Money in Asia (1200-1900): Small Currencies in Social and Political Contexts. Edited by JANE KATE LEONARD and ULRICH THEOBALD. Monies, Markets, and Finance in East Asia, 1600-1900, vol. 6. Leiden: BRILL, 2015. Pp. 1 + 522. [euro]180, $234.
This is a rich, beautifully produced, and very expensive collection of essays on the economic and institutional history of certain Asian, mainly East Asian countries, with a focus, at least in the first two parts of the book, on the low-value currencies of everyday life. All the authors are to be congratulated on rigorous research on their own specialized topics. The best of the work presented is excellent; nothing is less than interesting, thorough, and useful. In what follows, I introduce a small selection of the twenty contributions (eighteen essays plus preface and introduction) before considering the book as a unit and raising some unmannerly counsels of perfection.
The outstanding essay is surely Elisabeth Kaske's study of the fiscal expedients undertaken by the state apparatus during China's Taiping Rebellion. She shows how the Qing state, under pressure, was as creative as its Ming counterpart had been in crafting intricate means of deficit finance without naming them as such, still less legitimizing the practice of state borrowing. The Ming had fed its troops partly by selling more government-controlled salt than it possessed, leaving merchants with salt-entitlements that might not be honored in their lifetimes. The mid-nineteenth-century Qing state played the bigger fool: it issued currencies, such as "silver certificates," that could not circulate without state involvement and then collected them back as payment for titles and offices. The losses borne by state payees who received the invalid money as salary could be partially recouped through purchase of whatever bureaucratic baubles were on offer. Kaske's innovation lies in discerning the connection between the two apparently disparate activities of office selling and inflationary currency issue. Some might see the broader significance of her findings in their implications for the history of China's fiscal modernization. Once "amortizing debt through office selling" had been shown to work, it proved "habit"-forming (p. 346) and left the late Qing state inadequate incentive to modernize and rationalize its means of raising credit.
Or does the mind dwell more productively on Kaske's portrayal (pp. 376-78) of two Chinese provinces paying troops in paper chits that were completely valueless except for what the hapless payees made by selling them to persons wishing to...