Pai Fang Ding and Its Assaying System -
Compared with Others in China

Stephen Tai, Taiwan, 07-Feb-98

Pai Fang Ding’s Position in Chinese Currency’s History

         Pai Fang Ding had been cast since around the 10th year of Kuang Hsu period (1884) by the local banks outside of the Kunmin town, the capital of Yunnan Province, and lasted for just about 30 years. Now, after more than a century, it often brings to viewers certain visual impacts, with its strange feature, which made it looked like a horse saddle, or a traditional Chinese gateway. Even so, however, Chinese, in the past had not really drawn much attention to it, for Yunnan was just a rural and under-developed area, if compared to most other regions in China. In some senses, its circulating currency - Pai Fang Ding, might be considered as no significant importance to the entire Chinese currency’s history.

         If we re-exam the being of Pai Fang Ding from the monetary functioning aspect, we might find out the true beauty of Pai Fang Ding, not from its appearance, yet in its associated assaying system (Gong Gu), which had had the quality of Pai Fang Dings under control efficiently and effectively. It’s quite obviously that there were no other assaying systems in old China could compete, which it should deserve for certain appreciation.

Two Kinds of Assaying Systems in China

          Weight and purity are the only two factors deciding the value of sycee, to know the weight might not be a problem when using a scale, but to verify the purity would be quite another issue, since there always had been disputes arisen from the give-and-take parties, it called upon certain professional and neutral person to do the job.

          In the 6th year of Hsieng Feng (1856), Shanghai established its and Chinese’s first assaying system for silver currency, to secure the purity of sycee in circulation, then the major cities over the country such as Beijing, Si-an, Tienjin, Taiyuan….one after one began to follow, eventually every cities had their local assaying systems. Yunnan’s assaying system was set up in the 10th year of Kuang Hsu (1884), it was special tailored for Pai Fang Dings only.

          There were various assaying systems in late Ching Dynasty, which may be roughly differentiated into two kinds. One kind; only examined sycee to the extent that whether its purity was up to local standard, did not further attest the actual fineness of the assayed sycee, may as well be taken as «qualifier test», it was also the kind adopted in Yunnan for Pai Fang Ding; the other kind, was stressed on verifying and attesting the fineness of the assayed silver, but assayers might refuse to attest any silver with purity lower than certain level, this was the kind which Shanghai had adopted.

Comparisons among Different Assaying Systems

          Notwithstanding that different assaying systems had been set up in many cities of late Ching period, however, their operations still existed certain defects, which were not convincible to their clients. The major defects of those assaying systems, as we may find in today, are:

  1. The silversmith who cast a sycee, might be the assayer to verify the sycee.
    The shown sycee, is a 10-tael square through silver made in Kungsi around Kuang Hsu Period (1875-1908), there are two stamps stricken on its face, the upper stamp stands for the «silversmith’s mark», the lower stamp can be known as the «assayed chop», the letters in these two stamps are identical, read as «Cheng Ji» (Cheng Bank), it is to say that «Cheng Ji» who was the maker also acted as assayer for the shown sycee. Besides, similar situation may be found in many other sycee, not only those in Kuang Hsi. All of them can be considered as defects in system design, which imposed conflicts of interest, and might damage the clients.

    In the case of Pai Fang Dings, such problem was solved very easily by using more than two assayers to verify the sycee.

  2. Assayers assayed sycee without indicating their names.
    In many cases, we have found the assayed silvers not showing assayer’s names, which means that it would be not possible to hold any assayer responsible for the assaying.

    In the case of Pai Fang Dings, particularly the in-town ones, it was a must for assayers to use specific chops which bearing their names, every assayers had to be responsible for his chopping.

  3. No steady and specific assayers
    In some assaying systems, their sycee were found to be checked by a person other than the silversmith who had cast the sycee, and, the assayer also put his name on the assayed sycee, even though, however, it is still not convincible, because that the assayer had been changed from time to time, countless of assayer’s names might be found in many sycee from a same type. Most likely, its was caused by the conspiracy among silversmiths, they had agreed in a lower criteria of purity too meet, took turns in assaying sycee, from one to another, and so forth.

In the case of Pai Fang Dings, quorum for assayers was set, there were 2 persons (Tong Fu Shen, Fong Si You) at the Public Agreed Assayer’s and the Remittance Bank’s Assayer’s stage, 3 persons (Tong Fu Shen, Sher Ching Shen, Duang Tong Bao or Jou Bao Chuan or Chen Yuen Chan) at the Public Assayer’s stage, 2-4 persons (severally acted by Tong Fu Shen, Sher Ching Shen, Jou Bao Chuan, Chen Yuen Chan) at the Official Assayer’s stage.

The design of Pai Fang Ding’s assaying system can be hardly found any major defect, it should be the reason why it had been chosen as tax silver, a silver primarily privileged to pure silver only, by the Board of Revenues of the provincial government in the 30th year of Kuang Hsu, the quality of Pai Fang Dings had been trusted by the officials and civilian in the region, after its circulation for 20 years. Some Chinese experts had even boldly assumed that, if sycee currency was not given up by the local government so soon in the last few years in Ching’s period, and replaced by western style silver coins, Pai Fang Ding would have been transformed into kind of modern currency which we will never know!