Tuesday, December 6, 2011

72. Ming Banknote (China, AD 1375)

Paper money!
Here’s the first piece of paper money in the Museum’s substantial collection of historical coins and bills. While I’m sure we’re all mightily interested in the Ming Dynasty, which followed the Mongol Khans, the real point here is: paper money is a great idea. It’s entirely a manifestation of trust, as all monetary systems are; the paper itself is worthless, but it stands for coins that theoretically do exist, someplace. As such, paper money is already halfway to a credit card—it means we know you’re good for it. This particular Ming Banknote goes so far, in the central panel, as to have a picture of the coins that back it up. During his podcast, MacGregor jingled a long string on which they had tied the proper amount of silver coins to pay for this bill; he said it weighed some 7 kilos (15 pounds). Sure, that’d be a nuisance to have to carry around all the time. But paper money only works in a society where everybody is used to great stability, someplace where there are enormous reserves of trust. I suppose credit cards are even more so. But we’ll get to those!

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