The Origins of Coinage

The Chinese coinage system

The Western, Greek, coinage system was based on precious metal coins struck between two dies. In contrast, Chinese coins were made from copper-alloy, and were cast in moulds. The Chinese tradition flourished until the early twentieth century, when it was replaced by the European system.

Before 1000 BC, cowrie shells were used for payments, gifts and displays of wealth. Later these were replaced by substitutes made out of bone, bronze or jade. By the seventh century BC cloth and bronze tools such as hoes and knives were also being used as money. The first Chinese coins were produced when these objects were transformed into models representing their standardised value. ‘Spades’ and ‘knives’ were the standard currency in China until the second century BC.

Jade imitation of cowrie shellJade imitation of cowrie shell Spade money
Jade imitation
of cowrie shell,
10th-6th cent. BC.
© Fitzwilliam Museum
Spade money,
6th-5th cent. BC.
© Fitzwilliam Museum

During the third century BC, the round coin was introduced alongside the other types of money. It soon replaced the others as the sole type of money in China. These cast copper cash coins had a central square hole, so that they could be stacked on a stick or strung on a ribbon. The coins barely changed in appearance for 2000 years, until they were replaced with machine-struck coins in 1912.

Kingdom of Qin, round coin, obverseKingdom of Qin, round coin, reverse Wang Mang, 50-cash coin, obverseWang Mang, 50-cash coin, reverse
Kingdom of Qin,
round coin,
3rd cent. BC.
© Fitzwilliam Museum
Wang Mang (AD 9-23),
50-cash coin.
© Fitzwilliam Museum
De Zong, 10 cash coin, obverseDe Zong, 10 cash coin, reverse
De Zong (1875-1908),
10 cash coin.
© Fitzwilliam Museum


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Department of Coins and Medals, © Fitzwilliam Museum.