Silver ingots (yinding 銀錠, yinkuai 銀塊, yinliang 銀兩) were one of the common currencies in imperial China. Since the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) they served as a means of payment, but were not very widespread in contrast to the standard type of money, copper cash. Since about 1100, the use of silver as a means of payment and storage of money became more widespread, but it was until the late 19th century never controlled by any government institution, even if tax payments in silver were accepted. Moreover, and the silver liang 兩 (tael, see weights and measures) was the official unit of account in late imperial times.
During the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) silver even overshadowed copper cash as the prevalent currency. Yet even then, paper money was still denominated in copper cash, not in silver ingots. While copper cash had fix denominations (five zhu 銖, later 1 wen 文), silver ingots were valued according to weight and purity, and there thus known as yinliang 銀兩 "silver tael" in late imperial times, tael/liang being a unit of weight.
In 1375 Emperor Taizu 明太祖 (r. 1368-1398) of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) tried to replace silver by paper notes denominated both in copper cash and silver tael, but the inflatory value of the notes caused the abolishment of paper money in the early 15th century, and silver became the common means of payment for taxes and larger sums, while copper cash was used for daily transactions on the market – both constituting a bimetallic currency system. During the whole Ming period silver ingots or silver crumbs remained the major means of payment. In 1570, for instance, more than 90 per cent of market transactions were carried out in silver, and data from 1581 show that just one per cent of taxes were paid in copper cash.
The purchasing power of silver during the Ming period was much higher than in earlier ages. One dan 石 (a volume measure) of rice, for instance, had cost 1.84 tael/liang during the Song 宋 (960-1279) and Yuan periods, but 0.94 during the Ming; a bolt of silk was sold at 1.57 tael/liang during the Song and Yuan, and for 0.6 during the Ming period.
Silver ingots were cast in the shape of small "boats" called baoyuan 元寶 or baoyin 寶銀. Still today, this shape is used as a symbol for wealth and prosperity, and seen in New Year's prints, as well as used for lavish wedding gifts of precious metals. Other shapes of ingots were bars, weights (ma 碼, for easier testing the weight), horse hooves (mati 馬蹄) or "crumb silver" (suiyin 碎銀). Ingots were cast in different sizes (dading 大錠, zhongding 中錠, xiaoding 小錠), the largest weighing no less than 50 liang (c. 1,850g). They were inscribed with the name of the producer, the weight and the place of origin, and bore at least one chop of an assayer, in many cases several.
The exact shape, size and weight of the silver ingots differed from region to region, just as did the exact weight. The official kuping tael 庫平 of the Ministry of Revenue (hubu 戶部) was the standard weight, but the tael on the markets of Beijing differed from that weight, not to speak of the markets in the many provinces. The same was true for the fineness of the silver. Those of standard fineness were called wenyin 紋銀, zuyin 足銀 or zuwen 足紋. The purity of standard silver taels was .935374. If it was not reached, a discount (shenshui 申水 or shengshui 升水) was necessary.
Even the designations for silver ingots differed from province to province. In Zhejiang and Jiangsu they were called yuansi yin 元絲銀, in Hubei, Hunan and Jiangxi yansan yin 鹽撒銀, in Shanxi xicaoyin 西鏪銀 or shuisi yin 水絲銀, in Sichuan tucao yin 土鏪銀, liucao yin 柳鏪銀 or huixiang yin 茴香銀, in Shaanxi and Gansu yuancao yin 元鏪銀, in Guangxi beiliu yin 北流銀, and in Yunnan and Guizhou shicao yin 石鏪銀 and chahua yin 茶花銀. Other names were qingsi 青絲, baisi 白絲, danqing 單傾, shuangqing 雙傾, fangcao 方鏪 or changcao 長鏪. In the trade port of Canton (Guangzhou 廣州) they were called xisi 細絲, or sai-si the local tongue, a word spelled "sycee" by Western merchants.
The Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) fixed the official exchange rate between silver and copper cash as 1 tael of silver to 1,000 pieces (wen) or 1 string (guan 貫, diao 吊) of copper cash. Yet because neither the weight and purity of silver ingots was really exact, nor was the weight and authenticity of copper cash, this exchange rate was permanently negotiated in different markets.
When silver tael were used as a unit of account, the term "virtual silver" (xuyin 虛銀) was used. In the ledgers of the Ministry of Revenue, the kuping tael was used as a unit of account, but in local account books, the Shanghai silver tael (guiyuan yin 規元銀), Hankou silver tael (yianglie yin 洋例銀) or Tianjin silver tael (xinghua/hanghua yin 行化銀) were common. Kuping as well as local standards emerged as popular silver units during the Xianfeng reign-period 咸豐 (1851-1861). After the Second Ango-Chinese War (Convention of Peking 1860) the Customs tael (guanping yin 關平銀) was widely used, or the grain tribute tael (caoping yin 漕平銀, see tribute grain), which became the standard monetary unit for tax payment.
Much more easy to use were foreign silver dollars (yangyin 洋銀) which poured into China from the 18th century on. They had a very reliable fineness and weight, and were willingly accepted on the Chinese markets. Qing China produced its own silver coins (yinyuan 銀元) from 1882 on. In 1933, the Republican government demonetized the silver tael.