The History of Coins in China


"Kingdoms wax and wane. States come and go," Luo Guanzhong wrote in his novel The Three Kingdoms. The same can be said of China's money: in the course of its long development from a small cultural island on the Yellow River to the People's Republic, the Land of the Dragon has witnessed many forms of money come and go. And yet the history of its money has been characterised by its unique stability – cowry currency and the cash coin, for example, were in circulation for many centuries. This and other kinds of money from the Middle Kingdom are presented here in their historical context. The commentaries by Dagmar Lorenz, sinologist and author of the DVD, complete the small tour d'horizon.



China – thousands of years of civilization.

Ancient China lived on agriculture: the country’s crops were vital to its affluence and stability.

It is, therefore, no wonder that Chinese mythology tells of rulers turning the soil into farmland and regulating the rivers.

One of these rivers is the Huanghe, the Yellow River.

On its Great Plain the origins of Chinese culture emerged, and this was also where the great history of Chinese money originated.

In those ancient times, this whole area was inhabited by peasants and warriors.

The inscriptions on these bronze plates tell us that China was ruled by dynasties of kings: by the Shang dynasty from 1600 B.C., and the Zhou dynasty from 1100 B.C.

Back then, bartering was a common way of doing business.

The Kauri shell, known as “bei”, is an import from the coastal regions of the eastern and southern Chinese Sea and is considered to be the first prominent means of payment in Ancient China.

The Kauri shells were pierced and threaded onto strings. Kauris were used for paying for goods, workmen and soldiers. Kauris were often stolen in marauding attacks and stored in treasuries.

Before long, more and more Kauris were needed, so they were carved from cattle bones …

… or cast in bronze – which was particularly handy since they could be melted and recast into new coins.


Around 770 B.C., the Zhou empire collapsed. Former vassals turned into powerful rulers, fighting against each other for supremacy.

Many small states formed, which were then annihilated in bloody battles. Towards the final stages of that development, known as the “Age of Battling Empires”, there were only seven larger states left: it was a time of great and general insecurity.


These times of unrest produced new forms of money, for example these spade coins. They are shaped like the spades which were used for farming.

There were also knife coins in the shape of knives, like those that the hunters and fishermen used. Such coins were issued by the individual principalities. They were cast – not minted like the coins in the western world.

Some other circulating coins were the bronze kauris, called “ant nose coins”, “yibi” – and ring coins. All of these various coins co-existed as local currencies. This is a ban liang coin: ban liang is “half a liang”, which is half an ounce, about 8 grams.


This coin was used mainly in the northern state of Qin. This is the place where China’s further history would be decided. Over time, the king of Qin managed to conquer all the other states and to annex them to his own territory.

By 221 B.C., he had overpowered his last rival. Now the king of Qin ruled as emperor over a Chinese empire, which was united for the first time in history. He became known under the name of Qin Shi Huangdi.

However, under the First Emperor’s successor the empire sank into chaos.

Finally, one of the warlords forced the country to unite. He founded a new dynasty of emperors: the Han dynasty.


The Han emperors declared the formerly persecuted confucianism to be the state’s leading doctrine. They also adopted some important administrative structures from their predecessors, as well as the ban liang coin.

However, this coin was too heavy for daily use. For that reason smaller, lighter coins were cast, they were called elmseed coins.


Not until 118 B.C. did the Han emperor Wudi cast a new, standardized coin: the Wuzhu coin. “Wu” is the number 5, “Zhu” a weight unit. So the coin weighed “5 Zhu”.

The Wuzhu coin remained in use long after the decline of the Han dynasty: in fact, for almost eight centuries! And all coins in later times resembled the Wuzhu coin to a certain degree in size and shape. It is the typical form of a Chinese coin. A piece of round metal, symbolizing the sky, and a square hole in the center: that is the earth. That kind of coin could easily be threaded onto a string and carried around. The Europeans called it “cash”, after the sanskrit word “karsha”, an Indian weight unit.

These coins were cast by means of a so-called money tree. Its branches are the ducts for the liquid metal. Afterwards, the coins are picked from the tree, put on a stick, smoothed and polished. Unlike western mints, no precious materials like silver or gold were used in casting Chinese coins. Various copper alloys like bronze or brass would do perfectly well. It wasn’t the physical value of the means of payment which counted, but the fact that it was commonly recognized as money. The successful history of this standard coin was interrupted only once.


