« The last remaining thing brings fortune »
He we focus on what kind of transactions people on the ground level did. These transactions are quite independent from transactions by big merchants or governments. But thus they are difficult to trace: lack of sources. We ignore what the vast majority of people were doing.
How to feed Qing soldiers fighting the opium wars?
Conversion of silver taels into copper coins (used by peasants) to feed Chinese soldiers with grain was difficult and exchange rates varied a lot over time and region by region. When large quantities of silver were brought suddenly, and because of the scarcity of coins, the price of copper coins increased and thus the capacity to feed the soldiers decreased. This is a testimony of the quite independent spheres of circulation of copper and silver at the time.
Most historians described the monetary system in China as being unified during the interwar period. The paper standard of 1935 occurred during depression – and it was a paper money standard guaranteed by the government.
But in 1936 a Guomintang army walked through Shaanxi, and was provided with official money in banknotes. Denominations were as high as 1 month of revenue of a peasant at least. So they asked local banks to convert the banknotes in order to buy food. But the branch managers of the bank refused do convert the banknotes. That led to a trial and created historical sources that shows that the situation had not changed that much over one century.
Actually, the local monetary circulation was made up of local paper notes, not issued by government or officially backed, and thus inconvertible. Despite of that people used it. Because most peasants went to markets every two or five days and had to pay in cash and small denominations, a strong seasonality in prices and exchange rates appeared. Peasants are very sensitive to price movements, they waited for the good prices: they negotiated by themselves and did strategic choices. But the supply of this small currency was not elastic enough. That is why people relied on small paper money, even inconvertible.
In Xiarendu Town (Hubei), 300 households, shop-notes dominated: 36 shops of every trade circulated notes. All shops could function as an issuing bank.
In Nanazhaoji (Anhui country) in 1936 more than 40 shops issued notes even after the 1935 monetary unification, for an amount several times their own assets. In this case, some issuers tried to regulate and to stabilize the note issuance by building reserves. Because of the conflicts between merchants, it was kept in the sources. In fact, in case someone would convert its note, the shopkeeper would give him in exchange the notes of another shop!
An index of native notes popularity can be found in the collections of numismatists. In Julu county, 50% of the circulation was made up by local notes – of which it was not possible to tell the genuine and the forged.
The apparent monetary unification through official paper money on the surface had induced local paper monies to flourish at the ground level. Indeed, the national monetary unification had a stabilizing and unifying effect through large banknotes and interregional exchanges. It also showed that intrinsic value was not necessary for money to intermediate local transactions. But it also showed that local money could not circulate beyond local markets. Money and markets cannot naturally integrate.
Jan Lucassen – Money circulates, because people do. Could the distance of circulation be the walking distance to the market?
A.: This kind of local markets have always been at about a half-day walking distance.
Maria Stella Chiaruttini – Did the shops operate a formal clearing system?
A.: They did not. Over-issuance was not so importance when compared to assets (3 to 4 times) Rather, the issuance fitted actual transactions. But some shops did go away during the night.
Frédérique Duyrat – What about private banknotes forgery?
A.: Nobody knows. Forgery was only local. The problem is that using local notes being illegal, people would not go to the court.
What is important here is competition: no one issue 20 times its assets. Competition created some balance.
Abstract of workshop : Money of the poor (4 – 5 July / Juillet 2019)
Organization : Patrice Baubeau, U. Paris Nanterre / IDHES (UMR8533)
Grant UPL (Université Paris Lumières) 2019/2021