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human progress lesson

Centers of Progress, Pt. 12: Hangzhou

Students will learn about one commercial innovation that originated in China and has now spread all over the world: paper currency.


Centers of Progress

14-part unit
  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 37: Dubrovnik

    Dubrovnik is a beautiful walled city on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, once home to one of the freest and most cosmopolitan societies in Europe and one of the first societies to implement comprehensive public health measures to contain disease.

  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 36: Seville

    Today we know Seville as the sunny capital of the region of Andalusia, but during the century following the Iberian conquest of America, Seville was one of the most important cities in Europe.

  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 6: Chichen Itza

    In this lesson, you will learn about Chichen Itza—a sprawling ruined city in the Yucatán Peninsula in modern Mexico—and the oldest continuously played ball sport in the world variously called Pok‐​A‐​Tok, Ulama, or simply, the Ball Game.

  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 16: Amsterdam

    In this lesson, you’ll learn about how a unique set of cultural values that emphasized openness and tolerance helped lead Amsterdam to the pinnacle of European commercial success during the Dutch Golden Age

  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 1: Jericho

    Why did our ancestors turn their backs on a nomadic way of life that was thousands of years old? Why did people begin to live in farming communities about 10,000 years ago? This article answers those questions by discussing the history of Jericho—the world’s oldest city and possibly the birthplace of agriculture.

  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 35: Agra

    In this lesson, students will learn about the Mughal Empire and its rulers by exploring the theme of monumental architecture. They will also have the opportunity to research other “new wonders of the world” and examine their own beliefs about memorials in contemporary society.

  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 18: Edinburgh

    In this article, Chelsea Follett describes why the small university city of Edinburgh, Scotland, was such an important intellectual center in the Enlightenment.

  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 15: Mainz

    In this lesson, students will learn about the city of Mainz, Germany and the man responsible for Europe’s rapid adoption of the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg.

  • Your Life in Numbers

    In this lesson, you’ll learn how these measures have changed during your lifetime and compare your results with people in other countries.

  • Centers of Progress, Pt. 10: Chang’an

    In this lesson, you’ll learn how the Silk Road greatly expanded the international flow of goods and ideas and how Chang’an both benefited from and contributed to that exchange.

  • Centers of Progress: Manchester

    In this lesson, you’ll learn about the city of Manchester, England, the first center of textile production in Great Britain as well as how industrialization there helped spark a revolution in living standards over the past 200 years.

  • Your Life in Numbers: Student Work Document

    Interpret interactive, data‐​driven tools, and compare and contrast international results to make inferences and draw conclusions about changes and improvements over time in the quality of life: locally, regionally, and globally, and more.

Despite China having the second biggest economy in the world and being the nation with the world’s largest population today, many students know surprisingly little about the country’s history. Even students that know a bit about China have probably never heard of the city of Hangzhou, one of the ancient capitals of China and now its fourth‐​largest metropolitan area with a population of over 20 million. This article will give students a glimpse into the fascinating history of Hangzhou during its “golden age” and relates many of the innovations that made the city one of the most influential centers of progress in world history. In particular, students will learn about one commercial innovation that originated in China and has now spread all over the world: paper currency.


Imagine that paper money, electronic payments, and credit and debit cards disappeared tomorrow. In this alternate reality, the only way to pay for things would be by using small metal coins.

How would this change affect you, your family, and your friends?

  • Take a few minutes to reflect on how life would be different if you could use only coins to make purchases.
    • How would you feel? Do you think the transition would be easy?
    • Do you think using only coins to pay for things would be an impossible task? What would be the biggest challenges for you and your family?
    • Would there be any advantages to this old style of payment?
  • Write a paragraph describing how this change would affect your life.
  • Share your paragraph with a partner. Reflect and discuss together:
    • In what ways would you and your community be worse off with only the use of coins?
    • Would you want to live this way for a day, a month, or even a year?
    • Do you think it is possible or desirable for your town or city to flourish without the use of paper money?
  • Today you will learn about the origin of paper money in China. Before we begin, answer these questions:
    • Why do you think paper money was invented in the first place? What were the advantages of paper money over the types of money used previously?
    • What technology do you think had to be developed in order for paper money to be introduced?
    • Make a prediction: Do you think paper money originated with a central government or as an innovation of private businesspeople?

Questions for Reading, Writing, and Discussion

Read the article, and then answer the following questions:

  • What were some of the characteristics of the economy of Hangzhou during the Song dynasty? List at least three.
  • The article mentions two advantages of using paper currency over coins. What were these advantages?
  • What role does Hangzhou play in the economic life of China today? Why is it still one of the most important cities in China?
  • According to the article, at what point did Hangzhou become the most important city in China?
  • What critical piece of infrastructure first built during the 600s CE allowed Hangzhou to be connected to the cities of northern China?
  • What technological innovation allowed for the mass production of books, documents, and banknotes during the Song dynasty? Be specific. What was the critical invention devised by Bi Sheng?
  • Despite Hangzhou becoming one of the most populous and richest cities in the world during the Song era, which segment of its society was cruelly discriminated against at that time?
  • What were some of the cultural milestones of the Song dynasty in each area of achievement? How did these innovations improve the lives of many ordinary Chinese people living in cities like Hangzhou? Fill in the chart below
  What were the achievements during the Song dynasty? How were the lives of ordinary Chinese people improved as a result?
Culture (including clothing, literature and poetry, cuisine, and architecture)

  • How did paper currency evolve? Write a short description of its origin and development from the Tang dynasty through the Song dynasty.
  • What were some of the features of the banknotes printed by the Chinese central government in Hangzhou beginning in 1265 CE? Why did the Chinese people ascribe value to this form of currency?
  • If not managed correctly, what is one of the dangers of using paper currency in an economy? What are the consequences for ordinary people of this type of fiscal mismanagement?

Extension Activity/​Homework

  • Watch and Learn from a China Scholar
    Dr. Valerie Hansen teaches Chinese history at Yale University. She is a well‐​known expert on one of the most famous Chinese paintings, a masterpiece known as the “Qing Ming Scroll,” which was commissioned by a Song dynasty emperor.
    Although the cityscape depicted in the scroll is a fictional rendition of an “ideal” Chinese urban area during the Song dynasty, it provides extensive evidence of the technological sophistication and economic innovations that were present in Hangzhou at the time.

    Watch the video of Dr. Hansen describing the entire scroll in detail. As you watch, find specific evidence in the scroll that exemplifies Chinese society during the Song dynasty.
  Examples in the Qingming Scroll
Social organization
Politics and governance
Interactions with the environment
Cultural developments
Economic systems

  • Create a Virtual Tour of Hangzhou
    Imagine that you are a tour operator in the modern city of Hangzhou. Your job is to promote your area to foreign visitors. Create a virtual tour of modern Hangzhou city using Google Presentation or PowerPoint and present it to your potential clients. What types of places would you like to show visitors to the city? How would you make Hangzhou appealing to them?
    Find information on popular tourist sites in Hangzhou, such as:
    • West Lake
    • The Grand Canal
    • Leifeng Pagoda
    • Lingyin Temple
    • Jingci Temple
    • Yue Fei Temple
    • Longjing Tea Farms
    • Xixi National Wetland Park
    • Qinghefang Ancient Street
    • Wuzhen Water Village

      On a Google Presentation or PowerPoint, create a slide for each site you wish to include in your presentation. Include images of each site, its location on a map of Hangzhou, and its importance to the history of the city. Make your slideshow as interesting as possible to entice potential visitors to visit Hangzhou.