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0564 Notes on Marco Polo : vol.1
Notes on Marco Polo : vol.1 / Page 564 (Color Image)

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doi: 10.20676/00000246
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548   184. COWRIES

government taxes partly with cowries. In a well-informed note which appeared in the North-China Herald of 1889, p. 534 (it is reprinted in JNCB, XXIV [1890], 130-133), there is the following passage : « We are told that in 1578 the Government received from Yunnan 13,764 taels in paper money, 944 piculs of grain and 5,769 strings of shells. » The origin of the text is not indicated, but in fact it comes from WANG, Ch'i's Hsü Wên-hsien t'ung-k'ao, 29, 20 a, and represents the amount of the annual ordinary taxes (k'o-ch'ao) which were imposed upon the province; extra taxes, for instance the «fish-tax» (yü k'o-ch'ao), implied only a payment in paper money and grain, without cowries (ibid., 21a). The translation is fairly accurate (« grain » stands for «rice and wheat» in the text; «picul» is misleading, as E shih must here be the measure of capacity of 100 pints, not the «picui» of 100 pounds; moreover, I doubt whether shih, even as a weight, in principle 120 pounds, could then have been, as in more recent times, the equivalent of the tan or picui of 100 pounds). But the fractions are omitted : the true figures are 13,764.255 taels in paper money, 944.8885 shih of grain, and 5,769 strings (so) 20 4. shou of cowries (hai pa). Now, as will be shown further on, the shou consisted of 4 cowries; but 20 shou, i. e. 80 cowries, made a complete «string» (so), so that there must be some mistake in the figure. The passage is, however, of real interest because it is the only one known to me where a subdivision of the so is actually used in an account.

Since the decisions of 1411 and 1576 had hardly been enforced, the importation of cowries into China by sea went on until a much later date. Some may have come from the Liu-ch'iu, the regular tribute of which included cowries (hai-pa; cf. WANG Ch'i's Hsü Wên-hsien t'ung-k'ao, 33, 10 a); but it is possible that these remained at the Capital to be used as ornaments, just as did the «gastropod shells » (lo-k'o; these were probably conches) of the same origin. The cowries intended for currency in Yün-nan were imported by regular maritime trade. According to the tariff of 1589, imported cowries had to pay a duty of 0.02 ounce of silver per shih, and, according to that of 1615, of 0.017 ounce (cf. Tung-hsi yang k'ao, 7, 10 b, 12 b). Cowries fell into disuse only in the middle of the seventeenth century, as can be deduced from the final reopening of the Mint in 1660 and also from a passage in the early Yün-nan t'ung chih which is in the Bibliothèque Nationale (COURANT, Catalogue, Nos 1785-1790, 7, 5-6). COURANT says that this copy is a reprint, made in Ming times, of the edition published in compliance with an Imperial edict of 1454. But he is mistaken. The edition speaks of the Ming as «Ming », not as «Ta-Ming », and mentions not only the latest reigns of that dynasty, including Ch'ung-chêng (1628-1644), but also the succeeding Ch'ing dynasty; so it is clearly a redaction of early Ch'ing times. The passage on the cowries is as follows : «Formerly cowries (pei) were in great use; popularly they were called ga I. pa-tzû. One was called gt chuang (etc.; cf. infra, p. 549); then follows a long discussion on the use of cowries in ancient China, which, the authors thought, the custom in Yün-nan continued) ... From [T'ien-]ch'i (1621-1627) and [Ch'ung-]chêng (1628-1644) of the Ming and afterwards, silver rose in value and cowries (pa) lost value; finally they were withdrawn and put out of use; the Barbarians adopted the currency system of Our dynasty (the Ch'ing), and for a long time they have not employed [the cowries] any more. But we give a full notice of them to preserve [the memory of] the ancient custom. »

In his Pên-ts'ao kang-mu (46, 22 a), Lt Shih-chên, certainly drawing from an earlier Ming