Reaching back to the dawn of civilization, the story of money and coinage in China is long, dramatic and sometimes murky. The first coins in China appear in the 6th century BC, about 100 years after the first known coins were made in Lydia (ancient Turkey). However, the history of money in China begins much earlier with shell money and other pre-coin currency.
China’s development of coins appears to have occurred at least somewhat independently from other ancient coinage. We see evidence of this separate development in the unique shapes of early Chinese coins which took the form of miniature tools. Perhaps more significant evidence of independent development is found in the coin manufacturing methods themselves. While most coins of Europe were struck with dies, Chinese coins were cast in molds. Chinese coins would continue to be cast until relatively modern times when in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the striking of coins gradually replaced casting.
As one of humanity’s oldest civilizations, China’s history is both vast and varied. This survey of Chinese coinage encompasses thousands of years during which time the political geography of China changed radically many times. The nation we now know as China would oscillate between periods of disunity when the region would be divided among multiple kingdoms and states, and relative unity when powerful dynasties would consolidate rule across huge empires. Likewise, the physical territory controlled by these dynasties would shift, expand, and contract as their fortunes rose and fell.
Chinese coinage is a field rich with opportunities for study, with new discoveries being made regularly and new theories emerging as archeologists and numismatists work to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Hopefully this historical overview will pique your interest for this exciting area and give you some ideas for your own further research and exploration.
The first references to money in China appear in the relics of the Shang Dynasty during the second millennium BC when shells (cowries) were used as a medium of exchange. Inscriptions on Shang artifacts note cowries in the treasury, gifts of cowries, and other references indicating the use of these shells as currency. The Zhou Dynasty carried the use of cowries as money into the first millennium BC and it was during the time of the Zhou that imitation cowries made from bone, stone and other materials appear. The use of these substitute shells was likely the result of insufficient supplies of cowries to meet the need for currency.
Although they were used like coins, the cowries lack certain features of coinage, such as an official inscription to certify the authority of the coin, and a universally understood system of denomination. Therefore the cowries are generally classified as primitive money, not coins.
By 600 BC the practice of using objects as a medium of exchange was well established in China, with bronze knives, spades and other farming implements used as money. The first true coins grew from this use of tools as a medium of exchange. During the 6th century in the Kingdom of Zhou in northern China, bronze coins in the shape of a spade (or hoe) were first cast.
The idea of coinage spread to neighboring Chinese states quickly. Bronze, spade-shaped castings were common, but also seen were knife shapes, and cowrie shapes. Spade money is associated with western states, while knife money is associated with eastern states. Coins modeled on cowries were in use throughout China. Similar in shape to the cowries are small oval coins known as ant nose money and ghost face money associated with the State of Chu. The names ant nose and ghost face come from the appearance of the calligraphy on the coins.
Inscriptions on the coinage of this early period are the subject of ongoing study. Not all inscriptions have been satisfactorily deciphered and there is often debate as to their meaning. Typical inscriptions might name the issuing locality, ruler, or craftsman who made the coin, and frequently the weight of the coin. There are also numeric inscriptions which may be serial numbers. Many of the early coin systems were denominated in units that corresponded to the weight of the coin. The Chinese word jin, meaning spade or hoe, was in use throughout Chinese history to mean a pound weight.
Around the 3rd century BC some Chinese mints began to cast round coins with a hole in the center. These round coins were more convenient to use and store.
In 255 BC, having subdued his rivals in a lengthy civil war, Qin Shi Huangdi became China’s first emperor. Among the major hallmarks of Qin’s reign are the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Warriors. Qin also instituted a significant currency reform. In 221 BC, spade, knife and cowrie shaped coins were eliminated and coinage was standardized as a round coin with a square hole, a style which persisted in China until 1912. The circulating coins were made of bronze and were only issued in one denomination. They have a two-character inscription, ban liang, which translates to half teal or roughly half ounce. These coins are generally called ban liang after the inscription. Qin also produced a gold coin which was the high currency, or the currency of the upper class.
