How the Mexican silver dollar changed the history of China

The biography of a coin COMMUNITY

A coin’s journey from the silver mines of the Americas to a remote hill region in Asia reveals much about China’s remarkable rise to modernity, according to political culture expert Professor Michael Dutton.

Prof Dutton will deliver the OzAsia Festival Keynote Lecture titled ‘The biography of a coin’ on September 18 as part of the OzAsia Festival taking place in Adelaide this month.

A Professor of Politics at the University of London, Prof Dutton will argue that the first coin of the socialist revolution in China, produced by the Communist Party in 1928, changed the way the Chinese thought about money, helped to launch one of the world’s earliest futures markets, and a Communist revolution.

“This coin travels the route of Chinese modernity. It was part of an early currency colonialism that transformed the way Chinese thought about the question of ‘value’ as a result of their encounter with the West,” he says.

“Traditionally Chinese people would calculate value on the basis of the weight of silver. Through coins like the Mexican silver dollar, we start to see a new basis of calculation emerging. They move from weight to ‘face value’.

“The advent of the coin can also be seen as the harbinger of the modern money market. Some scholars have speculated that its arrival marked the beginning of futures markets.”

Co-presented by UniSA’s Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre and the Adelaide Festival Centre's OzAsia Festival, the keynote lecture will detail the history of the Mexican silver dollar, or ‘Eagle Coin’.

“Because of the discovery of vast reserves of silver in Spanish controlled America, coinage often came from that region. The most popular coin was one produced after the Mexican War of Independence which had an eagle on it,” Prof Dutton says.

“The Mexican silver dollar became the dominant currency of southern and eastern China in the 1830s and it was so ubiquitous that people started to forge it. It is said that the communists somehow got hold of one of the Mexican silver dollar counterfeiter’s moulds and used it to produce their first coin in 1928.

“The coin’s journey to China reveals much about trade between developing countries which was a precursor to modern global economics and trade, such as China coming into a money-based economic system. Historically, this coin connects the dots between that prehistory and modern China.”

Executive Director of the Hawke Centre, Jacinta Thompson says the annual keynote lecture is the premier intellectual event on the OzAsia Festival calendar.

“The OzAsia Festival celebrates Australia’s strong ties with Asia through theatre, dance, music, film, literature, exhibitions and food. The keynote address gives festival-goers a chance to gain a deeper understanding of the historical, social and economic contexts underpinning the Asian region,” she says.

“Prof Dutton is one of the world’s leading authorities on contemporary social and cultural theory related to China and we are looking forward to his address at this year’s festival.”

The OzAsia Festival Keynote Lecture ‘The biography of a coin’ is on September 18 at the Banquet Room, Adelaide Festival Centre. For more information and to register for the event, go the UniSA website.

UniSA is a Festival and Cultural Partner of the OzAsia Festival and UniSA staff, students and alumni receive discount on selected performances. To find out more, go to the UniSA community engagement website.