In the year 8 A.D., the ruler Wang Mang staged a coup and entered the dragon throne. He reintroduced the old coin forms, such as the spade money and knife coins. This remained a short episode in coin history, since as soon as 23 A.D., Wang Mang was defeated in battle and killed.

“Empires wax and wane. States come and go. Even the Han dynasty’s glorious reign, having lasted for almost four centuries, began to decline and its glory to fade.”

These words come from the classic Chinese novel “The Three Empires”. A later period depicts a scene from the novel.

After the decline of the Han dynasty the empire was divided into three kingdoms. Under the Jin dynasty taht followed, there was a time of turmoil over the throne.

The Huns overran the empire and separate states formed in the north and the south – until the empire was finally united again much later. However, it took until 618 A.D. before a dynasty came to power which was to take China to its political and economic height: the Tang dynasty.

This is a 7th century Kai Yuan Tong Bao coin. These coins were introduced by Gaozu, the first emperor of the Tang dynasty.

The letter “Kai” combined with the letter “yuan” means something like “new beginning” and is supposed to indicate the beginning of the new era of the Tang dynasty. The letter “tong” combined with the letter “bao” means “circulating value”, because it became increasingly common to name the coins according to their ascribed value, not according to their weight. Another name for these circulating values was “kurant coins”.

“The sky is high, the emperor is far away.”

Taizong, the second Tang emperor, conquered large territories along the ancient Silk Road. This is how, after 630 A.D., China gained access to international trading networks.

They connected Central Asia to the empires of the Parthians, Kushans, and Sasanides in Persia and north-west India and extended their reach far into the west – into the regions in the eastern mediterranean area, which were under the influence of the Roman and Byzantine empires.


Foreign tradesmen came pouring into China and bought the luxury goods which were so much in demand in the western world: silk, tea, and porcelain, which was invented around the year 620.

The Tang era was an era of globalization and internationalization, as we would call it. And many Chinese people today still see it that way. It was a very open-minded time, a time when people from all parts of the earth gathered in the town which was the capital at that time: Chang’an. There were people from various cultures and religions – there were Nestorian Christians settling and building their churches. Chinese Buddhism was on the rise in China in the 6th and 7th centurys. Buddhism was an imported religion from India, and during that time many Buddhist texts got translated, even in the emperor’s house Buddhism had a large following. Around the year 800 tolerance began to decline a little, and foreigners were persecuted because of growing unrest within the empire of China. But the dynasty that followed Tang, the Song dynasty, saw a new height of literature, music, and culture. Classical poetry originates from this period and still survives today.

A cash coin from the southern Song dynasty.

Unlike the coins we know in the west, Chinese cash coins never show the portrait of a ruler. Instead, they show the so-called governing motto of the emperor. This coin’s motto is “Shaoding”, which means something like “continued consolidation”. It is one of eight governing mottos of the emperor Li Zong – and since these mottos each mark a particular time span within the emperor’s reign, today’s coin collectors may correctly assume that this coin was likely to have been made between 1228 and 1233.

Lizong’s reign lasted from 1224 to 1264.

Later, after the beginning of the Ming dynasty – that is, from 1368 – the Chinese emperors restricted themselves to only one motto for the entire period of their reign:

This coin dates from the epoch of the first Ming emperor, who reigned under the motto “Hongwu”, which means as much as “tremendous power in battle”.

Along with the rise of foreign trade, silver gained importance. Foreign traders began using silver ingots to pay for China’s exported goods, such as tea, silk, and porcelain. The foreign peoples, who controlled China during the 12th and 13th century, preferred silver and gold, too: the Jurchens, reigning as the Jin dynasty, and the Mongolians.

Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson, overran the Chinese empire with his horsemen in the 13th century and founded the Yuan dynasty. The Mongolian emperors had a different attitude towards money than the Chinese. In their eyes, the Chinese cash coins were worthless. So they entrusted the administration of the empire’s finances to the powerful guilds of traders: mostly muslim Uigurs, Persians and Arabs.

