It is often argued that the following mechanism heavily contributed to the commencement of the opium trade between the Qing and British Empires (you are welcome to correct my understanding):

  • Certain Qing taxes had to be paid in silver
  • Foreign trade transactions in the Qing Empire were only allowed in silver
  • Britain had a significant trade deficit with regard to Qing
  • This severely depleted European silver reserves
  • Britain sought to reverse that by introducing a new trade, the opium trade.

It has proven very difficult for me to find citable evidence for parts of the above. For the earlier Ming Dynasty I found some more concrete claims here, though it’s unclear upon what they are based:

Silver was required to pay provincial taxes in 1465, the salt tax in 1475, and corvée exemptions in 1485.

This website about Qing economy claims that:

During the Qing period, all Chinese people had to pay part of their taxes to the government in money (usually copper coins or silver) as opposed to goods-in-kind

making it sound like there was no obligation to use silver! Perhaps it was more a consequence of the copper coin’s low value, that is a practical consideration?


It appears that I have found such a law for the earlier Ming Dynasty. The Wikipedia article on the Single Whip Law states:

The unit of tax collection was changed from rice to silver, which led to an increase in the import of silver into China from Japan and Spanish-controlled America.


Around 1839, which types of taxes were required by Qing law to be paid in silver?

Did this apply to everyone, including peasants in remote regions? I will welcome answers pointing to scientific articles, but particularly hope for references to a Chinese source from the period or translation thereof.

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    Trade deficit, with the only product that China wanted was silver. Nowt to do with taxes per se.
    – user31561
    Commented Sep 13, 2019 at 13:34
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    @MarkC.Wallace It is my understanding that the most usable currency was copper, but the qing taxes were due in silver. This meant a huge tax increase for poorer farmers, which in turn led farmers to abandon their land, further lowering state revenue. It's all about silver. Commented Sep 14, 2019 at 0:54
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    I wonder how to provide a concise answer to the points you've raised. I think it's better if you read the book, "Central Government Silver Treasury: Revenue, Expenditure and Inventory Statistics, ca. 1667-1899" (Brill, 2016). I believe Chapter 3, Silver Treasury Revenues during the Qing Dynasty may be what you're after (here).
    – J Asia
    Commented Sep 24, 2019 at 16:26

1 Answer 1


Even under the early Qing when silver was relatively abundant, taxes weren't necessarily paid by households with physical silver, only assessed / denominated in terms of silver. As one article (which cites a book by Man-hong Lin) states:

Qing fiscal revenue... was levied in silver tael but collected from small holders who typically paid in copper cash.

This important modification does not fundamentally contradict the general argument outlined above. Quoting another article:

As the massive inflow of silver, which had sustained China's balance-of-trade surplus through the eighteenth century, suddenly became a trickle by 1820, the Chinese economy went into reverse. Prices dropped, commercial enterprises faltered, and market demand slackened. The rising value of silver (because of its scarcity) also increased the hardship of taxation, because peasants were compelled to relinquish more of their crops in order to meet their tax requisitions that were still assessed in silver. The depreciating copper-silver exchange rate also exacerbated peasant purchasing power.

  • Oh, yes! This is an important realisation! Even without physically paying in silver, scarcity of the „measure“ can have a huge impact. Why did it become a trickle?
    – Ludi
    Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 10:45
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    @Ludi 1820s was when opium imports started to take off. I'm guessing that was the main reason.
    – Brian Z
    Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 12:57

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