China and silver

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Ming Dynasty porcelain

Not much work done on the book yesterday and today (so far) because I fell down a rabbit hole, trying to answer a question about Europe’s economy in the 1600s (which is really not my area!). Twice in two days, I had heard a story that didn’t make any sense.

My son’s doing World History in school. He came home with a story about how Louis XIV was angry that China wouldn’t buy French stuff, and instead demanded to be paid in silver for the porcelain and tea French people wanted. Apparently Louis was concerned about trade deficits.

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A Spanish silver coin

Then my mother repeated that story in a presentation about porcelain she was doing for her women’s club. I started wondering why this story was so popular when it’s an obvious falsehood. It’s generally true in history that if people are telling lies about something, that’s a good place to look for something interesting.

This story doesn’t make sense. Silver is not just “money”. It’s a commodity, and there’s no special reason not to sell it in order to get things you want. And although Louis XIV was just a baby in the 1640s, his mother Anne of Austria was ruling France with her ministers Mazarin and Colbert. Anne could have just ordered traders to stop importing Chinese porcelain and tea if she felt this was a big problem. She didn’t do that.

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China’s Qianlong Emperor

So what really happened? I think this: in the 1400s, the Ming Dynasty wrecked China’s paper money by printing too much of it, and was forced to return to silver coins. They were then desperate to get enough silver to make coins, and paid very high prices for it. Spanish colonialists made fortunes mining silver with enslaved labor in Peru and selling it to China. Europeans got used to being able to buy Chinese stuff relatively cheaply.

But in the 1640s, the Ming Dynasty fell to a Manchu invasion that started the Qing Dynasty. In the upheaval, China’s economy contracted. They didn’t need so much silver. At the same time, the porcelain industry was shut down and didn’t export any china for quite some time.

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Anne of Austria

Back in Europe, Anne of Austria and her ministers didn’t really understand exactly what was happening so far away in China. But they were super pissed that they couldn’t get Chinese porcelain anymore, or even tea, or sell their silver at the high prices they were used to. They decided on a policy we call “mercantilism” where European governments would encourage manufacturing in Europe, using raw materials from the colonies. By 1708, Germany was making Meissen porcelain, and not long after, France was making Sevres porcelain.

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Sevres plate from Louis XV:  early 1700s

So why don’t we just tell that story? I’m still not sure. Maybe because Colbert didn’t understand it himself? Maybe because we don’t like the idea that Europe’s manufacturing industry grew out of a tiff with China? Maybe because we are still irrationally afraid of trade deficits and this story makes our fears seem more rational, like they’ve been borne out in the past?

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing instead of doing anything I should have been doing, like my taxes, or reviewing books, or writing the children’s book. But I feel I understand it a little better now.

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