An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Currencies of the Zhou Period

Mar 30, 2019 © Ulrich Theobald


Genuine cowry shells (bei 貝), traded through southwest China from the Indian Ocean, or bronze imitates of such shells (tongbei 銅貝), was a kind of currency inherited from the Shang period. Yet the average number of shells of individual tombs was low in comparison with the Shang period—even if some graves of the Western Zhou period like a series of tombs of the state of Wei 衛 (Xincun 辛村 near Junxian 濬縣, Henan) included several thousand cowries.

Inscriptions of bronze vessels show that the presentation of cowries by the king to regional rulers or by the latter to their functionaries was a kind of reward for services, in numbers of a few peng 朋 (perhaps "double-string") per person. How many shells a peng included, is under debate, and the arguments range from 2 shells per peng to 10 or even 200 (Zhou 2000: 954). 5 shells might have constituted a string (xi 系), and two strings a double-string (peng), as the scholar Wang Guowei 王國維 (1877-1927) explained. Bronze cowries were measured in the unit lüe 鋝 (usually written 寽 or {貝+寽, in the Shiji 史記 written 率}, also interpreted as huan 爰 or 鍰, or with the jade radical 瑗), which is also used for a word for 'currency' written like {山/王/貝} (perhaps an early form of 貨, 責, or 賃; Deng 2017).

The unit lüe was already used by the Shang, but was at that time heavier than under the Western Zhou, for which reason inscriptions discern between "old lüe" and (present) lüe. The weight of the Western Zhou lüe might have ranged between 1113/25 zhu 銖 (according to Shuowen jiezi 說文解字; meaning unclear, if 1 liang=24 zhu), 6 liang 兩 (the new, light lüe), and 62/3 liang (the old, heavy lüe). The weight lüe might have corresponded to 7.5g in the Yellow River plain and in the southern Zhou empire, while it was much heavier in north China, with a relation of 20 liang to 3 lüe, corresponding to 104g (Qiu et al. 2001: 77).

During the Warring States period, a lüe had a weight of about 1,280g, while a huan had a weight of 16g, corresponding to 1 liang. One lüe thus corresponded to about 5 jin or 80 huan. This assessment is based on the (reconstructed) inscription of a square bronze can (fanghu 方壺) found in Jincun 金村 close to Luoyang, and a hoard of coins found in the ancient state of Wei 魏 (Liang zheng bi bai danglüe 梁正幣百當寽).

Yet the weight system of the Eastern Zhou period is complex. In the state of Jin and her successors, one lüe corresponded to one yin 釿 (jin 斤), or 10 yi 鎰 (c. 349g). In most other states, 24 zhu 銖 (朱) made one liang 兩, 16 liang made one jin 斤, 30 jin made 1 jun 鈞, and 4 jun one shi 石. A jin was 250g-heavy, but in the state of Zhongshan, 320g (Wang 1988: 12). In the state of Chu, there was a weight unit called cheng 爯 which is sometimes equalled with huan.

Both units, lüe, and huan, were discarded after the unit reform by the Qin dynasty, for which reason Han-period commentators diverge about their concrete dimension. Han-period writers usually hold that the weight units lüe and huan were more or less identical (Qiu et al. 2001: 76).

Cowry imitations were made of bronze, stone, bone, shell, clay, and also of gold and silver (rare) (He 1991). Apart from cowry imitations, royal presents might also consist of bronze cakes (ban 鈑) of standardized size. These might have been used as weights or storage of value, or as material to make ritual bronze vessels from. A 20-cm large cake was found in a tomb in Lintong 臨潼, Shaanxi (Zhou 2000: 958). Moulds for the casting of bronze cowries were found in Feixi 肥西, Fuyang 阜陽, and Fanchang 繁昌, all in Anhui, for sets of 4*16 cowries, inscribed with a character or signum (Chen 1996). These coins were the precursors of ant-nose coins (yibi qian 蟻鼻錢).

