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

A sycee was a type of silver or gold ingot currency used in China until the 20th century. The name derives from the Cantonese words meaning "fine silk"[1] (Presumably, Chinese: 細絲; pinyin: xìsī; Cantonese Yale: saisì). In North China, the word yuanbao (simplified Chinese: 元宝; traditional Chinese: 元寶; pinyin: yuánbǎo), was used for similar ingots. This word is attested in the 19th-century English-language literature on Xinjiang and the trade between Xinjiang and British India as yamboo[2] [3] or yambu.[4] [5]

Sycees were not denominated or made by a central mint and 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 known as "shroffs," 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). When currency was normalized 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 (chat fen yi i.e. seven candareens two cash and saam fen luk i.e. three candareens and six cash). Sycee were made by individual 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. Sycee can also refer to gold ingots minted in similar shapes.


Sycees were first used as a medium for exchange as early as the Qin Dynasty. 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. Paper money and bonds were introduced 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. The tael was still the basis of the silver currency and sycees remained in use until the end of the Qing Dynasty. Common weights were 50 taels, 10 taels, and 5 down to 1 tael.

When foreign silver coins began to circulate in China in the later 16th century, they were initially thought of as a type of "quasi-sycee" and imprinted with seals just as sycees were.[6]

Contemporary uses[edit]

Today, imitation gold sycees are used a symbol of prosperity by Chinese and are frequently displayed at Chinese New Year. 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Morse, Hosea Ballou. Piry, A. Théophile. [1908] (1908). The Trade and Administration of the Chinese Empire. Longmans, Green, and co publishing. Page 148. Digitized text on Google Books, no ISBN
  2. ^ Shaw, R.B. (1872–1873), "Miscellaneous notes on Eastern Turkestan", Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London (Edward Stanford) 17: 196 
  3. ^ Bell, James (1836), A System of Geography, Popular and Scientific: Or A Physical, Political, and Statistical Account of the World and Its Various Divisions 6, A. Fullarton and Company, p. 632 
  4. ^ Millward, James A. (1998), Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity, and Empire in Qing Central Asia, 1759-1864, Stanford University Press, p. 62, ISBN 0804729336 
  5. ^ "Shoe of Gold" in Hobson-Jobson, p. 830
  6. ^ Foreign Silver Coins and Chinese Sycee at
  • Cribb, Joe: A Catalogue of Sycee in the British Museum. Chinese Silver Currency Ingots c. 1750–1933. British Museum Press, London, 1992.

External links[edit]