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Coinage and History in Ancient China

By Bill Dalzell

In the course of human history, the idea of coinage has evolved independently in only three places: Lydia, India, and China. While extensive contact and trade wove Indian and European numismatics into the same basic artistic and monetary tradition, Chinese geographic and cultural isolation has allowed a unique numismatic history to develop. As with all societies, the form and function of money in Chinese culture reflects the society in which it was used.

The first historical dynasty, the Shang, is also the first Chinese dynasty for which any monetary artifacts are found. The civilization at the time was generally agrarian, with a high degree of regional specialization in production of even the necessities of life, such as salt.[1] To facilitate commerce, shells of cypraea moneta were pierced and used in trade. Although at first used primarily for ornamental and religious purposes[2], the role of these shells was so important that the stylized pictogram for cowry, , is found in many monetary-related characters. Later, likely under the Western Zhou dynasty, imitations of cowry shells were produced in stone, bone and bronze.

With the degeneration of central rule following the Spring and Autumn period of the Zhou during the late fifth century BC, a myriad of new currency forms began to appear in the Warring States. From the cowry shells evolved the kuei-lien chfien, ghost-face money, often found in archaeological sites in the State of Chfu.[3] Two further classes of currency simultaneously evolved at this time: spade and knife coins. Prototype and inscribed forms of the spade are found in late Zhou tombs[4] in groups of hundreds, suggesting that they functioned as a larger denomination in a cowry-based economy. Later inscribed spade types are common in the State of Zhao and the State of Wei.[5] The knife money was first produced around 400 BC and was used in the States of Qi and Yan. In addition to these early forms of money, China 's first round coins also appeared during the Warring States.  These early cash coins developed around 350 BC in the areas where spade coins circulated and, by the time of Qin, were the only form of coinage circulating in China.[6] In general, these coins were stylistically primitive, bearing only a few simple archaic characters.

The fragmentation and confusion of the monetary system mirrored that of the political situation in China. However, with the coming of the Han, a new coinage type was issued. Although traditionally believed to be introduced in 221 BC by the first Han Emperor Gaozu, it is now though that this ban liang coinage began in the State of Qin in the mid 4th century.[7]  Certainly under the Han, it came to be the national currency, unifying the hitherto fragmented monetary system of China. The type was simple: a round, rough cast coin with a square hole and legend consisting of only two characters, indicating the weight of one half a Chinese ounce. Later, the Han introduced a second currency in a slightly more refined style, the wu zhu. These types were used intermittently from 118 BC to the rise of the Tang Dynasty.[8] Despite the unification of the system, the right to mint coins was not reserved by the Emperor or the government and individuals were permitted to issue their own coins.

In the middle of the Han dynasty, a usurper by the name of Wang Mang came to power. His reign was marked by an intensive program attempting to return China to the feudal glory of the Warring States era, an archaizing bent that is particularly evident in the coinage. With two monetary reforms, Wang Mang thoroughly balkanized the monetary system, contributing to the economic and social collapse that marks his reign. In addition to new types of knife and spade coins, he also instituted the use of cowry and tortoise shells in an elaborate system that confused even the educated Chinese.

After the fall of the Han, both the political and monetary situation again plunged into anarchy. However, the Tang dynasty eventually came to power and, in August of 621 AD, Emperor Gao Zu began the Kai Yuan (Inaugural Currency) coinage, re-establishing a stable currency.[9] This issue, with legends crafted by the calligraphist Ouyang Xun, brought Chinese coinage into the realm of art. Also under the Tang, the central government, struggling with the perennial debasement and decline of privately minted coins, sought to outlaw non-official production by making it a crime punishable by death. Unfortunately, this expediency was only as effective as the waning Tang control and with their collapse a plethora of local coinages once more blossomed. Among the succeeding kingdoms, one can notice that each chose to cast coins in line with their own political agenda. For example the Southern Tang state made coins of the Kai Yuan type and the Southern Han coins reminiscent of the wu zhu.[10]