Figure . Bronze cowry shells
Rubbing of a mould for casting bronze cowry shells, from the state of Chu. Right: Three types of bronze cowries, with imitation of the natural structure (top - showing obverse and reverse sides - and middle), and with smooth surface (below). Some of the coins were gilded (liujin 鎏金). In the rubbing as well as the specimen to the right, holes can be seen by which the coins were strung up. Lengths of right coins: 35-44mm, weights: 21-31g. From Chen 1996 (rubbing left), and Huang 2011 (coins right).

The custom of superiors presenting cowry shells to subordinates is not only attested in numerous bronze inscriptions, but also in the Classic Shijing (part Xiaoya, ode Jingjing zhe e 菁菁者莪), where it is said that "We see our noble lord, and he gives us a hundred sets of cowries." (ji jian jun zi, ci wo bai peng 既見君子,錫(=賜)我百朋). The inscription of the Ju bo huan gui 𨼫白(=伯)睘𣪕 vessel (age of King Gong; Jicheng 3763) proves that the 'price of production' of a bronze vessel was expressed in cowries, in this case 14 peng. The Qiu Wei he 裘衛盉 can (Jicheng 9456) reports prices of "royal audience jades" (jinzhang 堇章) of 80 and of 20 peng for two vermillion tiger-shaped jade pendants, two deerskin aprons, and a decorated apron (Cook & Goldin 2016: 88-89).

Yet this does not mean that the words bei or peng were in all cases used as expressions of value. Cowry shells or imitations continued being used as adornments. The inscription of the X you 󱦈卣 can (Jicheng 5411) from the age of King Mu includes a statement showing that cowries were not just strung up in peng, but also weighed: ci bei sa lüe 易(=賜)貝卅寽 "I present you with thiry lüe of cowries". The same inscription is also a proof that the words bei 貝 "[bronze] cowry" and jin 金 "bronze (銅)" could be exchanged (Wang 1988: 10). In the first half of the Western Zhou, the word bei might refer to cowries expressing value (huobei 貨貝 "monetary cowries"), to bronze cowries expressing value, or to bronze. Imitations of cowries were made of stone, shell, bone, bronze, and also of gold and silver (rare).

The high value of bronze as a raw material for the precious sacrificial vessels made it an ideal material to measure value, independent of the shape—be it ingots, axes, spades, knives, rings, 'cakes', or cowry imitations. A late Western Zhou-period tomb found in Jintan 金壇, Jiangsu, included bronze cakes of various sizes. They might have been used as weights, or as store of value, each size expressing a different weight or value. There is a known case of theft of cowries from a public granary which occurred in the late Western Zhou period (Wang 2017).

Bronze in various shape, and measures by the weight unit lüe or huan (c. 1,400g), was used to pay out rewards and salaries, to pay redemption from punishment, and as a mode of payment. The inscription of the Hu ding 曶鼎 tripod (Jicheng 2838) includes a sentence showing that (the use of) persons (as labour forces) could be bought at a price of 100 lüe of bronze(?) (Cook & Goldin 2016: 133).

The production of standarized coins began during the Spring and Autumn period and was common in the 5th century BCE. King Ding of Zhou event sent out Prince Man 王孫滿 and Chuzi 楚子 to inspect the authenticity of weights which were the basis of a currency which was still drafted with the concept of commodity money. Standardized currencies were important because the states of the Spring and Autumn period often purchased large amounts of grain from their neighbours in case of bad harvests, like the state of Lu which sent out Zang Wenzhong 臧文仲 to ask the duke of Qi for grain. With the introduction of the land tax in the xxx century, taxes might also be collected in the shape of bronze.

The exact timeframe in which regular coins were cast for the first time in China is not known. The earliest written testimony of coin production is the book Guoyu which reports of King Jing's plan to cast large coins.

Copper cowries of Chu (Chu tongbei 楚銅貝)

Ant-nose coins of the state of Chu are first mentioned in Hong Zun's 洪遵 book Quanzhi 泉志 from the Song period. The common term was "ghost-fact coins" (guilian qian 鬼臉錢) because the prevalent mark shown on most coins looks like the face of a demon: . They were found in the territory of old Chu, namely Hunan, Hubei, Jiangsu, and Anhui, but also in Henan and even in Shaanxi.

