For Some of the Gold in China

In November 2019, somehow, despite being in the middle of teaching and just before going on strike, that continuous impoverishing recreation we academics keep having to have, I managed to do something I probably now won’t do again for a long time, which was, go to China. For much of 2018 and 2019, as you’ll have been picking up, I had been making friends in Chinese academic circles, where I am known if at all as a specialist in Byzantine coinage, and as I have distantly mentioned because of its proceedings coming out, at about this point one of these friends got me and m’colleague Dr Rebecca Darley onto the bill of a conference at the National Museum of China, in Běijīng, called “Coinage and Empire: the Influence and Changes of Coins in the International Perspectives”. The timing wasn’t great; but it seemed like the sort of opportunity I shouldn’t turn down. Now, the world has changed, in oh so many ways and so on, but since this is where the backlog has reached and since I still did it, it should be recounted.*

Now, you may remember from my first conference trip to China that I was very impressed by the country and the academic provision, especially but not just of tea. Of course I was meant to be impressed; the relevant international centre of a high-ranking but provincial university was keen to make a good show to its foreign visitors, and I appreciated it. The National Museum of China did the whole conference thing equally grandly, and it was still pretty international (a speaker from Japan, one from Russia, one from France and three from the UK), but on this occasion I’m not sure we foreigners were the audience for the showing-off so much as some of the things being shown off, and the actual conference was much more of a Chinese affair than the previous one had been. This manifested itself in several ways. Firstly, we didn’t get an English-language programme; instead, Dr Helen Wang of the British Museum sent round a scratch translation of it to the other foreigners attending a few days before we departed, for which we were suitably grateful. Likewise, at the conference itself, there was not so much of the translated summaries after papers that had been managed on the previous occasion; instead, we were stationed next to one of those aforesaid friends each and they gave us sotto voce explanations of what was going on, which varied considerably in depth along with their own interest (“Oh, you don’t care about this, it’s Ming”, and so on). And lastly, the fashion of the day was to use slides simply to put up a text of one’s paper as one gave it, which in hànzì you can just about do as you talk because of how dense they are semantically. This all combined with the jetlag to mean that I had between a sketchy idea and no idea at all of what some of the papers were about. Some of the speakers, to whom I was extremely grateful, had used their slides to give a précis in English of their Chinese paper, but it wasn’t very many. So this account is what I could get out of all that, minus what sense I now can’t make of my notes and less the memory loss of three years plus. But there was still some interesting stuff being said. This is how it broke down, in translation anyway.

13th November 2019

The Reasons for the Formation of the Two Different Coinages in the East and the West, and the Impact on their Social, Economic and Financial Development

  • Huang Xiquan, “Seeing Power Struggles over Land in Coins”, in Chinese, of which all I could parse was that he was at one point reading the characters off the early ‘spade’ money;
  • He Ping, “King Jing of Zhou’s Casting of Large Coins and Chinese Coin-Issuing Principles and Systems”, in Chinese, of which all I got was that in 124 BC Chinese authorities (presumably the Han) took the new step of issuing a multiple coin for the first time and the economy crashed because of it;
  • Georges Depeyrot, “The Question of Metal in Europe”, in English
  • Wang Liyan, “Evolution of Gold in Ancient Chinese Monetary Systems and its Structure”, in Chinese
  • Zhou Weirong, “Response”, in Chinese
  • So obviously the ones I could engage with here were the papers by Professor Depeyrot and Dr Wang. The former was a determined attempt to read all of European economic history until not far short of the present day as being determined by availability of bullion. It was entertaining, but my notes are covered in quarrelsome asterisks where he said, for example, that coinage paid to barbarians was often converted to jewellery leaving them short of money, that there was no silver available in Western Europe between the 7th and 13th centuries (which would have been news to the miners of Melle and Harz, I imagine!), that the Huns and Mongols supplied silver to the West instead, and that gold arrived in China from Japan rather than from the West meaning that we have no documentation of it. He also appeared to think that the United Kingdom still runs on a gold standard. For all these reasons, I couldn’t really accept the thesis as presented. I learnt more from Professor Wang, who informed us that although pretty much all Chinese coinage has pretty much always been base-metal, actually the Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Ming and Qing all made occasional use of gold currency units, varying from small ‘pots’ known as ‘horse-foot money’ and simple ingots and bars through gold cash to leaves. It was all special-purpose money, and I would love to have heard more about what those purposes were, but even gathering that this stuff existed was a start.

