The history of banking in China includes the business of dealing with money and credit transactions in China.
Early Chinese banks
Chinese financial institutions were conducting all major banking functions, including the acceptance of deposits, the making of loans, issuing notes, money exchange, and long-distance remittance of money by the Song Dynasty (960-1279). In 1024, the first paper currency was issued by the state in Sichuan. Two major types of early Chinese banking institutions are piaohao and qianzhuang. The first nationwide private financial system, so-called “draft banks” or piaohao (票号) was created by the Shanxi merchants during the Qing dynasty.  Smaller scale local banking institutions called qianzhuang (钱庄), more often cooperated than competed with Piaohao in China’s financial market.
Due to structural weaknesses of traditional Chinese law, Chinese financial institutions focused primarily on commercial banking based on close familial and personal relationships, and their working capital was primarily based on the float from short-term money transfers rather than long-term demand deposits. The modern concepts of consumer banking and fractional reserve banking never developed among traditional Chinese banks and were introduced to China by European bankers in the 19th century.
An early Chinese banking institution was called the draft bank or piaohao (票号) in Chinese, also known as Shanxi banks because they were owned primarily by Shanxi merchants. The first “piaohao” Rishengchang originated from Xiyuecheng Dye Company Pingyao in central Shanxi.To deal with the transfer of large amounts of cash from one branch to another, the company introduced drafts, cashable in the company’s many branches around China. Although this new method was originally designed for business transactions within the Xiyuecheng Company, it became so popular that in 1823 the owner gave up the dye business altogether and reorganised the company as a special remittance firm, Rishengchang Piaohao. In the next thirty years, eleven piaohao were established in Shanxi province, including Pingyao and neighboring counties of Qi County, Taigu, and Yuci. By the end of the nineteenth century, thirty-two piaohao with 475 branches were in business covering most of China, and the central Shanxi region became the de facto financial centres of Qing China.
All piaohao were organised as single proprietaries or partnerships, where the owners carried unlimited liability. They concentrated on interprovincial remittances, and later on conducting government services. From the time of the Taiping Rebellion, when transportation routes between the capital and the provinces were cut off, piaohao began involvement with the delivery of government tax revenue. Piaohao grew by taking on a role in advancing funds and arranging foreign loans for provincial governments, issuing notes, and running regional treasuries.
Independent of the nationwide network of piaohao there were a large number of small native banks, generally called qianzhuang. These institutions first appeared in the Yangzi Delta region, in Shanghai, Ningbo, and Shaoxing. The first qianzhuang can be traced to at least the mid-eighteenth century. In 1776, several of these banks in Shanghai organised themselves into a guild under the name of qianye gongsuo.In contrast to piaohao, most qianzhuang were local and functioned as commercial banks by conducting local money exchange, issuing cash notes, exchanging bills and notes, and discounting for the local business community.
Qianzhuang maintained close relationships with Chinese merchants, and grew with the expansion of China’s foreign trade. When Western banks first entered China, they issued “chop loans” (caipiao) to the qianzhuang, who would then lend this money to Chinese merchants who used it to purchase goods from foreign firms. It is estimated that there were around 10,000 qianzhuang in China in the early 1890s.
Entry of foreign banks
British and other European banks entered China around the middle of the nineteenth century to service the growing number of Western trade firms. The Chinese coined the term yinhang (銀行), meaning “silver institution”, for the English word “bank”. The first foreign bank in China was the Bombay-based British Oriental Bank (東藩匯理銀行), which opened branches in Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Shanghai in the 1840s. Other British banks followed suit and set up their branches in China one after another. The British enjoyed a virtual monopoly on modern banking for forty years. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (香港上海匯豐銀行), now HSBC, established in 1865 in Hong Kong, later became the largest foreign bank in China.
In the early 1890s, Germany’s Deutsch-Asiatische Bank (德華銀行), Japan’s Yokohama Specie Bank (橫濱正金銀行), France’s Banque de l’Indochine (東方匯理銀行), and Russia’s Russo-Asiatic Bank (華俄道勝銀行) opened branches in China and challenged British ascendancy in China’s financial market. By the end of the nineteenth century there were nine foreign banks with forty-five branches in China’s treaty ports.