The copper cowries of Chu are the only coins of the Zhou period on which the mark or legend is not elevated (yang 陽) over the surface of the coin, but appears as engraved (yin 陰). This can also be seen on the casting moulds of copper cowries found in some places. Virtually all Chu copper cowries have a hole to string them up. There is nearly a dozen of different marks, some of them can be interpreted, like jin 金, yin 釿, jun 君, xing 行, and 匋, but the meaning of the "ghost-face" mark , which is seen on most Chu cowries, is not finally interpreted.

The lightest copper cowries have a weight of but 0.1g, but the average weight was 5g (Wang 1988: 33). Even if this type of coin appears to be very old, excavations only brought to light ant-nose coins from the late Warring States period.

Spade coins (bubi 布幣)

The earliest type of coin had the shape of spades (chan 鏟, alternative name qian 錢 - the precursor of the word for "money"), a widespread agrarian tool made of bronze and thus a store of value. The designation bu 布 (bubi 布幣 "bu currency") is derived from the word bo 鎛 (used for a type of bell; with the meaning "money" also written 賻), yet another word for "spade", "hoe" or a similar agrarian tool. At the same time, the much simpler character 布 (with the actual meaning "cloth") means "to spread", signifying the widespread use of this particular currency.

The transformation of spades from tools to weights or currencies can be seen in the shape of the blade of prototype coins (yuanshi bu 原始布) which is thin and brittle (Wang 1988: 14). Apart from that, the shape of prototype coins was the same as that of spades, including the socket (qiong 銎) for the handle. In the early Spring and Autumn period, the size was these coins was drastically reduced (to 43g or 47g), and the shape simplified and flattened. The socket for the handle (kongshou bu 空首布 "hollow-head spade") was transformed into a flat protrusion with a hole in it, used to string up the coins.

The next step of development were "flat shoulders and curved base" (pingjian huzu kongshou bu 平肩弧足空首布). These coins had typically three ridges running vertically through the surface, and most coins bore inscriptions. There were inscriptions with one, two, and four characters, indicating the place of origin or the range of use (individual markets). Some coins had inscriptions on the back, constituting a kind of 'serial number'. A coin preserved in Japan bears the inscription Shi nan shao huo 市南少化(=貨), indicating the place of use ("market of the south"), and the value ("small"). Pingjian spades were often found in hordes around Luoyang and had quite wide spectrum of weight in a single hoard, ranging from 12.7g to 33.8g. It must therefore be assumed that weight indicated value, even if the weight was not declared by a legend. A few specimen were found bearing the inscription "Handan" 邯鄲, which shows that also in the eastern parts of the state of Jin, this type of coin was used.

After the division of the royal domain of Zhou into East Zhou and West Zhou in 367, the flat-shoulder spades were altered and used as currency of the eastern domain. They are smaller than their precursors and have only two ridges instead of three. The inscriptions were Dongzhou 東周, Anzhou 安周, Ancang 安臧, and else.

Another type of spade coins had "raised shoulders" (songjian jianzu kongshou bu 聳肩尖足空首布). All four tips of the 'space surface', and the 'legs' in particular, were pointed sharply. These coins circulated in the state of Jin or what is today the provinces of Shanxi and Hebei. The coins had a weight of 36g and 42g, yet there were also lighter specimen of only 25.3g or 14.7g (Wang 1988: 15). Most songjian spades did not have legends, apart from short inscriptions like Handan 邯鄲 or Lü 呂, marking the place of origin and use. One specimen had an inscription of five characters, indicating the weight/value unit yin 釿. This word is actually a special character for the weight unit jin 斤, which is relatively large (200g or more). Yet 斤 might be an abbreviation of fu 斧, a word for axe. Axes were—like spades—stores of metal value, and could be used as standard weights. Moreover, the pronunciation fu (/pĭu/) is similar to the weight units bu (/pu/) 布 or bo (/puɑk/) 鎛, which designated weights, and then coins.

A third type of spade coins had "dropping shoulders" (xiejian huzu kongshou bu 斜肩弧足空首布). This type of coin had weight of between 13g and 37g and was produced in various places of the Yellow River region. It was also used in the royal domain. Practically all coins have inscriptions indicating the place of origin.

