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Textiles as Money on the Silk Road?

  • HELEN WANG (a1)

The abstract concept of “the Silk Road” linking east and west shapes many popular narrative histories, encouraging readers to think dreamily of dazzling silks carried as luxury trade items on the backs of camels over sun-scorched sand dunes, and conveniently skirting more complex issues such as political, military, religious and cultural barriers. The actual mechanics of how any trading and other financial or economic transactions took place are seldom addressed, and references to money are few and far between.

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1 A notable exception is Hansen's, Valerie latest book, The Silk Road: A New History (Oxford, 2012).

2 As Joe Cribb notes, the etymologies of terms for money in different languages are metaphors relating to monetary experiences of the past. See his series of four articles entitled “Money as Metaphor” in the Numismatic Chronicle: part 1 (money is justice), NC 168 (2005), pp. 417–438; part 2 (money is order), NC 169 (2006), pp. 493–517; part 3 (money is time), NC 170 (2007), pp. 361–395; part 4 (money is power), NC 171 (2009), pp. 461–529.

3 Webb, James L. A., “Towards the Comparative Study of Money: A Reconsideration of West African Currencies and Neoclassical Monetary Concepts”, The International Journal of African Historical Studies Vol. 15, no. 3 (1982), pp. 455456.

4 For example, see Mélitz, Jacques, “The Polanyi School of Anthropology on Money: an Economist's View”, American Anthropology, new series, Vol. 72, No. 5 (Oct 1970), pp. 10201040.

5 Einzig, Paul, Primitive Money, (London, 1948).

6 Burnett, Andrew, Coins (London, 1991). For other publications introducing coins and money, see also Grierson, Philip, Numismatics (Oxford, 1975); and Howgego, Chris, Ancient History from Coins (London and New York, 1995); also Eagleton, Catherine and Williams, Jonathan (eds), Money. A History, (London, 1997).

7 Cribb, Joe, “What is money?” and “Origins” in Cribb, Joe (ed.), Money – from Cowrie Shells to Credit Cards (London, 1986). Also, Cribb, JoeMoney as Metaphor”, Numismatic Chronicle 186 (2005), p. 431.

8 I am grateful to Kent Deng, London School of Economics, for pointing out this association.

9 See the work by Xigui, Qiu, Xiquan, Huang, Junchuan, Ai and Weirong, Zhou in xuehui, Zhongguo qianbi (ed.) 中国钱币学会, Zhongguo qianbi lunwenji 4 中国钱币论文集 4 (Beijing, 2002). See Qiu Xigui 裘锡圭, “Xian Qin gushu zhong de qianbi mingcheng 先秦古书中的钱币名称” [The names of coins in the ancient books of the pre-Qin period], pp. 6–22; Huang Xiquan 黄锡全, “Xi Zhou huobi shiliao de zhongyao faxian – Kang ding mingwen de zai yanjiu” 西周货币史料的重要发现 [An important discovery of historical materials relating to money in the Western Zhou dynasty: a new study of the inscription on the Kang din-vessel], pp. 49–60; Ai Junchuan 艾俊川 and Zhou Weirong 周卫容, “Bu, bubi yu zaoqi huobi xin lun” 布,布币与早期货币新论 [New view on the cloth, spade money and early currency], pp. 23–37.

10 Hsin-wei, Peng, A Monetary History of China, translated by Kaplan, Edward H. (Bellingham, 1994).

11 Twitchett, Denis, Financial Administration under the T'ang Dynasty (Cambridge, 1970), Chapter 4, “Currency and Credit”, pp. 6683.

12 Zongxi, Huang 黄宗羲 (1610–1695), Ming yi dai fang lu – Cai ji yi. 明夷待访录·财计一 (1633). Translated into English by de Bary, William Theodore, Waiting for the Dawn: A Plan for the Prince (New York, 1993). Cited by Li Yan 李埏, “Lüelun Tangdai de ‘qian bo jianxing’ ” 略论唐代的“钱帛兼行”, first published in Lishi yanjiu 历史研究 (1964) No. 1, pp. 169–190, with a revised version in his collected works entitled Buzi xiaozhai wencun 不自小斋文存 (Kunming, 2001), pp. 236–272. Also available at:

13 Twitchett, Financial Administration, pp. 66–83.

14 Jacques Mélitz, “The Polanyi School of Anthropology on Money”.

15 For example, the term ‘legal tender’ refers specifically to moneys that can be paid into court by a debtor. Current English law specifies the following notes and coins (and respective amounts) as legal tender: Bank of England £5, £10, £20 and £50 notes are legal tender for payment of any amount in England and Wales (but they are not legal tender in Scotland and Northern Ireland). Coins are legal tender throughout the UK for the following amounts: £5 (crown, rarely seen – for any amount), £2 and £1 coins (for any amount); 50p coins, 25p (crown, rarely seen) and 20p coins (for any amount not exceeding £10); 10p, 5p coins. See (accessed 1 September 2009)

16 Twitchett, Financial Administration, pp. 66–83.

17 Lien-sheng, Yang, Money and Credit in China (Cambridge, MA, 1952), p. 17.

18 Yan, Li, “Luelun Tangdai de ‘qian bo jian xing’”, Lishi yanjiu (1964) Vol. 1, pp. 169190;

19 Cartier, Michel, “Sapèques et tissues à l’époque des T'ang (618–906). Remarques sur la circulation monétaire dans la Chine médiévale”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. XIX, Part III (1976), pp.323344. See also Cartier, Michel, “À propos de l'histoire du coton en Chine. Approche technologique, économique et sociale”, Études Chinoises Vol. 13 (Spring-Autumn 1994), pp. 417435.

