The Bei • Cowrie shells and imitations used as money
in Chinese called bèi, were used as money probably since
around 2000 BC, from the Shang dynasty up through the Zhou dynasty. The cowries were an intelligent
solution to make "small money" because they were collected in seas far south of China and only kings could afford to
import them. Furthermore natural shells were impossible to counterfeit. Later
imitations were made of various materials: bone, stone, jade, clay, bronze, and
even silver and bronze with gold plating. Whether imitations were burial money
or not is difficult to tell. This could very well be the case with the pottery, bone
and stone, but the bronze imitations were likely money. The
here shown in both the full- and simplified form, is today a part of around 400 Chinese characters, at
least in the ancient characters, signifying a meaning of value. The two
on the bei character symbolizes the lines on the open side of the
natural shells. The
shell coins had a hole to make strings. Some holes were drilled, some
shells just had the top filed off. If you turn the
ancient form of the character upside down, you clearly see a bei hanging in a string
Wikipedia about cowries.
The bronze cowri imitations of the Chu state were the only cowrie imitations with characters; at least six types with one character, one with three characters and one with a totem face. The Chu people were totem worshippers and the type commonly called Guilian Qian, Ghost Face Money, has a face with a long tongue hanging down. There were different types of eyebrows: single or double, long or short lines. The eyes were most often triangular, a few round. The mouth were represented with a horisontal line, in rare cases two lines, the tongue always with two vertical lines . If you watch the images of Chu Totems here, I am sure you will agree they were totem faces.
The Chu cowries were cast in
carved bronze moulds
a technique that has never before or after been used
for other types of coins in China. The back were slightly concave because of the
contracting of the bronze after cooling. Some were filed on the back and all had
a small hole at the bottom, quite often not open. This may have led some to the
conclusion that it was part of the legend, but there are also holes on the types
where we know the exact form of the character, and the holes were certainly to
make strings of coins. However, since the coins were quite small, it has
probably been impractical to string them. I think the reason why the holes so often
where not open could have been, that it was easier to carry them in a purse.
My own Chu cowries has a weight between 1,2 and 4,9 grams. It seems there could have been two or three denominations, but it will take comparison of many more specimens to see if it was just random differences in weight. The length of the Chu cowries were not random at all; they were almost always very close to 18 mm.
The characters on Chu cowrie imitations were:
1. The totem faces
2. Jin metal,
3. Jun noble person,
4. Xing street or to go,
5. This character is unknown to me. The left part is shi ten, the right jin axe. Both knives and spades wore used for money, maybe this is worth one tenth of an axe?
6. / This character is unknown to me. It could mean a handful of grain, maybe even as a fixed unit of measure?
7. Sui Tu Lei. This type has three characters. The first character is still uncertain, but the three together probably means "the plough that ploughs the soil".
8. A character that is uncertain, but quite close to yong that means Eternity.
1-4 are certain: totem face, nobelman, streets and metal.
5-8 are speculations that needs further investigation:
1/10 of an axe? a handful of grain? the plough? eternity?
The characters on the Chu bei seems to have in common that they all represent important things in ancient Chinese society.
My arguments and documentation for the characters on the Chu Bei
Jeffrey Young has kindly let me use these very clear pictures of his
Gear Fisher also has many types on his website
Cowrie-imitation money of the Chu state
|Totem Face Money
Images of Chu Totems
One tenth of an axe?
|A handful of grain?
|Sui Tu Lei
|The plough that
ploughs the soil
Literature: (complete references and comments if you hold the curser over an image)
All coins are from my own collection if not indicated otherwise.
Hubei sheng Jingzhou bowuguan: Jingzhou Tianxingguan er hao Chumu. Wenwu. Beijing 2003.
Hubei sheng wenwu kaogu yanjiusuo: Jiangling Wangshan Shazhong Chumu. Wenwu. Beijing 1996.
Henan sheng wenwu kaogu yanjiusuo bianzhu: Xincai Geling Chumu. Daxiang. Zhengzhou 2003.
Jingmen shi bowuguan bian: Guodian Chumu zhujian. Wenwu. Beijing 1998.
Hou Cai: Guodian Chumu Zhu Jian "Lao Zi" Jiaodu. Dalian Chubanshe, 1999.
Jiang Xuanai: Changsha Chu minzu ji qi yishu. Vol 2. Meishu Kaogu Xueshe, 1950.
Wagner, Donald B.: Iron and Steel in Ancient China. E.J. Brill, Netherlands,1993.
Xu Zhongshu ed.: Jiaguwen Zidian. (Dictionary of Oracle Bone Inscriptions). Chengdu: Sichuan Cishu, 1988.
Karlgren, Bernhard: Grammatica Serica Recensa. The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Bulletin No. 29, Stockholm, 1957.
Peng, Xinwei: A Monetary History of China. Western Washington University, 1994.
Hua, Guangpu: Zhongguo Guqian Daji. Hunan Rehttp://hi.baidu.com/yibiqin/homenmin Chubanshe, 2004.
Kang Xi Zidian. China 1715. (Shanghai 1996).
Francois Thierry: Catalogue des Monnaies Chinoises.
Link to Zhao Pengs Chinese blog on Chu cowries - Many pictures - Much useful information in Chinese