The History of Early Chinese Money

Controversies over Dates


The dating of early Chinese coins is a controversial subject. For more information on the problems see the Chinese coin guide.

There is less division between early and recent writers on the subject of cowries used as money in China. According to Joe Cribb "before coins were invented in China, cowrie shells were used as money. Payments of cowries as rewards are described in inscriptions on ancient Chinese bronzes of the second millennium BC. Chinese archaeologists excavating tomb sites of the Shang period (sixteenth to eleventh centuries BC) have dug up large numbers of money cowries, often tied together in strings." Note on page 27 of -

Money : from cowrie shells to credit cards / edited by Joe Cribb. London : Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Publications, 1986. - 192p : ill ; 27cm. Published to coincide with the exhibition "Money: from cowrie shells to credit cards" held at the British Museum from 28 May to 26 October 1986. - 0-7141-0862-6

Coins : an illustrated survey, 650 BC to the present day / general editor, Martin Jessop Price; published in association with British Museum Publications Limited. London : Hamlyn, 1980. ISBN 0-600-32023-5

Chapter 20, The Far East by Joe Cribb p. 295-311. p 295. From about the twelfth century BC monetary use was made of grain, cloth, animals, ornaments and metals, most functional of which were cowry shells and bronze tools. The first coins were cast bronze imitations of these monetary objects, hoes, knives and cowries. The earliest coins were inscribed imitation hoes issued by the Zhou kings in the late sixth century BC ... In the third century BC a practical solution to the problem of handling irregularly shaped coins was found by replacing hoe and knife coins with flat disc-shaped coins with a central hole, so they could be carried in bulk on strings."

Money : from cowrie shells to credit cards / edited by Joe Cribb. op cit

Gernet, Jacques Ancient China from the beginnings to the Empire. London : Faber & Faber, 1968. - 157p. Originally published as "La Chine ancienne". Presses Universitaires de France, 1964.

p 107-108 "The first metallic coins, cast in bronze, date from about 500 B.C. according to Chinese archaelogists. They were fairly heavy pieces shaped like spades or knives. It may be that these metal objects first served as means of exchange in the country. ... Four types of coinage were current in China in the fourth and third centuries [B.C.]. ... They were as follows: the Shansi region ... where spade-shaped coins were in circulation; the kingdoms of the north-east ... where coins were knife-shaped; the Wei valley in Shensi ... where round coins with a central hole were used; lastly the sphere of influence of the the Ch"u kingdom (middle Yangtse and Han valley), where use was made of gold coins shaped as tablets divided into sixteen little squares carrying the indication of their value, and where bronze cowrie shells were also struck, in imitation of the little shells which were fertility symbols with magic powers - as well as being ornaments, greatly prized for their value in the archaic period."

Hsu, Cho-yun Ancient China in transition : an analysis of social mobility, 722-222 B.C. / by Cho-yun Hsu. Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 1965. - 240p. - 0-8047-0223-3

p 122-126 The Appearance of Coinage.

p 124 "In the twenty-first year of the reign of King Ching of Chou (524 B.C.) the issue of heavy coins is said to have been discussed."

p 211-212 Hsu criticises the arguments of Yang (cited below) who suggests that metallic money could have appeared as early as the 11th century B.C.

Yang, Lien-sheng Money and credit in China : a short history / by Lien-sheng Yang Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press / 1952. - 143 p. - (Harvard-Yenching Institute monograph series ; vol.12). - 0-674-58300-0

Earlier writers, e.g. A. Terrien de Lacouperie in his Catalogue of Chinese coins in the British Museum, 1892, give much earlier dates for the origin of Chinese coins. Two writers on primitive money, Quiggin and Einzig, tend to rely on these earlier estimates in their own books.

Quiggin, A. Hingston (Alison Hingston) A survey of primitive money : the beginnings of currency. New York : AMS Press, 1979. - 344p : ill ; 23 cm. Includes index. - Reprint of the 1949 ed. published by Methuen, London. - Bibliography, p. 323-333. - 0-404-15964-8

p 228 "Chinese coins claim to be the earliest of all, with round coins dating from the earlier half of the Chou dynasty (1122-249 B.C.) and other forms such as spade, hoe, knife, ... earlier still. This is a moderate estimate. There are distinguished authorities in Europe as well as in China, who, relying chiefly on literary evidence, would shift the date some thousand years further back. The testimony of the Shu Ching, the earliest historical work in China (much of which is undoubtedly later interpolation) assigns the origin of currency to the very beginning of the Shang dynasty in the 18th century B.C. ... The Shih Chi or Historical Records of Ssu-ma Ch"ien, written between 163-85 B.C., states that media of exchange were in existence in the Hsia dynasty which preceded the Shang dynasty, and even in the time of Emperors Shun and Yu in the 3rd millennium."

Paul Einzig also relies on writers like Lacouperie who assign very early dates to Chinese coins.

Einzig, Paul, 1897-1973 Primitive money in its ethnological, historical and economic aspects. 2nd ed., revised & enlarged. Pergamon, 1966.

p 246 "The popularity of cowries as currency led to the use of metallic cowries around 600 B.C. in order to combine the time-honoured shape of the currency with the advantage of the use of metals for monetary purposes. ... It was not until 655 B.C. - about the same time as in Lydia and Argos - that the ring money of the Central Kingdom of Tchou came to be stamped."

p 247 "In 1954 B.C. the founder of the Hia Dynasty cast metal implements which were easy to barter for the relief of his people in distress during the floods of the Hwang-Ho. Towards the end of the 2nd millennium small bronze implements in daily use such as hoes, spades and sickles, exchanged by weight, became a favourite currency. ... By the 7th century [B.C.] knives, sickles, hoes or adzes formed the lower currency in China."

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