The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxiv.

How the Great Kaan Causeth the Bark of Trees, Made into Something Like Paper, to Pass for Money Over All His Country.

Now that I have told you in detail of the splendour of this City of the Emperor’s, I shall proceed to tell you of the Mint which he hath in the same city, in the which he hath his money coined and struck, as I shall relate to you. And in doing so I shall make manifest to you how it is that the Great Lord may well be able to accomplish even much more than I have told you, or am going to tell you, in this Book. For, tell it how I might, you never would be satisfied that I was keeping within truth and reason!

The Emperor’s Mint then is in this same City of Cambaluc, and the way it is wrought is such that you might say he hath the Secret of Alchemy in perfection, and you would be right! For he makes his money after this fashion.

He makes them take of the bark of a certain tree, in fact of the Mulberry Tree, the leaves of which are the food of the silkworms — these trees being so numerous that whole districts are full of them. What they take is a certain fine white bast or skin which lies between the wood of the tree and the thick outer bark, and this they make into something resembling sheets of paper, but black. When these sheets have been prepared they are cut up into pieces of different sizes. The smallest of these sizes is worth a half tornesel; the next, a little larger, one tornesel; one, a little larger still, is worth half a silver groat of Venice; another a whole groat; others yet two groats, five groats, and ten groats. There is also a kind worth one Bezant of gold, and others of three Bezants, and so up to ten. All these pieces of paper are [issued with as much solemnity and authority as if they were of pure gold or silver; and on every piece a variety of officials, whose duty it is, have to write their names, and to put their seals. And when all is prepared duly, the chief officer deputed by the Kaan smears the Seal entrusted to him with vermilion, and impresses it on the paper, so that the form of the Seal remains printed upon it in red; the Money is then authentic. Any one forging it would be punished with death.] And the Kaan causes every year to be made such a vast quantity of this money, which costs him nothing, that it must equal in amount all the treasure in the world.

With these pieces of paper, made as I have described, he causes all payments on his own account to be made; and he makes them to pass current universally over all his kingdoms and provinces and territories, and whithersoever his power and sovereignty extends. And nobody, however important he may think himself, dares to refuse them on pain of death. And indeed everybody takes them readily, for wheresoever a person may go throughout the Great Kaan’s dominions he shall find these pieces of paper current, and shall be able to transact all sales and purchases of goods by means of them just as well as if they were coins of pure gold. And all the while they are so light that ten bezants’ worth does not weigh one golden bezant.

Furthermore all merchants arriving from India or other countries, and bringing with them gold or silver or gems and pearls, are prohibited from selling to any one but the Emperor. He has twelve experts chosen for this business, men of shrewdness and experience in such affairs; these appraise the articles, and the Emperor then pays a liberal price for them in those pieces of paper. The merchants accept his price readily, for in the first place they would not get so good an one from anybody else, and secondly they are paid without any delay. And with this paper-money they can buy what they like anywhere over the Empire, whilst it is also vastly lighter to carry about on their journeys. And it is a truth that the merchants will several times in the year bring wares to the amount of 400,000 bezants, and the Grand Sire pays for all in that paper. So he buys such a quantity of those precious things every year that his treasure is endless, whilst all the time the money he pays away costs him nothing at all. Moreover, several times in the year proclamation is made through the city that any one who may have gold or silver or gems or pearls, by taking them to the Mint shall get a handsome price for them. And the owners are glad to do this, because they would find no other purchaser give so large a price. Thus the quantity they bring in is marvellous, though these who do not choose to do so may let it alone. Still, in this way, nearly all the valuables in the country come into the Kaan’s possession.

When any of those pieces of paper are spoilt — not that they are so very flimsy neither — the owner carries them to the Mint, and by paying three per cent, on the value he gets new pieces in exchange. And if any Baron, or any one else soever, hath need of gold or silver or gems or pearls, in order to make plate, or girdles, or the like, he goes to the Mint and buys as much as he list, paying in this paper-money.1

Now you have heard the ways and means whereby the Great Kaan may have, and in fact has, more treasure than all the Kings in the World; and you know all about it and the reason why. And now I will tell you of the great Dignitaries which act in this city on behalf of the Emperor.

