Chinese cash coins are found anywhere there was trade with Chinese or Asian merchants, from ancient shipwrecks in the South China Sea to the Yangtze River. Storms, wars, pirates (yes, there were Asian pirates, too!) and simple mishaps on the boats were all reasons why the coins went to the bottom.
The coins in this special collection come from both shipwreck and buried treasure discoveries. Placed in a Sterling silver bezel, they are often worn for luck by both men and women!
Historians believe that the Chinese first started using cowry shells for money near the end of the Xia Dynasty (about 4,200 years ago). But due to their rarity (they had to be brought from the South China Seas), imitation shells were carved from jade, bone and other materials. Towards the end of the Shang Dynasty (1766 – 1154 B.C.) bronze shells started to be produced, and are regarded as the first metal coinage in human history, pre-dating the coins minted by the Lydians (of modern day western Turkey) about 600 B.C.
The shell money transitioned into currency of different shapes; bridge money, fish money (fish meaning prosperity in many cultures), spade and knife money, are a few examples. Circular coins with holes in the middle came into use about 350 B.C., and were issued for over 2,000 years, by every major ruler and many rebels and pretenders, ending with the Qing (Ch’ing) Dynasty in 1911.
So why are the holes square in the center of the coins? Well, the first round coins had both square and round holes, depending on where they were minted, and who minted them. “Official” coins had square holes, while those issued by merchants, plantations and mines had round holes. But they quickly changed to all square holes. There is still some debate as to why the hole is square, but most numismatist, including Asian coin expert, Howard A. Daniel III, says: “The square center hole in the coin represents the earth and the round outer shape represents the universe. With the king or emperor’s reign title in two of the four characters on the obverse side, this showed the king or emperor was a supreme being.”
The cash coins were also cast in molds, unlike coins from other cultures that were struck on metal planchets, so the square hole was needed to hold the coins fast while the sprue and excess metal was filed off. File marks are still visible on some of the coins. Due to their low value compared to gold or silver, the coins were also strung together to keep track of them. Thus each “string” often consisted of 500 and 1,000 coins each; 1,000 coins being equal to one tael of pure silver (a tael weighed around 40 grams, a Spanish “piece of eight” was 27 grams).
But perhaps the most practical reason for the hole in the coins, according to Mr. Daniel, is that, “A great majority of East Asians did not have pockets in their clothes.” The upper classes had small coin bags or purses that were tied on their belts to hold their coins. But the poorer people didn’t have bags and had to string their coins together then attach them to a belt, their wrist or even a carrying pole.
So whether the coins are found buried, or on the bottom of the Yangtze River or South China Sea, they have slept silently out of site for hundreds of years, waiting to be discovered. And we often wonder what their makers might think if they knew their creations were teaching us the stories about the people who used to own them.