Silly Money

07 16 chinese paper moneyToday, I am told, is the date that the first European banknotes were issued by the Swedish bank, Stockholm Banco, in the year 1661. Banknotes are quite a weird thing, if you think about it, so I thought we might take a look at how we came to accept what is essentially just a piece of paper in place of something that has any intrinsic value. Paper money had been used in China for around eight hundred years. The Ancient Chinese also produced some of the earliest known coins. They were generally round, though there are older coins that are shaped like spades or knives. The coins had a rectangular hole through the middle so they could be strung and worn around the neck. The problem was, if you had a lot of them, they were a bit heavy. So people started leaving their coins with a trustworthy person which was exchanged for a slip of paper stating how many coins had been deposited. These slips of paper could then be used later to retrieve the money. Eventually the notes began to be passed from person to person instead of the coins.

07 16 kublai kahnTravellers from Europe such as Marco Polo brought back tales of the strange paper money. In fact in his ‘Travels of Marco Polo’ he devotes a whole chapter to it. He describes how the Emperor, Kublai Khan, had notes made from the bark of mulberry trees, which he had plenty of. He paid for everything with the notes and they were used by all his subjects in place of coins. No one was allowed to refuse the notes, on pain of death. Furthermore, merchants coming to China from abroad, bringing gold, silver, jewels or pearls were allowed to sell to no one but the Emperor. They were paid with his notes, which could be exchanged for anything in his Empire. If there was anyone else left who happened to have any gold, silver, gems or pearls, they could take them to the Royal Mint and get a good price for them, but they were paid in notes made from mulberry bark. So that was how the Emperor ended up with all his empire’s wealth, yet it cost him almost nothing to acquire it. “He hath”, said Polo, “ the Secret of Alchemy in perfection”. The idea of issuing promissory notes travelled to medieval Italy and Flanders and they began to be used as an alternative to transporting cash over long distances, which was both impractical and dangerous.


As in China, the notes that were issued in Sweden were also due to the difficulty of carrying heavy money around. Their problems however, were much bigger. Basically there were two currencies that were both called the daler, but one was made of copper and the other of silver. This was a problem because they were both meant to be worth the same amount. Copper was much cheaper than silver, so the copper coins needed to be bigger. Then suddenly copper got really, really cheap. The coins became enormous, huge slabs of copper weighing several kilograms. The largest denomination, the ten daler weighed almost 20 kilograms, that’s 44 lb. Unsurprisingly, people didn’t much want to carry them around, they wanted to deposit them at the bank. The promissory notes they received in exchange were much easier to use. A note could be put in an envelope and posted whereas even a single coin might require a horse and cart.

Sadly, Stockholm Banco decided it would be okay to print more notes than the value of the copper that they held. That didn’t really work out. They went bankrupt after three years. Swedish banks did not issue paper money again until early in the nineteenth century. The Bank of England began to issue paper notes in exchange for real money in 1695, when it was trying to raise money to rebuild the country’s navy after a particularly disastrous war with France. Eventually, paper money became pretty normal everywhere. Coins made from gold, from silver, from copper, could be often too dangerous, and sometimes massively inconvenient to carry around, so everyone was persuaded to accept little pieces of paper, that are essentially useless until you exchange them for something else. Now, of course, we don’t often have the pieces of paper either, just a small plastic card. Money feels even more imaginary but, unfortunately, our world would grind to a halt if we stopped believing in it.

Strange Tales

06 05 Pu_SonglingToday I am celebrating the birthday of Pu Songling who was born on this day in 1640. During his life, he collected and adapted almost five hundred folk tales which were gathered together and published posthumously around 1740 in a work called ‘Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio’. His adaptations reflect his concerns about corruption in authority and sad, lonely academics. The book is considered to be the bible of Chinese supernatural tales. The language of his stories is rich and beautiful, full of significances that I haven’t a hope of understanding or doing justice to. But as his work seems to parallel that of his western contemporary Charles Perrault and the work of the brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century, I can’t pass him by today.

Pu Songling passed his first degree level examination at the age of eighteen. But due to a lack of social standing or the funds to bribe officials, he did not pass his next exam until he was seventy-one. His dislike of ridiculous bureaucracy is evident in his tales, though he disguises it with supernatural elements. A corrupt society run by unhelpful officials is, in his stories, just as much of a problem in Hell as in is in our earthly realm. I found out that Franz Kafka was quite a fan of his work, and I can see why.

His stories often involve ghost lovers, spirit foxes and demons. Ghosts are pretty important in Chinese folk tales. When someone died, it was believed that their family must pray for them and also burn paper money so that the dead person could use it to bribe themselves a decent place in the underworld and eventually reincarnation. If someone had no family to pray for them, they had to wander the earth as a ghost. Their only hope then was to lure another person to their death, which would provide a replacement soul so theirs could then be released for reincarnation. If a young unmarried woman died she could not be placed in a family and sometimes relatives would seek a posthumous marriage for her so that her spirit could be looked after. Therefore lots of ghost stories are about young female ghosts who have taken the matter into their own hands and are looking for an earthly husband. In Pu Songling’s tales, sometimes as a result of the marriage, the ghost can become human. Sometimes the opposite happens and the human fades away and dies.

