Cash (Chinese coin)

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China coin1.JPG
Replicas of various ancient to 19th century cast cash coins in various metals found in China, Korea and Japan.
Traditional Chinese 方孔錢
Simplified Chinese 方孔钱
Literal meaning square-holed money
Alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 銅錢 or 銅幣
Simplified Chinese 铜钱 or 铜币
Literal meaning copper money or copper currency

Cash was a type of coin of China and East Asia from the 4th century BC until the 20th century AD. Originally cast during the Warring States period these coins continued to be used for the entirety of Imperial China as well as under Mongol, and Manchu rule, the last Chinese cash coins were cast in the first year of the Republic of China. Generally most cash coins were made from copper or bronze alloys with iron, lead, and zinc coins occasionally appearing on a more uncommon basis throughout Chinese history, with rare silver, and gold cash coins appearing as well. During most of their production cash coins were cast but during the late Qing dynasty machine-struck cash coins began to be made; in the modern era these coins are now considered to be Chinese “good luck coins” and are used by hanging these coins round the necks of children, or over the beds of sick people, and hold a place in various other superstitions, as well as Traditional Chinese medicine, and Feng shui. Currencies based on the Chinese cash coins include the Japanese mon, Korean mun, Ryukyuan mon, and Vietnamese văn.


The English term "cash" referring to the coin was derived from the Tamil kāsu, a South Indian monetary unit. The English word "cash", meaning "tangible currency", is an older and unrelated word from Middle French caisse.[1]

There are a variety of Chinese terms for cash coins, usually descriptive and most commonly including the character qian (Chinese: ; pinyin: qián) meaning "money". Confusingly, Chinese qián is also a weight-derived currency denomination in Chinese called mace in English.


Traditionally, Chinese cash coins were cast in copper, brass or iron. In the mid-19th century, the coins were made of 3 parts copper and 2 parts lead.[2][where?][page needed] Cast silver coins were periodically produced but are considerably rarer. Cast gold coins are also known to exist but are extremely rare.

Early methods of casting[edit]

Bronze mould for minting Ban Liang coins, the mould was used during the Warring States period (475-221 BC) by the State of Qin, from an excavation in Qishan County, Baoji, Shaanxi province.

During the Zhou dynasty period the method for casting coins consisted of first carving the individual characters of a coin together with its general outline into a mould made of either soapstone or clay, as this was done without using a prior model early Chinese coinage tends to look very diverse, even from the same series of coins as these all were cast from different (and unrelated) moulds bearing the same inscriptions.

During the Han dynasty to create more consistency in the circulating coinage master moulds made of bronze were manufactured from which other moulds would be derived.[3]

Later methods of manufacture[edit]

A Japanese "coin tree" used to make Japanese Tenpō Tsūhō (天保通寳) cash coins, these coins were manufactured with the same method as Chinese cash coins.

From the 6th century AD and later new "mother coins" (mǔ qián ) were cast for future coins to be based on, these were engraved in generally easily manipulated metals such as tin. The casting of coins now happened in sand moulds prepared with fine wet sand fitted in rectangles made from pear wood, and small amounts of coal and charcoal dust would be used to refine the process acting as a flux, the mother coins were placed on the sand, and another pear wood frame would be placed upon the mother coin, then the metal would flow in on a separately made entrance opened through placing a rod in the mould. This process would be repeated 15 times and then molten metal would be poured in, after the metal had cooled down a "coin tree" (qián shù ) was extracted from the mould (which would be destroyed due to the process) and the coins would be removed and then placed long square rods to have their edges rounded off, often for hundreds of coins simultaneously. After this process the coins would be strung together and brought into circulation.

From 1730 during the Qing dynasty, mother coins themselves would no longer be separately carved but derived from "ancestor coins" (zǔ qián ) which would eventually lead to greater uniformity among cast Chinese coinage from that period onwards resulting in fewer variations and improved consistency in cast coins. A single ancestor coin would be used for tens of thousands of mother coins which would each also be used to manufacture tens of thousands of cash coins.[4][5][6]

Machine-struck coinage[edit]

During the late Qing dynasty under the reign of the Guangxu Emperor in the mid 19th century the first machine-stuck cash coins were produced, from 1889 a machine operated mint in Guangzhou, Guangdong province opened where the majority of the machine-struck cash would be produced. Machine-made cash coins tend to be made from brass rather than from more pure copper as cast coins often were, and later the copper content of the alloy decreased while cheaper metals like lead and tin were used in larger quantities giving the coins a yellowish tint. Another effect of the contemporary copper shortages was that the Qing government started importing Korean 5 fun coins and overstruck them with "10 cash".[7][8]


