China and the Royal Society: Trading places

Chinese Money Changer Chinese Money Changer

The influence of Jesuit missionaries in China receded in the eighteenth century, but other European connections continued to grow. Commercial interests were quick to see new markets for the natural resources of China, and the rich opportunities for trade. Banking houses like The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation operated on mainland China and in Hong Kong to finance the burgeoning trade in raw materials and commodities. Because the Royal Society had laid great store from its inception on the European applications of materials gathered in China, it was excellently placed to take advantage of the growing two-way commercial traffic.


Johan Nieuhof, An embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperour of China (London, 1669)
The Dutch East India Company competed with the English East India Company for Oriental trade. Nieuhof's book, translated into English by John Ogilby, was a best-seller and provided its readers with an up-to-date account of China.


Chinese sycee, strings of cash, and banknotes
Sycee (or bullion) was the silver money of China. Individual ingots came in many shapes and sizes according to where they were made. Round coins of copper alloy were also used, known in English as cash. They were designed with holes so they could be carried in strings. Silver sycee continued in use until 1933 when paper notes and machine-struck coins became accepted currency. Foreign banks had issued their own banknotes from the 1860s. The $5 notes on display were issued by The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in Peking in 1907.
Sycee, cash and banknotes on loan from the HSBC Group Archives, London.

Commercial visitors carried portable scales to check the weight of currency.
On loan from the HSBC Group Archives, London.

Great Ming circulating treasure note (first issued in 1375)
This early example of Chinese paper money was issued under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when bronze for coins was scarce. The writing at the top translates as Great Ming Circulating Treasure Note'. Below, the denomination is written in two characters, yi guan' (one string'), with a picture of a string of 1000 coins. The text at the bottom gives instructions for use and a threat to punish forgers. The note was donated to the Royal Society by Cromwell Mortimer FRS in 1749.

Foreign trade in China 1929 (Shanghai, 1930)
The trade of China 1932 (Shanghai, 1933)
Reports on Chinese mining and agricultural activities, early 20th century

Reports written by or for Western companies operating in China in the early 20th century highlight the strong connection between scientific and economic development. These reports from the HSBC archives give details of expected coal outputs, rice harvests, railway-building and general economic conditions. Personal accounts like these supplemented the official volumes of statistics on Chinese trade.
Reports and printed volumes on loan from the HSBC Group Archives, London.