The Han Dynasty ruled the Chinese Empire from 206 BC to 220 AD with a brief interruption (7-23 AD detailed below).
During the first 90 years of the Han Dynasty, the ban liang coin of Qin was used with the same inscription. However, a series of official reductions in the weight of the coins meant that by 118 BC the ½ ounce coin now weighed only 1/8 ounce.
The Han emperor Wudi (140-87 BC) reformed the currency in 118 BC introducing the wu zhu. The new Han coin weighed 5 zhu or about 2.5 grams. During the Han Dynasty, the empire expanded to include parts of Viet Nam and Korea, and the Han coins circulated widely. They would continue to be used until the fall of the dynasty and beyond.
It is noteworthy that during the time of the Han advances in mold making and casting technique led to an elevation in the artistry seen on many coins. The new techniques involved using a master form of bronze to create multiple molds, allowing the work of a single highly skilled craftsman to be replicated numerous times.
The Han Dynasty was briefly interrupted from 7-23 AD when Wang Mang seized power. Wang Mang instituted two currency reforms. During the first reform, Wang Mang reintroduced spade and knife shaped coins while continuing the use of round coins. More significant than the shapes, however, Wang Mang’s currency was not valued based on weight but on an abstract decimal value assigned to various coins. Wang Meng’s 18 decimal coins ranged in value from a round coin with a value of 1 to a knife coin with a value of 5,000. Perhaps ahead of its time, this abstracted valuing was rejected by the public. Wang Mang’s second reform introduced a much simpler two coin system – a 5 zhu round coin and a spade coin that was worth 25 round coins.
When the Han regained control of the empire they restored the wu zhu.
The end of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD was followed by four centuries of divided rule among a succession of kingdoms and minor states. The old Han coins continued to be used and were frequently the standard currency. The various political entities tried with greater and lesser success to institute their own currencies. The coins followed the familiar pattern of round shapes with square holes, but with a tremendous variety of metals, sizes and inscriptions.
The Sui Dynasty (581-618) re-united China and the Sui Emperor restored the Han wu zhu.
Gao Zu, the first Tang emperor, ascended in 618. The Tang would rule China until 907. In 621, Gao Zu established a new coin, the kai yuan tong bao, which translates roughly to inaugural (or new beginning) universal currency. The weight of kai yuan tong bao was set to 2.4 zhu with a diameter of 8 fen. The coins followed the tradition of a round shape with a square hole. The Tang coins introduced a four-character inscription that identified the dynasty or reign under which the coin was issued, as well as its function. This four-character inscription would be in use for centuries to come and adopted by neighboring countries.
The Tang coins used a style of calligraphy known as li shu, or clerk script, which was a departure from the zhuan shu, or seal script seen on earlier Chinese coinage. The new calligraphy is more basic and square in appearance. Tang coins also frequently have a crescent shape or other symbol on the reverse. Although legend says that this crescent originated when the Empress Wende marked the wax mold with her fingernail, these symbols are likely some type of quality control markings from the mint.
The period 907-960 is called the Five Generations and Ten Kingdoms. During this time Chinese rule was once again divided. Various states issued coins fashioned after the Tang model. Coin production was often very limited, and many coins of this period are quite rare. Iron or lead was frequently used due to copper shortages.
China was reunified under the Song Dynasty (960-1279). This period saw rapid economic growth and a corresponding need for circulating currency. The Song slowly introduced token coins, first issuing coins worth 2 or 3 regular coins and then graduating to 5 and 10 coin tokens. Song coinage was very successful and in addition to supplying its own needs, exported Song coins were used in Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia.
The Song Dynasty also saw the introduction of paper money. This paper money began as promissory notes used by merchants. The idea and usefulness of paper currency gained acceptance, and the government began printing currency in 1024. By the 12th century, paper currency was the primary medium of exchange in China.
