Ancient Chinese coins

Ancient Chinese coinage includes some of the earliest known coins. These coins, used as early as the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE), took the form of imitations of the cowrie shells that were used in ceremonial exchanges. The same period also saw the introduction of the first metal coins; however, they were not initially round, instead being either knife shaped or spade shaped. Round metal coins with a round, and then later square hole in the center were first introduced around 350 BCE. The beginning of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), the first dynasty to unify China, saw the introduction of a standardised coinage for the whole Empire. Subsequent dynasties produced variations on these round coins throughout the imperial period. At first the distribution of the coinage was limited to use around the capital city district, but by the beginning of the Han dynasty, coins were widely used for such things as paying taxes, salaries and fines.

Ancient Chinese coins are markedly different from their European counterparts. Chinese coins were manufactured by being cast in molds, whereas European coins were typically cut and hammered or, in later times, milled. Chinese coins were usually made from mixtures of metals such copper, tin and lead, from bronze, brass or iron: precious metals like gold and silver were uncommonly used. The ratios and purity of the coin metals varied considerably. Most Chinese coins were produced with a square hole in the middle. This was used to allow collections of coins to be threaded on a square rod so that the rough edges could be filed smooth, and then threaded on strings for ease of handling.

Official coin production was not always centralised, but could be spread over many mint locations throughout the country. Aside from officially produced coins, private coining was common during many stages of history. Various steps were taken over time to try to combat the private coining and limit its effects and making it illegal. At other times private coining was tolerated. The coins varied in value throughout history.

Some coins were produced in very large numbers – during the Western Han, an average of 220 million coins a year were produced. Other coins were of limited circulation and are today extremely rare – only six examples of Da Quan Wu Qian from the Eastern Wu dynasty (222–280) are known to exist. Occasionally, large hoards of coins have been uncovered. For example, a hoard was discovered in Jiangsu containing 4,000 Tai Qing Feng Le coins and at Zhangpu in Shaanxi, a sealed jar containing 1,000 Ban Liang coins of various weights and sizes, was discovered.

Pre-Imperial (770–220 BCE)

Main article: Zhou dynasty coinage

The earliest coinage of China was described by Sima Qian, the great historian of c. 100 BCE:

With the opening of exchange between farmers, artisans, and merchants, there came into use money of tortoise shells, cowrie shells, gold, coins (Chinese: ; pinyin: qián), knives (Chinese: ; pinyin: dāo), spades (Chinese: ; pinyin: ). This has been so from remote antiquity.

While nothing is known about the use of tortoise shells as money, gold and cowries (either real shells or replicas) were used to the south of the Yellow River. Although there is no doubt that the well-known spade and knife money were used as coins, it has not been demonstrated that other items often offered by dealers as coins such as fish, halberds, and metal chimes were also used as coins. They are not found in coin hoards, and the probability is that all these are in fact funerary items. Archaeological evidence shows that the earliest use of spade and knife money was in the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE). As in ancient Greece, socio-economic conditions at the time were favourable to the adoption of coinage.[1]: 1 


Inscriptions and archaeological evidence shows that cowrie shells were regarded as important objects of value in the Shang dynasty (c. 1766 – 1154 BC). In the Zhou period, they are frequently referred to as gifts or rewards from kings and nobles to their subjects. Later imitations in bone, stone or bronze were probably used as money in some instances.

Cowrie shell imitation in green bone, China, Western Zhou Dy (1046 BC-771 BC)-Jin State; length: 40.3 mm

Some think the first Chinese metallic coins were bronze imitations of cowrie shells[2][3] found in a tomb near Anyang dating from around 900 BC, but these items lack inscriptions.[4][5]

Similar bronze pieces with inscriptions, known as Ant Nose Money (Chinese: 蟻鼻錢; pinyin: yǐ bí qián) or Ghost Face Money (Chinese: 鬼臉錢; pinyin: guǐ liǎn qián) were definitely used as money. They have been found in areas to the south of the Yellow River corresponding to the State of Chu in the Warring States period. One hoard was of some 16,000 pieces. Their weight is very variable, and their alloy often contains a high proportion of lead. The name Ant [and] Nose refers to the appearance of the inscriptions, and has nothing to do with keeping ants out of the noses of corpses.[1]: 3 


Gold coins marked with "Ying yuan". "Ying" being the name of the Chu capital.

