Imperial gold sycee
Silver sycee
Drawing of a boat-shaped silver sycee
Silver sycee
Gold sycee and molds

A sycee[n 1] (/ˈss, sˈs/;[2][1] from Cantonese 細絲, Jyutping: Sai3 Si1, lit.'fine silk')[2][3] or yuanbao (traditional Chinese: 元寶; simplified Chinese: 元宝; pinyin: yuánbǎo; Jyutping: jyun4 bou2; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Goân-pó; lit. 'primary treasure') was a type of gold and silver ingot currency used in imperial China from its founding under the Qin dynasty until the fall of the Qing in the 20th century. Sycee were not made by a central bank or mint but by individual goldsmiths or silversmiths for local exchange; consequently, the shape and amount of extra detail on each ingot were highly variable. Square and oval shapes were common, but boat, flower, tortoise and others are known. Their value—like the value of the various silver coins and little pieces of silver in circulation at the end of the Qing dynasty—was determined by experienced moneyhandlers, who estimated the appropriate discount based on the purity of the silver and evaluated the weight in taels and the progressive decimal subdivisions of the tael (mace, candareen, and cash).

In present-day China, gold sycees remain a symbol of wealth and prosperity and are commonly depicted during the Chinese New Year festivities. Paper imitations of gold- or silver-colored paper are burned along with hell money as a part of Chinese ancestral veneration for Tomb Sweeping Day and the Ghost Festival.


The name "sycee" is an irregular romanization of the Cantonese pronunciation of the characters for "fine silk".[2][3] This is variously explained as deriving from the ability to draw pure gold or silver out into fine threads[1] or from the silky sheen of quality silver.[4]

The name "yuanbao" is the pinyin romanization of the Mandarin pronunciation of the characters for "inaugural treasures". Under China's Tang dynasty, coins were inscribed Kaiyuan tongbao (通寶, "Circulating Treasure of the Beginning of an Era"),[5][6] later abbreviated to yuanbao. The name was also applied to other non-coin forms of currency. Yuanbao was spelt mambo [7][8] and yambu[9][10] in the 19th-century English-language literature on Xinjiang and the trade between Xinjiang and British India.

A yuanbao was also called a dìng (Chinese: ; pinyin: dìng; Wade–Giles: ting) or "silver dìng" (銀鋌; yíndìng; yin-ting). [11]


Sycees were first used as a medium for exchange as early as the Qin dynasty (3rd century BC). During the Western Han dynasty (206 BC – 9 AD), the Wu Zhu bronze coins became the main currency in circulation, while hoof-shaped gold ingot known as "Horse Hoof Gold" (Chinese: 馬蹄金) served as an adjunct currency for high-value transactions. During the Tang dynasty, a standard bi-metallic system of silver and copper coinage was codified with 10 silver coins equal to 1,000 copper cash coins.[12]

Paper money and bonds started to be used in China in the 9th century. However, due to monetary problems such as enormous local variations in monetary supply and exchange rates, rapid changes in the relative value of silver and copper, coin fraud, inflation, and political uncertainty with changing regimes, until the time of the Republic payment by weight of silver was the standard practice, and merchants carried their own scales with them. Most of the so-called "opium scales" seen in museums were actually for weighing payments in silver.[citation needed] The tael was still the basis of the silver currency and sycees remained in use until the end of the Qing dynasty. Common weights: 50 taels, 10 taels, 5 taels, 1 tael.

When foreign silver coins began to circulate in China in the later 16th century, they were initially considered a type of "quasi-sycee" and imprinted with seals just as sycees were.[13]

Contemporary uses

Today, imitation gold sycees are used as a symbol of prosperity among Chinese people. They are frequently displayed during Chinese New Year, representing a fortunate year to come. Reproduction or commemorative gold sycees continue to be minted as collectibles.

Another form of imitation yuanbao – made by folding gold- or silver-colored paper – can be burned at ancestors' graves during the Ghost Festival, along with imitation paper money.

