Textiles as money on the Silk Road

Project leader

Helen Wang, curator of East Asian Money 

Coins and Medals 

Partners

  • Masaharu Arakawa, Osaka University
  • Duan Qing, Peking University
  • Valerie Hansen, Yale University
  • Rong Xinjiang, Peking University
  • Angela Sheng, MacMaster University
  • Eric Trombert, Collège de France
  • Wang Binghua, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology (retired)
  • Wang Le, Donghua University
  • Xu Chang, Peking University
  • Zhao Feng, China National Silk Museum

Supported by

  • Council on East Asian Studies, Yale
  • Donghua University
  • Pasold Foundation

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The aim of this project was to determine how textiles functioned as money on the Silk Road. Too often, money is associated with metal coins, and the Silk Road is associated with trade in luxury items. But the Chinese Tang dynasty (618-907) had a complex financial system that recognised grain, coins and textiles as money.

The Tang government received taxes in coin and in kind, produced to specific standards (e.g. specific types, widths and lengths of textiles) that would then be redistributed, being used for official salaries and military expenses among other expenditures.

The project, led by Helen Wang and Valerie Hansen, brought together experts in Chinese history, textiles, archaeology, numismatics, sinology and Khotanese documents. In this way, we were able to address a number of important questions, such as:

  • How to think about textiles as money?
  • How to determine the value of Silk Road textiles?
  • Can we reconcile the excavated textiles with the documentary evidence?
  • How did the Tang government discuss money?
  • Have any tax-textiles survived?
  • How did the military shipment of tax-textiles work?
  • How did the residents of Turfan use textiles as money?
  • Were textiles used as money in Khotan?
  • When did textiles stop being money on the Silk Road?
  • Can we trace the life cycle of a bolt of silk?
  • Can we produce an illustrated textile terminology?

These questions were discussed at three workshops: in London (2007), in New Haven (2009) and in Shanghai (2010). They were then developed into papers, which were translated, edited and published as a special issue of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (2013).

This project has been completed.

Publication

Textiles as Money on the Silk Road”, edited by Helen Wang and Valerie Hansen, a special issue of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3rd series, vol. 23, part 2, April 2013.