The only minted gold coinage of this period known was Chu gold block money (Chinese: 郢爰; pinyin: yǐng yuán), which consists of sheets of gold 3–5 mm thick, of various sizes, with inscriptions consisting of square or round stamps where there are one or two characters. They have been unearthed in various locations south of the Yellow River indicating that they were products of the State of Chu. One of the characters in their inscription is often a monetary unit or weight which is normally read as yuan (Chinese: ; pinyin: yuán). Pieces are of a very variable size and thickness, and the stamps appear to be a device to validate the whole block, rather than a guide to enable it to be broken up into unit pieces. Some specimens have been reported in copper, lead, or clay. It is probable that these were funeral money, not circulating coinage, as they are found in tombs, but the gold coins are not.[1]: 79 

Jade pieces

It has been suggested that pieces of jade were a form of money in the Shang dynasty.[6]

Money brand

Metal money brands (Chinese: 錢牌; pinyin: qián pái) were rarely used in the state of Chu.[7] They were used again in the Song dynasty.[8][9]

Spade money

Main article: Spade money

Spade money

Hollow handled spade money

Hollow handled spades (Chinese: 布幣; pinyin: bùbì) are a link between weeding tools used for barter and stylised objects used as money. They are clearly too flimsy for use, but retain the hollow socket by which a genuine tool could be attached to a handle. This socket is rectangular in cross-section, and still retains the clay from the casting process. In the socket the hole by which the tool was fixed to its handle is also reproduced.

Flat-handled spade money

These have lost the hollow handle of the early spades. They nearly all have distinct legs, suggesting that their pattern was influenced by the pointed shoulder hollow handled spades, but had been further stylized for easy handling. They are generally smaller, and sometimes have denominations specified in their inscriptions as well as place names. This, together with such little evidence as can be gleaned from the dates of the establishment of some of the mint towns, show that they were a later development. Archaeological evidence dates them to the Warring States period (475–221 BC). Arched foot spades have an alloy consisting of about 80% copper; for other types the copper content varies between 40% and 70%.[1]: 19 

Knife money

Main article: Knife money

Yan State knife money (燕国刀币)
Six-word knife money

Knife money is much the same shape as the actual knives in use during the Zhou period. They appear to have evolved in parallel with the spade money in the north-east of China.[1]: 53 

Two different shapes of Ming knife are found. The first, presumably the earlier, is curved like the pointed tip knives. The second has a straight blade and often a pronounced angled bend in the middle. This shape is known as 磬 qing, a chime stone. Their alloy contains around 40% copper; they weigh around 16 grams.

A wide range of characters is found on the reverses of Ming knives. Some are single characters or numerals, similar to those found on the pointed tip knives. Two large groups have inscriptions that begin with the characters you (Chinese: ; pinyin: yòu; lit. 'right') or zuo (Chinese: ; pinyin: zuǒ; lit. 'left'), followed by numerals or other characters. You has the subsidiary meaning of junior or west; zuo can also mean senior or east. (The excavations at Xiadu revealed in the inner city a zuo gong left-hand palace, and a you gong right-hand palace.) The similarities between the other characters in these two groups show that they were determined by the same system. A smaller group has inscriptions beginning with wai (Chinese: ; pinyin: wài; lit. 'outside'), but the other characters do not have much in common with the you and zuo groups. A fourth group has inscriptions beginning with an unclear character, and other characters similar to those found in the you and zuo groups. By analogy with the wai, this unclear character has been read as nei (Chinese: ; pinyin: nèi; lit. 'inside') or zhong (Chinese: ; pinyin: zhōng; lit. 'centre').[1]: 63 

Early round coins

A one hua coin from Yan.

The round coin (, huánqián, or , huánjīn), the precursor of the familiar cash coin, circulated in both the spade and knife money areas in the Zhou period, from around 350 BC. Apart from two small and presumably late coins from Qin, coins from the spade money area had a round hole (, "the good") in the middle of their face (, "the meat") and were denominated in yǐn () in the central plain and liǎng () in Qin. Those from the knife money area had a square hole and were denominated in huà ().[10][1]: 80 

Although for discussion purposes the Zhou coins are divided up into categories of knives, spades, and round coins, it is apparent from archaeological finds that most of the various kinds circulated together. A hoard found in 1981, near Hebi in north Henan province, consisted of: 3,537 Gong spades, 3 Anyi arched foot spades, 8 Liang Dang Lie spades, 18 Liang square foot spades and 1,180 Yuan round coins, all contained in three clay jars. Another example is a find made in Liaoning province in 1984, which consisted of 2,280 Yi Hua round coins, 14 spade coins, and 120 Ming knives. In 1960 in Shandong, 2 Yi Hua round coins were found with 600 Qi round coins and 59 Qi knives. At Luoyang a find was made in 1976 of 116 flat handled spades of various types (Xiangyuan, Lin, Nie, Pingyang, Yu, Anyang, and Gong), 46 Anzang round coins, 1 yuan round coin, and small/sloping shoulder spades from Sanchuan, Wu, Anzang, Dong Zhou, Feng, and Anzhou.[1]: 82 

Qin dynasty

Main article: Ban Liang

A Western Han Ban Liang, displaying the inscription written right to left on the obverse and a blank reverse.

These coins were traditionally associated with Qin Shi Huang Di, the first Chinese Emperor, who united China in 221 BC. The History of Han says: "When Qin united the world, it made two sorts of currency: that of yellow gold, which was called () and was the currency of the higher class; and that of bronze, which was similar in quality to the coins of Zhou, but bore an inscription saying Half Ounce, and was equal in weight to its inscription."[citation needed]

Ban Liang or Banliang coins take their name from their original size and typical two-character inscription (bànliǎng), meaning "half liang", written right to left in Classical Chinese. The liang was a small Qin unit of weight, also known as the "tael" or "Chinese ounce", approximately equal to 16 g (0.56 oz). The liang was divided into 24 zhu (, zhū), so that the Ban Liang coins were each notionally 12 zhu or about 8 g (0.28 oz). The inscription was maintained through repeated rounds of debasement and despite constant counterfeiting, however, so that in practice Ban Liangs are found in a great variety of sizes and calligraphic styles and are difficult to date and classify exactly, especially with regard to local and unofficial mints.

