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
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?
- 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
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.
- 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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
- If you are interested in discovering more details or related
information regarding this subject, some Chinese books are useful and
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.
- Zhong Hua Bi Ze Si (Chinese Numismatic History), written by
Chang-Jia-Hisang, in 1925.
- A Legendary Currency in Late Ching
Dynasty, written by Stephen Tai, in 1996
- Zhong Guo Huo Bi Si (The History of Chinese Currency), written by
Peng Hsin Wei, in 1956.