Obverse and reverse of a Ban Liang coin from the Western Han Dynasty

Chinese cash coins originated from the barter of farming tools and agricultural surpluses.[citation needed] Around 1200 BC, smaller token spades, hoes, and knives began to be used to conduct smaller exchanges with the tokens later melted down to produce real farm implements. These tokens came to be used as media of exchange themselves and were known as spade money and knife money.[9]

As standard circular coins were developed following the unification of China by Qin Shi Huang, the most common formation was the round-shaped copper coin with a square or circular hole in the center, the prototypical cash, the hole enabled the coins to be strung together to create higher denominations, as was frequently done due to the coin's low value. The number of coins in a string of cash (Chinese: 一貫錢; pinyin: yīguànqián) varied over time and place but was nominally 1000. A string of 1000 cash was supposed to be equal in value to one tael of pure silver.[9] A string of cash was divided into ten sections of 100 cash each. Local custom allowed the person who put the string together to take a cash or a few from each hundred for his effort (one, two, three or even four in some places), thus an ounce of silver could exchange for 970 in one city and 990 in the next. In some places in the North of China short of currency the custom counted one cash as two and fewer than 500 cash would be exchanged for an ounce of silver. A string of cash weighed over ten pounds and was generally carried over the shoulder. (See Hosea Morse's "Trade and Administration of the Chinese Empire" p. 130 ff.) Paper money equivalents known as flying cash sometimes showed pictures of the appropriate number of cash coins strung together.[10]

The Koreans,[11] Japanese,[12] Ryukyuans,[13] and Vietnamese[14][15] all cast their own copper cash in the latter part of the second millennium similar to those used by China.[16]

The last Chinese cash coins were struck, not cast, in the reign of the Qing Xuantong Emperor shortly before the fall of the Empire in 1911. Though even after the fall of the Qing dynasty did the production briefly continue under the Republic of China with the "Min Guo Tong Bao" (民國通寶) coins in 1912, and under Yuan Shikai's Empire of China with the "Hong Xiang Tong Bao" (洪憲通寶) series in 1916.[17] The coin continued to be used unofficially in China until the mid-20th century. Vietnamese cash continued to be cast up until 1933.[citation needed]

Cash coins in the early Republic of China[edit]

A Mínguó Tōngbǎo (民國通寶), these were the last cash coins cast in Chinese history.

During the early Republican era a few more cash coins were locally produced until they were finally phased out in favour of the new yuan.

These coins are:[18][19]

Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese
Issuing office
Fujian Tong Bao,
1 cash
Fujian province
Fujian Tong Bao,
2 cash
Fujian province
Min Guo Tong Bao,
10 cash
Dongchuan, Yunnan

Trial coins with Fujian Sheng Zao (Chinese: 福建省造), Min Sheng Tong Yong (traditional Chinese: 閩省通用; simplified Chinese: 闽省通用), and a Fujian Tong Bao with a reverse inscribed with Er Wen Sheng Zao (Chinese: 二文省造) were also cast, but never circulated.[20]

Inscriptions and denominations[edit]

Three different cash coins from the Northern Song dynasty, the first coin reads clockwise while the others read top-bottom-right-left, the first and second coins are written in Regular script while the third coin is written in Seal script.

The earliest standard denominations of cash coins were theoretically based on the weight of the coin and were as follows:

  • 100 grains of millet = 1 zhu (Chinese: ; pinyin: zhū)
  • 24 zhū = 1 tael (Chinese: ; pinyin: liǎng)

The most common denominations were the ½ tael (Chinese: 半兩; pinyin: bànliǎng) and the 5 zhū (Chinese: 五銖; pinyin: wǔ zhū) coins, the latter being the most common coin denomination in Chinese history.[9]

In AD 666, a new system of weights came into effect with the zhū being replaced by the mace (qián) with 10 mace equal to one tael. The mace denominations were so ubiquitous that the Chinese word qián came to be used as the generic word for money.[9] Other traditional Chinese units of measurement, smaller subdivisions of the tael, were also used as currency denominations for cash coins.

A great majority of cash coins had no denomination specifically designated but instead carried the issuing emperor's era name and a phrases such as tongbao (Chinese: 通寶; pinyin: tōngbǎo; literally: "general currency") or zhongbao (Chinese: 重寶; pinyin: zhòngbǎo; literally: "heavy currency").