Archaeological evidence now shows that the Ban Liang was first issued in the Warring States period by the State of Qin, possibly as early as 378 BC. A remarkable find was some bamboo tablets amongst which were found regulations (drawn up before 242 BC) concerning metal and cloth money. A thousand coins, good and bad mixed, were to be placed in pen (baskets or jars) and sealed with the Seal of the Director. At Zhangpu in Shaanxi, just such a sealed jar, containing 1,000 Ban Liang of various weights and sizes, was discovered. 7 Ban Liang were found in a tomb datable to 306 BC.

At the beginning of the Western Han dynasty around 200 BC, the people were allowed to cast small light coins known as "elm seed" coins (, yú jiá), as the heavy Qin coins were inconvenient. In 186 BC, the official coin weight was reduced to 8 zhu, and in 182 BC, a 5 fen coin (, wǔ fēn) weighing 2.4 zhu, one fifth of Ban Liang's proper half ounce size. In 175 BC, the weight was set at 4 zhu. Private minting was permitted again, but with strict regulation of the weight and alloy. In 119 BC, the Ban Liang was replaced by the San Zhu () weighing 3 zhu and then the Wu Zhu () weighing 5 zhu.[1]: 83 

Han dynasty

Main articles: Han dynasty coinage and Wu Zhu

Han dynasty coin mould
Obverse and reverse of a Shang Lin San Guan Wu Zhu coin.

By this time, a full monetary economy had developed. Taxes, salaries, and fines were all paid in coins. An average of 220 million coins a year were produced. According to the Book of Han, the Western Han was a wealthy period[citation needed]:

The granaries in the cities and the countryside were full and the government treasuries were running over with wealth. In the capital the strings of cash had been stacked up by the hundreds of millions until the cords that bound them had rotted away and they could no longer be counted.

On average, millet cost 75 cash and polished rice 140 cash a hectolitre, a horse 4,400–4,500 cash. A labourer could be hired for 150 cash a month; a merchant could earn 2,000 cash a month. Apart from the Ban Liang coins described previously, there were two other coins of the Western Han whose inscription denoted their weight:

In AD 30, a ditty was sung by the youths of Sichuan: "The yellow bull! the white belly! Let Wu Zhu coins return". This ridiculed the tokens of Wang Mang and the iron coins of Gongsun Shu, which were withdrawn by the Eastern Han Emperor Guangwu in the 16th year of Jian Wu (AD 40). The Emperor was advised that the foundation of the wealth of a country depends on a good political economy, which was found in the good old Wu Zhu coinage, and so reissued the Wu Zhu coins.

Elm seeds countless press in sheets, Lord Shen's green cash line town streets.

The quote implies that Lord Shen's coinage was small and light.[citation needed]

Xin dynasty

Main article: Xin dynasty coinage

Obverse and reverse of a Da Quan Wu Shi coin.
Yi Dao Ping Wu Qian

Wang Mang was a nephew of the Dowager Empress Wang. In AD 9, he usurped the throne, and founded the Xin dynasty. He introduced a number of currency reforms which met with varying degrees of success. The first reform, in AD 7, retained the Wu Zhu coin, but reintroduced two versions of the knife money:

Between AD 9 and 10 he introduced an impossibly complex system involving tortoise shell, cowries, gold, silver, six round copper coins, and a reintroduction of the spade money in ten denominations.

The Six Coins. AD 9–14.

The Ten Spades. AD 10–14.

According to the History of Han:

The people became bewildered and confused, and these coins did not circulate. They secretly used Wu Zhu coins for their purchases. Wang Mang was very concerned at this and issued the following decree:

Those who dare to oppose the court system and those who dare to use Wu Zhus surreptitiously to deceive the people and equally the spirits will all be exiled to the Four Frontiers and be at the mercy of devils and demons.

The result of this was that trade and agriculture languished, and food became scarce. People went about crying in the markets and the highways, the numbers of sufferers being untold.

In AD 14, all these tokens were abolished, and replaced by another type of spade coin and new round coins.

According to Schjöth, Wang Mang wished to displace the Wu Zhu currency of the Western Han, owing, it is said, to his prejudice to the jin (Chinese: ; pinyin: jīn; lit. 'gold') radical in the character zhu (Chinese: ; pinyin: zhū) of this inscription, which was a component part of the character Liu, the family name of the rulers of the House of Han, whose descendant Wang Mang had just dethroned. And so he introduced the Huo Quan currency. One of the reasons, again, that this coin circulated for several years into the succeeding dynasty was, so the chroniclers say, the fact that the character quan (Chinese: ; pinyin: quán) in the inscription consisted of the two component parts bai (Chinese: ; pinyin: bái; lit. 'white') and shui (Chinese: ; pinyin: shuǐ; lit. 'water'), which happened to be the name of the village, Bai Shui in Henan, in which the Emperor Guang Wu, who founded the Eastern Han, was born. This circumstance lent a charm to this coin and prolonged its time of circulation. The Huo Quan did indeed continue to be minted after the death of Wang Mang – a mould dated AD 40 is known.

