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According to Wikipedia, Empress Cixi embezzled 30 million taels of silver from the modernization of Qing Navy to build the Summer Palace. What is 30 million taels of silver equivalent to in modern USD? Was the Summer Palace funded entirely by navy funds, or did it cost even more?

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book announcement: this book (to be published in October 2013) may contain the answer ... –  Drux May 23 '13 at 8:49
    
When you effectively run a government that doesn't operate under Rule of Law, can redirecting its funds really be considered "embezzlement"? –  T.E.D. May 23 '13 at 13:05
    
@T.E.D. Sure, embezzled might not be the appropriate term if the government can legally do anything it wants. Use the term "diverted" if you want. –  ChickenGod May 24 '13 at 5:32
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Anecdotally, I once read somewhere that CiXi included a lake with some sailboats as part of the palace package and said something like, "I didn't gut the navy, I just put it on royal grounds." –  Tom Au Jun 4 '13 at 0:52
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up vote 4 down vote accepted

With a little research: 1 Tael is equivalent with 37.5 or 33.9 or 37.8 g of silver, depends on region where it was issued.

The local tael also took precedence over any central measure, so the Canton tael weighed 37.5 grams, the Convention or Shanghai tael was 33.9 g (1.09 oz troy), and the Customs or Hǎiguān (海關) tael 37.8 g (defined as 11⁄3 oz avoirdupois, about 1.22 oz troy)

Let's do the math: 30 million of taels are between 1017000 and 1134000 kilograms of silver. The wikipedia doesn't say the purity, but I found an another source from JSTOR which declares it was pretty pure, between .944 to .989 so if we count with 96% of the silver value, it will be accurate. The final lower sum is: 690 USD x 1017000 = 701 million USD, the higher is 690 USD x 1134000 = 782 million USD.

It is a huge sum of money with physical value today.

Take a note: this estimation is roughly implemented into current currency system. The value itself depends on current price of silver, which worth less compared to gold today than it worth several hundred years ago, so the actual objective value can be different.

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Thanks for the answer! However, I'm not looking for what the silver would be worth today. I'm looking for what the silver would be worth back then in terms of today's USD, if such a metric is possible. Nevertheless, your answer is very helpful! –  ChickenGod May 24 '13 at 5:30
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@ChickenGod I afraid you won't get definite answer. Maybe a more accurate. The reasons: 1. the monetary system is completely different nowadays. 2. silver's amount and population is different today. 3. silver-gold value ratio is different. 4. there was no industrial use of silver (exc. jewelry) which alters the price. So if you ask the price in modern USD, you can get only estimations like I gave you. –  CsBalazsHungary May 24 '13 at 6:12
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@ChickenGod In 1897, the price of silver was USD 0.60/oz. Assuming similar prices in China, the silver would have cost USD 24M back then. This random calculator states that this amount would be worth around USD 666M of today's dollars. This is in the same ballpark as CsBalazsHungary's final figure. –  coleopterist May 24 '13 at 9:45
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