3 gold horse-hoof ingots on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

3 gold horse-hoof ingots on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, but excavated from the tomb of Marquis Haihun in Nanchang, Jiangxi, and lent by the Jiangxi Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

I couldn’t gather what the title of the second session was, but this was it…

  • Zhou Weirong, “The Influence of Silk Road Trade on China’s Currency Structure and System”, in Chinese, which pointed out the rather rarer instances of silver coinage or bullion units in Chinese monetary history, but out of which I got little else;
  • Wang Yongsheng, “The Relationship between Kings and Currency, as seen in Xi Xia Coins”, in Chinese, where I got nothing; my notes aren’t even sure that this was actually the paper which got delivered;
  • Zhou Xiang, “On Dachao Tongbao Coins”, in Chinese, and of which all I got was the way in which Mongol rule brought Islamic patterns of coinage, including die-struck silver ones with square frames like Ayyubid ones, to China for some purposes—and again, I wish I could say what purposes;
  • Wang Jijie, “On 50-liang Silver Ingots of Tianqi Year 1 and Grain Taxes in the Ming Dynasty”, in Chinese and presumably, from the title, a quite closely-focused argument, but I’m afraid that all my notes record is that I was impressed by the ingots;
  • Zhang Anhaq, “On the Prohibition of Coins in Shunzhi Year 3”, in very fast Chinese with no real help from visuals, so sorry, I know no more;
  • He Ping, “Response”, in Chinese
Qing-Dynasty 50-liang silver ingot

Qing-Dynasty 50-liang silver ingot, image from LiveAuctioneers (linked through) so presumably now in private hands

The Track of Coin Exchanges among the Countries and the Influence of Chinese Currency on Other Country’s Currency

  • Lan Rixu, “The Evolution and Characteristics of Silk Road Coins”, in Chinese, of which I have no notes;
  • Yang Juping, “The Century’s Research on Lead Cakes with Foreign Inscriptions”, in Chinese
  • Rebecca Darley, “A Third Way? Currency Production in India from Antiquity to the Middle Ages in a Global Context”, in English;
  • Li Xiaojia & Lin Ying, “On Changes in the Crowns on Sasanian Coins”, in Chinese, explaining the fact that each Sasanian shah of Iran was denoted on his (or indeed her) coins by a different crown, and that sometimes there was even a kind of reign reset with a new crown for the reigning shah;
  • Lin Ying, “Response”, in Chinese
  • Here, as you can tell, the papers I can say anything about are Professor Yang’s and Rebecca’s, I mean Dr Darley’s. Professor Yang was dealing with a certain peculiar type of round lead ingot stamped with characters identifying them as belonging to the Han Wudi Emperor, but also others which have been read as Bactrian, Parthian and several other languages by various Western scholars. Yang pointed out that Chinese scholars have always been pretty clear that they are Chinese as well, meaning roughly ’28 Mansions’ which has Zodiacal significance, and now there have been silver ones found with a different Chinese inscription as well, so whatever they are it probably started in China; thankyou very much. Even though I was following this largely from slides it was still an entertaining slam-dunk of a paper. Rebecca, meanwhile, was posing a third way of ancient peoples having ‘done’ coinage between the Western precious-metal and the East Asian fiat currency tax systems, in the form of the silver punch-mark coins of the South Asian Mauryan Empire of the 5th to 1st centuries BC. Their immense variation within broad characteristics – flat bits of metal, usually rectangular, marked with up to four punched symbols and a load of extra use marks, which carried on being used and imitated long after their initiating empire had collapsed – she argued were a non-state, socially-negotiated, ‘discursive’ coinage system which she likened to early English pennies or Viking arm-rings. This paper, sadly, wasn’t in the proceedings, but I hope it comes out eventually.