Bu Quan (Chinese: 布泉; pinyin: bù quán; lit. 'Spade Coin') was known later as the Nan Qian (Chinese: 男錢; pinyin: nán qián; lit. 'Male Cash'), from the belief that if a woman wore this on her sash, she would give birth to a boy. Eventually, Wang Mang's unsuccessful reforms provoked an uprising, and he was killed by rebels in AD 23.[1]: 86–90 

Three Kingdoms

Obverse and reverse of a Zhi Bai Wu Zhu coin.

In 220, the Han dynasty came to an end, and was followed by a long period of disunity and civil war, beginning with the Three Kingdoms period, which developed from the divisions within the Han dynasty. These three states were Cao Wei in northern China, Shu Han to the west, and Eastern Wu in the east. The period was the golden age of chivalry in Chinese history, as described in the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The coinage reflected the unsettled times, with small and token coins predominating.[1]: 95 

Cao Wei

This state only issued Wu Zhu coins.

Shu Han

The coins issued by this state were:

The Tai Ping Bai Qian coin was at first attributed to Sun Liang of Eastern Wu, who adopted a Tai Ping year title in 256. Most of them, however, have been unearthed in Sichuan (in one instance in a tomb dated to 227) together with Zhi Bai coins, which, together with the incuse marks on the reverse, indicates that they are issues of Shu Han. The fancy calligraphy and reverses of the large coins are more typical of amulets than circulating coins, and Peng seeks to associate them with the Taiping Taoists of the time.

In the 1860s, a jar of small "goose eye" coins was dug up in Chengdu in Sichuan. It contained Tai Ping Bai Qian, Ding Ping Yi Bai, Zhi Bai, and Zhi Yi coins. This reinforces the supposition that all these coins are near contemporaries, issued by Shu Han.

Eastern Wu

According to the records, in 236 Sun Quan, ruler of Wu, cast the Da Quan Wu Bai, and in 238 the Da Quan Dang Qian coins. The people were called upon to hand over the copper in their possession and receive back cash, and thus illicit coining was discouraged. These are coarse coins, cast in the capital Nanking or in Hubei. In 2000, clay moulds and other casting materials for Da Quan Wu Bai coins were discovered in the Western Lake, Hangzhou.[1]: 95–97 

Jin dynasty

Sima Yan founded the Jin dynasty in AD 265, and after the defeat of Eastern Wu in 280, China was reunified for a while. At first, the dynasty was known as the Western Jin with Luo-yang as its capital; from 317, it ruled as the Eastern Jin from Nanking. The historical records do not mention the specific casting of coins during the Jin dynasty. In the south, reductions in the weights of coins caused great price fluctuations, and cloth and grain were used as substitutes for coins. In the north, numerous independent kingdoms (The Sixteen Kingdoms) issued some interesting coins.

Sixteen Kingdoms

Former Liang

Liang Zao Xin Quan (Chinese: 涼造新泉; pinyin: liáng zào xīnquán; lit. 'Liang Made New Coin') is attributed to King Zhang Gui (317–376), who ruled in the north-western area.

Later Zhao

Feng Huo (Chinese: 豐貨; pinyin: fēng huò; lit. 'The Coin of Abundance') has text that uses seal script. There is no rim. They were cast by Emperor Shi Le in 319 at Xiangguo (now Xingtai in Hebei) with a weight of 4 zhu. They are known as the Cash of Riches – keeping the coin about one was said to bring great wealth. However, the historical record states that the people were displeased, and that in the end the coin did not circulate.

Cheng Han

Han Xing (Chinese: 漢興; pinyin: hàn xìng) as an inscription either right and left or above and below. In 337, Li Shou of Sichuan adopted the period title of Han Xing. This is the first recorded use of a period title on a coin. The period ended in 343.


Tai Xia Zhen Xing (Chinese: 太夏眞興; pinyin: tài xiàzhēnxìng; lit. 'Great Xia', 'Zhenxing [period]') counterwise. These were issued during the Zhenxing period (419–424) by Helian Bobo, probably at Xi'an.[1]: 98 

Northern and Southern dynasties

Obverse and reverse of a Yong An Wu Zhu coin.

