Today, we're beginning a brand new series, all about Jiaozi – not the dumplings eaten here in China, but the first paper currency in the world.
The history of Jiaozi money dates back to the Northern Song Dynasty, around a thousand years ago. At the time, Chengdu in the southwest was called Yizhou, and was the second largest city in China next to the capital, Bianjing. In Yizhou, the currency in circulation was mainly bronze or iron coins, which were heavy and of a low unit value. Another problem was that there were only limited supplies of metal for making the coins. So, the local merchants hit upon the idea of distributing a kind of printed certificate, to replace the iron money. This paper currency, called Jiaozi, was the first paper money to be used, anywhere in the world.
At the time, iron coinage was in common use. But it was so heavy and the unit value was so low, that it was said that forty kilograms of iron coins were needed to buy a roll of cloth. This was so incovenient that a new form of currency became an urgent requirement.
From the 6th century onwards, woodcut images became popular, originally in religious texts, and later in literature. They also featured on the Jiaozi banknotes. However, not a single jiaozi banknote has ever been found, so we’re left to speculate about what they might have looked like.
The use of paper money is closely associated with shortages of metal for making coins. With the paper currency entering into wider circulation, the local government in Chengdu established an early form of a savings bank, known as the Office of Jiaozi. The word Jiaozi then began to be used as a general term for money. In 1024, the Song Dynasty authorities began issuing official Jiaozi, while banning the private issuance.
In the next edition of our programme, we’ll hear more about the legacy of the jiaozi money. Please tune in again then.