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Chinese Money: Coining World Currency

Chinese coins are a good reflection of Chinese history in the areas of economic development, Chinese language and calligraphy, metallurgy technology, and social styles.

The ancient Chinese monetary system was a very unique one since it was completely devoid of Western influence until the end of the 19th century, with the earliest examples dating back 2,000 years.

Some of the earliest forms of currency in China were made of shell, animal hide, jade, or satin, and were part of a barter economy built around the exchange of goods. By the end of the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 1100-771BC), somewhere between 1000 and 400BC, a more standardized form of metal currency was developed.

 Major Forms

1. Knife money: Known for its knife-like shape, "knife money" is the oldest form of hard currency in China. About seven inches in length, knife money had a hole in the middle blade, as well as hand-carved inscriptions that detailed the coin's origin and trading value. These oldest examples of copper coinage are not to be confused with the stylistic imitations of the Wang Mang era, which are considerably smaller (3 inches long) and contain square holes.

2. Spade-shaped money: Like knife money, the term "spade money" is also derived from the shape of the coin. The prominent role of agriculture was eventually brought into play during the Warring States Period (c. 400 B.C.), which is reflected in the choice of the spade as the civilization's currency.

3. Half-liang: With the unification of China under the Qin Emperor Shihuang came a more standardized monetary system. Knife and spade coins were replaced with the Emperor's half-liangs. One half-liang weighs about 25 grams and is round in shape with a square hole in the middle. Each coin is further identified by the word "half liang" inscribed on one side. The coin's nickname, "Square Hole Brother," was also derived from its shape.

4. Zhi coin: The classical shape of the Chinese coin continued throughout the Tang Dynasty (618-907) with the birth of zhi coins. Though still round in shape with a square hole in the middle, these coins differ from their predecessors in that they bear the title of an emperor's reign. The Japanese adopted this style for their own coins, and only an expert on Chinese coins can tell the difference between foreign copies and Tang originals. This evolving personalization on coins by ruling emperors of the time was further developed by Song Dynasty (960-1279) Emperor Huzong, who had the title of his reign engraved on coins in his famous slim-style of writing. It was also during the Song Dynasty that an entirely new form of currency emerged: paper money.

5. Paper currency: The first banknotes appeared in China, where the paper note survived for over 500 years, spanning from the ninth to the 15th century. Over this period, paper notes grew in production to the point that their value rapidly depreciated and inflation soared. Beginning in 1455, the use of paper money in China disappeared for several hundred years. This was still many years before paper currency would reappear in Europe, and three centuries before it was popularized.

 Diversity of Coin Character Styles

The Wu Shu or "Five Unit" coin (left) was introduced during the reign of the Han Emperor Wudi in 118BC. The inscription on this coin is in the Small Seal style introduced during the reign of the Qin Emperor Shihuang of the Qin Dynasty. The hourglass-shaped character on the right is an early form of the character for "Five".

Chinese "Spade Money" (right) was issued by the Emperor Wang Mang (7-22) and illustrates a fine example of a variation of early Chinese greater seal script characters on the obverse (front) of the piece. The greater seal style was introduced by an official during the reign of Emperor Xuanwang (827- 782BC) of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100 -771BC). The usurper, Wang Mang, was an admirer of the style of ancient currency, so he re-introduced the obsolete spade money. The Greater Seal inscription style is recognizable by its long, flowing lines.

The coin (left) is a much later coin from the Tang Dynasty. Its characters are of the clerical or official style. Although the character strokes are more rounded and flowing than in modern script or calligraphic styles of the last 500 years, they are more compact than both the greater and small seal styles.


Chinese coin collectors have evolved a rating system on a scale out of 10. Coins found by the tens of thousands have a rating of ten, while those numbering no higher than five in the world receive a rating of one. Coins numbering less than 50 are given a rating of two. Most coins are donated to museums and are hard to come by on the open market. Since most Chinese coin publications include such ratings, they serve as a consensus among many collectors over a long period. Although the ratings vary with time and authors, they seldom exceed one order of magnitude.

Ancient Chinese coins are becoming more and more popular among collectors, with examples from certain periods commanding large sums of money. But anyone interested in starting a collection of their own should consult an expert before making purchases.