The North and South dynasties era was another long period of disunity and strife. The north and south of China were each ruled by two separate successions of dynasties. During this period, coin inscriptions other than (nominal) weights, such as names or year titles, were introduced, although the Wu Zhu coin was still issued. Seal script remained the norm for inscriptions and some coins of highly regarded calligraphy were produced. However, the general coinage was of a very poor quality. In 465, permission was granted for the people to mint coins. A thousand of these "goose eye" coins which resulted made a pile less than three inches (76 mm) high. There were others, still worse, called "Fringe Rim" coins, which would not sink in water and would break in one's hand. In the market, people would not bother counting them, but would pick them up by the handful. A peck of rice sold for 10,000 of these. Reforms by Emperor Ming from 465 onwards, had only a limited success in improving the quality of the coinage.[1]: 99 

Southern dynasties


The last three small coins, weighing only 2 zhu, were all issued by Emperor Fei in 465. As the Jinghe and Yongguang periods only lasted for a few months, these coins are very rare. The Song capital was at Nanking.


Tai Qing Feng Le (Chinese: 太清豐樂; pinyin: tài qīng fēng lè; lit. 'Tai Qing', 'Prosperous and Happy') are attributed to the Tai Qing period (547–549) of Emperor Wu. A hoard was discovered in Jiangsu containing 4,000 Tai Qing Feng Le coins with various other sorts of coins showing that this is not an amulet as had been claimed by some authorities.


Tai Huo Liu Zhu (Chinese: 太貨六銖; pinyin: tài huò liù zhū; lit. 'The Large Coin Six Zhu') were issued by Emperor Xuan in 579. At first the coin was equivalent to ten Wu Zhus. Later the value was changed to one, and the contemporary saying "They cried before the Emperor, their arms akimbo" is said to refer to the discontent among the people caused by this. The seal character for liu suggests the "arms akimbo" posture. The coin was withdrawn in 582 when the Emperor died, and Wu Zhus were adopted. The Chen capital was Nanking.

Northern dynasties

Northern Wei

Northern Qi

Chang Ping Wu Zhu (Chinese: 常平五銖; pinyin: chángpíng wǔ zhū; lit. 'The Constant and Regular Wu Zhu') were cast by Emperor Wen Xuan in 553. They are finely made. The Northern Qi capital was Linzhang in Hebei. Under the Northern Qi, there was an Eastern and a Western Coinage Region, under the Chamberlain for Palace Revenues. Each Regional Director supervised 3 or 4 Local Services.

Northern Zhou

The above coins, the "Northern Zhou Three Coins", are written in the Yu Zhu (jade chopstick) style of calligraphy which is greatly admired.

3 and 4 Zhu cash coins attributed to this period

3 and 4 Zhu coins are a small group of square and round coins which do not always have a hole in the middle. They are usually attributed to the time of the Southern and Northern dynasties. This was an unsettled period which produced some very poor coinage. The obverse inscriptions give a weight of 3 or 4 zhu. The reverse inscriptions appear to be place names.[11]

Square shape:

Obverse inscription Reverse inscription Image
(San Zhu)
(Si Zhu)
(Si Zhu)
(Si Zhu)
(Si Zhu)
Peng Xinwei proposes that this inscription reads "Yan Xiang".
(Si Zhu)

(Si Zhu)
(Dong A)
(Si Zhu)
(Gu Mu)
(Si Zhu)
(Ding Xiang)
(Si Zhu)
(Gao Liu)
(Si Zhu)
(Yang Qiu)
(Si Zhu)

(Si Zhu)

(Si Zhu)
(Pu Yang)
(Chun Yu Si Zhu)
(Lin Zi Si Zhu)

Round coins with a round hole:

Obverse inscription Reverse inscription Image
(Si Zhu)
(Si Zhu)
(Si Zhu)
(Si Zhu)
(An Ping)
(Xia Cai Si Zhu)
(Yi Yang Si Zhu)
(Lin Qu Si Zhu)

Sui dynasty

China was reunified under the Sui dynasty (581–618). Under this short-lived dynasty, many reforms were initiated that led to the subsequent success of the Tang dynasty. The only coin associated with the Sui is a Wu Zhu coin. Additional mints were set up in various prefectures, typically with five furnaces each. Cash was frequently checked for quality by the officials. However, after 605, private coining again caused a deterioration of the coinage.[1]: 101 

Tang dynasty

See also: Kaiyuan Tongbao

Tang issues

Obverse and reverse of a Kai Yuan Tong Bao coin.

Kai Yuan Tong Bao (Chinese: 開元通寶; pinyin: kāiyuán tōng bǎo; lit. 'The Inaugural Currency') were the main coin issued by the Tang. It was cast for most of the dynasty, a period of nearly 300 years. It was first issued by the Emperor Gao Zu in the autumn of the 4th year of the Wu De period (August 621). Its diameter was to be 8 fen. The weight was set at 2.4 zhu, ten to the liang. 1,000 coins weighed 6 jin 4 liang. The legend was written by the famous calligrapher Ouyang Xun in a much admired mixture of the Bafen and Li (official or clerkly) styles of writing. This is the first to include the phrase tong bao, used on many subsequent coins. The inscription was used by other regimes in later periods; such coins can be distinguished from Tang coins by their workmanship. Minting and copper extraction were centrally controlled, and private casting was punishable by death. For the first time we find regulations giving the prescribed coinage alloy: 83% copper, 15% lead, and 2% tin. Previously the percentages used seem to have been on an ad hoc basis. Actual analyses show rather less copper than this.

