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A Brief Chinese Coinage History

I really want to introduce the special features of the ancient Chinese Coinage to the world. But I must declare that English is not my first language, defects are inevitable, corrections and suggestions from you will be highly appreciated. On the other hand, I personally find it is very difficult to use the appropriate translations for the technical terminology in Chinese Coinage. I don't know whether there are some standards which I can follow. I find different books have different translations of the same Chinese terminology. There must be someone who can help me to find the correct translations.

Current knowledge of the origins of Chinese civilization is still very incomplete, though much has been improved within the last few decades. As we do not have any written record about the Chinese before the period of Xia dynasty, according to the old Chinese legends, we believe that: In about 3000 BC, a large group of ancient Chinese people lived in the valleys of Yellow River(Huanghe) [The water of the river are really in a muddy yellow colour.], because the Yellow River brought plenty of fertile soil, and deposited with every flood, when it flowed from the west plateau eastwards to the sea of China. Acient Chinese people ceased to rely solely on hunting and gathering for their food supplies as before, they stayed and began to grew crops and kept animals along the Yellow River. The beginning of agriculture enabled a more settled life for the Chinese people, and germinated the complex Chinese nation's cultures.

The Xia dynasty was founded about 2200 BC. Yu became the first ruler of the Xia dynasty for his hard working of building canels to control the floods caused by the Yellow River. [For the past 3000 years of recorded history, Yellow River had changed their courses for 1500 times before they had reached the Gulf of Bohai. Althought high dikes were built, it did not help much, the change of course occurred due to the seasonal rainfall of north China, floodwaters often flowed above the level of the plain beyond the dikes. The river seldom returned to its old bed.] Xia dynasty lasted until 1766 BC. Tang who defeated the Jie , the last ruler of the Xia to founded the Shang dynasty which lasted to 1122 BC. During the Shang dynasty, People began to use animals bones and tortoise shells to record events. Trading were very active at that time. The Chinese word "Shangren" means "Trader" lasted until present time. Ancient China, same as other countries in the world, certain commodities such as grain and silk and token tablets were used as the historical currency. People were also able to use metals and made bronzeware. The inscriptions on bronze vessels recorded the beginning of the Chinese civilization too.

Shells were very common for those who lived near the coast, but they were so attractive for those who lived in Central China, because shells were hard to come by in inland China, so far from the coast in the ancient time. A kind of cowrie shells was formerly used as currency in parts of Africa and ancient Chinese society. Although scholars of Chinese history often point out that barter transactions remained the predominant form of exchange in Shang and early Zhou dynasty. Shells were used occasionally as money at that time. We easily find that the compositions of some Chinese characters: "Huo" meaning "goods", "Fan" meaning "peddler", "Kuan" meaning " a string of a thousand cash", "Mai" meaning "purchase" and "Mai" meaning "sell", all contain the Chinese character "Pei" meaning "shell". These prove that the shells and wealth were closely related in the ancient China. [The use of shells as media of exchange had lasted until 1647AD in Yunnan province, when the peasant insurrectionary armies of Sun K'e Wang entered Yunnan province, shells were forbidden using as legal tender again. People used copper cash instead of shells.]

Six centuries later, the power of Shang dynasty vanished gradually, the leader of Zhou , Ji Fa by the help of 800 west tribes defeated the Shang troops. Ji Fa became the ruler of Zhou dynasty which could be devided into two periods, Western Zhou and Eastern Zhou in Chinese History.

King Wu of Western Zhou released some of his lands to his relatives and nobles. All these nobles obeyed and protected the Zhou king from the invading barbarians and the disloyal lords. The Zhou became stronger than the Shang. The Zhou king was killed by the barbarians in 771BC. The new authority moved the capital to Luoyi , now Luogang . This was the period of Eastaern Zhou .

The power of the kings were no longer strong as before, when some of the lords did not obey the kings. The books "Ch'un-chiu" means "Spring and Autumn Annals" which describes the history of China between 722BC to 481BC written by the famous Chinese scholar Kongzi . [The title of the book was borrowed as the name of the describing period by the archaeologists.] When the kings of Eastern Zhou were weak, five "Mighty Leaders" actually controlled the Central China in this period.

