HOW THE GREAT KAAN CAUSETH THE BARK OF TREES, MADE INTO SOMETHING LIKE PAPER, TO PASS FOR MONEY OVER ALL HIS COUNTRY.
Now that I have told you in detail of the splendour of this City of the Emperor's, I shall proceed to tell you of the Mint which he hath in the same city, in the which he hath his money coined and struck, as I shall relate to you. And in doing so I shall make manifest to you how it is that the Great Lord may well be able to accomplish even much more than I have told you, or am going to tell you, in this Book. For, tell it how I might, you never would be satisfied that I was keeping within truth and reason!
The Emperor's Mint then is in this same City of Cambaluc, and the way it is wrought is such that you might say he hath the Secret of Alchemy in perfection, and you would be right! For he makes his money after this fashion.
He makes them take of the bark of a certain tree, in fact of the Mulberry Tree, the leaves of which are the food of the silkworms,—these trees being so numerous that whole districts are full of them. What they take is a certain fine white bast or skin which lies between the wood of the tree and the thick outer bark, and this they make into something resembling sheets of paper, but black. When these sheets have been prepared they are cut up into pieces of different sizes. The smallest of these sizes is worth a half tornesel; the next, a little larger, one tornesel; one, a little larger still, is worth half a silver groat of Venice; another a whole groat; others yet two groats, five groats, and ten groats. There is also a kind worth one Bezant of gold, and others of three Bezants, and so up to ten. All these pieces of paper are [issued with as much solemnity and authority as if they were of pure gold or silver; and on every piece a variety of officials, whose duty it is, have to write their names, and to put their seals. And when all is prepared duly, the chief officer deputed by the Kaan smears the Seal entrusted to him with vermilion, and impresses it on the paper, so that the form of the Seal remains printed upon it in red; the Money is then authentic. Any one forging it would be punished with death.] And the Kaan causes every year to be made such a vast quantity of this money, which costs him nothing, that it must equal in amount all the treasure in the world.
With these pieces of paper, made as I have described, he causes all payments on his own account to be made; and he makes them to pass current universally over all his kingdoms and provinces and territories, and whithersoever his power and sovereignty extends. And nobody, however important he may think himself, dares to refuse them on pain of death. And indeed everybody takes them readily, for wheresoever a person may go throughout the Great Kaan's dominions he shall find these pieces of paper current, and shall be able to transact all sales and purchases of goods by means of them just as well as if they were coins of pure gold. And all the while they are so light that ten bezants' worth does not weigh one golden bezant.
Furthermore all merchants arriving from India or other countries, and bringing with them gold or silver or gems and pearls, are prohibited from selling to any one but the Emperor. He has twelve experts chosen for this business, men of shrewdness and experience in such affairs; these appraise the articles, and the Emperor then pays a liberal price for them in those pieces of paper. The merchants accept his price readily, for in the first place they would not get so good an one from anybody else, and secondly they are paid without any delay. And with this paper-money they can buy what they like anywhere over the Empire, whilst it is also vastly lighter to carry about on their journeys. And it is a truth that the merchants will several times in the year bring wares to the amount of 400,000 bezants, and the Grand Sire pays for all in that paper. So he buys such a quantity of those precious things every year that his treasure is endless, whilst all the time the money he pays away costs him nothing at all. Moreover, several times in the year proclamation is made through the city that any one who may have gold or silver or gems or pearls, by taking them to the Mint shall get a handsome price for them. And the owners are glad to do this, because they would find no other purchaser give so large a price. Thus the quantity they bring in is marvellous, though these who do not choose to do so may let it alone. Still, in this way, nearly all the valuables in the country come into the Kaan's possession.
When any of those pieces of paper are spoilt—not that they are so very flimsy neither—the owner carries them to the Mint, and by paying three per cent, on the value he gets new pieces in exchange. And if any Baron, or any one else soever, hath need of gold or silver or gems or pearls, in order to make plate, or girdles, or the like, he goes to the Mint and buys as much as he list, paying in this paper-money.[NOTE]
Now you have heard the ways and means whereby the Great Kaan may have, and in fact has, more treasure than all the Kings in the World; and you know all about it and the reason why. And now I will tell you of the great Dignitaries which act in this city on behalf of the Emperor.
NOTE—It is surprising to find that, nearly two centuries ago, Magaillans, a missionary who had lived many years in China, and was presumably a Chinese scholar, should have utterly denied the truth of Polo's statements about the paper-currency of China. Yet the fact even then did not rest on Polo's statement only. The same thing had been alleged in the printed works of Rubruquis, Roger Bacon, Hayton, Friar Odoric, the Archbishop of Soltania, and Josaphat Barbaro, to say nothing of other European authorities that remained in manuscript, or of the numerous Oriental records of the same circumstance.
The issue of paper-money in China is at least as old as the beginning of the 9th century. In 1160, the system had gone to such excess that government paper equivalent in nominal value to 43,600,000 ounces of silver had been issued in six years, and there were local notes besides; so that the Empire was flooded with rapidly depreciating paper.
The Kin or "Golden" Dynasty of Northern Invaders who immediately preceded the Mongols took to paper, in spite of their title, as kindly as the native sovereigns. Their notes had a course of seven years, after which new notes were issued to the holders, with a deduction of 15 per cent.
The Mongols commenced their issues of paper-money in 1236, long before they had transferred the seat of their government to China. Kúblái made such an issue in the first year of his reign (1260), and continued to issue notes copiously till the end. In 1287 he put out a complete new currency, one note of which was to exchange against five of the previous series of equal nominal value! In both issues the paper-money was, in official valuation, only equivalent to half its nominal value in silver; a circumstance not very easy to understand. The paper-money was called Chao.
The notes of Kúblái's first issue (1260-1287) with which Polo maybe supposed most familiar, were divided into three classes; (1) Notes of Tens, viz. of 10, 20, 30, and 50 tsien or cash; (2) Notes of Hundreds, viz. of 100, 200, and 500 tsien; and (3) Notes of Strings or Thousands of cash, or in other words of Liangs or ounces of silver (otherwise Tael), viz. of 1000 and 2000 tsien. There were also notes printed on silk for 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10 ounces each, valued at par in silver, but these would not circulate. In 1275, it should be mentioned, there had been a supplementary issue of small notes for 2, 3, and 5 cash each.
Marsden states an equation between Marco's values of the Notes and the actual Chinese currency, to which Biot seems to assent. I doubt its correctness, for his assumed values of the groat or grosso and tornesel are surely wrong. The grosso ran at that time 18 to the gold ducat or sequin, and allowing for the then higher relative value of silver, should have contained about 5_d._ of silver. The ducat was also equivalent to 2 lire, and the tornese (Romanin, III. 343) was 4 deniers. Now the denier is always, I believe 1/240 of the lira. Hence the tornese would be 9/60 of the grosso.
But we are not to look for exact correspondences, when we see Polo applying round figures in European coinage to Chinese currency.
Yule, Henry, ed. The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition. 3rd ed. Revised and updated by Henri Cordier. Plain Label Books, 1903. p. 1226-7. Project Gutenberg. Internet Archive.