A Look At China’s Currency History
China has had a varied history when it comes to money, with shells, knife money and even tea used as currency! We’ve taken a look at some of the most interesting forms of currency China has used before the notes and coins we know today.
Shell money was used in China over three thousand years ago, with the cowry shell and copies of it used so much that the Classical Chinese character for “currency” is actually a cowry shell pictograph! Cowry shells were used across the world as currency, even up until the 19th century, with the shells being commonly found in countries bordering the Indian Ocean where the money cowry sea snail is most frequently found.
After cowry shells, metal currency came into play, as coins and other odd-shaped money were frequently used. Spade money was used during from 1045 BC and some versions of this early coin were sturdy enough to actually be used as spades! There were lots of identifying characteristics of these coins, including handle, shoulder and foot shape of the spade, and any inscriptions. These features indicated where the coins were from and what era they were made. Spade currency was used until Qin Shi Huang abolished local currencies to introduce the copper coin in the Unification of China between 300 - 200 BC.
Some theories and stories about the origins of knife money say that it was brought to China by sea, from traders across the Indian Ocean. Others say a prince in one of the kingdoms of China started accepting knifes from his disciples as payment for fines, or that he couldn’t afford to pay his military so he decreed they could use their blades as currency.
Knife money was most likely first used around 600 BC, but historians are unsure of the origins of the currency. It circulated with spade money up until local currency was abolished, and the blade shape, metal alloy and inscriptions changed depending on the region it came from and who the people were trading with. Some regions even had multiple denominations of knife money that varied by weight and size!
After knife and spade money, China went through many different iterations of coin and paper money until settling on the present-day Renminbi - meaning “people’s currency”.
One of the later currencies that China and other parts of Asia used for trading was tea bricks. These were used alongside paper and between 800 AD all the way up to post WW2! The value of the bricks depended on the quality of the tea and where the brick was, with the darkest, densest bricks indicating the best quality tea, and the bricks increasing in value the further away from tea production centres you were.
The tea was fermented and compressed, making it easy to preserve and carry, and sometimes more valuable than money as the tea bricks were also edible. Nomads preferred using the tea as it was easier to trade, and in some countries like Siberia, the tea was preferred over money due to its ability to be used as a herbal remedy.
It’s much easier now that China has a unified currency system with the Renminbi. If you’re looking to get your currency for China, WeXchange is here to look after you. Order your currency online now or visit your nearest WeXchange store today!