John Mellman passed along this numismatic item by Jon Bushell from The Royal Society's The Repository, found via the PhiloBiblos blog.
The Royal Society has many connections with Chinese scientific and historical institutions.
Our Foreign Secretary Professor Richard Catlow FRS, and Executive Director Dr Julie Maxton, recently went to China to visit our scientific
colleagues, and just last week the Library team hosted several guests from the Qian Xuesen Library and Museum in Shanghai. They were here to research
Qian Xuesen's visit to the United Kingdom in 1987, as the leader of a delegation from the China Association for Science and Technology. This provided
an opportunity to show off some of our archival material, and to reflect on the long history of relations between the Royal Society and China.
One of the oldest Chinese documents we have is a Ming dynasty paper banknote, likely printed around 1400. Paper money is a Chinese invention,
dating back to around the tenth century. A common practice among Chinese merchants was to store their coin with a trusted agent, and carry an early
form of promissory note instead; these could be used in place of the coins themselves, and be exchanged for the money with the agent at a later time.
The Song dynasty developed this practice further, and by the twelfth century it operated a number of printing factories, creating paper notes for use
in particular regions of the Empire.
Kublai Khan adopted the practice when he conquered China and established the Yuan dynasty in 1271. The Italian merchant Marco Polo was so
intrigued by the idea that he devoted a chapter of his book to the subject of ‘How the great Khan Causes the Bark of Trees, Made into Something Like
Paper, to Pass for Money All over His Country'. The concept of paper money began to spread to Europe around this time, but it wasn't until the
seventeenth century that the practice really took off in the West.
In Peking on 9 November 1748, Gaubil wrote a letter to Royal Society secretary Cromwell Mortimer, and enclosed two banknotes, one of which
Mortimer gifted to the Society in 1749. It is a 1 guan, or one-string, note, meaning that the bearer could exchange it anywhere throughout the empire
for a string of 1000 copper coins. However, the government did not set limits on how many notes could be printed, and the bills had no expiry dates;
this led to huge levels of inflation, and by 1535 a 1 guan note was worth less than a third of one copper coin!
To read the complete article, see:
Cash in the archive
Wayne Homren, Editor
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