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Money and Trade

Balancing a Budget
China<br><i>Balance</i>, early seventeenth century<br>Huang-hua-li hardwood and pai tung hardware<br>Minneapolis Institute of Arts<br>Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton
zoom China
Balance, early seventeenth century
Huang-hua-li hardwood and pai tung hardware
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton


This 400-year-old Chinese balance, made up of a large wooden stand, two metal scales, and a set of ten metal weights, was designed and operated during a time period called the Ming dynasty. At this time in China, small silver ingots—pieces of shaped metal—functioned as currency. This silver money was called sycee(SIGH-see).

Only the most special furnishings were made from the Huang-hua-li wood, its name meaning “yellow flowering pear.” The carefully handcrafted wood balance stand has two drawers for storing the metal scales and the set of weights when not in use. Because the stand and its equipment were heavy, they would have been difficult to move. Decorative metal reinforcements supported the wood frame, likely carried by its top rail.

Value was determined by weighing the sycee against the balance’s metal weights hanging on the scales. The metal weights, like the sycee, were formed into ingots of boat or shoe-like shapes symbolic of wealth.

A shopkeeper may have used this balance when selling goods and services to customers. Or perhaps it belonged to an estate manager who distributed wages to workers, allowances to family members, and payments to traveling merchants. As silver money was replaced by coin and paper currencies, balances faded into history and few hardwood balances like this one remain.

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1. These metal scales were used to weigh silver for purchasing goods and services.
2. Two drawers in the wood stand kept the metal scales and weights safe when not in use.
3. Handles on the drawers are shaped like the finger citron (also known as “Buddha’s Hand”), a popular lemon-like fruit grown in Asia that was a Chinese symbol of good fortune.


February 2008