These organizations collected the taxes from the Chinese under the emperor’s command – in kind, such as cereals or silk.

They then handed the equivalent value in silver ingots to the royal treasury. Such tax transactions yielded enormous profit margins!

These silver resources enabled Kublai Khan to introduce paper money as the sole valid means of payment for the first time in history.

This bill dates back to the 14th century.

However, the first real paper bills, the so-called “jiaozi”, had actually existed since the 11th century.

Provided that there was a continuous flow of silver supplies, the paper money kept its value.

But that changed when rebelling peasants swept the Mongolian rulers aside – and when one of their leaders took over the dragon throne in the 14th century: he was to go down in history as the emperor Hongwu and the founder of the Ming dynasty. He handled the persistent economic crisis by issuing more and more paper bills.

The consequences were big drops in prices and inflation. Hence the issue of paper money was stopped altogether in 1569. In the Chinese empire, people used the reliable cash coins – while foreign trade continued to be based on the silver currency.

Here is a silver peso from 1569, the age of the Spanish king Philipp II.

During the 16th and 17th century, the Spaniards used these “reales”, as they were called, to pay for the Chinese luxury goods like tea, silk, and porcelain.

The harbor Manila in the Philippines, founded in 1571, became the hub of their trade with China. The Spaniards were by no means short of silver: the silver mines in Peru and Mexico, having been exploited by the conquistadores, provided a rich and steady supply of silver.

Those silver pesos from later times carry these so-called “chopmarks”: The Chinese traders used special dies for marking the foreign coins in order to test their authenticity.

The Chinese empire’s financial economy depended on these silver imports  - even more so since China had no substantial silver sources of its own. So they turned a blind eye on Portugal, the other great western trading nation, when it occupied the island of Macao and set it up as the base of their trade with China.

The Portuguese also took advantage of the trading embargo which China had set up against the belligerent nation of Japan in the 16th century. Portuguese traders bought Chinese silk and shipped it to Japan - and exchanged it for silver from Japanese mines. They returned with this silver, which held much more value in China than in Japan, in order to buy even more silk in China: a lucrative business even for the Chinese government, whose stock of silver kept filling up.

This finally changed around 1750 with the rise of the Netherlands and England. They became leading maritime trading nations and broke into the Spanish and Portuguese markets. The silver imports declined. China experienced a currency crisis – which ruined the peasants first, since they sold their crops for cash coins but had to pay their taxes in silver.

The successive Chinese dynasty of emperors faced similar problems. Once again, a foreign dynasty had conquered the dragon throne: the Mandshu. Since 1644, they had produced the Chinese emperors.

Like their predecessors, the Mandshu emperors carefully cut off the possibility of foreign influence on the Chinese empire – neglecting the fact that even in those times China could hardly escape from the effects of the increasingly globalized trade. At the same time, it became obvious that they did indeed need some western know-how: like astronomical instruments, for example.

They reached the Chinese royal court via European Jesuit missionaries who worked temporarily as experts for the Chinese emperor – until they were sent away again.

The same thing happened to Lord Macartney, who reached the Chinese royal court with his delegation in 1793.

By order of the King of England, he campaigned for the establishment of equal trade relationships. But for the emperor Qianlong it was unthinkable to have relationships at eye level with a foreign state: after all, China, the center of the earth, was superior to all other peoples. If England wants to submit to the Chinese emperor – we accept. But a relationship on equal terms? That does not come into question. China has got everything it requires. It doesn’t need the products of these savages!

But less than thirty years later, a truly savage product entered the Chinese market: opium.

British traders working for the East India Company imported opium from India. The same addictive substance which would wreak havoc in china yielded a favorable balance sheet for the Englishmen. Finally there was a product that could be sold in China! To date the English could only buy things from the Chinese: tea, for example, which they had to pay for with precious silver – which in turn led to a big decrease in the English supply of silver. But now the Chinese retailers paid for opium with silver – which led to a shortage of silver in China.

The Chinese royal court prohibited the trade of opium. After that proved to be useless, they used force to prevent the opium trade. England reacted by sending gunboats.

This led to the so-called opium wars between 1839 and 1842.

Since China had no effective means to counter the modern western military technology, they had no choice but to accept all of England’s demands, such as ceding Hong Kong to England, opening many harbors for unrestricted trade with England, and paying high sums of reparations.

