The Study of Chinese Coins

In this article, Percy J. Smith introduces readers to the history of Chinese copper coins from the Zhou dynasty to Tang dynasty. Several illustrations of different types of coins are included.


by Percy J. Smith

The study of Chinese copper coinage is one of entrancing interest. Naturally those who go the deepest into it get the most out of it, and there is in Chinese numismatics a field for exploration big enough to engage study and attention for a lifetime. But fortunately it also offers large attractions to those who can give to it but a comparatively limited amount of attention and, what is very important, money.

Specimens of ancient coins of the ‘spade’ and ‘sword’ variety are each year more difficult to obtain, although clever modern counterfeits of them are quite common, and are apt to entrap the unwary collector. But even these are worth obtaining, for, although not genuine, yet being copies, they give the form and character of the original. On the other hand, a multitude of coins, of real historical value and interest and dating back centuries of even milleniums, are to be found on many of the strings of cash in current use among the people to-day, and, with a little pains, can easily be obtained. Here then is a strong inducement for those who are on the look out for a hobby which makes relatively small demands upon the time or the pocket. 

Needless to say, the historical is one of the chief fascinations of this study, for even coins tell a story. That story can be followed just as far as one’s inclinations lead, or may be dropped at the threshold. But the writer, at any rate, has found the collection and classifying of the copper cash of the past ages a wonderful introduction to phases of Chinese history, to men and dynasties and movements, which would otherwise have been unknown to him, or only reached by the dryasdust method of the text book.

The object of the present article is to bring some illustrations to bear upon this point; and it is at once obvious that a very large field is opened up, which, if traversed ever so lightly, would take us far beyond the scope of an article of this nature. Hence the desirability of imposing limitations; and the writer proposes to do this by confining his remarks to a few coins taken from his own collection. Although, as this collection is far from complete, this will necessarily exclude many very interesting specimens and many interesting historical facts, yet we shall doubtless find sufficient for the present purpose.         

The authentic history of China may be said to commence during the Chou Dynasty (B.C. 1122-255), and by some the point is put at the reign of Yu Wang (B.C. 781-771). Before this, legend and tradition are intermixed, so that although knife and spade currency have come down to us from these ancient times, it is difficult to dogmatise upon their origin. Let us take one specimen belonging to the class known as ‘Chin Hwo’ (金貨) or ‘Metal Currency’.

coin_01The date of this may be placed between B.C. 770 and B.C. 250, namely, during the second half of the Chou Dynasty. Only five of the characters are recognisable, while the shape of the coin itself is supposed to be representative of the ‘seal’ form of the character ‘Ch’uen’ (), one of the oldest terms for money. But the interest of the coin lies in the fact of its connection with the period ‘in which are to be found the origins and principles of Chinese civilisation, for most of the customs, laws, and institutions which we see to-day have been handed down to us from this period.’ It was an age of darkness, we are told; the moral standard of he people was low; intrigues between the different States were rife. But it was an age which produced the colossal figures of Confucius, an nearly two hundred years after, his great disciple Mencius, and it needs no greater claim upon our interest and admiration than this! At its commencement China was, politically, a mere collection of feudal states, numbering 1773; at its close China had become for the first time a united empire under Shih Hwang Ti.

To the period immediately succeeding the Chou is attributed another famous coin, viz, the ‘Pan Liang’ (半兩). coin_02This cash, which is made of a good red copper, is still fairly common. The seal characters are especially well formed and protruding; the coin has no rim and we are told that its weight was as its inscription, that is, half an ounce. 

It is placed by some under the Han Dynasty, but there is also a record that it was minted by Shih Hwang Ti (B.C. 221). He was evidently a man of strong personality and enterprising spirit, as is shown by the histories. In his day the vast number of feudal States had gradually diminished in number, until there were left but seven, of one of which he was the ruler. He welded these States into one, and became the first Emperor of a United China. Two facts which are always connected with his name shed a strong light on his character. One was the famous burning of the Classical Books, which was his reply to the literati who criticised his overthrow of feudalism, and was followed by the burying alive of those who refused otherwise to be silenced. The other was the building of The Great Wall, which was an attempt to keep out the barbarous and fierce tribes of ‘Hsiung Nu.’ Two other things not so well known in connection with Shih Hwang Ti are the following;−

The Lesser Seal style of writing, and the brush pen so well known in China are generally believed to be the invention of his reign.

Curiously enough, there is one issue of the ‘Pan Liang’ cash with the inscription reversed, i.e., ‘Liang Pan’; and one of these has found its way into the writer’s possession.

