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Prices in Imperial China

Prices in Imperial China

In an earlier blog post (Currency In China) I described my currency and some of the actual currency used in China during the Imperial era.  Today, I want to talk about prices.

In The Burning Tower, my characters are given some salt notes and they exchange four of them for ten silver cats and six strings of coins. With this money they buy some goods and they also donate some of this money to the local temple of Sho’Ash help repair the statue of their god, as well as making improvements to the building. Later, Sandun offers two silver cats and, in return, he is given a top quality Serica-glass vase, though this was perhaps not the most accurate price.

And this relates to China how?

Imperial China covers a long stretch of time, and so prices from one dynasty are hard to compare to other dynasties. Here are some numbers to consider.

From the classic story The Oil Seller and the Queen of Flowers by Feng Meng Long, we have quite a few numbers to work with. (Note, this story is supposed to be set in the later Song Dynasty, but I suspect the numbers come from Feng’s own life, meaning the later Ming Dynasty; be that as it may…) A top tier flower-girl (like a Japanese Geisha) could make some 4,500 taels of silver over a four year period. If a man wished to buy her (for marriage, of course) it would cost around 1,000 taels. The cost of one night of entertainment from the top girl in the capital was 10 taels.  A hard-working oil seller could, by dint of very hard labor, make a profit of 10 taels of silver over the course of a year. By contrast, to buy a middle-tier flower-girl working in the capital would cost 300 to 400 taels. Lastly, to buy out the contract of a girl working in one of the smaller cities would cost just 80 taels (from the story The Courtesans Mourn Liu the Seventh, from the early Song Dynasty).

From other stories we have these numbers: the cost for a serious messenger to travel 350 miles was around ten taels of silver, including food and lodging along the way (from A Shirt Reunites Magistrate Su with his Family).

In the Song Dynasty, a very wealth merchant at age 60 was said to have owned 100,000 strings of cash (meaning 100,000 taels of silver). In the late Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty, you could buy a title (meaning a official position within the government but with no actual work requirement) for 3,000 taels. In the Ming Dynasty, to buy a small hut near a grave site would cost 50 taels (this seems high to me…).

In the story Song the Fourth, the following prices are given: 100 copper coins for a very good meal of roast pork, 50 coins for some steamed pancakes, and 50 coins for small pot of an alcoholic beverage. So, 200 coins for a fancy lunch! Other historians have concluded that prices during the Song Dynasty were quite high, and the other numbers from this story do seem remarkably high. Then again, the Song Dynasty was the richest dynasty in China’s history (and no, we can’t explain why, but the facts are not disputed). Compare this to the cost of building a brand new monastery (the White Crane Mountain monastery in 520 A.D. “cost a million in cash” (see The Emperor Wudi of the Liang Dynasty)

A four-tiger sword
A Korean ‘four-tiger’ sword

There are lots more numbers one could examine but this is enough I think. It is very hard to compare prices from 1,000 years ago to today. Back then, human labor was cheap, and manufactured goods were expensive. A sword might take a month to make, and cost ten taels of silver, by contrast, you could hire a servant and pay that man a bit less than one tael of silver a month; even less for a woman. Compare that to our era  and the numbers are totally different. Today, in the USA, buying a sword costs $250 dollars (or a good pistol for $750), but hiring a servant for a month would cost you at least $5,000. (Pictured: the rarest of the rare, a ‘four tiger sword’ – completed in the year of the tiger, in the month of the tiger, on the day of the tiger, and in the hour of the tiger. Photo by the author, from the Joseon Museum, Seoul).

More trivia: Around 1580, the Spanish discovered you could trade silver to gold with the Chinese at a 10 to 1 ratio. This is not actually the real exchange rate, as gold is much rarer than silver (modern mining has determined the ratio is actually 20 to 1). For a few decades the Spanish traded silver to the Chinese merchants for pure gold but later they switched to trading silver for Ming china, which was apparently more profitable, once you sailed the vases and plates back to Europe.

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