06 05 nine tailed foxSpirit Foxes can be vicious murderers or utterly benign, but they really, really want to seduce humans. They can disguise themselves in human form and, whether male or female, are always beautiful. The disguise is not always complete though and sometimes you might notice a tail sticking out. If you were to discover a spirit fox and manage to kill it, you might then see that it was just an ordinary looking fox with a human skull balanced on top of its head. It would have used it’s magic to deceive you. Just as a the ghost of a human strives towards reincarnation, the ultimate goal of a spirit fox is to become a celestial fox which has nine tails and can communicate with heaven.

Probably his best known story is called ‘Painted Skin’. A couple of the details in it are revolting, so if you have just eaten, or are about to eat, probably don’t read on. It has been retold many times and made into at least one horror film. It is about a scholar who falls in love with a beautiful woman. But then he finds out that she is really a demon wearing a skin that it has painted to look like a human. He tries a charm to keep the demon away, but it doesn’t work and it tears out his heart and he dies. But the scholar also has a wife, who grieves over him and wants him brought back to life. She is sent by a priest to visit a raving madman and ask him for help. The madman insults her, beats her and finally coughs up a lump of phlegm and makes her swallow it. She returns home to prepare her husband’s body for burial and vomits up the lump of phlegm into the open wound in her husbands chest. Then, she sees it has become a beating heart. She binds up his wound with silk and he begins to breathe and lives again.

There’s something about tales of horror from a distant land that makes them somehow scarier than ours. Perhaps it is because they are rooted in a different culture. Maybe they just lack the familiar tropes that we’ve all got used to. If you want to read more, Pu Songling’s tales were translated into English by a man named Herbert Giles and published in 1880 and are easy to come by at Internet Archive. This version though, is bound by Victorian standards of morality, so his stories are devoid of some of the colour of the original. You won’t find any phlegm in his version of Painted Skin, and you will find his fox spirits who only want a nice cup of tea and a bit of a chat. I understand that a more recent translation by John Minford is much better.

There’s A World Going On Underground

03 29 terracotta warriorsToday I am celebrating the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, China in 1974. Some farmers were digging a well not far from the site where Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, was laid to rest in 210 BC. Bits of terracotta had been turning up there for centuries. At first they thought they had found a kiln, but when they unearthed an entire life-sized figure, they knew they had something more important. They notified the authorities and government archaeologists were sent to begin excavations. Work at the site still continues and so far around 8,000 figures have been unearthed.

The first pit to be excavated was found to contain 6,000 warriors. The detail on the figures is incredible, from the rivets in their armour to the tread on the soles of their shoes. They vary in height according to rank. Although the heads of the warriors seem to have been made from eight 03 29 terracotta warriorbasic moulds, features have been added to make each one unique. Originally, the figures were painted in bright colours, but any remaining paint tends to flake of within minutes of its being exposed to the dry air. The soldiers also once carried real weapons including spears, swords and crossbows. Some rusted away long ago, some were looted shortly after they were buried, but some have been recovered. Swords have been found that were rust free and still sharp after more than two thousand years. They were found the be coated with chromium dioxide which has protected the blades. No one knows if the ancient Chinese knew how to do this on purpose or if it is just a happy accident.

The warriors were placed there to guard the burial chamber of the Emperor. I have no idea whether it was a normal thing, in ancient China, to have yourself buried with thousands of clay warriors, but I’m going to put Emperor Qin Shi Huang in my category of brilliant eccentrics. He came to the throne at the age of only thirteen and managed to unite a collection of warring states into a single nation. He introduced a single currency and a single written language and also built a good network of roads and canals. All these are fine things for a powerful ruler to do. But there are a few other things I want to mention.

03 29 qin shi huangDuring his reign he survived several assassination attempts including being attacked with a lute packed with lead and having a strongman throw a massive metal cone at him. In later life he became afraid of death and he had tunnels and passageways built between his palaces because he believed that being underground would protect him from evil spirits, and probably from assassins too. In 211 BC a meteor fell in his realm that was said to prophecy his death He had the object found, burned and crushed. He also became obsessed with finding the Elixir of Life which would give him immortality. Needless to say that left him prey to all sorts of charlatans. He once met a thousand year old magician called Anqi Sheng who could sometimes make himself invisible. In 219 BC he sent an expedition led by a man called Xu Fu to find Anqi Sheng and get from him the secret of his longevity. Xu Fu and his fellow adventurers did not find the magician and, probably sensibly, did not return. Legend has it that they sailed to Japan and colonised the islands there. The Emperor’s alchemists made him tablets that were supposed to make him live for ever. They didn’t. It was probably the mercury in the tablets that killed him.