The Warring States period saw the emergence of a new type of spade coin, the flat-head spade (pingshou bu 平首布) with a wider, trapezoid shaft which is flat on the top. The shoulders might be angled as before, or round. The 'feet' were square or round. They were circulating in the states of Wei, Zhao, Zhongshan, and Yan.

Flat-had spades of the state of Wei had the denomination yin 釿, with the subunits two, one, and half a yin. All coins were marked with the place of origin, and the value (with few exceptions). If the reverse side was not blank, it was inscribed with mark an 安. Even if the weights of the coins were not fully standardized, they took to certain range, with 7-8g for .5 yin-spades, 15-18g for 1-yin spades, and 22-30g for 2-yin spades. According to one legend, the weight of fifty 2-yin spades corresponded to one lüe (Wang 1988: 19). There was also a heavy coin cast in 339, with the inscription Liang qi (xin?) yin 梁奇(=新?)釿. The Wei spades were mainly circulating during in the fourth century BCE.

The state of Zhao used spades with round corners (yuanjian yuanzu bu 圓肩圓足布). The inscription shows two unidentified place names, namely Lin 焛, and Lishi 離石. The coins were produced in different sizes and shapes, with smaller (5-9g) and larger versions (14-16g), roughly corresponding to 0.5 and 1 yin (Wang 1988: 19). They were in use during the late 4th century.

The state of Wei made also use of round-shouldered spade coins with flat feet, giving it the appearance of a bridge (qiaodang bu 橋襠布 or qiaozu bu 橋足布). They were cast in the early Warring States period and were marked with the weight designation yin 釿, with the denominations 2, 1, and .5 yin. They were produced and used in Anyi 安邑. This type of coin was relatively large, with between 44mm and 65mm height and a weight of between 7 and 25g.

The short-lived state of Zhongshan used spade coins with three holes (sankong bu 三孔布), one in the upper shaft, and one in each foot. The three-hole spades were inscribed with place (1-3 characters) and value (zhu and liang). The two units of value were only used in the state of Qin, for which reason it must be assumed that the coins were produced in a part of the territory of Zhao (former Zhongshan) occupied by Qin. The weight of 12-zhu (half a liang) coins was between 8 and 10g. The coins were produced in a narrow frame of standard, but only a small number survived, which underlines the suggestion that they might have been the currency of the small state of Zhongshan (Wang 1988: 21).

Another type of Zhao coin had pointed feet (jianzu bu 尖足布), which emerged later than the square-foot spade. It circulated in northern Shanxi around present-day Taiyuan, and had only a mark for the place of origin, and not the weight. Yet from the latter, 11-12g, it can be seen that it was a reduced yin-weight. This is true for the larger version of the pointed-feet spade. The smaller version, with a weight of 5.5-6.5g, consisted of two modes, one without any inscription, and the other with the mark ban 半 "half [a yin]" (Wang 1988: 22).

The square-foot spade (fangzu bu 方足布) developed over a long period of time. It can be divided into an older type issued in the state of Han, in a large and a small version and a weight of between 11 and 26g, and a younger type produced during the late Warring States period and used in Han, Wei, Zhao, Yan, and the Zhou domain. The value of the small coin was half a yin, with a weight of 7g on average, and that of the larger coin one yin, with an average weight of 13-14g (Wang 1988: 23). The square-foot spades were also highly standardized, bearing the place name on the obverse, and no legend on the reverse side. The place name (whether consisting of one or of two characters) was divided by a vertical line in the centre of the coin.

The use of spade coins in the state of Yan—which otherwise used knife coins—might be a result of the intensive trade relations between Yan and the states of the Yellow River plain. A common currency might have made easier market transactions.

A local type of pingshou spade was used in the eastern and northeastern fringes of the kingdom of Chu. It was issued in two types. The larger one, inscribed with Fu qian dang yin 枎戔(=錢)當釿 on the obverse, and shi huo 十貨 on the reverse side (both in scriptions are variously interpreted), had a weight of up to 40g, and the smaller version, with the inscription si qian 四戔(=錢) or si bu 四布, a weight of 17g (Wang 1988: 24).

