Posted by Allison on 6 April 2009, 15:03
The coinage of China is capable of taking us back on a remarkable journey. Chinese coins have varied greatly throughout history, but they all have a certain something which makes studying them a fascinating subject.
Back before coins as we know them today came into general circulation, the Chinese used some rather more bizarre forms of money to pay for goods. One of the first in line was spade money – and while it didn't quite reach the size of a normal spade, some of them were made of strong enough metals to actually be used for digging as well. There were lots of different types and styles of spade money, meaning that it obviously did catch on and become fairly widespread in the centuries gone by, dating back to around 800 BC or thereabouts.
Another more unusual type of Chinese money that served its purpose well until the concept of the coin finally came along was knife money. Again this is exactly what it sounds like – money which was formed in the shape of a knife. These knives varied greatly in length, and there weren't as many different types as there were of the spade money, although there were still quite a variety of styles. One thing they all had in common was that they had a hold in the end of the handle section; this was presumably so you could hang them on a string tied around your neck or wrist, rather than having to carry them in your hand, which could understandably have led to accidents.
When the Chinese finally got round to the idea of using coins, similar to the ones we know today, they were still very distinctive. In fact a lot of collectors specialise in collecting Chinese coins from many centuries ago, as they hold something of a fascination that is uniquely theirs.
It is the Chinese that we have to thank for giving us the modern word 'cash.' While we use this word to describe any kind of money – whether it is in note or coin form – the Chinese used it to describe a specific type of coin which is instantly recognisable as being Chinese in origin. The word cash means 'square holed money' and accurately describes the appearance of the coins, which were round with a square hole in the middle, so you could thread them together and hang them around your neck.
There were also a number of coins in use in ancient China which had round holes in them, although it seems to be the square holed variety that really catches the imagination of collectors today. The round holed coins are actually fairly rare, while there are far more of the square holed variety which is studied by collectors.
Ancient Chinese coins are also popular in another way – they seem to attract forgers. Over recent years there have been many fake coins which have been offered to collectors, and unfortunately some people have been taken in with them and ended up out of pocket and left with a worthless coin that is far from being an ancient relic.
The majority of the square holed coins had either two or four Chinese characters depicted on them. They also had an outer rim which stood proud of the inside section of the coin. The Chinese lettering also stood out from the middle of the design.
Interestingly enough the ancient holed coin design kept on going right up until relatively recently. The Te Tsung cash coin – which featured two Chinese characters on one side and four on the other – was in use in the early twentieth century, and square holed coins carried on being used in China until the middle of the twentieth century. At this point solid round coins took over, and the reign of the square holed coins (which had continued for many centuries in China) was finally over.
Today, the whole of China uses the renminbi on a daily basis as their preferred currency. The coins look very different from their previous counterparts, but they still have the Chinese characters on them, along with the numbered value of each coin and the year in which it was minted. The coins are known by three different units – the yuan, the jiao and the fen.
China has also been minting commemorative coins during the past thirty years. Struck to mark the Chinese New Year, they are known as lunar coins and feature the twelve animals which each represent a separate year. Every Chinese person (and many other people throughout the world) knows whether they were born in the Year of the Rat, the Year of the Dog, or another of the animals that are featured.
Each commemorative coin is struck in a strictly limited edition each year, making it a wonderful collectors item for those who wish to get the whole set. 2008 is the Year of the Rat, and the next coin release will feature the ox.
2008 is also the year that China will host the Summer Olympics, which means they have issued a series of coins to mark the event. Some of these have been made in gold and silver, making them a truly coveted item to help remember the Games long after all the medals have been won. Not surprisingly the famous Chinese dragon features strongly.
It seems strange to follow the long history of Chinese coins spanning across thousands of years – from the first rudimentary spade and knife coins, to the gold coins to mark a modern Olympic Games. You might think that today's currency is somewhat dull when compared to the currency of centuries gone by, but it merely represents the huge changes which China has seen over such a large expanse of time.
If you were to start collecting Chinese coins, it wouldn't matter where you started – your collection would be full of interest and value whatever decade or century the coins came from.