At the time due to unfair treaties, foreign banks enjoyed extraterritorial rights. They also enjoyed complete control over China’s international remittance and foreign trade financing. Being unregulated by the Chinese government, they were free to issue banknotes for circulation, accept deposits from Chinese citizens, and make loans to the qianzhuang.
After the launch of the Self-strengthening movement, the Qing government began initiating large industrial projects which required large amounts of capital. Though the existing domestic financial institutions provided sufficient credit and transfer facilities to support domestic trade and worked well with small-scale enterprises, they could not meet China’s new financial demands. China turned to foreign banks for large scale and long term finance. Following a series of military defeats, the Qing government was forced to borrow from foreign banks and syndicates to finance its indemnity payments to foreign powers.
A number of proposals were made by a modern Chinese banking institution from the 1860s onwards. Li Hongzhang, one of the leaders of the self-strengthening movement, made serious efforts to create a foreign-Chinese joint bank in 1885 and again in 1887.
The Imperial Bank of China (中國通商銀行), China’s first modern bank, opened for business in 1897. The bank was organised as a joint-stock firm. It adopted the internal regulations of HSBC, and its senior managers were foreign professionals. After the proclamation of the Republic of China, the bank changed its English name to the Commercial Bank of Chinain 1912. The name more accurately translated its Chinese name and removed any link to the Qing Dynasty.
In 1905, China’s first central bank was established as the Bank of the Board of Revenue (大清户部銀行). Three years later, its name was changed to the Great Qing Government Bank (大清銀行). Intended as a replacement for all existing banknotes, the Da Qing Bank’s note was granted exclusive privilege to be used in all public and private fund transfers, including tax payments and debt settlements. Da Qing Bank was also given exclusive privilege to run the state treasury. The Board of Revenue that controlled most of the central government’s revenue transferred most of its tax remittance through the bank and its branches. The government entrusted the bank with the transfer of the Salt Surplus Tax, diplomatic expenditures, the management of foreign loans, the payment of foreign indemnities, and the deposit and transfer of the customs tax in many treaty ports.
Following the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, Daqing Bank was renamed the Bank of China. This bank continues to exist today.
Another government bank, the Bank of Communications (交通銀行), was organised in 1908 by the Ministry of Posts and Communications to raise money for the redemption of the Beijing-Hankou Railway from Belgian contractors. The bank’s aim was to unify funding for steamship lines, railways, as well as telegraph and postal facilities.
The first private bank dates to 1897, courtesy of the entrepreneurship of Shen Xuanhui. Three private banks appeared in the late Qing period, all created by private entrepreneurswithout state funding. The Xincheng Bank was established in Shanghai in 1906, followed by the National Commercial Bank in Hangzhou the following year, and the Ningbo Commercial and Savings Bank (四明銀行) in 1908. In that year, the Regulations of Banking Registration was issued by the Ministry of Revenue, which continued to have effect well after the fall of the Qing dynasty.
A lion’s share of the profitable official remittance business was taken by the Daqing Bank from the piaohao. The piaohao all but disappeared following the Xinhai Revolution in 1911.
The same period saw the increasing power of private interests in modern Chinese banking and the concentration of banking capital. In Shanghai, the so-called “southern three banks” (南三行) were established. They were the Shanghai Commercial and Savings Bank (上海商業儲蓄銀行), the National Commercial Bank (浙江興業銀行), and the Zhejiang Industrial Bank (浙江實業銀行). Four other banks, known as the “northern four banks” (北四行) emerged later. They were the Yien Yieh Commercial Bank (鹽業銀行), the Kincheng Banking Corporation (金城銀行), the Continental Bank (大陸銀行), and the China & South Sea Bank (中南銀行). The first three were initiated by current and retired officials of the Beijing government, whilst the last was created by an overseas Chinese.
Note suspension incident
In 1916 the Republican government in Beijing ordered the suspension of paper note conversion to silver. With the backing of the Mixed Court, the Shanghai Branch of the Bank of China successfully resisted the order.
The Bank of China’s bylaws were revised in 1917 to restrict government intervention.
Golden Age of Chinese banking
The decade from the Northern Expedition to the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 has been described as a “golden decade” for China’s modernisation as well as for its banking industry. Modern Chinese banks extended their business in scope, making syndicated industrial loans and offering loans to rural areas.
