Chinese 1 Kuan Ming-banknote from the 14th century. The oldest known banknote type in the world

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The oldest known banknote type in the world, Chinese 1 kuanin Ming-banknote from the late 14th century.


Usually, when talking about the first banknote in the world, the Swedish Johan Palmstruch’s Bank and year 1661 is mentioned.

So nice it would be (Finland was on that time a part of Swedish kingdom and therefore Swedish banknotes could be understood also as Finnish banknotes), the truth is that the Chinese were active on this matter centuries earlier. Paper money, or “the flying money”, as the Chinese called it, because its lightness and easy transportability, was taken into use in China about 650 AD.

Europeans heard about the paper money evidently the first time, when Marco Polo told about his voyage to China and to the court of the Kublai after his return at the end of 13th century Venice both verbally and literally in his book ”Il Milione”.


Ming-dynasty banknotes


Despite their long history, the oldest known Chinese banknotes are from early Ming-dynasty and they are dated on the period between 1368 – 1398 AD.

The notes themselves were called “Ta Ming T’ung Hsing Pao Ch’ao”, Great Ming Precious Notes. Emperor T’aitsu’s reign title was Hung-wu. This nien-hao appeared on these notes and on successive Ming issues, regardless of the fact that all Ming emperors had their own reign titles.This was an honor given to the founder of the dynasty. Ch’uan Pu T’ung Chih refers to sixty different notes issued between 1368-1426. In all probability there were many more.

From the beginning these notes were inconvertible and could not be exchanged for coin. Notes of the Hung-wu reign (1368-1398AD) were issued in denominations of 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 and 1000 cash. One string of paper (1000 cash) was the equivalent of 1000 copper coins or one ounce of pure silver. In 1389 smaller value notes of 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 cash were printed to facilitate trade. It is reported that the mulberry bark paper used to make the T’ai-tsu notes was recycled from the waste of government ministries and Civil Service examination papers. There were three distinct issues of Ming notes as follows: all bearing the reign title “Hung-wu”. These notes circulated throughout the entire kingdom.


1. Those of the emperor T’ai-tsu, issued in 1375AD

2. Those of emperor Ch’eng-tsu (1403-1424AD)

3. Those of emperor Jen-tsung, son of Ch’eng-tsu, issued in 1425AD


Reflecting the inflation then being experienced, Ch’eng-tsu paper money consisted of notes denominated 1 through 20 kuan, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45 and 50 kuan all bearing pictorial presentations of the equivalent amount of cash coins, each coin representing five cash. Various cloud and dragon designs adorned their borders. Their color was gray.

The extensive emission of paper money lead later on 15th century into later very familiar problem – inflation, and because of that eventually the people were not willing anymore to accept paper money. At the ent of the 14th century AD an ounce of siver cost 35 strings (3500 cash) in paper money. 20 years later the price was 80 strings (8000 cash) in paper money. The decline of paper money value accelerated, until the mid-15th century one ounce of silver was worth 1000 strings (100000 cash) in paper money. At this time metal money was replacing unstabile paper money, and the Great Ming Precious Notes eventually disappeared from circulation. After 1455 AD the Chinese historical referenced do not anymore mention paper money. So in mid 15th century AD the paper money was abandoned and monetary system returned on stabile metal money. All paper money was withdrawn and destroyed.

 Therefore Chinese banknotes should not exist. Despite of this fact some Ming-dynasty banknote types have survived to our times. 200 cash banknote model 1375 and 300 cash banknote model 1368-98 are known, but those are extremeley rare. 1000 cash = 1 kuan banknote model 1368-1398 exist in a bit larger scale, and those are available occasionally at numismatic market.

Without question, the Ming note most widely known, and perhaps the only specimen available to collectors today, is the 1 kuan of emperor T’ai-tsu. Enough of these notes have survived to be found in many museums and private collections. The story of how they came to be preserved is an interesting one. 