Karshapana of Pushyamitra Sunga struck at Vidisha in 185–149 BCE,

Punch-marked karshapana of Pushyamitra Sunga struck at Vidisha in 185–149 BCE, photo by Jean-Michael Moullec, licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Then there was a tea-break, and straight back to more of the same session!

  • The first paper in this session wasn’t either of the two that had been on the translated programme I had, and all I can tell you about it is that it was about exhibiting money. I wasn’t paying as much attention as I could have, because the next paper was…
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “‘He will ruin many from among the people’: market exchange in the Byzantine Empire and the reform of Emperor Anastasius I”, which you have heard about, so I won’t go on about here as well; then
  • Cao Guangsheng, “Sogdian Coins and New Perspectives on the Exchange and Integration of East and West Cultures in the Han to Tang Period”, in Chinese, informing us that the Central Asian Sogdian peoples imitated pretty much every coinage that reached them in their own issues but that this included Chinese cash, which even wound up being cast with local mint-marks from other systems on them;
  • Zhao Xiaoming, “Looking at the Differences between East and West Coinages to See Connections between Money and Economy”, in Chinese, between the which and mounting jetlag I got nothing from this, sorry;
  • Guo Yunyan, “Gold Money-Like Plaques on the Silk Road”, distinguishing as Guo does three levels of use of Byzantine-style money on the Silk Routes, actual Byzantine coins, close imitations and one-sided foil ‘plaques’ or ‘bracteates’, the question this raises being whether they all counted as, or were being used as, coins, or something else?1
  • And then there was a further paper at the end not on the original program, and I got nothing from that either I’m afraid…

Gold bracteate imitation of a Byzantine solidus made in Central Asia during or after the fifth century CE

Gold bracteate imitation of a Byzantine solidus made in Central Asia during or after the fifth century CE, BactriaNumis Z-156956, now in private hands

By the next day I was doing a bit better, but my notes suggest that the problem was not just jetlag, alas, as there were still many papers I didn’t get much of.

Theme 4

  • Li Xiuying, “On the Sasanian Coins in the Shouzhou Museum”, in Chinese, and overrunning, but they do indeed have some Sasanian and indeed Arab-Sasanian coins in that there museum;
  • Li Shuhui, “On Cotton Money in the Western Regions”, in Chinese, of which I wish I could say I had got anything as it sounds interesting, but sadly I did not;
  • Li Xiao, “History of Greek-Indian Relations – Focussing on the Bilingual Coins”, in Chinese but with helpful slides and more or less a history of Indo-Greek and Bactrian coins, on which I have scatty notes that probably don’t serve you better than a good work on the subject;2
  • Li Xiaoping, “Questions Relating to Money in Foreign Trade during the Yuan Dynasty”, in Chinese, on which my notes, do with this what you can, read, “Lots of pay of goods and ingots but no help for banking”;
  • Wang Xianguo, “China’s Early Silver Money and the Formation of the Silver Liang System”, in Chinese, on which I have nothing;
  • Wang Yongsheng, “Response”

And finally!


