China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Since the late seventeenth century, the Qing empire suffered from a shortage of copper cash. The state identified the root of crisis as the consequence of rampant illegal melting and recycling of copper. Based on the information about local currency circulation, metal supply, and the metallurgical knowledge of artisans, the Qing state decided to change the content of copper cash from brass (copper-zinc alloy) to bronze (copper-tin-lead alloy), as the latter was more expensive to recycle. In response, officials and artisans in different provinces worked together in local mints to produce new alloy recipes for the new currency. This paper examines the policy-making process of this monetary reform that took place in 1740. It traces the exchange of information between the central court, local governors, and artisans to explore how the Qing state identified and solved the problem. I argue that the circulation of metallurgical knowledge as well as that of metals as both currency and commodity had a significant impact upon the state’s fiscal system and mining policy. As the new copper cash raised the demand for copper and tin, the Qing state had to exploit mineral resources from its Southwestern frontier and from Southeast Asia. Although this monetary reform has been largely studied by economic historians as a fiscal reform, its decision-making hinged upon the physical properties of metals and the experiments in local mints. The policy-making process shows how materials, artisanal knowledge, and technocratic culture imbued the Qing bureaucrats with a distinctive vision of statecraft.