Even after currency standard changed in Republican times, the old usage of denominating value by equivalent standard weight of silver survived in Cantonese slang in the common term for a ten-cent and a five-cent piece, e.g., chat fan yi (七分二 "seven candareens, two cash") or saam fan luk (三分六 "three candareens and six cash").

Notable hoards

See also: List of coin hoards in China

See also


  1. ^ Uncommon variant spellings include sisee and seze.[1]


  1. ^ a b c "sycee, n.", Oxford English Dictionary, 1st ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1919.
  2. ^ a b c "sycee", Merriam-Webster Online, retrieved 22 March 2016.
  3. ^ a b Morse, Hosea Ballou; et al. (1908), The Trade and Administration of the Chinese Empire, Longmans, Green, & Co., p. 148.
  4. ^ Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies, Academy of East Asian Studies at Sungkyunkwan University, 2008, p. 133.
  5. ^ Louis, François. Chinese Coins (PDF). p. 226.
  6. ^ "Bronze Kaiyuan tongbao coin". Explore Highlights. British Museum. The characters Kai yuan mean 'new beginning', while tong bao means 'circulating treasure' or 'coin'.
  7. ^ Shaw, R.B. (1872–1873), "Miscellaneous notes on Eastern Turkestan", Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Edward Stanford, 17: 196
  8. ^ Bell, James (1836), A System of Geography, Popular and Scientific: Or A Physical, Political, and Statistical Account of the World and Its Various Divisions, vol. 6, A. Fullarton and Company, p. 632
  9. ^ Millward, James A. (1998), Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity, and Empire in Qing Central Asia, 1759-1864, Stanford University Press, p. 62, ISBN 0804729336
  10. ^ "Shoe of Gold" in Hobson-Jobson, p. 830
  11. ^ Morse, H.B. (1907). "Currency in China". Journal of the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. Shanghai. 38: 36. The standard ingot of China weighs about 50 taels (from 49 to 54) and, formerly called ting , is now called pao (jewel, article of value, as in the inscription on the copper cash tung-pao 通寶 = "current coin") and more commonly yuan-pao
  12. ^ Lockhart, James Haldane Stewart (1975). The Lockhart Collection of Chinese Copper Coins. Quarterman Publications. p. xi. ISBN 978-0-88000-056-7. the theory is that 1000 copper cash are equal to 10 silver and 1 gold.
  13. ^ Foreign Silver Coins and Chinese Sycee at
  14. ^ a b c d Xinhua (17 November 2015). "Gold coins found in ancient tomb". China Internet Information Center (State Council Information Office and China International Publishing Group). Retrieved 12 April 2020.
  15. ^ a b c d Credited as "Xinhua Net NetWriter". (20 November 2015). "Gold coins, hoofs found in 2,000-yr-old Chinese tomb". Kaogu (考古) - Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (中国社会科学院考古研究所). Retrieved 12 April 2020.
  16. ^ "Excavation of Haihunhou Tomb in China Completed". New Historian. Retrieved 22 February 2017.
  17. ^ "Identity of Han-Dynasty marquis confirmed". Retrieved 22 February 2017.
  18. ^ a b c Credited as "Chinese Archaeology NetWriter". (24 September 2015). "Song and Yuan dynasty graves found in Zhaojiazhuang Cemetery, Shandong". Kaogu (考古) - Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (中国社会科学院考古研究所). Retrieved 12 April 2020.
  19. ^ Jamie Seidel (22 March 2017). "Chinese discover legendary treasure buried in river bank". News Corp Australia Network. Retrieved 12 April 2020.
  20. ^ Xinhua (20 March 2017). "China Focus: Legendary sunken treasure discovered in SW China". Xinhua News Agency. Retrieved 12 April 2020.
  21. ^ ZD (11 May 2018). "China's top 10 archaeological finds of 2017". Xinhua News Agency. Archived from the original on April 28, 2018. Retrieved 10 April 2020. 10. Archaeologists found artifacts at the site of a peasant uprising at the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) from the Jiangkou stretch of the Minjiang River in Meishan, southwest China's Sichuan Province.

Further reading