 The warriors were not the only figures that Qin Shi Huang had buried with him. Life-sized chariots and horses have also been found, along with acrobats and water birds. As I said, excavations are ongoing. In fact since I first wrote about the terracotta warriors a year ago, archaeologists believe they have located another 1,400 figures and possibly 89 war chariots. Then there is his burial chamber. It is estimated to be 690 meters long and 250 meters wide. It has never been excavated for two reasons. Firstly, no one is confident that they could safely preserve for posterity what might be inside. Secondly because no one knows how to protect the archaeologists from what might be inside.

There is a huge history of ancient China which was completed around 94 BC. It does not mention the buried army at all but it contains a description of the tomb. It tells us the 700,000 men were needed to build it. It is filled with rare artefacts and wonderful treasures. There are also crossbows primed and ready to fire at anyone who enters. But that is not the main concern. Inside his tomb there is a microcosm of his realm. The ceiling is set with jewels to represent the heavens It is lit by candles made from the fat of the man-fish. And no, before you ask, I don’t know what a man-fish is. There are also said to be a hundred rivers all set to flow mechanically and a vast sea. This is where the problem lies. They are all made from mercury. This could, of course, all be legendary nonsense, but soil tests in the area do reveal a very high mercury content.

What I like thinking about with the terracotta warriors is all the time they’ve been hidden underground. I think about all the hundreds of years of history I’ve covered, all the people I’ve read about who never knew anything about them, and I wonder how people ever managed to forget that they had once buried 6,000 life-size clay warriors. I like that they were discovered completely by accident by people who were just digging a well and it makes me wonder what other treasures might lie hidden. Sadly, the initial discoverers of the army seem to have profited little from their find. In fact, they have been turfed off their land to make way for a museum. So, it seemed the least I could do was to try to dig them out of the internet, dust them off and tell you their names. They were: Yang Zhifa, Yang Quanyi, Yang Peiyan, Yang Xinman, Yang Wenhai, Yang Yanxin and Wang Puzhi.

Shaken Up

11 11 kashima and namazuOn this day in 1855, there was a massive earthquake in Edo (now Tokyo), Japan. Obviously, I’m not celebrating that. It was awful. 50,000 homes were destroyed in the quake and subsequent fires and 7,000 people lost their lives. What i want to talk about is the, what now seems, unusual response to the disaster. Printers began to print and sell pictures of catfish. Thousands of pictures of catfish. There were about 400 different versions.

There was in Japan, a strong association between catfish and earthquakes. Traditionally they were said to be caused by an enormous catfish that lived under the earth. Normally he would be restrained by the god Kashima with a large rock. But if the god got tired, or a bit bored, the catfish would start to thrash about when he wasn’t looking. That would cause an earthquake.

11 11 attacking the catfishSo the catfish pictures, called namazu-e, were intended partly to be a talisman that would protect a person against further earthquakes. Particularly the ones that show people swarming over the catfish and attacking it with anything they can lay their hands on. But that isn’t the whole story. The area most heavily affected by the earthquake was where the richer people lived. It damaged the mansions and storehouses of major warrior households as well as government offices, while the poorer area of the city suffered far less damage. So maybe it was some sort of divine retribution on an unequal society.

11 11 namazu disgorging wealthAlthough an earthquake is a terrible thing, for the survivors it is also a great opportunity. The rich people would now have to spend some of their money to pay workers to rebuild for them. They would have to spread their wealth around a bit instead of just sitting on it. Hoarding money, which was essentially metal, was considered unhealthy for society. Metal is an element that must keep moving or it will cause problems. So, paying labourers to rebuild and making charitable donations and generally circulating their wealth throughout society was a healthy thing to do. This makes perfect sense. In recent years we’ve all seen what it’s like to live in a society where rich people keep all the money while the rest of us struggle to survive. So some of the namazu-e show the catfish disgorging money as an act of atonement for the havoc he has caused. In this way the catfish can also represent puffed up and self-important people being taken down a peg or two by the after effects of the quake. They are a kind of political statement and thinly veiled metaphor with which ordinary people could express their feelings about the rich or the inefficiency of their government. It would have been dangerous for people to express their feelings in this way if their very military rulers had not been thrown into disarray by the disaster. After about two months, the government managed to sort itself out and the printing of namazu-e was called to a halt. But it was fun whilst it lasted.

So did the Japanese really believe, as recently as 1855, that earthquakes were caused by a giant catfish? Actually no-one anywhere really knew what caused earthquakes until the theory of plate tectonics was accepted in the 1960s. But the answer is probably not. The catfish was merely a metaphor for the disaster. But doubtless some people thought it was true, because people are like that.