Friday, May 15, 2015

2015-04 Book Review

Book Review: Money and Monetary Policy in China, 1845-1895, by Frank H. H. King

It seems as though every book written on money in modern China cites Frank H. H. King’s Money and Monetary Policy in China, so it is worthwhile to go back directly to the source. Readers should be prepared for a very dry, academic book with a level of detail that will test their determination towards the subject.

The title of the book should have been Monies and Monetary Policies in China, meaning the plural as opposed to the singular form. Professor King rightfully notes that “the phrase ‘Chinese economy’ may be misleading,” (p. 20) and “the Chinese monetary system was, in reality, several systems with many common features” (p. 43). Chinese monetary uniformity during that time is wishful thinking started by foreign traders in China, who despised the transaction costs involved with interregional trade, and carried on by contemporary scholars, who have come to the realization that without it their work on early Chinese currency is either one system inaccurately applied to the whole country or an analysis that is so specific to a single region that it is hopelessly irrelevant.

Professor King’s attention to detail in regards to weight, composition, and fineness in currencies issued throughout the country is helpful to scholars on the subject as reference material, but does not make for leisurely reading. In some cases, Chinese monetary units or institutions are referred by a romanized version of their Chinese name. Unfortunately, Wade-Giles Romanization, the system used in the book, is no longer in use. Anyone that learned Chinese on the Mainland after 1958 or outside of China after the 1970s is stuck constantly flipping to the glossary in the back.

Considerable attention is given to the issue of foreigners and foreign money in China. Professor King wrote: “It is in the treaty ports, however, that the problems and developments of most significance in the economic history of China take place […]” (p. 164). The reader is left wondering why the author decided to wait to discuss issues that in his view were most significant problems and developments until well into the second half of the book. The author’s view on the significance of foreign involvement is contradicted by his belief in the introduction that “up to 1895, the accumulated impact of trade, war, diplomacy, missionary activity, and constant foreign pleading for modernization had achieved very little, particularly if Japan be used as the measure” (p. 12). Although foreign coins, banknotes, and banking institutions were models of modernization, none were necessary for a country that was mainly based on barter and an immobile population.

The book has been out of print since it came out in 1965, so readers are limited to used copies. Hopefully a revised addition with Wade-Giles substituted for Hanyu Pinyin becomes available. If that happens, read it.