Chinese Silver Sycee

Introduction by Stephen Tai
       Silver sycee were a major form of currency in Chinese history for a period of more than a thousand years. Silver was not the only precious metal used in ancient China (as a matter of fact, it was relatively more valuable then than now) but was also taken as an exchange media, e.g., Money. People used cash coins for smaller transactions and sycee for bigger ones. Therefore, sycee were considered the money of the rich and some of the poor never saw a sycee in their lifetime.

       Sycee are very scarce compared with numismatic coins! Because they were handmade no two sycee are identical. Most of the sycee circulated in the past were melted to cast silver coins. I don't know whether the current market prices of sycee are reasonable or not, since there have been too few people who know much about sycee, a real and reasonable sycee market, to my point of view, has not formed up yet. The order of current transactions is in a mess. The price for a similar sycee may be quoted from 1 to 10 by different dealers.

       Although there is confusion about prices for sycee, they are a respectively high priced antique in any case. Since there are many forgeries in the marketplace, collectors must count on their own experiences for authentication. It is impossible for a collector to differentiate genuine from forged without seeing the real thing many times. A broad knowledge base of Chinese history is a plus.

       Please note: Most of the forgeries are made of silver as well because the price of sycee is much higher than the cost of the materials used to make them. The silver content can't be taken as the sole factor in determining authenticity.

       It's hard to tell the normal prices for sycee as they have fluctuated dramatically in the last two years (1996-1998). On average, the prices have quadrupled. The classification of sycee is also a problem. There are many varieties within groups of sycee. Take "saddle sycee" for example. There are more than a dozen varieties showing casting in different times, places and for different causes. The amount of each remaining variety today is reflected in their value. A collector may get one saddle sycee variety for $120 but pay $2000 for another. It all depends on which varieties they're talking about. How much do the buyer and seller know about the sycee in the deal?

       Saddle sycee were a typical silver currency circulated in Yunnan province in the period 1884-1913. There is a book about saddle sycee (in Chinese Pai-Fang-Ding) issued in Taiwan in 1996. There is also an English abstract of the book for more information.

       Drum-shaped sycee were one of the major silver ingots employed in many regions of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), especially in the southwest provinces of Szechuan and Kueichow. The majority of them were 10 tael values.

       Apart from the two kinds above there were many more sycee in different standards of shape, purity and weight such as the shapes of boats, squares, bowls, kidneys and flowers (in 50, 10, 5 , 4 , 3, 1 and 0.72 tael denominations) used at different times and in different regions of China.

       A Catalogue of Sycee in the British Museum (English language, by Joe Cribb, 1992, British Museum Press) is recommended to help get into the world of Chinese historical currency.

       Articles about Chinese sycee:

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