Under the Song dynasty, Chinese coinage reached its high point. Tai Zu, the first emperor, established the convention of placing the reign title of the monarch on the obverse of the coin. This practice, which lasted until the Republic, is an indication of the growing power of the central government and the Emperor himself. At the same time, a number of calligraphic styles came to be used on the coinage, such as the seal, li, orthodox, running, and grass scripts, making this the artistic pinnacle of Chinese numismatics. As in eastern art at large, particular moods or feelings can be read in these styles. The finest calligraphy of all was the slender gold script, the personal style of Emperor Hui Zong, used only on coins of his reign from 1102-1125 AD.[11]

The Song also pioneered the world 's first paper currency. With the loss of the northern copper mines and the perpetual drain of coinage into the Jin kingdom, the Southern Song needed a way to extend their strained monetary supply. Working off of the widely used bills of credit and exchange, the government issued paper money, huizi, which were theoretically convertible into strings of cash.[12] The following Yuan dynasty continued this practice and as such is not noted for the artistic quality of their coins. Moreover, they issued a comparatively limited number, as the economy of the Mongol empire was based on paper money.

The Yuan also institutionalized a practice growing in Chinese economy since the Han: the use of precious metals. Prior to this innovation, there was no convenient way to exchange the varied currencies of the vast Mongol Empire. The shift to a silver-backed currency in China was motivated by the desire to create a unified monetary system. The Yuan currency, known as zhongtong chao was redeemable for a set amount of silver. Although the government was initially prepared with adequate reserves of precious metals, the temptation to cancel debts through increased printing soon led to crippling inflation.[13]

Paper currency backed by silver continued to be issued in varying degrees by the Chinese government. The final change to the traditional Chinese coinage occurred under the Qing dynasty. In order to attempt to regulate the quality of the coins being issued, mint names began to be included on the formerly anepigraphic reverse.[14] Although this system had been used periodically since the Tang and at the close of the Ming, the practice had now become standardized. Notably, with the reign of Kangxi in 1662, the legends used on the reverse to indicate the mint are in Manchu characters,[15] indicating increased control of the coinage by the central government.

The coinage of China has, since its very inception, been intimately tied to the historical situation of the nation. Originally diverse, the various forms of coins become consolidated and unified along with the Empire. Eventually, the state coinage became, as they had centuries earlier in the west, minor artistic objects, here marked by numerous styles of calligraphy. Later dynasties altered the basis of the currency system itself, increasing the importance of silver. Finally, the autarky of the Manchu emperors was exemplified by the standardized inclusion of Manchu mintmarks. 


Hartill, David. Cast Chinese Coins. Trafford Publishing: Victoria, BC, 2005.

Peng, Xinwei. A Monetary History of China (Zhongguo Huobo Shi). Trans. Edward H Kaplan. Western Washington University, 1994.

Von Glahn, Richard. Fountain of Fortune: Money and Monetary Policy in China, 1000-1700. University of California Press: Berkley, 1996.

Yuquan, Wang. Early Chinese Coinage. American Numismatic Society: New York, 1951.

[1] Wang Yu-Chfuan, Early Chinese Coinage. (New York: American Numismatic Society), 25-26.

[2] Yu-Chfuan, 55.

[3] Ibid, 80.

[4] David Hartill, Cast Chinese Coins. (Victoria, BC: Trafford Publishing), 5.

[5] Hartill, Cast Chinese Coins,  6, 19

[6] Ibid, 80.

[7] Ibid, 83.

[8] Ibid, 85.

[9] Ibid, 103.

[10] Ibid, 122.

[11] Ibid, 150.

[12] Richard Von Gahn, Fountains of Fortune: Money and Monetary Policy in China, (Berkley: University of California Press)  51.

[13] Von Gahn, Fountains of Fortune, 65.

[14] Hartill, Cast Chinese Coins, xv.

[15] Ibid, 285.



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