NOTE 1. — It is surprising to find that, nearly two centuries ago, Magaillans, a missionary who had lived many years in China, and was presumably a Chinese scholar, should have utterly denied the truth of Polo’s statements about the paper-currency of China. Yet the fact even then did not rest on Polo’s statement only. The same thing had been alleged in the printed works of Rubruquis, Roger Bacon, Hayton, Friar Odoric, the Archbishop of Soltania, and Josaphat Barbaro, to say nothing of other European authorities that remained in manuscript, or of the numerous Oriental records of the same circumstance.

The issue of paper-money in China is at least as old as the beginning of the 9th century. In 1160 the system had gone to such excess that government paper equivalent in nominal value to 43,600,000 ounces of silver had been issued in six years, and there were local notes besides; so that the Empire was flooded with rapidly depreciating paper.

The Kin or “Golden” Dynasty of Northern Invaders who immediately preceded the Mongols took to paper, in spite of their title, as kindly as the native sovereigns. Their notes had a course of seven years, after which new notes were issued to the holders, with a deduction of 15 per cent.

The Mongols commenced their issues of paper-money in 1236, long before they had transferred the seat of their government to China. Kúblái made such an issue in the first year of his reign (1260), and continued to issue notes copiously till the end. In 1287 he put out a complete new currency, one note of which was to exchange against five of the previous series of equal nominal value! In both issues the paper-money was, in official valuation, only equivalent to half its nominal value in silver; a circumstance not very easy to understand. The paper-money was called Chao.

The notes of Kúblái’s first issue (1260–1287) with which Polo maybe supposed most familiar, were divided into three classes; (1) Notes of Tens, viz. of 10, 20, 30, and 50 tsien or cash; (2) Notes of Hundreds, viz. of 100, 200, and 500 tsien; and (3) Notes of Strings or Thousands of cash, or in other words of Liangs or ounces of silver (otherwise Tael), viz. of 1000 and 2000 tsien. There were also notes printed on silk for 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10 ounces each, valued at par in silver, but these would not circulate. In 1275, it should be mentioned, there had been a supplementary issue of small notes for 2, 3, and 5 cash each.

Marsden states an equation between Marco’s values of the Notes and the actual Chinese currency, to which Biot seems to assent. I doubt its correctness, for his assumed values of the groat or grosso and tornesel are surely wrong. The grosso ran at that time 18 to the gold ducat or sequin, and allowing for the then higher relative value of silver, should have contained about 5d. of silver. The ducat was also equivalent to 2 lire, and the tornese (Romanin, III. 343) was 4 deniers. Now the denier is always, I believe 1/240 of the lira. Hence the tornese would be 9/60 of the grosso.

But we are not to look for exact correspondences, when we see Polo applying round figures in European coinage to Chinese currency.

Illustration: Bank–Note of the Ming Dynasty

His bezant notes, I agree with Marsden, here represent the Chinese notes for one and more ounces of silver. And here the correspondence of value is much nearer than it seems at first sight. The Chinese liang or ounce of silver is valued commonly at 6s. 7d., say roundly 80d.1 But the relation of gold and silver in civilized Asia was then (see ch. I. note 4, and also Cathay, pp. ccl. and 442) as 10 to 1, not, as with us now, more than 15 to 1. Wherefore the liang in relation to gold would be worth 120d. or 10s., a little over the Venetian ducat and somewhat less than the bezant or dínár. We shall then find the table of Chinese issues, as compared with Marco’s equivalents, to stand thus:—


For 10 ounces of silver (viz.              }
 the Chinese _Ting_)2                    }   10 bezants.

For 1 ounce of silver, i.e. 1 _liang_,     }
 or 1000 _tsien_ (cash)                    }   1  "

For 500 _tsien_. . . . ..   10 groats.
    200   ". . . .   . . .    5   " (should have been 4).
    100   ". . . .   . . .    2   "
     50   ". . . .   . . .    1   "
     30   ". . . .   . . .    1/2 " (but the
                                               equivalent of half a groat
                                               would be 25 _tsien_).
     20   ". . . .   . . . 
     10   ". . . .   . . .    1 tornesel (but the
                                               proportionate equivalent
                                               would be 7-1/2 _tsien_).
      5   ". . . .   . . .    1/2 " (but prop. equivalent
                                               3-3/4 _tsien_).

Pauthier has given from the Chinese Annals of the Mongol Dynasty a complete Table of the Issues of Paper–Money during every year of Kúblái’s reign (1260–1294), estimated at their nominal value in Ting or tens of silver ounces. The lowest issue was in 1269, of 228,960 ounces, which at the rate of 120d. to the ounce (see above) = 114,480l., and the highest was in 1290, viz. 50,002,500 ounces, equivalent at the same estimate to 25,001,250l.! whilst the total amount in the 34 years was 249,654,290 ounces or 124,827,144l. in nominal value. Well might Marco speak of the vast quantity of such notes that the Great Kaan issued annually!