A crescent-shaped mark is often found on the reverse of Kai Yuans. The legend is that the Empress Wende (or, as in some folk legends, Wu Zetian) inadvertently stuck one of her fingernails in a wax model of the coin when it was first presented to her, and the resulting mark was reverentially retained. Other imperial ladies have also been proposed as the source of these nail marks, especially the Imperial Consort Yang. Peng explores the possibility of a foreign source for them. More prosaically, they appear to be a control system operated by the mint workers.

At first, mints were set up in Luoyang in Henan, and also in Peking, Chengdu, Bingzhou (Taiyuan in Shanxi), and then Guilin in Guangxi. Minting rights were also granted to some princes and officials. By 660, deterioration of the coinage due to forgery had become a problem. The regulations were reaffirmed in 718, and forgeries suppressed. In 737, the first commissioner with overall responsibility for casting was appointed. In 739, ten mints were recorded, with a total of 89 furnaces casting some 327,000 strings of cash a year. 123 liang of metal were needed to produce a string of coins weighing 100 liang. In the late 740s, skilled artisans were employed for casting, rather than conscripted peasants. Despite these measures, the coinage continued to deteriorate. In 808, a ban on hoarding coins was proclaimed. This was repeated in 817. Regardless of the rank of a person, they could not hold more than 5,000 strings of cash. Cash balances exceeding this amount had to be expended within two months to purchase goods. This was an attempt to compensate for the lack of cash in circulation. By 834, mint output had fallen to 100,000 strings a year, mainly due to the shortage of copper. Forgeries using lead and tin alloys were produced.

In 845, in the Huichang period, the Emperor Wu Zong, a fervent follower of Taoism, destroyed the Buddhist monasteries and used the copper bells, gongs, incense burners and statues to cast coins in various localities. These local mints were under the control of the provincial governors. The New Tang History states that Li Shen, governor of Huainan province, requested that the empire might cast coins bearing the name of the prefecture in which they were cast, and this was agreed. These coins with mint names on the reverses, known as Huichang Kai Yuans, are of poor workmanship and size compared with the early Kai Yuans. However, when Emperor Xuanzong ascended to the throne the next year, this policy was reversed, and the new coins were recast to make Buddhist statues.

Archaeological discoveries have assisted numismatists in dating various varieties of the Kai Yuan more closely.

Other Tang dynasty coins are:

Xinjiang issues

Main article: Xinjiang coins

Judging by their find spots, these coin were cast by the local government in the Kuche area of Xinjiang in around 760–780.

Tang rebels

In 755, a revolt started in the north-west of China. The capital, Luoyang, was taken, and the Emperor fled to Sichuan. One of the rebels, Shi Siming, issued coins at Luoyang from 758. Shi was killed in 761, and the revolt was eventually suppressed in 763 with the help of foreign troops.

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

Obverse and reverse of a Guang Tian Yuan Bao coin from the Former Shu.

After the collapse of the Tang in 907, another period of disunity ensued known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. Five officially recognised dynasties ruled consecutively in the north (with capitals at Kaifeng or Luoyang in Henan), while ten different kingdoms held sway at different times in the south. A shortage of copper made it difficult to produce an adequate supply of coins. In 955, an Edict banned the holding of bronze utensils:

From now on, except for court objects, weapons, official objects and mirrors, and cymbals, bells and chimes in temples and monasteries, all other bronze utensils are banned ... Those who hoard more than 5 jin, no matter how much the amount, will be executed. Those who abetted them will be exiled for two years, followed by labour service for one year. Those around them will suffer 100 strokes of the cane. Informers will be rewarded with 30 strings of cash.

The south enjoyed somewhat better political and economic conditions, and saw an advance in trade. A great variety of coinage, including large and base metal coins, was issued in this area.

Five Dynasties

Later Liang

Kai Ping tong bao (Chinese: 開平通寶; pinyin: kāipíng tōng bǎo) and also a Kai Ping yuan bao coins could have been issued by Zhu Wen when he overthrew the Tang in 907. However, only a few specimens of each coin are known, and one of each is shown in China National Museum and China History Museum. Some authorities doubt their authenticity.

Later Tang

Tian Cheng yuan bao (Chinese: 天成元寶; pinyin: tiānchéng yuánbǎo) were issued by Emperor Ming in the Tiancheng period (926–929).

Later Jin

Tian Fu yuan bao (Chinese: 天福元寶; pinyin: tiānfú yuánbǎo) were issued by Emperor Gao Zong in the Tianfu period from 938. From 939, private casting was permitted for a few months, resulting in coins of adulterated alloy.

Later Han

Han Yuan tong bao (Chinese: 漢元通寶; pinyin: hàn yuán tōng bǎo) coin's pattern is based on the Kai Yuan. In 948, during the reign of Emperor Gao Zu, the President of the Department of Imperial Feasts requested permission to set up a mint in the capital (Kaifeng, Henan). There is no specific record of casting Han Yuans.

