chapter  5
15 Pages

Copper, silver, and tea: the question of eighteenth- century inflation in the Lower Yangzi Delta


Chinese historian Quan Hansheng used the term “price revolution” to describe the Chinese economy in the eighteenth century. He postulated that, as had happened in sixteenth-century Europe, a kind of hyperinflation followed the massive quantities of silver that came into the country from the tea trade (Quan Hansheng 1956: 475-508).1 While Quan’s theory is still highly influential among China historians,2 recent findings suggest modifications to his views. Quan was the first historian to use official price reports to show price trends in rice in Suzhou 蘇州 in the eighteenth century; his argument for an eighteenthcentury price revolution was based on this data. The decision to base his theory of a price revolution on Suzhou rice prices made sense: the city was the most important long-distance market for rice on the Yangzi. Based on the data he found, Quan argued that rice prices were stable in the first half of the century, began to rise at the middle of the century, and, by the last quarter of the century, were four times what they had been at the beginning of the century (see Table 5.1). Along with demographic growth, Quan (1956) saw the inflow of foreign silver as the major driving force behind the inflation of rice prices. The weakness of his theory lies in the paucity of the data. Quan found bountiful price data from official reports between 1693 and 1719,3 but he based the price trend for the rest of the century on only three points of data, and only the first two points, from 1748 and 1770, were from Suzhou; the third point, from 1786, was actually the price of rice in Wuxi 無錫 County, Changzhou 常州 Prefecture (1956: 483). Moreover, the extraordinarily high prices of rice in 1748, 1770, and 1786 were due to sudden grain shortages in the Lower Yangzi; therefore, comparing these prices with those from early in the century exaggerated not only the scale of inflation, but the impact of imported silver. Since the monetary system in the eighteenth century was bimetallic, featuring both copper cash and silver, I shall be discussing price changes in both kinds of money in the Yangzi Delta.