The Western Xia, a Tibetan dynasty, and the Liao, a Tartar dynasty, remained independent during the period of the Song and issued their own, Tang-style coins.
The Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) was a Tartar dynasty that arose rapidly to control all of Northern China in a period overlapping the latter days of the Song. The Jin used both Song coins and their own. Jin coins are known for their high level of craftsmanship.
Under the leadership of Genghis Khan and his son Ogedei, the Mongols overtook China through a series of conquests beginning in 1204 with the Western Xia. By 1279 the Mongols controlled all of China and established the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The Mongols relied greatly on paper money and therefore issued fewer coins than might be expected. They did produce Song style coins in 1295, 1297, 1310, and 1351-5. Some later Mongol coins from the 1351-5 issue have inscriptions on their backs to indicate the date of minting, and in the 1360s some coins were issued with denominations on their backs which corresponded to paper money values.
Mongol currency, both paper and coin, suffered from inflationary pressures.
The Ming Dynasty ruled China from 1368-1694. The first Ming emperor, Taizu, actually began issuing coins in 1361 as he battled the Mongols. Taizu’s coins took the form of the Tang, with those issued at provincial mints having the mint name inscribed on the reverse. Taizu issued coins in 1361 and 1368 in 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10 coin denominations.
In 1375, the Ming abandoned coins in favor of paper currency and with the exception of small issues in 1408 and 1433 there was no coin production again until 1503. As in the time of the Mongols, the Ming struggled with inflation. In 1505, the Ming began making brass coins (rather than bronze) as well as 2, 5 and 10 coin tokens. Ming coins indentified the reign period of issue on the front and during the last two reign periods also included inscriptions on the reverse to indicate the producing mint or the value.
Also during the late Ming, foreign silver began to circulate in China, particularly silver 8 real pieces from Spain’s new world mints, typically from Mexico City and Potosi.
The Manchurian Qing Dynasty was the last imperial dynasty and ruled China from 1644 to 1921. This period sees ten emperors, each of whom produced coins in their own name. The result is hundreds of different coin types; by some estimates more than one thousand.
During the Qing period two types of currency were in use. Silver ingots were used for larger transactions and copper cash for daily use. Silver ingots were denominated in liang (also referred to as tael). Copper cash was denominated in wen. One liang was theoretically worth 1,000 wen. However, this rate of exchange was fluid over time, fluctuating from as low as about 600:1 to as high as about 1200:1.
Although the Qing Dynasty is said to begin in 1644 with the capture of Beijing, the Manchurians were casting Chinese-style coins with inscriptions in both Chinese and Manchurian as early as 1616.
The Qing established a large network of mints throughout China. Coins produced by the Qing followed the pattern of inscribing the reign period on the front of the coin and the mint name on the reverse. In the early days of the Qing the mint name was written in Chinese, then in both Chinese and Manchurian. After 1723 the name was inscribed in Manchurian only.
As the Manchu expanded the Chinese Empire, in 1755 the Qing emperor Gaozong began issuing coins in Chinese Turkestan. A new copper coin appears at this time, still round with a square hole, but with the mint names inscribed in Turkish and Manchurian on the reverse.
In 1792 a mint was opened in Lhassa, Tibet. Early coins from the Tibet mint were modeled on existing coinage. In 1793 a new design was introduced with a Chinese inscription on one side reading “Tibetan money of the Qianlong period, 58th year” on one side, and a Tibetan translation on the other side. The next two emperors would issue similar styled coins.
Chinese control in Tibet and Turkestan was often tenuous, a fact reflected in coinage. The 19th century saw local coin issues styled after both Chinese and Russian coins.
During the Qing period the foreign currency which first appeared in the late Ming, continued to become increasingly important. Declining confidence in Chinese currency helped fuel demand for foreign silver.
