To honor the Lunar New Year, we’re proudly displaying this 14th century Ming Dynasty note, one of the oldest objects in our collection. Ming notes such as this one hold special significance because they are among the earliest forms of paper money available to collectors. Paper money is a relatively new phenomenon in the West. Informal paper money was first introduced in the Netherlands in 1574 and the first government issued notes were pioneered by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1690. This was almost 800- 900 years after paper money was instituted in China.
While Ming Dynasty notes predate the first instances of paper money in the West by over a century, paper money has been circulated in China since the reign of Emperor Yung heu of the T’ang Dynasty (c. 650 AD). No examples of this early T’ang Dynasty currency exist today except in the illustrations of early numismatic (the study and collecting of currency) volumes. In the ninth century, “flying money” or fei-chien was frequently used as an informal currency although it was basically paper IOUs issued by merchants for trade, especially for payment across long distances when copper coins were too cumbersome and dangerous to carry. By the Song Dynasty around 1000 AD, there were at least 16 private banks in the Sichuan Province alone issuing notes. Soon a special bureau was set up by the government to control the circulation of these notes and eventually it took over the printing bills, which could be exchanged for hard currency.
The Ming note from our collection, featured here, is made of mulberry bark. Mulberry bark paper was often used in early Chinese notes for its distinctive color that was difficult to counterfeit. Many Ming Dynasty notes have survived today because they were often placed under statues of Buddha, much like how coins are placed in foundation stones to commemorate the date of construction here. Many were discovered during the Boxer Rebellion in the first years of the 20th century when Buddhist statues were overturned. The Ming notes were first issued in 1368 and circulated for more than a century until they were withdrawn due to devaluation.
If you are interested to learn more about early Chinese currency, we recommend the following books.
- Kranister, W. 1989. The Moneymakers International. Cambridge: Black Bear Publishing.
- Kuhlmann, Willhelm. 1983. China’s Foreign Debt 1865-1982. Hannover: Freiberg Druck.
- Narbeth, Colin, Robin Hendy and Christopher Stocker. 1979. Collecting Paper Money and Bonds. London: Studio Vista.