20 See fn13 in Arakawa's article in this special issue, in which he refers to You, Du, Tongdian, 6.34a-b Shitong edition (Shanghai, 1935–1936).

21 In terms of physical money objects, these would have been the Kaiyuan tongbao and later coin types.

22 Humphreys, Caroline and Hugh-Jones, Stephen (eds), Barter, Exchange and Value. An Anthropological Approach (Cambridge, 1992), especially Chapter 1, “Introduction: Barter, Exchange and Value”.

23 Hansen, Valerie, Negotiating Daily Life in Traditional China: How Ordinary People Used Contracts 600–1400 (New Haven and London, 1995). See also my Money on the Silk Road: the Evidence from Eastern Central Asia to c. AD 800 (London, 2004).

24 Katō Shigeshi 加藤繁 (b.1880), Tang Song shidai jin yin de yanjiu, Chapter 2, part 6: Jianbo yu jin yin de bijiao. Cited by Li Yan.

25 As summarised by Lien-sheng, Yang, Money and Credit in China. A Short History. Harvard-Yenching Institute, Monograph Series Vol. XII, (Cambridge, MA, 1952), p. 17.

26 For studies of money on the eastern (Chinese) part of the Silk Road, see Qixiang, Jiang, “Xinjiang gudai qianbi de faxian yu yanjiu”, Zhoushan Qianbi (1990) No. 1, pp. 611; (1990) No. 2, pp. 3–10; (1990) No. 3, pp. 8–13; (1990) No. 4, pp. 3–11; Qingxuan, Dong and Qixiang, Jiang, Xinjiang Qianbi/Xinjiang Numismatics, (Urumqi and Hong Kong, 1991); Thierry, François, “Entre Iran et la Chine, la circulation monétaire en Sérinde du Ier au IXe siècle”, in Drege, J.-P. (ed.), La Sérinde, terre des échanges: art, religion, commerce du Ier au Xe siècle, (Paris, 2000), pp. 121147.

27 Numismatics is the study of coins. Numismatic studies have made significant contributions to the early history of Central Asia and the Silk Road, particularly in the case of the Kushan dynasty, where it is primarily the coin evidence that has enabled scholars to establish a chronology of the Kushan rulers; see, for example, the illuminating work by Cribb, Joe, “The Early Kushan Kings: New Evidence for Chronology. Evidence from the Rabatak Inscription of Kanishka I”, in Alram, Michael and Klimburg-Salter, Deborah E. (eds), Coins and Chronology. Essays on the Pre-Islamic History of the Indo-Iranian Borderlands (Vienna, 1999), pp. 177205; also Elizabeth Errington and Joe Cribb (eds), with Claringbull, Maggie, The Crossroads of Asia: Transformation in Image and Symbol, (Cambridge, 1992); Errington, Elizabeth and Curtis, Vesta Sarkhosh, From Persepolis to the Punjab, (London, 2007) (revised edition, 2010).

28 For example, Sir Aurel Stein collected over 4,000 coins; see the author's Money on the Silk Road. The Evidence from Eastern Central Asia to c. AD 800 (London, 2004), which includes a catalogue of those coins, and references to other collections. The most important collections of ‘Silk Road coins’ in China are in the National Museum of Chinese History and the China Numismatic Museum (both in Beijing); the Xinjiang Museum (Urumqi), the Gansu Provincial Museum (Lanzhou) and the Shanghai Museum.

29 Hoffmann, Martha, “The Warp Weighted Loom: Studies in the History and Technology of an Ancient Implement”, Studia Norvegica 14 (Oslo, 1964), pp.194226. On wadmal in Iceland, see Gupjonsson, Elsa, “Some Aspects of the Icelandic Warp-Weighted Loom, Veftadur’, Textile History Vol. 21, No. 2 (Autumn 1990) pp. 165179. On wadmal generally, see “Wadmal, wadmol” in Beck, S. William, The Draper's Dictionary: A Manual of Textile Fabrics, their History and Applications, (London, 1882), p. 364.

30 Pulsiano, Phillipet al. (eds), Medieval Scandinavia: an Encyclopaedia, (New York, 1993), pp. 96100; Wolf, Kirsten, Daily Life of the Vikings, (Westport, CT, 2004), p.39. I am grateful to Gareth Williams for his helpful comments on wadmal.

31 We do not know if there were subsidiary measures, such as a half-ell or a quarter-ell.

32 James L. A. Webb, “Toward the Comparative Study of Money”, pp. 458–459.

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