Basics

We’re in the 21st century! Among other things, that means thinking about the world today when we are looking at collections and publications. Try to be aware of the source materials you’re using –  who was the author/collector, what was his/her area of expertise, what was the date of the publication/collection, and what was the motivation behind the publication/collection? In other words, check that your source materials are appropriate (and up-to-date) for what you want to do.

A few things to bear in mind:

  • China is in East Asia (be careful when using terms like “Far East”, “the Orient” and “oriental” as they can appear outdated and Eurocentric)
    • When Europeans traveled far to the east to reach Cathay, Japan and the Indies, they naturally gave those distant regions the general name ‘Far East.’ Americans who reached China, Japan and Southeast Asia by sail and steam across the Pacific could, with equal logic, have called that area the ‘Far West.’ For the people who live in that part of the world, however, it is neither ‘East’ nor ‘West’ and certainly not ‘Far.’ A more generally acceptable term for the area is ‘East Asia,’ which is geographically more precise and does not imply the outdated notion that Europe is the center of the civilized world.  – Edwin Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, East Asia: The Great Tradition, 1960.
  • Pinyin is the standard romanisation system (adopted by ISO in 1982)
    • If you’re using a selection of reference books, you might come across different romanisation systems for Chinese
    • It’s worth getting to know pinyin. Most sounds are the same as in English, there are just a few that are different. There are lots of online dictionaries available (many of which are free). Most of them have an audio button, so you can hear the pronunciation, if you wish.
  • Academic training in Chinese numismatics 
    • There isn’t a university degree course in Chinese numismatics. In the academic world, students might learn a little about Chinese numismatics as part of an undergraduate degree course (eg in history, archaeology or museum studies). Some may specialise at postgraduate level – ie at a more independent level of study, within a particular discipline (eg history, archaeology, metallurgy, art history) so it is natural that they will approach Chinese numismatics from different perspectives.
  • European-language vocabulary for Chinese money and financial terms is often unusual
    • There are many unusual words and usage – eg cash, tael, mace, candareen, shroff – a lot of these are from Malay and other languages, and have specific usages.
  • Coins are not the only form of money
    • There have been many different forms of money in China’s history, including cowrie-shells, coins, tokens, ingots, gold, silver, textiles, paper money, bank-cards, bit-coins, electronic money…
  • Money-objects and units of account
    • It’s helpful to distinguish between a physical money-object (“the real thing”) and a unit of account (as written down). A payment might be made using one kind of money-object, yet recorded in another. It’s also helpful to remember that we pay for different things in different ways depending on the context.
  • Contemporary documents
    • Financial documents provide a wealth of information on the context of the use of money, eg which forms of money were used when, and how. These include remittance notes, cheques, tax receipts, contracts, receipts, invoices, savings books, account books.

 

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