The Grand Canel was dug to join the Yellow River and Huaihe in about 720BC. Many canels were built in the later five centuries. These much improved the trade and transportation between the different states in the period of "Ch'un-chiu". Copper money such as the knife money which was generated by Qi state. Spade money [shovel-shaped coin] which was generated by Jin state. Devil-faced money and I-Pi Chien [The characters inscribed on the coin resembled a human face or an ant.], even Yuan Chin [flat and square gold plates] used by Chu states. States of Zhou , Wei , Zhao and Qin generally used Huan Chien [Round copper coins bore a round hole]. People used the bronze copies or bone copies of shell replaced the real shells as money in the later Western Zhou period, when the supply of shells did not seem to have met the demand. Because the use of all these copper cash, certain kinds of commodity money such as the hemp cloth and grain vanishing slowly as the medium of exchange.

"Warring States" (475BC-221BC) was formed when 7 states fought between each other. Just like the period of "Ch'u-chiu", the name of "Warring States" came from the book known as the Strategies of the Warring States . The stronger states defeated the weaker states. By the Warring States period, there were some differences in basic cultural elements, such as language differences between the states. They all used written Chinese, but there was no standardized characters and writing styles. Many essentials cultural elements varied from state to state, such as currency, weight and measures, they were all different from each other. At last, the powerful Qin defeated the other 6 states: Han , Zhao , Wei , Chu , Yan and Qi between 230BC to 221BC. The king, Qin Shih Huang became the first real Emperor of the united China in 222BC.

After the Qin Emperor united all the states in central China, Qin Shih Huang ordered to form a uniform system which was applied throughout the whole empire for a better administrations. He abolished all former variations in regional culture, such as weights, measures and even the writing styles and the usage of characters. Of course, he abolished the various monetary system of the six states too. He casted a new round coin, called Panliang which was the first round coin in the united China of Qin dynasty. The round coins [Huan Chien ] firstly bore a round hole rather than the later typical square hole.[The shape of round coins was always associated with the Chinese worldview in which the sky is round and the earth square.] Its weight was half tael or twelve Shu .

The Panliang decreased in the size and weight as the Emperor of Han who overthrew the Qin dynasty, permitted the use of coins of lighter weight and private mints as the Qin Panliang was too heavy for practical use. These caused the problem of private underweight coins existed seriously. Private coinage was prohibited as 8-shu Panliang coins were issued officially in 186BC. People found that 8-shu Panliang still too heavy to use. The 4-shu Panliang coins were minted in 175BC and lasted for half century. People also tried the 3-shu coins from 140BC to 136BC and a kind of 3-shu coin which was issued bearing a legend indicating its actual weight in 119BC. At last, a new coin called "Wu-shu" which was weighed in five Shu replaced the 3-shu coins in 118BC. Wu-shu coin was proved to be the most convenient coin and became the standard coin of the Han dynasty. Wu-shu-chien were stayed in circulation for more than seven centuries.

In the history of Chinese coinage, we may know that Wang Mang had introduced a very complicated coinage including the six varietics of Ch'uan and the ten denominations of Pu in 7AD []. Most of coins cast by him became rare coins nowadays except the Ta-Ch'uan Wu-Ship , Hsiao-Ch'uan Chih-I , Huo-Ch'uan and the beautiful spade-like coin Huo-Pu .

[ More about Chinese Coinage History would be continud later ]


  1. Ting Fu Pao : 古錢大辭典, 中華書局 (A dictionary of ancient Chinese coins), 1982.
  2. 中國歷代幣貨 A History of Chinese Currency (16th Century BC - 20th Century AD), 1983 Jointly Published by Xinhua (New China) Publishing House N.C.N. Limited M.A.O. Management Group Ltd. ISBN 962 7094 01 3
  3. Pang Hsin Wei : 中國貨幣史, 上海人民出版社, The Currency History of China, 1988. ISBN7-208-00196-0/K.47

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