The state of Chu in the south produced a small number of spade coins in two denominations (more than 30g for the large denomination, being one yin; 17 or 7? g for the small denomination). They were used in the eastern parts of Chu, what is today Anhui and Jiangsu, yet as numbers are small, the system of Chu spades is not yet understood.

Knife coins (daobi 刀幣)

Coins in the shape of a knife (daobi 刀幣) were circulating in the states of Qi, Yan, and Zhao. In each state, the shapes differed from each other. Numismatists therefore speak of heavy "Qi knives" (Qi dao 齊刀, also "Ju knives", Ju dao 莒刀, up to 50g), pointed "Yan knives" (Yan dao 燕刀, also called "Yi knives", Yidao 易刀), and round-headed knives (yuanshou dao 圓首刀) from Zhao and Zhongshan. The handles of all knife coins ends in a ring.

One of the oldest knife coins bears the inscriptions 莒邦 (written with a peculiar character, perhaps 𨟭). It dates from the 5th century. The common coins of Qi bear five types of inscription, all giving a place name (Qi 齊, Anyang 安陽, Jiemo 節墨, i.e. Jimo 即墨) and the term da huo 大化(=貨). The smallest one is the Ji(e)mo dahuo 節墨大化 type with a weight of 36g, the largest one the Ji(e)mo zhi dahuo 節墨之大化 with 53g (Wang 1988: 26). Most Qi knives have an outer rim high than the surface of the coin, barring Qi da huo 齊大化 and Qi zao bang chang(?) da huo 齊造邦{立+長}大化 coins. The reverse sides of Qi knives are inscribed with several dozens of different marks, perhaps being a kind of serial mark or that of the mint. LENGTH??? xxx

The number of three-charcter Qi knives (Qi da huo) is the largest, and it can be assumed that this type of coin was issued relatively late, perhaps in the early 4th century. They seem to have been the currency of the whole state of Qi, and not just of a single city like Linzi 臨淄, the capital of Qi. The coins inscribed Ji(e)mo zhi da huo are very course, and seem to have been produced in the time when the army of Yan besieged the city, around 280 BCE. Because of the occupation by Yan, and going back to trade between the two states, Yan knives are also found on the territory of Qi (Shandong). Anyang was a small city in the territory of Ju. A rare coin is a Qi knife inscribed Yi (Qi Yi dao 齊易刀).

The oldest knife coin of Yan, dating from the 4th century, was the "pointed-tip knife" (jianshou dao 尖首刀). It was also found in neighbouring states. Is was issued in two types, namely a larger type with curved back, a weight of 17-20g and no legend, and a second, straighter type, with 15-17g weight somewhat lighter, and also not bearing a legend (Wang 1988: 29).

In older times, the character 易 on the knives of Yan was interpreted as the word ming 明, but it signifies the name of the capital Yi or Linyi 臨易 (modern Xiongxian 雄縣, Hebei). The Yi knives were the prevalent coin of Yan. The back was marked with signums or a number.

The knife coins of Zhao (Zhao dao 趙刀) and Zhongshan differ from the shape of those of Qi and Yan. They smaller and straighter (therefore called xiaozhi dao 小直刀) and have a less pointed head (therefore called "round-tip knives" yuanshou dao 圓首刀). The inscriptions of Zhao knives read 甘丹(化) and 白人(化). The former is nothing else than Handan 邯鄲, the capital of Zhao, and the latter a simplification of the place name Bairen 柏人. Knives of Handan, issued in two types, have a weight of c. 6g, and c. 12g, repectively, and such from Bairen 6-8g, and 10-14g (Wang 1988: 30-31). Quite rare is the inscription with the place name Jinyang 晉陽.

Round coins (huanqian 圜錢)

Round coins (yuanqian 圓錢, huanqian 圜錢) originated in the western states and were created in the mid-4th century BCE. There were round coins with round holes (yuankong 圓孔) in the middle, and such with square holes (fangkong 方孔). Types and varieties are much less than those of the spade and knife coins. About a dozen of legends are known round-hole coins, reaching from place names like Yuan 垣, Gong 共, Lin 焛, Lishi 離石 (the last two in the state of Zhao), Dongzhou 東周 or Xizhou 西周 to statements of value like Yi zhu zhong yi liang shi'er 一珠重一兩十二 (probably from Qin, and perhaps a weight, and not a coin) , Qi Yuan yi yin 桼垣一釿, or Ban huan 半睘.

