The Silver Age: Origins and Trade of Chinese Export Silver, the catalogue of the eponymous exhibition at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, contains a fascinating paper by Akinobu Kuroda of the University of Tokyo entitled “Silvers [sic] Cut, Weighed, Booked: Silver Usage in Chinese Monetary History”. It is worth reading in full, but most immediately relevant is his explanation for the lack of Chinese silver coinage.
He discusses several sorts of Chinese “money”. Silver, as both metal and coinage, copper cash, paper money and, interestingly, silk.
There is a big difference between money that actually circulates among people to mediate daily exchanges and another kind of money that settles distant trade and/or works to store values [sic].
Copper cash, he says, suited the former, but that silver and silk were used for the latter function as well as for government revenue purposes. Thirteenth-century paper money could be denominated in silk.
It was not, the paper notes, that China never minted silver coins, only that they never took:
Chinese authorities had no thoughts of minting silver into coins as they did with copper, because silver functioned as a substitute for silk, which worked as money as late as the fourteenth century.
The influx of silver from the sixteenth century “rapidly transformed transactions into being mainly silver-based.”
A local gazetteer wrote that … every household possessed a pair of scissors for cutting silver plate and a scale for weighing pieces of silver.
People paid for vegetables with silver. However, by the second half of the eighteenth century, “copper cash replaced silver to dominate local usages [sic] of currency.” Copper cash was used for local transactions and silver by weight for trans-regional trade.
Another fascinating detail is the “imaginary tael” (xuyinliang) through which “merchants in the same town could save cash through a mutual clearance system among their account books.”
Akinobu Kuroda makes the argument that China did not development silver coinage because, on balance, the system of silver by weight and copper cash was better suited to the Chinese economy at that time.