Wednesday, June 25, 2014

One of the world's first banknotes

Paper money originated in China and flourished along the Silk Routes. One of the earliest surviving banknotes was found in the lost city of Kharakhoto (Turkic for “the black city”). Kharakhoto was once a stronghold of the Tangut Empire, before it fell to the armies of Genghis Khan in 1227. The banknote is in two separate pieces now held at the British Library, Or.12380/2286 and Or.12380/2287, and it dates to the period of Mongol rule in the 13th century.

Paper money began in the 9th century when merchants began depositing their money with local banks in return for promissory notes. These notes the passed from hand to hand, used as money in themselves. Once this practice became widespread, successive Chinese rulers first tried to ban or regulate this practice, before the Song Dynasty established a monopoly on printing banknotes in the 11th century. The government monopoly continued under the Mongol rulers of the Yuan dynasty, the era in which the banknote from Kharakhoto was printed.

This particular banknote was printed in the early 1260s, at the beginning of Kublai Khan’s reign. We have Marco Polo’s account from around this time recording his impressions of paper money: these pieces of paper are issued with as much solemnity and authority as if they were of pure gold or silver; on every piece a variety of officials have to write their names and put their seals… Anyone forging it would be punished with death. And the Kaan causes every year to be made such a vast quantity of this money which costs his nothing that it must equal in amount all the treasure in the world.

The Kharakhoto banknote is digitized and available on the IDP website, along with two brief articles. The first, by Beth McKillop, discusses the discovery of the banknote and its context in Chinese history. The second, by John Burton, describes how the banknote was preserved by the British Library's Oriental Collections Conservation Studio.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Stein Exhibition of 1914 and the Secret Invitation List

As reported in a previous post, the first exhibition of Stein material opened in the gallery of the new north extension to the British Museum on 7 May 1914. In the second of this series of blog posts on the exhibition, we look at the opening of exhibition though the eyes of Miss Lorimer, Stein's ‘Recording Angel’.

Photo 1280/1(1) Miss F. M. G. Lorimer. Courtesy of Christina Lorimer.

‘This letter has been written over several days, and now it is the 8th and the opening of the New Galleries came off yesterday. The ceremony was very short, and the Mighty stayed in the building only for a short half-hour after, in the course of which they walked through the Gallery & Mr Binyon’s top floor Exhibition, and personally inspected Mr Dodgson, Mr Binyon, and the architect, so that you will see how much time they had to look at the exhibitions themselves. The Private View in the afternoon was most unfortunately affected by the weather; for there was a succession of heavy thunder-showers and it became extremely dark. After a time they put on the lights in the gallery but the lights at the top of the cases themselves were not yet finished, so that one could not see anything at all well; some of the India Office were at the ceremony in the morning, and also Dr van Lecoq who has just been out here for two days, and Prof. Rapson.

Dr van Lecoq has brought back 150 cases from his last expedition, and seems in very good health and spirits. He has been enquiring most heartily for you.

I do not think any of the other foreign scholars invited, M. Foucher, M. Pelliot, etc. were able to come.

I send two copies of the guide separately.’1

Stein had sent a telegram with a list of invitees to the private view but, as Miss Lorimer tells Stein in her next letter, dated 9 July 2014, it arrived too late. As she reports, she was not allowed access to the original invitation list.

‘I was extremely sorry that I did not get your telegram, asking me to draw up a special list of invitees for the Private View, until after the opening. It did not arrive until 10 days later, and I found it when I came back from my holidays at the end of May. I am the more sorry that I did not think of doing it myself, as I cannot now find out completely who were asked and I fear there were some regretable omissions. The invitation list was drawn up by the Director and all invitations sent by his office, although he invited supplementary suggestions from the Keepers, of people professionally interested or Museum benefactors. I saw Mr. Binyon's list, but not Dr. Barnett's, and I am afraid I took too much for granted that the latter was asking all our own collaborators; but I believe their lists were too limited.

…When I got your telegram I thought the simplest thing would be to look through the official list of invitees, and be able to assure you probably thereafter of the invitation of a good number of your personal friends in the country; but when I made the request to the Director (it seems quite innocuous, but even so I made is in as harmless light as possible) I got the decidedly amusing reply that the Director considered the list Trustees' matter and too confidential to be communicated!—list of invitations to a public function which had already taken place a month before! So I cannot now find out, though it would have been so much more satisfactory to know.’2

Sadly Stein's response to this is too faint to read on the microfilm copies that I have access to here — a transcription will await my next visit to Oxford. In the meantime, I am back to the British Museum archives in search of the elusive invitation list.

1 MSS. Stein 94/157, letter from Miss Lorimer to Stein, this section dated 8 May 1914.
2 MSS. Stein 94/167-9, letter from Miss Lorimer to Stein, dated 9 July 1914.

Monday, June 9, 2014



Liu Bo is Manager of IDP China at the National Library of China, and currently a visiting fellow at Harvard-Yenching Library at Harvard University cataloguing their collections of ancient Chinese local histories.