Scale system in ancient China

    I know that in ancient China there were different standards of Liang (Tael), and they were essential to the Chinese currency system, but most historians have hardly mentioned about this. When did these different standards happen? How many were they? I also have been told, "tael" as if there were only one sort: equal (in principle) to 1,000 copper coins (sein), weighing 37.783 grams or 1 & 1/3rd ounces and worth about 1.40 sterling pound. Is this true? Were there any official scales in old China?

Stephen Tai
  1. According to Mr.Chang Chia Hsiang - Chinese scholar's investigation in 1925, there were more than 1,000 scale standards existed in China. A British merchant named Morse, after his staying in Chengdu city (in Szechuen Province) for a certain period, in 1889, reported this single city existed simultaneously at least 30 scale standards. He was confused that how can people there manage so many in a same time. The fact is that number of scale systems in China nationwide is countless. It is also meaningless to track all of them, because the people living in their regions, would have to be familiar with the scale standards in the region only related to their occupations or a few frequently used, not even had to know much about the other standards. Take local bankers then for example, in some cities, to know Chien-Ping (the monetary scale), Ku-Ping (the treasury scale), and Si-Ping (the city scale) was essential to them, as to others, they scarcely deal with them. After more than a century, it's quite impossible to focus on the whole country and try to manage them all together.
  2. I don't know when did Chinese scale system start diversifying, but, as far as I know, if back to Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), there already had been two kinds of "tael", bigger one is around 40g, smaller one is 1/3 of the former.
    It seems that tael had never turned into one single uniformed standard before (not even now in China). Civilians always had there own standard(s), which was different from the one stipulated by their governments. Before Ching Dynasty, the tael standards might be said just "a few", however, when in Ching Dynasty, the number of such standards became "great many". As aforementioned there were more than 1,000 scales in old China. Please note - most of them were produced in Ching's period.
  3. The exchange rates between silver and copper coins were not necessary to be fixed in 1:1000. It would be changed, from time to time, not only by using of different scales for weighing silver, along the demand/supply curve, as well, and when using smaller copper coins to exchange, such as small cash coins cast in Beijing, the exchange rate would jump up twice.
  4. One tael in 37.783 grams might be one of Guang Ping (Custom scales), a standard established for certain marine custom to collect taxes in silver, which foreigners used to deal with, and the ones tailored for foreign trades. Even though, there were also several of Custom Scales, with their standards differing from one to another.
  5. There had had official tael in the past, too, it was called Ku Ping (Treasury Scale), set forth by the Ching's central government. 1 Ku Ping tael was equal to 37.31256 g. The government had tried to request every provinces to comply so, but few of them had obeyed, eventually it turned out to be every provinces had their own Ku Pin, and most of them were different from the central government's.
  6. If you are interested in discovering more details or related information regarding this subject, some Chinese books are useful and recommended:
    1. Zhong Hua Bi Ze Si (Chinese Numismatic History), written by Chang-Jia-Hisang, in 1925.
    2. A Legendary Currency in Late Ching Dynasty, written by Stephen Tai, in 1996
    3. Zhong Guo Huo Bi Si (The History of Chinese Currency), written by Peng Hsin Wei, in 1956.
    If you can't read Chinese, then A Catalogue of Sycee in the British Museum, written by Joe Cribb, published by the British Museum Press, in 1992, has plenty of materials inside. Some are from the memories of western visitors to China, including many observatory reports related to Chinese scale system, which you may refer to.

Any additional comments on that item would be appreciated.
You can sent it to Vladimir Belyaev .
Frequently Asked Questions