And that was just the beginning: The English were followed by the French, the Russians, the Germans – and later even the Japanese. They all took advantage of China’s military weakness in order to get hold of ever increasing areas of influence.

On top of all that, China had to take on loans in order to pay the extorted reparations: with western banks, of course. How humiliating for the formerly overbearing empire of China! The western savages could even press for a new form of money: the dragon dollar, first minted in Kanton in 1889 after the fashion of western silver dollars, using a mint from Birmingham. This coin carries the inscription “Guangxu”, the official governing motto of the last Chinese emperor but one – ironically, it means something like: “glorious succession”.

The country was shaken by xenophobic revolts: the Taiping revolt was followed by the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

But the foreigners strike back: An international expedition corps conquers Beijing. The Chinese empire faces its downfall.

First attempts to modernize China start too late. In 1911, the old and decrepit empire collapses. In 1912, the Chinese house of royals resigns in the name of the still immature child emperor Puyi. China becomes a republic. Its new president is Sun Yatsen.

The new republic mints a new silver dollar, with the portrait of Dr Sun Yatsen and a new calendar: here we have the year 23, counting 1912, the year of the republic’s founding, as year 1. These silver dollars were produced until the mid-1930s. An outstanding piece of this series is the so-called junk dollar – with a sailing junk on its back.

Many provinces also issued coins in the name of the republic. Only a few years after the founding of the republic, large parts of China were controlled by military leaders, the so-called warlords. 

This is one of them: the so-called “christian general”, Feng Yuxiang. These warlords issued their own currencies, too.

The power struggles between the warlords, the government in Peking and the National Chinese counter-government in Nanjing were followed by the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s. During the second World War, Japanese bombs fell on Chinese cities. Japanese occupiers massacred Chinese men, women, and children. Refugees wandered aimlessly across regions laid waste.

The situation in the financial world was chaotic: There was the money of the National Chinese government under Chiang Kai-Shek; and there was some token money in the areas conquered by Mao Zedong and his People’s Liberation Army after his legendary Long March.

The Japanese also issued their own money.

A coin and a bill from Manchuria. In 1932, the Japanese set up the puppet state of Manchuguo and installed the last emperor PuYi as governor.

After World War II, it took another four years before the civil war was over and Mao Zedong entered Bejing, where he announced the People’s Republic of China on October 1st, 1949.

With the exceptions of Hong Kong, Macao, and Singapore, since this time, there have been two Chinese currencies: the renminbi, the so-called “people’s currency” in the People’s Republic of China, and the “xin taibi”, the “new Taiwan dollar” in the Chinese Republic of Taiwan. Chiang Kai-Shek had escaped to Taiwan after his defeat by Mao Zedong’s troops.

On this island off the Chinese mainland he established – with a little help from the USA – his republic, which was actually a dictatorship.

The mainland, too, was governed in a dictatorial manner – by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.

When Mao Zedong announced the People’s Republic of China, many Chinese hoped it would lead to a long era of peace. But that hope was dashed only a few years later. In the late 1950s, there was the first heavy persecution of intellectuals in Communist China – then, in 1958, there was the “Great Leap Forward” – “dà yuè jin” in Chinese – which was a fairly amateurish movement announced by the leaders of the Communist Party in order to blast China from an agricultural state right into the industrial age. This led to disaster, millions and millions of people died of hunger. Then, 10 years later, was the Cultural Revolution, and once more the whole country was thrown into turmoil, once more a whole generation was enslaved and sent to the countryside. Schools closed, universities closed. All that didn’t change until the mid-1980s, when Deng Xiaoping introduced his reformed politics.

The reformer Deng Xiaoping started a development which gave China a capitalist boom during the following two decades – under the Communist Party’s government.

This government still claims autocracy, while Taiwan has introduced democracy. However, despite all of this, mainland China has long since been dovetailed into the global financial economy.

One fact, however, that remains hidden behind the boomtowns’ glittering facades is that many Chinese live in the shadows of the economic miracle: migrant workers in the cities and poor farmers on the countryside.

China’s future will depend strongly on the way it will handle that social burden.



Signet Sunflower Foundation