Crossroads Research

Lecture Series: Not All that Glitters is Silver: The History of the Silver Item that Entered China before it was “Opened”, by Alejandra Irigoin

October 28, 2022, 14:15 CEST in room 5.15 in the Erasmushuis KU Leuven, and online via Zoom

Not All that Glitters is Silver: The History of the Silver Item that Entered China before it was “Opened”

Silver was paramount in the relation between China and the rest of the world since the 16th century; It was the only means to procure Chinese goods beyond the traditional tributary trade the Middle Kingdom maintained within South East Asia. Since the 17th century Spanish American silver allowed the West to do further commerce with Asia for two or three centuries longer. Economists and economic historians still argue about the role silver played in these Eurasian relations without a definitive conclusion. Was it money or another commodity with which to barter tea and silk? Were the quantities or the flows of silver that mattered? Were imports of silver a result of demand or supply problems in the Chinese economy? In so doing they have overlooked the changes in the silver in question throughout time.
This lecture argues that the transformation of the silver object that eventually developed essential characteristics – allowing it to become a standard unit of account, an acceptable means of payment and eventually a store of value for hoarding or savings- affected the use of silver in China over time. By the later 18th Century, the coin minted in Spanish America was the standard of value on which prices of all other goods were established in China exchanges with the rest, altering the role of silver inside the country. Leaving aside these concerns for the moment, the talk describes the successive material and technological changes of American silver manufacturing into a much sought after coin in the early modern world.

Dr Alejandra Irigoin holds a PhD in Economic History for the London School of Economics. Having previously taught in the Argentina, Spain, and the US, she is currently an Associate Professor in the Economic History Department of the LSE, where she teaches courses on Latin America’ economic history and the more global “Economic History of the Early Modern New World”. Her research on the global economic history of silver in the early modern period has been published in the Journal of Global History, Journal of World History, Revista Mexicana and Economic History Review and various edited volume. Her latest publication ”The Rise and Demise of the Global Silver Santard” made the chapter 13 in the Handbook of the History of Money and Currency, edited by S. Stefano Battilossi, Youssef Cassis and and Kazuhiko Yago with Springer in 2020. She is currently working on the nature of contracts in the global trade with silver in America, Europe and Asia, across national, cultural, legal or religious boundaries.

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