Coin history - from the Shang to the Warring States

This is a very important period, because all later types of coins origin from here. It starts in the Shang period around 1500 B.C. and ends in 221 B.C. just before the king of Qin becomes the first emperor of a unified Chinese empire. China was in this period a country that consisted of many different states, see map of the states in the Spring and Autumn period. The Shang was the central power for approximately 650 years, then the Zhou took over and lasted 824 years. However, in the period from 770 to 221, called Eastern Zhou, the Zhou dynasty was weakened, and the states were in war with each other. The state of Qin conquered the other states, and founded a unified empire in 221 B.C. which was called the Qin dynasty. The Qin ruler was the Yellow Emperor, the Qin Shi Huang Di, infamous for his effective but totalitarian regime.

Most of this chapter is written on the basis of the famous historian Wang Yu-Ch’üan's book Early Chinese Coinage. This is in my opinion the best book on the subject. 

The coins of this period include the cowry shells, the cowry imitations, the ant nose money of Chu, the Yuan Jin of Chu, the spade coins, the knife coins and the round coins. The so-called bridge money and fish money were actually not money, but burial gifts (p. 237). In the article A Study of the Pieces of Bronzes used as Primitive Currency in Ancient China, two Chinese archaeologists Dai Zhiqiang and Zhou Weirong concludes that there existed another type of cast coinage, which archaeologists have been unaware of until now. Pieces broken off from a cake-shaped piece of bronze, have been found at many sites from the Zhou period. After metallurgical analysis and comparisons of the many pieces found, they discovered that matching pieces were never found at the same sites. This indicates that the bronze pieces have been exchanged. They also discovered that the metal was the same alloy that was used for spade and knife coins, an alloy that was too weak for tools. They conclude that these bronze pieces were intended to be used for exchange. If this conclusion is true, it means that these bronze pieces were probably small denominations that supplemented the spade and knife coins, before the first round coins appeared. 

The reason that the Shang, the Zhou , the Spring-Autumn and the Warring States  are in the same chapter is that the types of coins of these periods were more or less the same. In the beginning there were the primitive cowries, and in the end of the period the first round coins. In between were many types of spade and knife money issued by the different states. 
A main goal in numismatism is to know the dating of coins as well as the place of issue. According to Wang (p. 17), we have very few historical records of coinage from this period, except the mention of the terms bei  (cowry coin), dao (knife coin) and bu (spade coin) in ancient texts, so the coins themselves are the only source to investigate the early coinage. Many of the finds of early coins have not been recorded by trained archaeologists, and quite often we don’t know very much about the dating or where the mints were located. Most knife coins have the name of the mint and the town where they were minted written on them. Wang explains that this will not always help us date them, because many towns had the same name, and there is not much help to find in the historical literature, that mentions these towns. However there are still other ways to determine the origin of the early coinage, and there is extensive research going on both in China and abroad, and progress is made along the way. 

Wang concludes in chapter 2 (p. 41), that there was a considerable and increasing trade going on since the Shang and the Zhou that developed even further in the Warring States period. Wang mentions that the annual tribute or tax of a household to their lord was 200 bronze coins (Wang p.44). There is no reliable documentation on the population before Han, but we know that the population was ca. 60 million in early Han (Fairbank p. 60). If we estimate that there were only 30 million in Zhou, and estimate the average household to be 20 people, we can calculate, that there should have been about 300.000.000 coins that had to be paid each year, plus there was a need for coins for trade among people. This can mean two things. The first: that even if the population was half my estimate, much more coins were minted in this period than in the Han, and this seems unlikely. The second: that the tax was not paid entirely in coins, but in naturals and labour. Even if the economy was commercialized to some degree, China was an agrarian society, where exchange of goods existed alongside the exchange of money. At this point  we cannot tell if money were more used than naturals or vice versa. 

Cowry money. The Shang to the Zhou. Used in all parts of China. 

Spade coins. 11th to 3rd century B.C. Mainly used in the western part of China. 

Knife coins. 11-9th to 3rd century B.C. Mainly used in the eastern part of China. 

Round coins. 3rd century B.C. to 221 B.C. Used in both the spade- and knife areas. 

Yuan Jin. The stamped gold coins of Chu.