Ancient Coinage, Approaching the Past

The history of Chinese coinage remains one of the most important chapters in China’s cultural history. Through the study of the coins, people come to appreciate the histories of Chinese social systems, politics, military affairs, economy, civilization, folk culture and traditions, technology and craft. It is thus said that all the changes in history are reflected in the coin.

Money emerged spontaneously in the circulation of commodities. As a nation with a long history of civilization, China ranks among the first to use coins for trade. It has over ten thousand species of coins that were used in different eras and areas, of which close to 70 items belong to the earliest inventions in the world. In terms of both variety and invention, no other country comes close to the Chinese ingenuity.

There are about 30,000 different Chinese coins including calligraphy and mint variations, spanning over a period of 3,000 years. They have many shapes and sizes. Traditionally, Chinese coins were cast in copper, brass or iron, and took such different kinds of shapes as hoes and knives (known as spade money and knife money), but they were most commonly in the form of round-shaped coins with a square or circular hole in the center. The hole enabled the coins to be strung together to create higher denominations, as was frequently done due to the coin's low value.

In ancient China, cowries and livestock were used as a medium of exchange in late Neolithic period (21st century BC). This kind of money substitute was gradually replaced by the unwrought weight metals and cast coins in the Shang and Zhou dynasties (16th-770BC). Later, the cast coins as the major form of ancient Chinese currency (221BC), the round-with-a -central-square-hole coins superseded all the pervious types of the cast coins and circulated continuously till the Ming and Qing dynasties (1279-1911).The silver dollars appeared in the Qing Daoguang reign period (1821-1850), and the minted silver and copper coins circulated since the Qing Guangxu reign period (1875-1908).

Chinese coins a good reflection of Chinese history in the areas of economic development, Chinese language and calligraphy, metallurgy technology, and social styles. Since ancient coins can serve many different interest groups, also because that once taken out of circulation, coins can assume extrinsic values that will inflate with time and scarcity, they become collectible or treasured items. For example, early silver coins in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and the Republic (since 1911) have now become rare and gained enormous value.