The shape of the coin is quite probably derived from bi-type 璧 or huan-type 環 jade rings, as the latter served as stores of value, which is one feature of 'money'. The oldest round coins, found in a hoard in Wenxi 聞喜, Shanxi, bore the inscription Gong 共 and had a weight of 14-18g (Wang 1988: 31). The same weight is observed in the one-yin coins with the inscription Yinjin 陰晉 from the state of Wei. Coins with the inscriptions Qi Yuan yi yin 桼垣一釿 and Gong tun chi jin 共屯赤金 are somewhat lighter, with 11-13g weight.

Coins with the inscription Yuan 垣 had a weight of but 8-10g, and there are some Gong 共 coins which are likewise in that range of weight.

Coins with the inscriptions Dongzhou and Xizhou are quite unique for the elevated rim on the outer side and around the central hole. Ban huan coins are extremely rare, and were perhaps a weight (fama 砝碼), not a coin.

Coins with square hole were invented in the state of Qin, and were introduced in 336 by King Huiwen. The oldest coins of this type were relatively heavy, with 22-26g, but there were also smaller ones with 14-15g weight, and the standard type of the late Warring States period, with 9-13g. The inscription is in all cases Ban liang 半兩. The existence of only one single denomination leads to the conclustion that the purchasing power of the coin was drastically reduced over time (beginning with the standard weight of 16g per liang), perhaps because Qin constantly waged war against other states, or because of widespread counterfeiting (sizhu 私鑄 "private casting"), as the Qin code found in Shuihudi 睡虎地 shows (article Jinbu lü 金布律). These arguments postulate a high monetization of the economy.

Very light coins with a weight of only 6-7g and the inscription liangzi 兩甾 were found in Baxian, eastern Sichuan, which was in the late Warring States period occupied by Qin.

The eastern state of Qi also issued square-hole round coins, with the inscription Yi liu huo 賹六化(=貨), Yi si huo 賹四化, and Yi huo 賹化. Yi is actually the place name Yi 益 (perhaps to be read as two words, Yi bei 益貝 "currency of Yi"?). The denominations (with exceptions) reflected the weight: Yi huo 2-3g, Yi si huo 5-6g, and Yi liu huo 8-10g. The lightest Yi huo coins are weighing less than 2g. Round coins of Yan in the northeast bore the legend Yi huo 一化, Yi huo 易化, and Yi si 易四(?). The coins, too, were very light, with less than 2g in many cases.

The gold currency (Yin yuan 郢爱) of Chu

Gold was a common store of value, and was, as historiographical sources show, exchanged according to weight. The weight unit was yi 鎰, corresponding to c. 250g, which was a standard weight of Chu, as can be seen in the Chu weights (fama 砝碼) with the inscription junyi 鈞益. No excavation brought to light gold as a grave good. The only case where gold was used as a kind of currency was the state of Chu, located in a region where gold was naturally found. The gold coins (or rather: ingots, jinban 金鈑) of Chu were inscribed with the words Ying yuan 郢爱. Ying was the capital of Chu, and yuan was a weight unit.

The gold bars of Chu are occasionally called Yin zi jin 印子金. They are first mentioned in Shen Kuo's 沈括 (1031-1094) book Mengxi bitan 夢溪筆談 from the Song period 宋 (960-1279). Li Zhaoluo 李兆洛 (1769-1841) from the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) called them "medical cold" (yaojin 藥金). Apart from the inscriptions Ying yuan and Chen yuan 陳爱, there were also some other, less frequently occurring marks or inscriptions, difficult to interprete. Age determination is likewise a complex matter, as the name Ying was retained even when the government of Chu shifted its residence. Yin yuan bars must have existed around 300, before the capital was moved to Shouchun 壽春, Anhui, but not much earlier. Gold bars were still in use in southern China during the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), but were occasionally replaced by ceramic imitations.

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