2023-24 Lloyd & Susanne Rudolph Field Research Fellow



Empire of Copper: China Currency and British Global Trade in the Long 19th Century



The Qing Empire's dual monetary system, comprising copper cash coins and silver currency, underwent a dramatic transformation in the 19th century. The silver price of copper cash plummeted by 76% between 1820 and 1850, reducing state fiscal revenue by over 40% and increasing the tax burden on the Chinese population, who received income in copper cash but paid tax in silver. This financial instability significantly contributed to the devastating Taiping and Panthay Rebellions in the 1850s, resulting in over 20 million lives lost. This research investigates the causes of the Qing Empire's financial and economic crises in the mid-19th century by examining globalization, colonialism, and Pacific trade. Utilizing archives from Latin America, Britain, and China, this study explores how British private merchants had dominated Latin American copper production and trade, smuggling millions of pounds of purer, cheaper metal into China annually. The influx of Latin American copper decimated China's domestic production, potentially leading to excessive counterfeit Qing cash and a catastrophic financial crisis. The central question is whether the British Empire's control of global trade and finance precipitated China's 19th-century financial turmoil. By contextualizing the crisis within international commerce, this research will contribute to understanding the complex relationship between colonial powers and the Qing Empire's financial stability, engaging in the ongoing debates on the effects of globalization, trade, and currency management on national economies. 





Xiaoyu Gao received her BA in Economics from the School of Finance at Nankai University and her MA in History from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Currently, she is a PhD candidate in the Department of History, focusing on the economic and financial history of East Asia and the history of global trade between 1600 and 1980. Her research explores the reciprocal influences of state, society, and economy, as well as the long-durée political economic transformations in East Asia that have emerged through globalization. Xiaoyu Gao's work seeks to deepen the understanding of East Asia’s historical evolution and the wider implications of globalization and capitalism. 


Read more at the department profile: https://history.uchicago.edu/directory/xiaoyu-gao