The Nationalist government created the Central Bank of China in 1928, with T. V. Soong as its first president. The Bank of China was reorganised as a bank specialising in the management of foreign exchange while the Bank of Communications focused on developing industry.
The Bureau of Financial Supervision was set up under the Ministry of Finance, to supervise financial affairs.
Confronted with imminent war with Japan, the Chinese government took control of over 70 percent of the assets of modern Chinese banks through the notorious banking coup.
The history of the Chinese banking system has been somewhat checkered. Nationalization and consolidation of the country’s banks received the highest priority in the earliest years of the People’s Republic, and banking was the first sector to be completely socialized. In the period of recovery after the Chinese civil war (1949–52), the People’s Bank of Chinamoved very effectively to halt raging inflation and bring the nation’s finances under central control. Over the course of time, the banking organization was modified repeatedly to suit changing conditions and new policies.
The banking system was centralized early on under the Ministry of Finance, which exercised firm control over all financial services, credit, and the money supply. During the 1980s the banking system was expanded and diversified to meet the needs of the reform program, and the scale of banking activity rose sharply. New budgetary procedures required state enterprises to remit to the state only a tax on income and to seek investment funds in the form of bank loans. Between 1979 and 1985, the volume of deposits nearly tripled and the value of bank loans rose by 260 percent. By 1987 the banking system included the People’s Bank of China, Agricultural Bank of China, Bank of China (which handled foreign exchange matters), China Investment Bank, China Industrial and Commercial Bank, People’s Construction Bank, Communications Bank, People’s Insurance Company of China, rural credit cooperatives, and urban credit cooperatives.
The People’s Bank of China was the central bank and the foundation of the banking system. Although the bank overlapped in function with the Ministry of Finance and lost many of its responsibilities during the Cultural Revolution, in the 1970s it was restored to its leading position. As the central bank, the People’s Bank of China had sole responsibility for issuing currency and controlling the money supply. It also served as the government treasury, the main source of credit for economic units, the clearing center for financial transactions, the holder of enterprise deposits, the national savings bank, and a ubiquitous monitor of economic activities.
Another financial institution, the Bank of China, handled all dealings in foreign exchange. It was responsible for allocating the country’s foreign exchange reserves, arranging foreign loans, setting exchange rates for China’s currency, issuing letters of credit, and generally carrying out all financial transactions with foreign firms and individuals. The Bank of China had offices in Beijing and other cities engaged in foreign trade and maintained overseas offices in major international financial centers, including Hong Kong, London, New York City, Singapore, and Luxembourg.
The Agricultural Bank was created in the 1950s to facilitate financial operations in the rural areas. The Agricultural Bank provided financial support to agricultural units. It issued loans, handled state appropriations for agriculture, directed the operations of the rural credit cooperatives, and carried out overall supervision of rural financial affairs. The Agricultural Bank was headquartered in Beijing and had a network of branches throughout the country. It flourished in the late 1950s and mid-1960s but languished thereafter until the late 1970s, when the functions and autonomy of the Agricultural Bank were increased substantially to help promote higher agricultural production. In the 1980s it was restructured again and given greater authority in order to support the growth and diversification of agriculture under the responsibility system.
The People’s Construction Bank managed state appropriations and loans for capital construction. It checked the activities of loan recipients to ensure that the funds were used for their designated construction purpose. Money was disbursed in stages as a project progressed. The reform policy shifted the main source of investment funding from the government budget to bank loans and increased the responsibility and activities of the People’s Construction Bank.
Rural credit cooperatives were small, collectively owned savings and lending organizations that were the main source of small-scale financial services at the local level in the countryside. They handled deposits and short-term loans for individual farm families, villages, and cooperative organizations. Subject to the direction of the Agricultural Bank, they followed uniform state banking policies but acted as independent units for accounting purposes. In 1985 rural credit cooperatives held total deposits of ¥72.5 billion.
