Empire of Copper: British Global Trade, Chilean Copper, and the Transformation of China's Monetary System, 1800-1862


Luce/ACLS Travel Grants in China Studies




This research investigates the causes of the Qing Empire's financial and economic crises in the mid-nineteenth century by examining globalization, colonialism, and Pacific trade. Between 1820 and 1850, the Qing Empire's dual monetary system, involving copper cash and silver, experienced dramatic transformation— the silver price of copper cash plummeted by 76%. This financial instability contributed to the devastating Taiping and Panthay Rebellions in the 1850s, claiming over 20 million lives. Drawing on archives across China, the US, the UK, and Latin America, this research reveals the collaboration between British bankers and American companies in smuggling vast quantities of purer, cheaper Chilean copper into China. The annual influx of Chilean copper may have decimated China's domestic production in Yunnan, and may have fueled rampant counterfeiting, precipitating a dire financial crisis. This study contributes to understanding the intricate dynamics between colonial powers and China's economy in the early and mid-nineteenth century.