To complete the history of the Chinese paper-currency so far as we can:

In 1309, a new issue took place with the same provision as in Kúblái’s issue of 1287, i.e. each note of the new issue was to exchange against 5 of the old of the same nominal value. And it was at the same time prescribed that the notes should exchange at par with metals, which of course it was beyond the power of Government to enforce, and so the notes were abandoned. Issues continued from time to time to the end of the Mongol Dynasty. The paper-currency is spoken of by Odoric (1320–30), by Pegolotti (1330–40), and by Ibn Batuta (1348), as still the chief, if not sole, currency of the Empire. According to the Chinese authorities, the credit of these issues was constantly diminishing, as it is easy to suppose. But it is odd that all the Western Travellers speak as if the notes were as good as gold. Pegolotti, writing for mercantile men, and from the information (as we may suppose) of mercantile men, says explicitly that there was no depreciation.

The Ming Dynasty for a time carried on the system of paper-money; with the difference that while under the Mongols no other currency had been admitted, their successors made payments in notes, but accepted only hard cash from their people!3 In 1448 the chao of 1000 cash was worth but 3. Barbaro still heard talk of the Chinese paper-currency from travellers whom he met at Azov about this time; but after 1455 there is said to be no more mention of it in Chinese history.

I have never heard of the preservation of any note of the Mongols; but some of the Ming survive, and are highly valued as curiosities in China. The late Sir G. T. Staunton appears to have possessed one; Dr. Lockhart formerly had two, of which he gave one to Sir Harry Parkes, and retains the other. The paper is so dark as to explain Marco’s description of it as black. By Dr. Lockhart’s kindness I am enabled to give a reduced representation of this note, as near a facsimile as we have been able to render it, but with some restoration, e.g. of the seals, of which on the original there is the barest indication remaining.

[Mr. Vissering (Chinese Currency, Addenda, I.-III.) gives a facsimile and a description of a Chinese banknote of the Ming Dynasty belonging to the collection of the Asiatic Museum of the Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg. “In the eighth year of the period Hung-wu (1375), the Emperor Tai-tsu issued an order to his minister of finances to make the Pao-tsao (precious bills) of the Ta–Ming Dynasty, and to employ as raw material for the composition of those bills the fibres of the mulberry tree.”— H. C.]

Notwithstanding the disuse of Government issues of paper-money from that time till recent years, there had long been in some of the cities of China a large use of private and local promissory notes as currency. In Fuchau this was especially the case; bullion was almost entirely displaced, and the banking-houses in that city were counted by hundreds. These were under no government control; any individual or company having sufficient capital or credit could establish a bank and issue their bills, which varied in amount from 100 cash to 1000 dollars. Some fifteen years ago the Imperial Government seems to have been induced by the exhausted state of the Treasury, and these large examples of the local use of paper-currency, to consider projects for resuming that system after the disuse of four centuries. A curious report by a Committee of the Imperial Supreme Council, on a project for such a currency, appears among the papers published by the Russian Mission at Peking. It is unfavourable to the particular project, but we gather from other sources that the Government not long afterwards did open banks in the large cities of the Empire for the issue of a new paper-currency, but that it met with bad success. At Fuchau, in 1858, I learn from one notice, the dollar was worth from 18,000 to 20,000 cash in Government Bills. Dr. Rennie, in 1861, speaks of the dollar at Peking as valued at 15,000, and later at 25,000 paper cash. Sushun, the Regent, had issued a vast number of notes through banks of his own in various parts of Peking. These he failed to redeem, causing the failure of all the banks, and great consequent commotion in the city. The Regent had led the Emperor [Hien Fung] systematically into debauched habits which ended in paralysis. On the Emperor’s death the Empress caused the arrest and execution of Sushun. His conduct in connection with the bank failures was so bitterly resented that when the poor wretch was led to execution (8th November, 1861), as I learn from an eye-witness, the defrauded creditors lined the streets and cheered.4

The Japanese also had a paper-currency in the 14th century. It is different in form from that of China. That figured by Siebold is a strip of strong paper doubled, 6–1/4 in. long by 1–3/4 in. wide, bearing a representation of the tutelary god of riches, with long inscriptions in Chinese characters, seals in black and red, and an indication of value in ancient Japanese characters. I do not learn whether notes of considerable amount are still used in Japan; but Sir R. Alcock speaks of banknotes for small change from 30 to 500 cash and more, as in general use in the interior.

