Introduction to Sycee

Silver in ingot form has been in use in China for more than a thousand years. Prior to Qing Dynasty, most sycee ingots were used for hoarding and for transporting taxes to the capital. There may have been some commercial use of sycee in Sung and Yuan times, but the widespread use of paper money during those dynasties reduced the need by merchants for sycee in moving money over long dynasties. There is little data today to allow us to gauge how widespread the use of sycee was before Qing times and to know what percentage was used for hoarding, what percentage for tax payments and what percentage for merchant use.

By Qing times, however, sycee was clearly being used in commerce and in large amounts, though much continued to be used for hoarding and tax payments. Most sycee seen today were made during the Qing Dynasty (especially after 1840) and early Republic. The use of sycee was outlawed by the Chinese governments in 1933.Sycee from earlier dynasties do exist but are extremely rare.

Sycee are known by a number of names, both in Chinese and in English. The most common Chinese terms were "yuan bao" (yuan pao), "yin ding" (yin ting) and "wen yin". In English they were called an ingot or bar or, when referring to shape, were called shoe, boat, drum, loaf or packsaddle. The term "sycee" first appeared in English in 1711 (as sycee) and is a pidgin English corruption of the Chinese term, xisi (hsi szu), meaning "fine silk". This term was used because when silver of high purity is poked as it is cooling, small ripples appear on the surface, like the folds of fine silk.

The ingots come in a variety of shape, with different regions tending to prefer a specific shape. The most distinctive is the packsaddle sycee, used only in Yunnan province. This began as a flat bar of silver, then while semi-solid was stamped three times with the same stamp(usually with 2 columns of characters), with one panel turned upside-down compared to the other panels. The two outside panels were pressed down farther than the center panel, which ended up being taller than the other two. This gave the ingot a shape similar to a packsaddle which would have been carried by a pack animal such as a horse or mule. The space between the panels sometimes is stamped with a different one line inscription naming public assayer. The main inscription contains the name of the bank which made the ingot and sometimes a month or even a year date. The earliest known dates are in the 1870's, while the latest known is "min guo nian" (made during the Republic), which probably dates to the 1910’s or early 1920's. Most of the packsaddle sycees were made for commercial use, but a few are inscribed indicating they were to be used for making tax payments. Nearly 100 different banks are named on these ingots, most of which range from 4 to 6 taels in weight, resulting in nearly 300 varieties. This is a fascinating series to collect. The type itself is common, but with so many varieties, some of them must be rare. Those with year dates are particularly difficult to find.

The best known sycee, however, is the shoe or boat sycee. This type is shaped something like an hour glass, and has high thin walls around a flat center. These walls are produced when the inscription is stamped into the semi-solid ingot. Applying a lot of pressure to the stamp forces the silver to rise up the sides of the mold around the stamping device. Shoe sycee range in weight from 1 to 50 taels, the most widely used being 10 tael and 50 tael. This type was used in various parts of the country, especially in eastern and northern China. These most commonly have 2, 3 or 4 panels of inscriptions, though some are uninscribed. There are many varieties of this type, some made for tax purposes, some made by provincial bureaus, some made for commercial purposes, and some, generally the very small ones, were made to be given as gifts and may contain auspicious words or phrases.

The drum-shaped ingots have spherical bottoms and flat tops, usually with a single nipple in the center. This type, usually in 5 or 10 tael weights, was used mainly in southern China, especially in Sichuan province. Some have one or two panels of inscriptions, but uninscribed versions are also common. Also commonly used in southern China were various types of loaf-shaped sycee. This type of ingot is flat on top, with two sides curved slightly inward and the other two curved slightly outward. The bottom is rounded like a rocker but not spherical. One version of this type, used in Guangdong and Guangxi (Kwangtung and Kwangsi) provinces, usually weighting 10 taels, has 3 or more panels of inscriptions, one on the top and another on the bottom of the face。

There is also a square loaf ingot with raised edges around the flat center, which was mainly used in Jiangxi (Kiangsi) province. These ingots, in 50 tael weights, usually have inscriptions which relate to local taxes.

Collecting sycee has become much more popular since the publication in China and Taiwan and England of several books on the subject. The first two books appeared in Taiwan in 1988: "Zhong Guo Yin Ding" (English title: Chinese Sycees) by Jang Huey-shinn (pinyin: Zhang Huixin), and "Shu Yin Ting Shou Cang Yuan Bao Qian Zhong Tu Lu" (English title: 1000 Varieties of Chinese sycees: The Collection of Su Yin Tang) by H.P. Chen (pinyin: Chen Hongpin).The following year, a full color catalog was published in China titled: "Yun Nan Li Shi Huo Bi" (English title: The Historical Currencies of Yunnan), edited by Tang Guoyan. This work lists 1005 silver ingots made in or found in Yunnan province, as well as coins and notes issued in that province. In 1991 the first book specifically on sycee published in China appeared under the title: "Yuan Bao Tu Lu" (English title: The Pictorial Yuanbao), edited by Zhang Zhigao. This work lists and illustrates with photographs1500 sycee of all types. All three of the books specifically on sycee have the listings arranged by province. The most thorough study of sycee appeared in English in 1992.The book, entitled "A Catalogue of Sycee in the British Museum" by Joe Cribb of the British Museum staff, records 1300 genuine sycee plus 54 fake or fantasy sycee. Not all of these sycee are actually in the British Museum collection. As the introduction notes, the museum's collection contains 332 sycee, including the Eduard Kann collection of 199 pieces, obtained in 1978.

One pitfall to collecting sycee is the presence of fakes. Unfortunately, fake sycee ingots pretending to be from Sung, Yuan and Ming times are readily available from coin dealers and in auctions in China today. Another problem appeared in the 1960's and early 1970's, when genuine old sycee which did not have an inscription, were reheated and a fake inscription was stamped on in order to sell the ingot at a higher price. At that time, shoe-shaped ingots and drum-shaped ingots, probably from Sichuan (Szechuan) province, were coming on the market through Thailand. It was apparently in Thailand that the fake inscriptions were stamped on the sycee. The safest way to collect sycee today is to carefully compare each piece to those published before 1990 and especially those published before 1960. Comparing suspected pieces to those published in Joe Cribb’s book, which is arranged by the type of ingot, is also important. Some of the fake sycee contain the wrong inscriptions for that type of sycee. Some contains dates which are too early for the type. Fake sycee intended to fool collectors is usually made from real silver. There is another type of fake, made for sale to tourists, which does not contain any silver.

One further piece of information should be noted. The Peoples Bank of China has in its vaults thousands, maybe tens of thousands of old sycee. If these should come on the market, collectors will be delighted by this rich new source of sycee, but prices on some types might also decline due to a surplus. This information comes from reliable sources, some of whom have seen the bank's sycee.

Sycee is a new and exciting field for collectors of Chinese historical currencies. With the proper reference works, collectors are now able to assemble collections of sycee by type or by province.