Another look at silver – post three and summary

Review of Timeline 

Japan/Potosi Silver Cycle: 1540s ~ 1640s

Single-Whip Tax Reform: 1580

Mexican Silver Cycle: 1700 ~ 1750

In the previous post, I briefly recounted the currency systems of Song, Yuan, and Ming China. The purpose is to create a background that would help people understand the contexts and history of the currency systems in China. In this post, I will talk about the history of the currency system in a specific region — Yunnan. The reason I chose Yunnan is that I believe that the particular monetary system in Yunnan may provide us with information on local conditions and events necessary for an understanding of the inter-regional and international flows of money and monetary raw material.

History of Yunnan’s currency 

Yunnan is a province that is located in the far southwest of China. Lying far away from the central regions, it remained an independent country until the Mongols conquered this region in the 13th century. Put simply, it is a mountainous hinterland region that was never quite the main actor on the stage of history. However, this, in turn, gave Yunnan a seemingly “archaic” element compared to the core regions of China when it comes to the monetary system.

Based on archeological findings and works, we have reasons to believe that cowrie shells had been used as local currency in Yunnan starting around the 9th century, while they have been used as currency among the elites in central China dating back to 900 BC. After the Mongols conquered Yunnan around the 13th century, the government had made concentrated effort to incorporate Yunnan into the Chinese realm, and alongside cowrie shells, the government pushed for the use of paper money, copper coins and silver as currency instead of cowrie shells. This kind of situation, when people could purchase goods with distinctive mediums, ranging from cowrie shells to commodity money to metallic type of money to paper money, continued until the middle of the 17th century (1650) when people used silver as the only currency. Timeline-wise, Yunnan stopped using cowrie shells as currency after the end of the first silver cycle.

The Usage of Silver in Yunnan 

Why did people use silver to make accessories?

Why were accessories made in the first place anyway?

People might have created accessories in the first place because they believed that such accessories contained religious purposes or may bring good luck to the people who wear them. Or it might be that wearing certain accessories is a good demonstration of social status and power. Thus it could be proposed that silver was used to create accessories because people believed that silver accessories brought good luck. Or it could be that since silver is one of the precious metals, those who owned it wanted to demonstrate their wealth and power through wearing silver accessories as a demonstration.

Now that we know why silver accessories were created, the next question to ask would be: where did all the silver come from? Although Yunnan had several silver mines, I believe that the locations and numbers of silver mines have no correlation to the tradition of wearing silver accessories in Yunnan. First of all, these silver mines were mined by soldiers who would then transport the mined silver to the core regions of China where the demand for silver and the development of commodity economy is greater. Secondly, villages around the silver mines appeared to not have the tradition of wearing silver as compared to those in the Qingshui River basin.

What was so special about the Qingshui River basin then? They were near the mountains. They had wood. Wood that the central regions needed to build buildings and further their commodity economy around the middle and late Ming period. To purchase vast amounts of wood for construction, the merchants definitely needed silver. Where did all the silver come from? The Japan/Potosi Silver cycle.


The currency and tax system of the Ming and Qing dynasties, alongside local traditions and the booming silver trade, had provided possibilities for the transformation of silver coins into silver jewelry. Through the history that displayed the transformation of silver coins into silver jewellery in the Qingshui River basin, one can catch a glimpse of the multi-cultural interaction and exchange on silver in rural areas of China.




  1. lhcampopiano says:

    Your new perspective on the silver trade to China was fascinating for me in a variety of ways. In my researches of Latin American history, a great focus was laid upon the silver mines of Potosi and the gold mines of Brazil. However, the trail of such commodities seemed to grow cold once it left the continent. Studying the reasons for demand for silver in China helps to tie the producer and consumer together. This allows us to better understand how these trade ties led to the creation of a global market for commodities and the rise of capitalism. Deserving further study, in my opinion, is an analysis of the specific means by which commoners in China acquired the silver and from whom. To what extent were middlemen merchants responsible for the proliferation of silver? Were there connections between the silver trade to China and that to India?