We now go forward more than two hundred years to the commencement of the Christian era, when a most interesting set of coins makes its appearance. Here are some which we find under the date A.D. 9-20, issued by the notorious Han dynasty usurper Wang Mang. coin_03

The inscriptions are all in the Seal script. Nos. 1 and 2 read ‘Ta ch’uen Wu Shih’ (Large coin worth fifty); No. 3 reads ‘I Tao P’ing Wu Ch’ien’  (One knife. Equal to 5,000); No. 4 has ‘Hwo Pu’ (Exchange Coin); No. 5 has ‘Hwo Ch’uen’ (Exchange Coin); and No. 6 reads ‘Hsiao Ch’uen Chih I’ (small coin worth one). This latter, an extremely small coin, is rather rare now, and is often used as a charm. Only the obverse of these coins is given, as the reverse face of each is plain.

Wang Mang was evidently a gentleman with fantastic and original ideas in the way of currency. He issued many others not recorded here, which are characterised by the greatest variety of style and inscription, some of them bearing images of such things as stars, swords, snakes and tortoises. In the illustrations given above how varied were his attempts. Here are round coins, large and small, ‘Pu’ coins, and a combination of round coin and sword coin. The round variety had not long been current, and perhaps some of the ancient shaped coins were concurrently used. Wang Mang in the coin illustrated in No. 3 seems to have attempted to combine the two styles; and the interesting thing is that this was not by way of transition from the old to the new, but was an attempt to revert to, and recall, the ancient Chou Dynasty customs and practices. Now, when we come to look into the records of Wang Mang, we find that the tendency so splendidly illustrated in this coin, was in fact the guiding principle of his life and government policy. The History states that when he overturned the Han Dynasty and usurped the throne, his whole attitude to tradition was one of upmost reverence, and he gave himself up to the attempt to restore and resuscitate ‘all laws and institutions that experience had long since discarded as out of date and impracticable.’ He used the word ‘New’ as the title of his reign but ‘Old’ would have been a more suitable name. We are told that he promulgated many ridiculous currency laws, and, if these are to be interpreted by the variety of his styles of coinage, we may well believe it. 

It is however extremely interesting to find the coinage of this period so illustrative of the facts we find recorded of it in the histories.

In passing, a sufficient study in contrasts is afforded if we remember that Wang Mang was issuing his anomalous coinage and engaged in his reactionary policy, at the very time when Jesus Christ as a young man walked in Galilee pondering his great reconstructive policy for mankind.

For the rest, Wang Mang seems to have been an unprincipled ruffian. He made his way to the throne by intrigue and murder. By his actions and reactions he roused rebellions to one of which he succumbed, and was eventually beheaded in A.D. 22.

4 coinsA very brief mention must be made to the well-known ‘Wu Shu’ (五銖) class of coins, of which but two examples are given here. It is almost impossible to assign to each coin now extant its period of issue, for the Wu Shu coins were issued under different dynasties from B.C. 118 to A.D. 618. One authority states that the first issue was made by the Emperor Wu Ti of the Han Dynasty in B.C. 117, and that by the year A.D. 1 there had been minted 280,000,000,000! As there were further issue under succeeding dynasties, the total output must have been enormous, and there is little wonder that so many have been handed down to the present day. The period of history covered by this coin is, or course, far too great to be discussed here.

Before passing on however, it may be well to note that the second character ‘Shu’ means a weight standard equal to 100 millet grains. This standard for weighing coins has ben invariably used by the Chinese numismatists, and it is easy to see how in primitive times, when standards were unfixed, this practice was adopted. Strange to say, the Five Shu coins are not recorded as invariably weighing five Shu. One cast in A.D. 187 (Eastern Han) weighed four Shu; another was eight Shu and yet another was three Shu. That these were all styled and inscribed as ‘Five Shu,’ evidently presented no incongruity to the Chinese mind!

Our last study shall be concerning four examples of the T’ang Dynasty (A.D. 618-906) coins, which are still found in current China in large numbers. Our four examples we will take in the order of their issue, and the first is the ‘K’ai Yuen T’ung Pao’ (Currency of the Inauguration) cash. We are told that this cash was minted in the 4th year of the Emperor Wu Ti (A.D. 622), and Wu Ti is an important character in history.coin_06 He was the founder and first Emperor of the T’ang Dynasty, a dynasty which is rightly celebrated among the dynasties of the past. It was an age of poetry, of literary culture, of military skill and of vast Imperial expansion. Under the first T’ang Emperor the Empire reached ‘from the Yellow Sea to Aral Sea; from Siberia to its southernmost point in Farther India’. We are told it was the largest Empire ever under sway of a purely Chinese dynasty; and according to Wells Williams, during the 287 years they held the throne, Chin was probably the most civilised country on earth.

Of our Emperor who founded the dynasty we know a good deal, which cannot be enlarged upon here. But one curious story shall be recorded of him, which connects us up with the coin portrayed above. On the reverse will be seen a small crescent, and concerning its origin we are told that when the wax model of the proposed new coin was sent in to Emperor Wu Ti for approval, his Empress also examined it, and unconsciously left a slight impression on it with her fingernail, which doubtless according to custom was very long. Hence all the minted coins bore the mark. By how small a thing has her fame been handed down to posterity!

