbarrows
Ancient Chinese Science and Technology
written by Frank Ross, Jr. and published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1982

Science and Technology in World History
An Introduction
written by James McClellan and Horold Dorn, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

Money and Credit in China
A Short History
written by Lien-Sheng Yang, published by The Far Eastern Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 1 (November, 1953)

The Genius of China
3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention
written by Robert K.G. Temple and published by Simon and Schuster, 1986
Currently out-of-print

PBS: The History of Money

Financial Sense University, Dave Ramsden


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