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Most economists and historians today conceive of money in narrow terms – probably because they have grown up in the modern world and are used to our system of coins, paper notes, cheques and credit cards. Although economic historians are generally aware that some earlier societies (in Africa, Scandinavia and elsewhere) used other items as money, they do not usually pay much attention to these examples. Few realise that the government of China, governing an empire of some 60 million people during the Tang dynasty (618–907), implemented a complex financial system that recognised grain, coins and textiles as money. The government received taxes in coin and in kind, produced to specific standards (specific widths and lengths of textiles) that would then be redistributed, being used for official salaries and military expenses among other expenditures. Although some of the surviving evidence comes from the Silk Road sites of Turfan, Dunhuang and Khotan in northwest China (where the dry climate has preserved many documents and some actual examples of tax textiles), this multicurrency system was in use throughout the entire empire during the seventh to tenth centuries. At the time, Tang China was possibly the largest economy in the world, rivalled only by the Abbasid Empire (751–1258).

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1 Cartier Michel, “Sapèques et tissus a` l’époque des T'ang (618–906)”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient Vol. 19, No. 3 (1976), pp. 323344.

2 Yan Li 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. 169190, 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:

3 Stein M. Aurel, Innermost Asia: Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia, Kan-su and Eastern Irān (Oxford, 1928), pp. 663666, 705–708; Appendix I, part II, nos I and II, translated by Lionel Giles; pp. 1044–1045; illustrated in Pl. CXXVII.

4 They are not in the British Museum, the British Library or the Victoria and Albert Museum collections in London. This suggests that they may be in the National Museum, New Delhi, or that they disintegrated soon after discovery or are missing.

5 The date written on the cloth is the 11th month of the first year of the Guangzhai reign period, which corresponds with the period 12 December 684 to 10 January 685.

6 Stein gave the measurements in feet and inches. For convenience, we have converted them to metric measurements here, including citations from Stein's work.

7 Stein, Innermost Asia, p. 708.

8 Johnson Wallace, translation, The T'ang Code, vol. 1, General Principles (Princeton, 1979); The T'ang Code, vol. 2, Specific Articles (Princeton, 1997).

9 Although Stein described the fabric as cotton, it is more likely to be a finely woven cloth in hemp or other bast fibre. The inscriptions state their origins as Wuzhou, which, according to the Xin Tangshu [New Tang history] (juan 41 – Dili zhi – p. 1063), was known for paying tax/tribute in silk floss, kudzu-vine and hemp cloth. See Wang Binghua's article in this issue.

10 Trombert Eric, “Textiles et tissus sur la route de la soie: Eléments pour une géographie de la production et des échanges”, in La Serinde, terre d’échanges: Art, religion, commerce du Ier au Xe siècle. XIVes Rencontres de l’École du Louvre (Paris, 2000), pp. 107120.

11 You Du, Tongdian [Encyclopaedic history of institutions] (Beijing, 1988), 6.110111; Twitchett , Financial Administration under the T'ang Dynasty (Cambridge, 1970), pp. 153156 translates and explicates the document.

12 The Chinese term is lian 練. The significance of silk that has been degummed is explained in Angela Sheng's article in this special issue.

13 Some 14 contracts from Astana document Zuo Chongxi's moneylending; hence the assumption.

14 Or they may be (literally) beaten to a pulp and turned into paper. Prof. Kazuyuki Enami of Ryukoku University, Japan, has discovered that fibres of indigo-dyed hemp cloth from soldiers’ uniforms were recycled to produce rag paper for use by the military in Turfan. (Personal communication with Helen Wang, London, 24 September 2012).

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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • ISSN: 1356-1863
  • EISSN: 1474-0591
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