  • Li Qiang, “Eastward Journey of Byzantine Gold Coins – Textual and Archaeological Evidence”, in Chinese but with helpful slides and of course on a topic familiar to me;
  • Qi Xiaoyan, “From China to Central Asia: Sogdian Imitations of Kaiyuan Tongbao Coins”, in Chinese, hitting roughly the same points as Cao Guangsheng the previous day, though my notes don’t suggest I had any memory of that… ;
  • Huang Wei, “Foreign Trade in the Ming Dynasty and Silver Money”, in Chinese; “Oh, you don’t care about this, it’s Ming”…;
  • Liu Zhentang, “Seeing Western Power in Ancient Coin Power”, in Chinese, and I have no idea, sorry;
  • Shi Jilong, “Developments in Banknote Printing and Distribution”, in Chinese but actually as much about paper-making technology as anything else, interesting;
  • Helen Wang, “Displaying Money of the World at the British Museum”, in English with a Chinese introduction, giving a very short history of the British Museum’s coin collections, saying what the display philosophy relating to coins now is (which is, they’re in all galleries) and explaining the development of the Money Gallery itself;3
  • Tong Chunyan, “The Concept of the Exhibition ‘Money and Kingship: Influences and Changes from a World Perspective”, in Chinese, and I’m sorry, nothing;
  • Huo Hiongwei, “Closing Remarks”, in Chinese.
  • I confess that by the time this finished, I was ready to stop the effort to show some kind of understanding of that which I really was not understanding. I do have quite thick notes on Li Qiang’s paper, however, which took a broader view of the imitation of Byzantine gold coins in areas eastwards of the Empire than had some others. It was actually quite a widespread phenomenon, covering India to Mongolia with at least something on most major landmasses between, imitating rulers from Theodosius II to Tiberius III so over four centuries with the end coming at different times in different areas. He had lots of broad detail about location, as well, making it clear where this was literally marginal behavior (certainly in China, along the northern frontiers or where the Great Wall is) or just occasional (like Mongolia, where almost all of the known specimens are out of one particular tomb). The interesting thing, however, is that while most of what people have found is gold, the Sogdian and Chinese texts both suggest there should have been much more silver and talk about that as if it was currency. In this respect the texts and the archaeology don’t agree and the non-genuine coins seem to have been more integrated into currency systems than the real ones, but Byzantium still obviously had a cachet that made its coins worth imitating or owning.

This paper, frustratingly, is not in the conference proceedings either, as far as I can tell, possibly because Qiang had already published a version of it a little while before; but then, if it had been there, it’s not as if I could read it!4 But for now, it’s not a bad place to wrap up the conference report.
Now, when proceedings were over and lunch was served, we began to go our separate ways but part of this experience was a tour around the National Museum itself, an eye-opening experience. My overall recollection is that repeatedly, I looked at something and thought, ‘oh, it’s a bit like that Western thing that probably does the same job’ and then found that the Chinese specimen was about half a millennium older; it was difficult not to leave with the impression that everything happened or developed in China first. Of course it’s a national museum, that is surely the point; but they did have the material with which to do it…

Obverse of a Yuan stele bearing Pan Di, "Pronunciation and Meaning of the Stone Drums (shiguwen Yinxun)", from 1339 CE

One side of a Yuan stele bearing the inscription of a treatise by Pan Di whose title translates as ‘Pronunciation and Meaning of the Stone Drums (shiguwen Yinxun)’, from 1339 CE. I just love that this is epigraphy about understanding epigraphy. Photograph by Rebecca Darley, as apparently I just plain forgot to take my camera on this trip!

The next day, we got taken to another museum by one of the archaeologists who had been present at the conference, who between his own efforts and those of an English-speaking student of his was able to give us a fascinating account of some of the Silk Road sites he had dug at, and where we were wistfully sure we would never be able to go, the kind of frontier cities Owen Lattimore had written about in a fargone time before…5
Reverse of a Yuan stele bearing Pan Di, "Pronunciation and Meaning of the Stone Drums (shiguwen Yinxun)", from 1339 CE

Reverse of the same stele, image again by Rebecca Darley.