Urban credit cooperatives were a relatively new addition to the banking system in the mid-1980s, when they first began widespread operations. As commercial opportunities grew in the reform period, the thousands of individual and collective enterprises that sprang up in urban areas created a need for small-scale financial services that the formal banks were not prepared to meet. Bank officials therefore encouraged the expansion of urban credit cooperatives as a valuable addition to the banking system. In 1986 there were more than 1,100 urban credit cooperatives, which held a total of ¥3.7 billion in deposits and made loans worth ¥1.9 billion.
In the mid-1980s the banking system still lacked some of the services and characteristics that were considered basic in most countries. Interbank relations were very limited, and interbank borrowing and lending was virtually unknown. Checking accounts were used by very few individuals, and bank credit cards did not exist. In 1986 initial steps were taken in some of these areas. Interbank borrowing and lending networks were created among twenty-seven cities along the Yangtze River and among fourteen cities in north China. Interregional financial networks were created to link banks in eleven leading cities all over China, including Shenyang, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Chongqing, and Xi’an and also to link the branches of the Agricultural Bank. The first Chinese credit card, the Great Wall Card, was introduced in June 1986 to be used for foreign exchange transactions. Another financial innovation in 1986 was the opening of China’s first stock exchanges since 1949. Small stock exchanges began operations somewhat tentatively in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, in August 1986 and in Shanghai in September 1986.
Throughout the history of the People’s Republic, the banking system has exerted close control over financial transactions and the money supply. All government departments, publicly and collectively owned economic units, and social, political, military, and educational organizations were required to hold their financial balances as bank deposits. They were also instructed to keep on hand only enough cash to meet daily expenses; all major financial transactions were to be conducted through banks. Payment for goods and services exchanged by economic units was accomplished by debiting the account of the purchasing unit and crediting that of the selling unit by the appropriate amount. This practice effectively helped to minimize the need for currency.
Since 1949 China’s leaders have urged the Chinese people to build up personal savings accounts to reduce the demand for consumer goods and increase the amount of capital available for investment. Small branch offices of savings banks were conveniently located throughout the urban areas. In the countryside savings were deposited with the rural credit cooperatives, which could be found in most towns and villages. In 1986 savings deposits for the entire country totaled over ¥223.7 billion.
- ^Morton, W. Scott, China: Its History and Culture (New York: Lippincott, 1980), p. 95.
- ^Shanxi Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, ed., Shanxi piaohao shiliao (山西票号史料) (Taiyuan: Shanxi jingji chubanshe, 1992), pp. 36-39.
- ^Huang Jianhui, Shanxi piaohao shi (Taiyuan: Shanxi jingji chubanshe, 1992), pp. 36-39.
- ^Shanxi Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, ed., Shanxi piaohao shiliao (山西票号史料) (Taiyuan: Shanxi jingji chubanshe, 1992), pp. 36-39.
- ^ O. Hall, Chapters and Documents on Chinese National Banking(Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1917), p. 3.
- ^Zhongguo Renmin Yinhang, Shanghai fenghang, Jinrong Yanjiu Suo (Institute of Financial Studies, Shanghai Branch, People’s Bank of China), ed., Shanghai qianzhuang shi liao (上海钱庄史料: “Historical Materials of Shanghai qianzhuang“), 1961, Shanghai (reprint, Shanghai, 1978), p.11.
- ^Tang Chuanshi and Huang Hanmin, “Shilun 1927 nian yiqian de Zhongguo yinhangye”, Zhongguo jindai jingjishi yanjiu ziliao 4 (1986): 59.
- ^Wang Jingyu, Shijiu shiji xifang ziben zhuyi dui Zhongguo de jingji qinlue (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1983) at 146-148.
- ^Hubert Bonin (28 July 2015). “Banking, Money and International Finance”. Asian Imperial Banking History. Routledge. ISBN 1317316932.
- ^Bank of China, “Xiuzheng Zhongguo yinhang zeli” 修正中國銀行則例 (Revised regulations of the Bank of China), November 22, 1917, Bank of China file, no. 397/2-798.
- ^Zhongguo wenhua fuxingshe, ed., Kangzhan qian shinian zhi Zhongguo (抗戰前十年之中國) (1937: Longmen shudian, 1965)
Ofer Abarbanel is a 25 year securities lending broker and expert who has advised many Israeli regulators, among them the Israel Tax Authority, with respect to stock loans, repurchase agreements and credit derivatives. Founder of TBIL.co STATX Fund.