[KHUBILAI KHAN, Emperor Chih-yüan]
[CHINESE PRINTING] Printing block for paper money with an original value of 100 wen
China, Yüan dynasty, reign of Khubilai Khan, circa 1287 C.E.. Stone, 210 x 135 x 22 mm, top edges bevelled (three sections skilfully rejoined); housed in a custom made cloth box lined with lambswool.
An extraordinary item of early printing history that pre-dates by a century the earliest known instance of printing in the West, and one of only a handful of examples known from the Mongol period. From the collection of French sinologist Paul Pelliot (1878-1945).
This stone printing block relates to an issue made in 1287 which comprised six denominations, from 5 wen to 2 kuan. This is most probably the same issue described in Marco Polo’s account of his journey to China. These were among the first Yüan notes, printed in the twenty-fourth year of the Chih-yüan era. Known as Chih-yüan t’ung-hsing pao-ch’ao, or Great Yuan General Circulation Treasure Notes, they were printed on mulberry paper and eventually became the universal currency for the entire empire, circulating not only throughout China but also in Burma, Siam and Annam. Although paper currency is known to have been issued in China at various times from the ninth century onwards, this was the first time that it had been issued and circulated on such a large scale.
Marco Polo, whose long stay in China lasted from 1275 to 1292, described paper currency issued during the very dynasty in which the present printing block was made. In fact, European travellers to the Orient were fascinated with Chinese paper money and descriptions of it appear in no fewer than eight contemporary accounts of travellers to Imperial China during the Mongol period. The use of paper money in China is thought to have had an influence on the development of the practice in European banking circles.
The text on this block (see image of the pencil rubbing taken from the upper surface) includes a warning that counterfeiters will be punished by decapitation. The first denouncer will be recompensed by five ingots of silver in addition to the property of the criminal.
This printing block is one of only very few paper currency printing blocks from the Yüan dynasty extant. The majority of the perhaps 10 known examples are held in public collections. Uncharacteristically, the material of the present example is stone, not bronze. This suggests that it was created by a forger to produce counterfeit notes; perhaps we should not preclude the possibility, either, that it is an artisan’s trial piece.
In 1906-08 the eminent French Sinologist Paul Pelliot led an expedition to the Dunhuang Oasis, for centuries a strategically important centre on the Silk Road in northwest China. The thousands of manuscripts he uncovered in one of the Dunhuang caves was a find of immense archaeological and linguistic importance and now forms part of the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Working in Dunhuang around the same time, British archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein uncovered a fragment of what was then the world’s oldest known bank note. The note was an example of paper money from the early Yüan dynasty, printed during the reign period of Zhongtong (1260-1264); it is now part of the Stein Collection held in the British Library (Kharakhoto K.K.VIII.01.a). The printing plate we offer here – also from the early Yüan dynasty – was collected by Paul Pelliot, and was very possibly excavated by him during his expedition to Central Asia during 1906-08. This hypothesis is strengthened by the existence of Stein’s fragmentary bank note discovered at Dunhuang. ‘The note itself is a 500 cash denomination and is a wispy greenish blue paper, and is part of a rectangular blockprinted whole measuring 24.4 x 16.9 cm. Other notes from the period have been excavated recently in China, in Xianyang, Shaanxi province and in Inner Mogolia, giving an idea of the wide circulation across vast areas of China and Central Asia of this, China’s first country-wide paper currency.’ (International Dunhuang Project).
Provenance: From the collection of French sinologist Paul Pelliot (1878-1945); acquired from H.P. Kraus, New York, circa 1970.
References: Carter-Goodrich: The invention of printing in China (1955), chapter 11; International Dunhuang Project: The Silk Road Online