Later Zhou

Zhou Yuan tong bao (Chinese: 周元通寶; pinyin: zhōuyuán tōng bǎo) coins were issued by Emperor Shi Zong from 955. The pattern is also based on the Kai Yuan coin. They were cast from melted-down bronze statues from Buddhist temples. When reproached for this, the Emperor uttered a cryptic remark to the effect that the Buddha would not mind this sacrifice. It is said that the Emperor himself supervised the casting at the many large furnaces at the back of the palace. The coins have amuletic properties because they were made from Buddhist statues, and are particularly effective in midwifery – hence the many later-made imitations.[1]: 113–114 

Ten Kingdoms

Former Shu

Issued by Wang Jian (907–918).

Issued by Wang Zongyan, son of Wang Jian (919–925).

The coins of the Wang family were often of a very poor quality. Wang Jian began his career as a village thief; he enlisted as a soldier, rose through the ranks, and by 901 was virtually an independent ruler, with his capital at Chengdu in Sichuan. His regime provided a peaceful haven for artists and poets.[1]: 115 


Issued by Wang Shenzhi:

In 916, Wang Shenzhi, King of Min, minted a small lead Kai Yuan coin in Ninghua County of Dingzhou Prefecture in Fujian Province, where deposits of lead had been discovered. The lead coins circulated together with copper coins.

Issued by Wang Yanxi:

Issued by Wang Yanzheng:


Supreme Commander Ma Yin:

Later Shu

Southern Tang

Main article: Southern Tang coinage

Emperor Yuan Zong (Li Jing) (943–961):

Emperor Li Yu (961–978):

Distinguished from Tang period Kai Yuan by the broader rims, and the characters being in less deep relief.

In the second year of Qiande (961), Li Yu ascended the throne, and the resources of the country being exhausted, his minister Han Xizai obtained permission to cast coins. These were on the Kai Yuan model, but in seal writing devised by the scholar Xu Xuan. This coin was slightly larger than the old Kai Yuans, and had broader rims, and was found convenient by both the government and the people.

Southern Han

Emperor Lie Zu (Liu Yan) (917–942):

In 917, Liu Yan proclaimed himself Emperor of a dynasty at first called the Great Yue, then the Han, and set up his capital at Canton, which he renamed Xingwangfu.[1]: 121–123 

Crude lead coins

Attributed to the Southern Han/Chu area (900–971):

Wu Wu (五五), Wu Wu Wu (五五五), Wu Wu Wu Wu (五五五五), Wu Zhu (五朱), and Kai Yuan Wu Wu (開元五五) coins are typical of the hybrid inscriptions formed by combinations of inappropriate characters. They also have series numbers on the reverse.

In 924, it was reported: In the shops and the markets, control of silk and money has resulted in the circulation of small lead coins which we readily find in great quantities; they all come from south of the [Yangtze] river whence the merchants transport them here surreptitiously. In 929, the Chu authorities fixed the value of a lead coin as 1/100 of a bronze coin. In 962, it was decreed that the lead coins should circulate in towns, and copper coins outside of them. Those contravening this risked the death penalty.

Nearly all the coin hoards of this period are of lead coins found in towns, e.g. the Guangfu Road, Guangzhou hoard of 2,000 coins. It is clear that most of these coins were made unofficially by the merchants or the people.

Recently, many inventions, purporting to belong to this series, have appeared on the market.[1]: 122 

You Zhou Autonomous Region (900–914)

From 822, the You Zhou (within modern Hebei) area enjoyed virtual independence from the rest of the empire. At the end of the ninth century the Regional Commandant of You Zhou was Liu Rengong, succeeded by his son Liu Shouguang from 911. The histories say that Liu Rengong minted iron coins. He is also said to have ordered his subordinates to collect up all [old?] bronze coins and bring them to Da An mountain where he buried them in a cave. When they had all been hidden away, he killed the workmen and covered over the entrance. The coins below have been found together in the north of China. Opinion on their attribution is divided. Although Yong An was a Xia dynasty period title, these coins appear to be the result of unregulated minting, which seems appropriate for the regime of the Liu family.

The above are found in bronze and iron.

These poorly made coins are imitations of coins of previous regimes and are attributed to the You Zhou.[1]: 123–124 

Song dynasty

See also: Southern Song dynasty coinage

Obverse and reverse of a Tian Xi Tong Bao coin.

In 960, General Zhao Kuangyin had the throne thrust upon him by mutinous officers. He allowed the Later Zhou family to retire peacefully and established the Song dynasty. Coins were the main basis of the Song monetary system. Cloth had reverted to the status of a commodity. Aided by the exploitation of new copper mines, cash were produced on a large scale. By the Yuanfeng period (1078–1085), casting from 17 different mints produced over five million strings a year of bronze coins. Most mints produced 200,000 strings a year; the largest was named Shao Zhou and located in Guangdong, where there was a large copper mine. It produced 800,000 strings a year. In 1019, the coinage alloy was set at copper 64%, lead 27%, tin 9%. This shows a reduction of nearly 20% in copper content compared with the Tang dynasty Kai Yuan coin.