Two notable and disastrous attempts to imitate the Chinese system of currency took place in the Middle Ages; one of them in Persia, apparently in Polo’s very presence, the other in India some 36 years later.

The first was initiated in 1294 by the worthless Kaikhatu Khan, when his own and his ministers’ extravagance had emptied the Treasury, on the suggestion of a financial officer called ‘Izzuddín Muzaffar. The notes were direct copies of Kúblái’s, even the Chinese characters being imitated as part of the device upon them.5 The Chinese name Chao was applied to them, and the Mongol Resident at Tabriz, Pulad Chingsang, was consulted in carrying out the measure. Expensive preparations were made for this object; offices called Cháo-Khánahs were erected in the principal cities of the provinces, and a numerous staff appointed to carry out the details. Ghazan Khan in Khorasan, however, would have none of it, and refused to allow any of these preparations to be made within his government. After the constrained use of the Chao for two or three days Tabriz was in an uproar; the markets were closed; the people rose and murdered ‘Izzuddín; and the whole project had to be abandoned. Marco was in Persia at this time, or just before, and Sir John Malcolm not unnaturally suggests that he might have had something to do with the scheme; a suggestion which excites a needless commotion in the breast of M. Pauthier. We may draw from the story the somewhat notable conclusion that Block-printing was practised, at least for this one purpose, at Tabriz in 1294.

The other like enterprise was that of Sultan Mahomed Tughlak of Delhi, in 1330–31. This also was undertaken for like reasons, and was in professed imitation of the Chao of Cathay. Mahomed, however, used copper tokens instead of paper; the copper being made apparently of equal weight to the gold or silver coin which it represented. The system seems to have had a little more vogue than at Tabriz, but was speedily brought to an end by the ease with which forgeries on an enormous scale were practised. The Sultan, in hopes of reviving the credit of his currency, ordered that every one bringing copper tokens to the Treasury should have them cashed in gold or silver. “The people who in despair had flung aside their copper coins like stones and bricks in their houses, all rushed to the Treasury and exchanged them for gold and silver. In this way the Treasury soon became empty, but the copper coins had as little circulation as ever, and a very grievous blow was given to the State.”

An odd issue of currency, not of paper, but of leather, took place in Italy a few years before Polo’s birth. The Emperor Frederic II., at the siege of Faenza in 1241, being in great straits for money, issued pieces of leather stamped with the mark of his mint at the value of his Golden Augustals. This leather coinage was very popular, especially at Florence, and it was afterwards honourably redeemed by Frederic’s Treasury. Popular tradition in Sicily reproaches William the Bad among his other sins with having issued money of leather, but any stone is good enough to cast at a dog with such a surname.

[Ma Twan-lin mentions that in the fourth year of the period Yuen Show (B.C. 119), a currency of white metal and deer-skin was made. Mr. Vissering (Chinese Currency, 38) observes that the skin-tallies “were purely tokens, and have had nothing in common with the leather-money, which was, during a long time, current in Russia. This Russian skin-money had a truly representative character, as the parcels were used instead of the skins from which they were cut; the skins themselves being too bulky and heavy to be constantly carried backward and forward, only a little piece was cut off, to figure as a token of possession of the whole skin. The ownership of the skin was proved when the piece fitted in the hole.”

Mr. Rockhill (Rubruck, 201 note) says: “As early as B.C. 118, we find the Chinese using ‘leather-money’ (p’i pi). These were pieces of white deer-skin, a foot square, with a coloured border. Each had a value of 40,000 cash. (Ma Twan-lin, Bk. 8, 5.)”

Mr. Charles F. Keary (Coins and Medals, by S. Lane Poole, 128) mentions that “in the reign of Elizabeth there was a very extensive issue of private tokens in lead, tin, latten, and leather.”— H. C.]

(Klapr. in Mém. Rel. à l’Asie, I. 375 seqq.; Biot, in J. As. sér. III. tom. iv.; Marsden and Pauthier, in loco; Parkes, in J. R. A. S. XIII. 179; Doolittle, 452 seqq.; Wylie, J. of Shanghai Lit. and Scient. Soc. No. I.; Arbeiten der kais. russ. Gesandsch. zu Peking, I. p. 48; Rennie, Peking, etc., I. 296, 347; Birch, in. Num. Chron. XII. 169; Information from Dr. Lockhart; Alcock, II. 86; D’Ohsson, IV. 53; Cowell, in J. A. S. B. XXIX. 183 seqq.; Thomas, Coins of Patan Sovs. of Hind., (from Numism. Chron. 1852), p. 139 seqq.; Kington’s Fred. II. II. 195; Amari, III. 816; W. Vissering, On Chinese Currency, Leiden, 1877.)