During the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64) the Qing emperor Wenzong issued token currencies and paper money in values ranging from 5 to 1,000 standard coins. This currency was rejected by the people, and although the Taiping rebellion was short-lived, the damage to the monetary system was more lasting. Also during the rebellion the Taiping rebels issued their own cast bronze coins inscribed with six Chinese characters on the front and two on the back.
By the 1870s, American and Japanese silver were also circulating widely.
In 1890, finally yielding to decades of pressure to abandon traditional cast copper-alloy coinage, the Chinese government began to strike silver coins in 5, 10, 20 and 50 cent, and 1 dollar denominations at the Guangshou mint. Known as Qing Dragon Coins, they were struck without the square hole, and featured a prominent dragon design as well as Chinese, Manchurian and English writing. By 1900 Dragon Coins were being produced in other Chinese mints, with most of the machinery being imported from England. Copper cents also joined the silver pieces. The new Chinese coins circulated along with traditional cast coins and foreign currency which now included French and British dollars.
The republican government overthrew the Manchu Qing Dynasty in 1912 establishing the Republic of China and ushering in the modern period. The need for new currency was immediate, and as various provinces across China declared independence, they would issue their own military currencies and the national government began issuing coins in its own name. These coins featured pictures of the presidents, first Sun Yat Sen and later Yuan Shikia, and also flags and pictures of the armed forces. The National Currency Ordinance of 1914 established the silver dollar as the national currency.
The new government did not produce any cast coins, but cast coins did continue to circulate for a time and they may have been produced in small numbers in rural areas until about 1925.
Foreign currency continued to circulate in China until the 1930s.
In the 1930s volatility in the global value of silver put extreme pressure on Chinese currency. Rising values resulted in silver leaving China at rates that made sustaining the silver standard for currency impossible. In 1936 the Nationalist government (1928-49) produced a series of bronze coins with a design featuring the classic spade coin on the reverse and the Nationalist star on the front and abolished the use of silver dollars.
During the 1940s, the Nationalist government relied mostly on paper money. It is notable that during October 1947 and May 1949 China experienced one of history’s great hyperinflations which at its worst saw inflation rates of greater that 5,000% in a single month.
In the 1930s and 1940s China’s currency was strained by civil war and war with Japan. As early as 1931, communist held areas produced their own, mostly paper, currency. In northern China, Japanese puppet governments issued coins influenced by Japanese issues of the day.
China was reunified as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 under the leadership of Mao Zedong. While there have been some dramatic changes in monetary policy over the years, the official currency of the PRC was and remains the renminbi. Under the renminbi system 100 fen = 10 jiao = 1 yuan.
At first renminbi was a paper-only currency. Beginning in 1956, China reintroduced coinage issuing large numbers of aluminum 1, 2 and 5 fen coins (dated 1955). These coins feature the denomination in a wreath above the date on the reverse, and the National Emblem (a wreath encircling Tianenmen Gate) on the front.
China has had several reissuances of coins since 1956 with new denominations added and various experiments in metal content. Brass 1, 2, and 5-jiao and cupro-nickel 1-yuan coins were added in 1980. Like the preceding fen issues, the jiao coins showed Tianenmen Gate. The yuan coin showed the Great Wall. Coins changed again in 1991 when a smaller aluminum designs were introduced showing flowers on the obverse and the national emblem on the reverse. Similar new designs with variations in size and metallic content were released in 1999 and 2002, with the most recent changes (as of this writing) seen in 2005.
Hartill, David. Cast Chinese Coins: A Historical Catalogue. Trafford, 2005. ISBN 1412054664, 9781412054669
Cribb, Joe. Cook, Barrie. Carradice, Ian. The Coin Atlas: A Comprehensive View of the Coins of the World Throughout History. Time Warner, 2003. ISBN 0316726974, 9780316726979
de Lacouperie, Terrien. Catalogue of Chinese Coins from the VIIth Cent. B. C., to A. D. 621. British Museum. Department of Coins and Medals 1892.