With so much official coinage available, private coining was generally not a serious problem. Song coins were used over much of Asia, especially in Korea, Japan, Annam, and Indonesia. Hoards of Song coins are often found in these countries.

A wide variety of ordinary cash coin types was produced. The inscription was nearly always changed when the period title was changed. Seal, li, regular, running, and "grass" styles of writing were all used at various times. Many inscriptions were written by the ruling Emperor, which has resulted in some of the most admired and analysed calligraphy to be found on cash coins. In addition, inscriptions could use yuan bao (Chinese: 元寶; pinyin: yuánbǎo) or tong bao (Chinese: 通寶; pinyin: tōng bǎo), increasing the number of variations possible. Large coins which used zhong bao (Chinese: 重寶; pinyin: zhòng bǎo) were also issued in a variety of sizes and nominal denominations, usually devalued soon after issue.

A feature of Northern Song coinage is the sets of dui qian (Chinese: 對錢; pinyin: duì qián; lit. 'Matched Coins'). This means the simultaneous use of two or three different calligraphic styles on coins of the same period title which are otherwise identical in size of hole, width of rim, thickness, size and position of the characters and alloy. One can assume that these congruences arose from the workmanship of the different mints, but no attributions have yet been proposed.

From the beginning of the dynasty, iron coins were extensively used in present-day Sichuan and Shaanxi where copper was not readily available. Between 976 and 984, a total of 100,000 strings of iron coins was produced in Fujian as well. In 993, for paying the land tax one iron coin was equal to one bronze, for the salary of clerks and soldiers one bronze equalled five iron coins, but in trade ten iron coins were needed for one bronze coin. In 1005, four mints in Sichuan produced over 500,000 strings of iron coins a year. This declined to 210,000 strings by the beginning of the Qingli period (1041). At this time, the mints were ordered to cast 3 million strings of iron cash to meet military expenses in Shaanxi. However, by 1056, casting was down to 100,000 strings a year, and in 1059 minting was halted for 10 years in Jiazhou and Qiongzhou, leaving only Xingzhou producing 30,000 strings a year.

During the Xining period (from 1068), minting was increased, and by the Yuanfeng period (from 1078) it was reported that there were nine iron coin mints, three in Sichuan and six in Shaanxi, producing over a million strings a year. Thereafter, output declined gradually.[1]: 125 

Emperor Tai Zu (960–976)

Emperor Tai Zong (976–997)

No coins were issued with the Yong Xi and Duan Gong period titles (984–989).

Emperor Zhen Zong (998–1022)

No coins were produced with the Qian Xing period title, which only lasted one year, 1022.[1]: 131 

Emperor Ren Zong (1022–1063)

The histories say that the Huang Song coin was cast in Baoyuan 2 – 1039. As it is rather common, and there are no bronze small cash from the next three periods, it appears to have been issued for longer than one year.

Yuan dynasty

Main article: Yuan dynasty coinage

Ming dynasty

Main article: Ming dynasty coinage

Qing dynasty

Main article: Qing dynasty coinage

See also



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av aw ax David, Hartill (September 22, 2005). Cast Chinese Coins. Trafford Publishing. ISBN 978-1412054669.
  2. ^ "by YK Kwan". May 3, 2012. Archived from the original on May 3, 2012. Retrieved February 5, 2021.
  3. ^ "China Ancient Currency, Shell Money before Qin dynasty". Retrieved January 31, 2019.
  4. ^ "中國最早金屬鑄幣 商代晚期鑄造銅貝" [China's first metal coins: copper casting in the late Shang dynasty]. (in Chinese). Archived from the original on March 17, 2012. Retrieved May 11, 2009.
  5. ^ Giedroyc, Richard (2006). The Everything Coin Collecting Book: All You Need to Start Your Collection And Trade for Profit. Everything Books. ISBN 9781593375683.[permanent dead link]
  6. ^ 湖南宁乡出土商代玉玦用途试析 Archived March 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine (in Chinese)
  7. ^ "〈中國古代的貨幣區系、黃金流動與市場整合〉中文摘要". Retrieved February 5, 2021.
  8. ^ "(二)两宋时期钱币的铸行". (in Chinese). Retrieved January 31, 2019.
  9. ^ “临安府行用”钱牌 Archived June 19, 2010, at the Wayback Machine (in Chinese)
  10. ^ Theobald, Ulrich (2016), "Huanqian 圜錢, Round Coins of the Warring States and the Qin Periods", ChinaKnowledge, Tubingen((citation)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link).
  11. ^ Hartill 2005, p. 102.


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Preceded by:
Zhou dynasty coinage
Reason: Unification of China under the Qin.
Currency of China
221 BC – 1127 AD
Succeeded by:
Liao dynasty coinage
Reason: Khitan conquest of Northern China.
Succeeded by:
Western Xia coinage
Reason: The Tangut Dingnan Jiedushi becomes independent.
Succeeded by:
Southern Song dynasty coinage
Reason: Jurchen conquest of northern China.