[“Without doubt the Mongols borrowed the bank-note system from the Kin. Up to the present time there is in Si-ngan-fu a block kept, which was used for printing the bank-notes of the Kin Dynasty. I have had the opportunity of seeing a print of those bank-notes, they were of the same size and shape as the bank-notes of the Ming. A reproduction of the text of the Kin bank-notes is found in the Kin shi ts’ui pien. This copy has the characters pao kilan (precious charter) and the years of reign Chêng Yew, 1213–1216. The first essay of the Mongols to introduce bank-notes dates from the time of Ogodai Khan (1229–1242), but Chinese history only mentions the fact without giving details. At that time silk in skeins was the only article of a determinate value in the trade and on the project of Ye lü ch’u ts’ai, minister of Ogodai, the taxes were also collected in silk delivered by weight. It can therefore be assumed that the name sze ch’ao (i.e. bank-notes referring to the weight of silk) dates back to the same time. At any rate, at a later time, as, under the reign of Kubilai, the issuing of banknotes was decreed, silk was taken as the standard to express the value of silver and 1000 liang silk was estimated = 50 liang (or 1 ting) silver. Thus, in consequence of those measures, it gradually became a rule to transfer the taxes and rents originally paid in silk, into silver. The wealth of the Mongol Khans in precious metals was renowned. The accounts regarding their revenues, however, which we meet with occasionally in Chinese history, do not surprise by their vastness. In the year 1298, for instance, the amount of the revenue is stated in the Siu t’ung Kien to have been:—

19,000 liang of gold = (190,000 liang of silver, according to the exchange of that time at the rate of 1 to 10).

60,000 liang of silver.

3,600,000 ting of silver in bank-notes (i.e. 180 millions liang); altogether 180,250,000 liang of silver.

The number seems indeed very high for that time. But if the exceedingly low exchange of the bank-notes be taken into consideration, the sum will be reduced to a modest amount.” (Palladius, pp. 50–51.)— H. C.]

[Dr. Bretschneider (Hist. Bot. Disc., I. p. 4) makes the following remark:—“Polo states (I. 409) that the Great Kaan causeth the bark of great Mulberry-trees, made into something like paper, to pass for money.” He seems to be mistaken. Paper in China is not made from mulberry-trees but from the Broussonetia papyrifera, which latter tree belongs to the same order of Moraceae. The same fibres are used also in some parts of China for making cloth, and Marco Polo alludes probably to the same tree when stating (II. 108) “that in the province of Cuiju (Kwei chau) they manufacture stuff of the bark of certain trees, which form very fine summer clothing.”— H. C.]

1 Even now there are at least eight different taels (or liangs) in extensive use over the Empire, and varying as much as from 96 to 106; and besides these are many local taels, with about the same limits of variation. —(Williamson’s Journeys, I. 60.)

2 [The Archimandrite Palladius (l.c., p. 50, note) says that “the ting of the Mongol time, as well as during the reign of the Kin, was a unit of weight equivalent to fifty liang, but not to ten liang. Cf. Ch’u keng lu, and Yuen-shi, ch. xcv. The Yuen pao, which as everybody in China knows, is equivalent to fifty liang (taels) of silver, is the same as the ancient ting, and the character Yuen indicates that it dates from the Yuen Dynasty.”— H. C.]

3 This is also, as regards Customs payments, the system of the Government of modern Italy.

4 The first edition of this work gave a facsimile of one of this unlucky minister’s notes.

5 On both sides, however, was the Mahomedan formula, and beneath that the words Yiranjín Túrjí, a title conferred on the kings of Persia by the Kaan. There was also an inscription to the following effect: that the Emperor in the year 693 (A.H.) had issued these auspicious chao, that all who forged or uttered false notes should be summarily punished, with their wives and children, and their property confiscated; and that when these auspicious notes were once in circulation, poverty would vanish, provisions become cheap, and rich and poor be equal (Cowell). The use of the term chao at Tabriz may be compared with that of Banklot, current in modern India.

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