The Bei Cowrie shells and imitations used as money

Cowrie shells , 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 character bei , 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 horizontal lines 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.

Cowrie shells and imitations

Cowrie imitations of the Chu state

Changsha Chu minzu ji qi yishu. Vol 2. Meishu Kaogu Xueshe, 1950.

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 only picture of a Chu cowrie mould I have found yet: The only picture of a Chu cowrie mould I have found yet:

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. Modern script Ancient seal script Jin metal,
3. Modern script Ancient seal script Jun noble person,
4. Modern script Ancient seal script Xing street or to go,
5. Modern script Ancient seal script 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. /Sound unknown 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. Later form of yong Ancient form of yong 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:
Modern script 1/10 of an axe? Sound unknown 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 collection of Chu Bei.
Gear Fisher also has many types on his website


  Chu Bei


Cowrie-imitation money of the Chu state

Guilian Qian

Totem Face Money
 Images of Chu Totems

John Hay: Det Gamle Kina. Det Schønbergske Forlag. København 1978. Not really a valid reference, but I can't find the original source and the picture is too good to leave out.



"Jin" character written on bamboo from the Chu dynasty.Hou Cai: Guodian Chumu Zhu Jian "Lao Zi" Jiaodu. Dalian Chubanshe, 1999. P. 81.



"Jun" character written on bamboo from the Chu dynasty. Jingmen shi bowuguan bian: Guodian Chumu zhujian p. ?.



"xing" character written on bamboo from the Chu dynasty. Looks like a road with an intersection. Jingmen shi bowuguan bian: Guodian Chumu zhujian, p. ?.



Not my coin! It is kindly provided by Piet Broersen.

One tenth of an axe?
(Meaning uncertain)

Sound unknown  Sound unknown

Not my coin! Nicked the image on the net somewhere

A handful of grain?
Meaning uncertain
Sui Tu Lei

The clearest coin I have myself

The plough that
ploughs the soil
(Meaning uncertain)

Best picture I could find - from Francois Thierry: Catalogue des Monnaies Chinoises - vol I.


From Jeffrey Young's collection



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 Re 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