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Although examples are known from the T'ang Dynasty or earlier, the main period of sycee use was c. 1750-1933. Cribb quotes J.R. Morrison (1832) in defining "Sycee silver, in Chinese 'Wan-yin', is the only approach to a silver currency among the chinese. In it the gove4rnment taxes and duties, and the salaries of officers, are paid; and it is also current among merchants in general...This silver is formed into ingots (...called shoes), which are stamped with the marke of the office that issues them, and the date of their issue. The ingots are of various weights, but mostly of ten taels each." Sycee of the main period was refined from .900-fine Spanish-American 8 Reales to an intended standard of .980, although some sycee have assayed at .992, and Chinese bankers were able to distinguish by color, and reject, pieces as low as .965-.970. Weights were expressed in Taels (ounces) the standard varying throughout the country but ranging around 37 grams, although no attempt was made to create sycee of exactly 50, 10, 5, etc. Taels, since each piece was weighed anyway at each transaction.
The Chinese pieces in this list are referenced to A Catalogue of Sycee in the British Museum by Joseph Cribb which catalogs all known Sycee types by shape and location within an expandable structure. My listings are numbered to the closest Cribb specimen with letter suffixes to include unlisted inscription types. Some excellent Chinese references are also offered below.
About 2001 high quality forged sycee began appearing in the market. It is important to track the provenance (ownership history) of your sycee so it can be proved they were outside of China before this date. Ebay is loaded with fake Sycee.
ILLUSTRATIONS and LISTINGS
The illustrations below of typical specimens are about 2/3 actual size. Click on them to see enlargements. To see actual specimens for sale, click on the Cribb reference number at left.
ß' is a placeholder for a Chinese character I did not trouble to look up in the dictionary - usually an assayer name.
YUANBAO - SHOE or BOAT SYCEE
The Yuanbao were the earliest and most widespread of Sycee. First cast in the Song Dynasty, they were used everywhere in China except the Southeast, around Guangdong, where imported dollars held sway, and in the west from Shaanxi to Yunnan where other shapes were preferred.
They were cast in oval moulds with (usually) flat bottoms and side indentations to give the piece a figure-8 "waist." The raised ends were created by rocking the mould as the metal cooled and later, tapping it produced the concentric silk-like (szu szu or "sycee") lines thought to indicate metal purity.
XIAOBAO - PRESENTATION SYCEE
Small shoe or boat-shaped sycee weighing about one Tael are usually gift or presentation pieces, bearing good luck mottoes or personal names. Cribb assigns them to Provinces based on shape and the cooling pattern on the surface.
PIAODING or KETTLEDRUM SYCEE
Cribb distinguishes between oval Caoding of Sichuan & Shaanxi and the scarcer round Yuanding of Sichuan eastward to Kiangsi. Both types are rounded hemispheres of silver with (usually) raised rims all around and a raised nipple in the center, created by covering the cooling mould with a rounded crucible. They are a late type, proably ca. 1874-1911, with weights averaging around 10 Taels, and were used primarily for remitting taxes. This type and the Yuansi and Fangcao of Yunnan are often found in Thailand. They are generally the least expensive sycee on a per-gram basis.
CAODING (ROUND) SYCEE
Similar to the larger Piaoding of Szechuan, those of Shaanxi are generally 4 tael, slightly more oval-shaped, and have the inscription panel in the center. Some also have flattened bottoms. Though not rare as a shape-type, they are much scarcer than the larger Piaoding of Szechuan.
SANCHUO JIEDING or SADDLE MONEY
These "three stamp remittance ingots" are rectangular sycee with a broad "waist" and the same double-column stamp repeated center, right, and left, the end stamps being applied so forcefully as to splay the ends into thin"tongues"; width is 60-64mm. Later, a single column assayerŐs stamp is usually applied twice, to either side of the central stamp. They were made in Yunnan, 5 Taels probably to a 36gm standard, and date from ca. 1875 through the Republic, making them one of the latest types of sycee, and probably the commonest. Cribb lists 266 types, Historical Currencies of Yunnan 379, and Stephen Tai, in a book devoted to this type alone, lists 397 different.
FANGCAODING or SUGARLOAF SYCEE
Derived from ting ingots of the Song Dynasty, these are the favored shape in the southeastern provinces. They were cast in rectangular moulds and finished with a flat, rimless face and tapered, slightly waisted sides. The ends and bottom form a continuous curve. Squared sycee (except the common Yunnan saddle types) are the scarcest shape.
YUANBING or CAKE SYCEE
This unique type, which Cribb assigns to Fujian province, is likely an attempt to imitate foreign silver dollars. Perfectly round with a slightly convex bottom and raised rims at top, it has very weak silk lines and is uninscribed. Cribb lists only one example.
YUANSI - SNAIL or SHAN SYCEE
Also nicknamed Chocolate Drop Sycee, Yuansi (fine silk) ingots were cast in round-bottomed round or oval moulds (vs. flat for most Yuanbao) and tapped as the metal was cooling to form unusually fine concentric rings on the surface. Raised rims, when present, are irregular. They are probably all from Yunnan province, or possibly even Burma and Thailand. Mitchiner (NI #2813-14) and Robinson & Shaw Coins and Banknotes of Burma #4.4, but wrong photo) attribute them to the Shan border states of Burma. See also Jang p.222, 285, 347.
As Cribb (Class LXXXV) notes, there is little regularity to the weights, and I suspect less control over their manufacture than for other types, which makes his six classes hard to distinguish in practice. I have grouped them roughly by weight, and arbitrarily assigned #1200A to the heaviest, and later #s to lighter groups.
Cribb (p.305-10) discusses and catalogs forged stamps which appear on genuine sycee types circulating in Thailand and Burma. While this may have been done in the 1960-70s as Cribb speculates, this would not rule out a motive of making the sycee more acceptable in opium-producing areas, where these types clearly circulated. All stamps below are ofthis "modern" character and I have used Cribb's inscription reference numbers .
VIETNAM 10 LANG BARS
Resembling a Hang, or small trough for feeding animals, these long, bowed, rectangular bars called nén bac are a distinctly Vietnamese type of semi-official sycee, which was later produced outside Vietnam as well for use in the opium trade. Today most specimens come to the West via Thailand where they are called Ngern Rong. They were made from the early 1800s reportedly through World War II. Cast mainly from Spanish American 8 Reales, Indian Rupees, and French Indochina Piastres they assay consistently .991 fine. Weights generally range 370-380gm. with a likely standard of 380. Size is typically 110x31x14m except the early class which is longer and thinner. They were made by bankers (silver merchants); when presented to government officials for testing, a fee was paid and Thap (10)Lang and three other "verification stamps" were added. Bars later presented in payment of a standard 10 Lang tax were stamped on obverse (concave side) with three panels of two characters each, giving the reign title, sexagenary date, and province respectively, with a fourth Noi Te if paid at the Capital. Bars with these "royal stamps" are scarce. Treasury officials would also test scrap brought to them, and cast bars bearing the three royal stamps and the official assayer's name at the lower left side, but without the four verification stamps. Such bars are rare because the officials charged more for their services than the silver merhcants. At some point this system broke down and to meet the continuing demand for convenient, stackable ingots, silver merchants in Thailand, Hong Kong, and possibly Burma and China produced a slightly different, late version. Along with the Fu and stag-head Tael coins, these may have been used primarily in the opium trade. Continued
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