One of the stories I’m working on at the moment is set in the Tang Dynasty, arguably the cultural high point of China’s history and a time when paper money began to be used for large transactions rather than the cumbersome strings of cash (also known as coppers) that most people used as currency. One of my characters, a sword-smith in the southern provinces, is mistrustful of the newfangled paper money offered to him by a noble from the capital Chang’an and prefers the reality of copper cash. For his sake, I’ve dug through my collection of Chinese coins to present a brief overview of the development of hard currency in China.

The first types of currency in use in China during the Shang Dynasty (c.1600-1100 BC) were cowry shells and farming implements. Towards the end of the dynasty, symbolic tokens made of bronze, copper, or iron in the shape of spades, hoes, and knives were used in transactions.

Here’s a (modern fake) example of a round foot spade coin (the more usual form has a square foot) of the type found in the city of Lin in Shanxi during the Warring States period (475-221 BC). Lin was inhabited by non-Han (mainland Chinese are mostly Han, though about 20% of the population are from ethnic minorities or mixed ethnicities) people and traded with the tribes of what is now Inner Mongolia. The city was razed to the ground by the Qin army.

Under the First Emperor (Qin Shi Huangdi, 221-210 BC), the Qin state annexed its fractious neighbours. Though Shi Huangdi is a controversial figure at the best of times (he is vilified for the Burning of the Books and the mass execution of Confucian scholars who disagreed with his beliefs), there’s no denying his incredible achievements: He ordered the construction of the Great Wall, built 4700 miles of roads linking the provinces, standardised weights and measures, imposed a single currency, and perhaps most importantly, imposed a single script, which is still in use today.

It was during Shi Huangdi’s reign that the round copper coin was introduced as standard. Round to symbolise Heaven with a square hole in the centre to symbolise Earth, the hole also enabled several cash to be strung together to create higher denominations. A string of 1000 cash was the equivalent of one tael (liang) of silver or 24 zhu (or 2400 grains of millet!). The most common coin was the half-tael (ban liang), which circulated until it was replaced by the wu zhu in 118 BC.

The wu zhu (wu means ‘five’) is the most common coin in ancient China, cast continuously from 118 BC-617 AD. Its design didn’t change at all during that time, and so it’s very difficult to date wu zhu coins with any degree of accuracy.

The Tang Dynasty (618-907) introduced paper money and promissory notes as well as ‘food tickets’ for the military. Soldiers could buy bills worth a certain amount of grain in their home towns, then exchange the food ticket for the equivalent value of grain when they reached their provincial posts. Merchants could buy ‘flying cash’—certificates issued by the government for specific amounts that could then be redeemed for the same value in hard currency at any provincial treasury in the empire.

The first printed paper money was issued from Sichuan in 1024 during the Northern Song Dynasty. Rapid economic expansion brought a heavy demand for coins—in 1073, six million strings of 1000 cash were cast—and paper money went some way towards relaxing the burden of the mints. Most of my coins date from the Northern and Southern Song dynasties (960-1279), due not only to the large amount of cash in circulation but also because the vast majority of my collection was bought in and around the city of Hangzhou, the former capital of the Southern Song.

At this time, coins often didn’t have anything minted on the reverse. On the obverse is a standard formula of four characters in Seal script, Grass script, orthodox script, or a combination of two or three scripts (it’s impossible to date a coin purely on the basis of the script employed). The characters on coins are read top, bottom, right, left. The first two characters are the name of the emperor (usually his reign name rather than his temple name, which enables more specific dating), and the other two characters indicate that the coin is currency (the final character is always bao, which means ‘treasure’).

For example, the coin shown above dates from the time of the Northern Song emperor Zhenzong (998-1022) during the years when Zhenzong’s reign title was Tian Xi (1017-1021). The characters are written in orthodox script: Tian Xi Tong Bao. This is an iron coin, which helps us determine where it was cast. There were around seven mints in China at this time, and the three mints that cast iron coins were all located in Sichuan.

Here’s a coin from the time of Emperor Shenzong (1068-1085), minted in the first part of his reign (1068-1077). The characters are written in Seal script: Shen Zong Yuan Bao.

This is a coin from the reign of the same emperor, but from a slightly later date when his reign title was Yuan Feng (1078-1085). Again the characters are written in Seal script: Yuan Feng Tong Bao.

This is an interesting coin from the Chong Ning regnal period (1102-1106) of Emperor Huizong (1101-1125). The characters are in orthodox script: Chong Ning Zhong Bao. This is actually a 12th century counterfeit made in bronze rather than iron—it’s probably a provincial copy rather than government issue.

Unfortunately I have no Yuan or Ming dynasty coins, which mostly follow the same pattern established by previous dynasties, sometimes including the symbol of the provincial mint on the reverse of the coins. However, I do have a decent amount from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), whose emperors came from Manchuria. Qing coins are the most straightforward of all Chinese coinage, as most of the emperors used only one reign title on the coins—and the reign titles are the names Westerners are most familiar with, e.g. Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong, etc. On the reverse of all Qing coins we find the mint marks in Manchurian script and later in both Manchu and Chinese:

Obverse: Qian Long Tong Bao (Emperor Qianlong, 1736-1795). Reverse: Boo Yuan (Beijing mint, Board of Public Works).

Obverse: Wen Zhong Tong Bao (Emperor Xianfeng during the reign title of Wenzhong, 1850-1861). Reverse: Boo Fu (Fuzhou mint in Fukien province).

Obverse: Wen Zhong Tong Bao (same emperor/reign title as above). Reverse: Er Shi Boo Fu (20 cash, Fuzhou mint). The Manchu script is echoed by Chinese characters.


Emperors and mints also issued charms for religious or propagandising reasons. Most of the charms in my collection date from the Qing Dynasty, such as this one issued by Emperor Daoguang (1821-1850).

Although it says Dao Guang Tong Bao on the obverse, this is a charm minted for internal use within the imperial palace rather than general circulation. As such, it’s a piece of propaganda rather than currency, as on the reverse we see the characters Tian Xia Tai Ping (‘An empire at peace’). Daoguang was a weak, indecisive ruler whose son Xianfeng had to deal with the Taiping rebellion, which makes the phrase on this coin rather ironic.

Other charms have religious motifs such as these two examples featuring the animals from the Chinese zodiac and the eight trigrams.

Charms like these could be worn or hung on strings inside or outside the house as protection against evil influences and bad qi.