The second coin is the ‘Ch’ien Yeun Chung Pao’ (Heavy currency of Ch’ien Yuen). Ch’ien Yuen (Heavenly), was the reign title of the Emperor Hsu Tsung (A.D. 758), but if he was indeed Heaven’s appointment, he proved unworthy. coin_07He banished his own father; and his maladministration resulted in disorders in which his Empress and her two sons perished. His epitaph in history is as follows: ‘Above, he did not protect his own father; within (or around), he did not protect himself; below, he did not protect his wife and sons; and was the laughing stock of after generations’. Let us take leave of him, however, with pity, and pass on to No. 3.

‘K’ai Yuen T’ung Pao’ cash. (With various characters on the reverse, e.g. ‘Ch’ang’ etc.) We have now gone forward nearly one hundred years to the declining days of the T’ang. The Emperor Wu Tsung issued this coin during A.D. 841-846, and there are two facts to record which illustrate the force of our contention that the study of coinage is of itself an introduction to history.


(1) There are a number of these coins which have on the reverse one character, and these, with one exception, are place names, probably the place where the particular coin was minted. The exception is the character ‘Ch’ang’ (), which refers to “Hui Ch’ang’ (會昌), the reign title of Wu Tsung. Some of the others in our collection are ‘T’an’ () for T’an Yang Prefecture, Hunan; () ‘Hsing,’ modern Feng Hsiang (鳳翔) Prefecture, Shensi, and ‘Tzu’ () modern 梓潼District, Szechuen. Others again have characters which indicate the provinces of Anhui, Chekiang, and Kiangsi, and many other districts as the place of origin.

It will thus be seen that a very large area is covered by the few names already given; and, as this was in the declining days of the T’ang Empire, it offers a strong corroboration of the assertion made earlier as to the vast extent of territory under their dominion during the height of their power.

(2) The copper cash of T’ang are intimately associated with two important items of history in the time of the T’ang power. One is the great ascendancy of Buddhism in the earlier period of the dynasty; and in confirmation of this we read that ‘As soon as the K’ai Yuen Cash were put into circulation, they were destroyed by the people in order to obtain copper for making images of Buddha. Cash famines became frequent, and led to the somewhat unsuccessful experiment with paper money towards the end of the dynasty’. The other is the severe persecution of Buddhists set on foot by the Emperor Wu Tsung in A.D. 845, when 4,600 monasteries and 40,000 smaller buildings were destroyed; while 260,000 monks were compelled to return to secular callings. Further, the Chinese historian relates that ‘When Wu Tsung abolished the Buddhist Monasteries in the Empire, he used the copper bells, and the images of Buddha to mint cash, the inscription still being K’ai Yuen, but on the reverse face was inscribed with it the name of a place’. So in these particular coins we probably are handling copper that once served in a very different capacity and was intimately connected with a person’s religion before it was put to the secular use of the exchange and mart. Here, too, we have what is surely an unparalleled situation, wherein a double change was effected, the coins in the earlier times being converted into images of Buddha, and in the later age the Buddhist images and bells being converted into cash!

Of Wu Tsang little more need be said. An historian records that he belonged to a class of rulers, who, with few exceptions, were mere palace debauchees, or puppets in the hands of their eunuchs. We will leave him, only quoting a quaint passage which says: ‘He took the golden pills until be became ill, and notwithstanding this, trusted in them to change his bones.’

The last coin that we shall mention is the ‘T’ang Kwo T’ung Pao,’ (Currency of the State of T’ang).

thumb_coinsThe vast Empire of the T’angs had disappeared, and all that remained in A.D. 937. was the small southern State of T’ang, which in its turn was to be absorbed by the rising Empire of the Sung. Li Ching, whose reign title was Yuen Tsung, having empty treasuries, issued the ‘T’ang Kwo’ cash with its inscription in the seal character.

We are informed that he was lenient and humane, liberal minded and humble, kind, reverent, peaceful, frugal, and loving towards his people. All truly estimable characteristics; but very different from those rugged and forceful qualities which had in his ancestors extended the Empire and consolidated its position against all comers.

The problem of the fact that so often the battle is to the strong and the race to the swift, and that virtue does not seem to be always rewarded, w evidently in the mind of the Chinese writer who says of Yuen Tsung’s eclipse that ‘when at last the dynasty perished, it was truly because the star of Sung was in the ascendant!’ The last ruler of T’ang, the son of Yuen Tsung ended life as a Marquis under the suzerainty of T’ai Tsu the first Sung emperor.

Works quoted:

Li Yung Ping, Outlines of Chinese History, Commercial Press.

‘Stewart Lockhart Collection of Chinese Copper Coins’, Royal Asiatic Society, China Branch.

Ch’ien Chih Hsin Pien 錢志新編 (in Chinese), 1830.


Source: The China Journal of Science & Arts, vol.V, no.6 (December 1926): 58-65.