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Defining Chinese Commodities in the Early Modern Era: A Historical and Conceptual Analysis  

Ronald C. Po

China gradually became a major political and economic power, starting from the second half of the 20th century. Today, it is an export factory that manufactures almost every imaginable product, from brass buttons and footware to computer chips and motor vehicles. While one could argue that the label “Made in China” seems to be visible and recognizable everywhere in the 21st century, this is not a recent phenomenon. A few centuries prior to the 1970s, China was already tightly connected to the global market. During the early modern era, the ideas, customs, and habits of Chinese culture were already steadily spreading across the globe through the consumption of a series of highly desirable Chinese items. Although historians have studied the global impact of a wide range of goods exported from China since the Ming dynasty, if not earlier, it remains necessary to obtain a more conceptual definition of the term “Chinese commodity” in studies of consumption and material culture. According to one definition, a “Chinese commodity” is a good that originated in and/or was manufactured in China. Yet at the same time, the idea of Chinese commodities has occasionally said more about how the non-Chinese in a foreign market imagined and conceptualized Chinese culture than the actual cultural meaning that was supposed to be connected to China. In other words, this is a multifaceted concept that requires further elaboration since it offers promising perceptions from which to explore and reflect on the interlacing of China and the world, while some of these correlations continue to generate a certain degree of social impact on our physical surroundings and imagination even to the present day.


Opium in China  

Yangwen Zheng

Opium was used as a medicinal herb during the Tang-Song dynastic era, if not earlier, but this medicinal role was transformed during the Ming dynasty as it became an ingredient in aphrodisiacs produced for the Ming court. Small countries in South-Southeast Asia included opium in their tribute items to the Ming. Tribute missions were a form of trade as well as the best way to maintain foreign relations. Opium transformed again in the early Qing dynasty as Southeast Asian Chinese brought the habit of smoking opium mixed with tobacco back to the mainland. This was soon integrated in and promoted by the sex recreation industry in the mid-18th century, and the demand for opium grew rapidly in the early decades of the 19th century. By the 1850s, increasing supply fueled a level of consumption that neither repeated attempts at prohibition, nor two opium wars could stymie; it exploded into a consumer revolution. Opium became vital to the economy as all the polities since the late Qing taxed it to sustain themselves. It also became a symbol of China’s humiliation and anti-imperialist political platform. It has now come back to haunt the country despite the Mao era success in eradication.


Monetary Flows and Currency Management in Ming-Qing China  

Arturo Giráldez

In 1571, colonists from the viceroyalty of New Spain founded Manila as capital of the Philippines and established a line of navigation between its port, Cavite, and the Mexican city of Acapulco. Their ships linked the rich mines of the viceroyalties of Perú and New Spain with the Ming and Qing Chinese empires, inaugurating a global economy based on silver from Latin America, and, to a lesser extent, Japan. The Chinese adopted silver as money in response to the high inflation of paper notes as a result of imperial expenditures. Merchants in the southern maritime provinces initiated the inflow of silver in the 15th century, and the central government soon began commuting taxes in grain to payments in silver. The purchasing power of silver in China rose precipitously relative to that of Europe and Japan, stimulating European and Japanese appetites to trade with the Chinese empire. The global silver economy could be divided in three periods: (a) the Potosí–Japan Silver Cycle (1540–1640), when Japanese and Peruvian (modern Bolivia) mines were the main producers of silver. The cycle ended with the equalization of the relative global prices of silver and gold about 1640; (b) a shorter Mexican Silver Cycle (1700–1750), when México was the main producer of silver; followed by (c) the Tea and Opium Cycle, initiated by the Battle of Plassey in 1757 that led to the British control of Bengal, the Opium War (1839–1842), and the presence of foreign powers in Chinese territories. Silver continued its journey into China but the high-profit markets were generated by Chinese tea and opium from India. These trade cycles are the origin of the modern globalized economy.