The last thing we did, in the afternoon of that free day, was visit the Forbidden City. We wandered round it marvelling till chucking-out time, slowly finding our way and understanding bits of how an empire could be ruled from here and also how, if you never took your people outside its walls, it couldn’t, and how completely isolated the lives of the last Qing emperors must have been here. Of course, again, I am not blind to the fact that access to this space was opened up by a revolution whose basis included the alleged unfitness of this ancien régime to govern any more, and that the curation of the site has only that purpose; but it is therefore a pretty powerful thing that what was once actually a forbidden city is now a public space (subject to search, scan and a reasonably hefty admission price anyway). I now feel very lucky to have seen it, since I can’t imagine what circumstances would now take me back there – and I do wish I had some photographs – but it was a good and remarkably peaceful way to conclude a manic trip across the world and back to talk about coins.

* It may not be fashionable to have friends in China any more, but on this score my guidance has been, since it happened to me, a conversation with a Russian colleague who had only just made it to a conference because of trouble over getting a visa. Embarrassed as I so often am by the Home Office’s obstacles to academic visitors to the country, I began apologising for Britain and he stopped me with a hand on my arm, and said, as I remember it: “Please. You understand that we Russians know that there is a difference between the government of a country and its people.” I still felt obliged to assure him I hadn’t voted for the lot in office, but his assurance has stayed with me as a model.

1. Guo’s work is more widely available in English than many a Chinese scholar’s, and you could consult whichever you can get of Guo Yunyan, “Bracteates with Byzantine coin patterns along the Silk Road” in Fabio Guidetti and Katherine Meinecke (edd.), A Globalised Visual Culture? Towards a Geography of Late Antique Art (Oxford 2020), pp. 341–356, or Guo Yunyan, “Classification of Byzantine Gold Coins and Imitations Found in China” in Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying and Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021), pp. 207–240, though her classification goes all the way back to Guo Yunyan, “A General Overview of Byzantine Coins & Their Imitations Found in China” in Eirene: Studia graeca et latina Vol. 41 (Praha 2005), pp. 87–116, whole issue online here.

2. This is not my area of expertise, but at the moment the most obvious Western starting point I know for these coinages is A. Cunningham, Coins of Alexander’s Successors in the East (Bactria, Ariana & India) (Chicago IL 1969), which I found online here.

3. The BM regarded the Money Gallery as a sufficiently big project that they published a volume about making it: see John Orna-Ornstein (ed.), Development and evaluation of the HSBC Money Gallery at the British Museum, British Museum Occasional Papers 140 (London 2001).

4. 李强, “拜占庭金币东方之旅” in 光明日报 (14 August 2017), p. 14.

5. Things like Owen Lattimore, “A Ruined Nestorian City in Inner Mongolia” in The Geographical Journal Vol. 84 (London 1934), pp. 481-497, DOI: 10.2307/1785929, reprinted in Owen Lattimore, Studies in Frontier History: Collected Papers, 1928 – 1958 (London 1962), online here, pp. 221–240; but the most amazing of these I have found so far is actually M. Aurel Stein, Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan: Personal Narrative of a Journey of Archæological & Geographical Exploration in Chinese Turkestan (London 1903), online here.

6 responses to “For Some of the Gold in China

  1. Jonathan, Quick question not related to your post – I don’t understand historical China enough to say anything. About three weeks ago I sent you an e-mail re my visiting the UK this summer. I used my Purdue address. Have you received it?

    • Yes, received, sorry. It has just got buried under urgency and lack of time to deal with anything at work. When I’m not on strike and so can open my work e-mail again I will get in there and forward it to my personal address so that there’s some hope of answering… Sorry again.

      • Not a problem or cause for an apology – I suspected it might be related to your situation – and that of your colleagues. I did want to be sure it had come through however.

  2. Never mind. I once summarised the typical GP’s knowledge of research as half-remembering a summary by a friend who attended an after-lunch conference session, partly drunk, but thought he could remember a few bits of it more or less accurately.

    At least not having a clue what a speaker said means that you can’t have misinterpreted or misremembered his spiel.

    P.S. And my summary was given before that profession disgraced itself during the Great Covid Panic.

  3. Pingback: Name in Print XXXI: those aren’t folles | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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