The note was manufactured from recycled gray mulberry bark paper. Two vermilion seals were impressed into the note by government officials to authenticate it. The upper of these seals reads: “Seal of the Treasure Note of the Great Ming Dynasty”; the lower of the two bears the inscription: “Seal of the Office of the Superintendent of the Treasury”.


The origin of Ming-dynastian 1 kuan banknotes


As far as it can be ascertained, most Ming 1 kuan notes available today came from two sources. The first of these stemmed from an incident, which occurred during the Boxer Rebellion. In 1908 H. B. Morse published a book entitled Trade and Administration of the Chinese Empire containing a lithographic facsimile of the Ming 1 kuan note. In the book he gives a complete description of the note together with translations of the Chinese characters found on it. Morse also tells of the manner in which the note was acquired, which goes as follows:

“This five hundred year old instrument of credit has a curious history furnishing an absolute guarantee of its authenticity. During the foreign occupation of Peking in 1900, some European soldiers had overthrown a sacred image of Buddha, in the grounds of the Summer Palace. Deposited in the pedestal (as in the corner-stones of our public buildings) were found gems and jewelry and ingots of gold and silver and a bundle of these notes. Contented with the loot’s intrinsic value, the soldiers readily surrendered the bundle of notes to a bystander, U.S. Army Surgeon Major Lewis Seaman, who was unofficially present. He gave to the Museum of St. John’s College in Shanghai the specimen which is here reproduced”.

The second report concerning the discovery of Ming 1 kuan notes concerns the Reverend Mr. Ballou, a long time missionary, who was born in China and resided there until after World War II. Reverend Ballou states that he received his Ming note from his friend L. Carrington Goodrich who had been associated with Yenching University in Peking during the 1930s. Mr. Goodrich related that he acquired the note under the following circumstances:

“Sometime in 1936 one of the walls surrounding Peking was torn down. When the laborers got to the huge gate in the wall, they found to their surprise, a large bale of 1 kuan Ming dynasty banknotes buried in the wall itself. After removing the soiled and damaged notes, the workers sold the notes to those persons standing around. Mr. Goodrich came upon his note at that time. He told Reverend Ballou that he purchased two of them for a few coppers, which amounted to just a few pennies.”

The third story attached into the banknote illustrated on the previous pictures was the story how this banknote was obtained.

A Finnish female missionary, who operated also in China at the same time as Mr. Ballou managed also obtained (from where, it is not exactly known) a batch af these banknotes. Also she, as Mr. Ballou, had to exit China when the communist regime took over, and among other things she took these banknotes with her.

At the mid-1990’s this already aged lady lived at Spain, but she needed money in order to finance an surgical operation to fix her eyes weakened by her age. Therefore she commissioned a Finnish numismatic expert to sell her Ming-banknotes in Finland. Some of the banknotes were sold at the auctions of the Finnish Numismatic Society. Also at least one banknote (the one in question in this article) was sold to a private collector. Among the banknotes available in Finland (or any other seen by the owner of this banknote) this one was by far the best of quality and so far this banknote has been second to none by its quality.


PS. A banknote of lesser quality and with a hole was sold at A. H. BALDWIN & SONS LTD. auction in Hong Kong, China.

Held on the August 27th 2009 at the Holiday Inn Golden Mile, Kowloon, Hong Kong, the 47th Hong Kong Coin Auction got of to a sensational start with lot 1 (pictured above) selling for a record breaking US$19,000, well above its estimate of US$800-1,000. Arguably the oldest known banknote this example of the Ming Dynasty 1-Kuan was one of the most viewed lots in the sale.

The Spink’s “Banknotes and Coins of Hong Kong and China” auction held at Hong Kong January 22nd 2011 was totally 8 pieces of these 1 kuan banknotes for sale. All were sold for high prices and the best one (Lot number 173, price estimation HK$ 120 000 – 160 000) made a new price record of 440 000 HK$ + 17% commission which equals to 50 000 EUR.

(Auction list: )