Coins of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) generally carried the era name of the emperor and tongbao on the obverse and the mint location where the coins were cast in Manchu and Chinese on the reverse.[21]

Cash coins and superstitions[edit]

In Imperial China cash coins were used for fortune-telling, this would be done by first lighting incense to the effigy of a Chinese deity, and then placing 3 cash coins into a tortoise shell, the process involved the fortune teller counting how many coins lay on their obverse or reverse sides, and how these coins scratched the shell, this process was repeated 3 times. After this a very intricate system based on the position of the coins with Bagua, and the Five elements would be used for divination, the Tang dynasty Kai Yuan Tong Bao (開元通寶) coin was the most preferred coin for this usage. Contemporary Chinese intelligentsia found the usage of cash coins for fortune-telling to be superior than any other methods.[22][23] Other than fortune-telling cash coins were also believed to hold “curing powers” in Traditional Chinese medicine, one method of using cash coins for “medicine” was boiling them in water and let the patient consume that water. Other than that they were also used as “medical tools” particularly in the guāshā (刮痧) method, which was used against diseases like Cholera; this required the healer to scrape the patient’s skin with cash coins as they believed that the pathogen remained stagnant underneath the patient’s skin in a process called “coining”. Though in general any cash coin could be used in traditional Chinese medicine but the Kai Yuan Tong Bao was most preferred, and preferences were given for some specific coins for certain ailments E.g. the Zhou Yuan Tong Bao (周元通寶) was used against miscarriages.[24][25][26]

In modern times though no longer issued by any government, cash coins are believed to be symbols of good fortune and are considered “Good luck charms”, for this reason some businesses hang Chinese cash coins as store signs for “good luck” and to allegedly avoid misfortune similar to how images of Caishen (the Chinese God of Wealth) are used.[27] Cash coins also hold a central place in Feng shui where they are associated an abundance of resources, personal wealth, money, and prosperity. Cash coins are featured on the logos of the Bank of China, and the China Construction Bank.[28][29]

See also[edit]

Currencies based on the Chinese cash[edit]


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  2. ^ Roberts, Edmund. (1837) Embassy to the Eastern Courts of Cochin-China, Siam, and Muscat: In the U.S. Sloop-of-war Peacock. Harper & Brothers. Harvard University archive. No ISBN Digitized.
  3. ^ "The Production Process of Older Chinese Coins。". Admin for (Treasures & Investments). 3 June 2014. Retrieved 6 July 2017. 
  4. ^ 2 Click COINS How were ancient Chinese coins made. Retrieved: 29 June 2017.
  5. ^ "Qi Xiang Tong Bao Engraved Mother Coin". Gary Ashkenazy / גארי אשכנזי (Primaltrek – a journey through Chinese culture). 24 December 2014. Retrieved 29 June 2017. 
  6. ^ "Chinese Money Trees. - 搖錢樹。". Gary Ashkenazy / גארי אשכנזי (Primaltrek – a journey through Chinese culture). 16 November 2016. Retrieved 1 July 2017. 
  7. ^ G.X. Series Chinese Provinces that issued machine struck coins, from 1900s to 1950s. Last updated: 10 June 2012. Retrieved: 29 June 2017.
  8. ^ "Chinese "World of Brightness" Coin". Gary Ashkenazy / גארי אשכנזי (Primaltrek – a journey through Chinese culture). 18 September 2011. Retrieved 29 June 2017. 
  9. ^ a b c d Fredrik Schöth. Chinese Currency. Revised and edited by Virgil Hancock. Iola, WI, USA: Krause, 1965.
  10. ^ Liuliang Yu, Hong Yu, Chinese Coins: Money in History and Society Long River Press, 2004.
  11. ^ "[Weekender] Korean currency evolves over millennium". Chang Joowon (The Korean Herald – English Edition). 28 August 2015. Retrieved 23 July 2017. 
  12. ^ David Hartill (2011). Early Japanese Coins. New Generation Publishing. ISBN 0755213653
  13. ^ "Ryuukyuuan coins". Luke Roberts at the Department of History - University of California at Santa Barbara. 24 October 2003. Retrieved 23 July 2017. 
  14. ^ ED. TODA. (1882) ANNAM and its minor currency.
  15. ^ Dr. R. Allan Barker. (2004) The historical Cash Coins of Viet Nam. ISBN 981-05-2300-9
  16. ^ Dr. Ting Fu-Pao A catalog of Ancient Chinese Coins (including Japan, Korea & Annan) Published: 1 January 1990.
  17. ^ Numis' Numismatic Encyclopedia. A reference list of 5000 years of Chinese coinage. (Numista) Written on December 9, 2012 • Last edit: June 13, 2013 Retrieved: 16 June 2017
  18. ^ The Eduard Kann Collection of Chinese Coins and Odd & Curious Monies, H.D. Gibbs Collection, Part V, and Gold, Silver Rarities of the World: To be Offered at Public Auction Sale, June 18, 19, 20, 1971 Publisher: Schulman Coin & Mint, Inc. Published: 1971
  19. ^ Joel’s Coins 2400 Years of Chinese Coins. Retrieved: 13 July 2017.
  20. ^ David, Hartill (September 22, 2005). Cast Chinese Coins. Trafford, United Kingdom: Trafford Publishing. p. 431. ISBN 978-1412054669. 
  21. ^ The Collection Museum An introduction and identification guide to Chinese Qing-dynasty coins. by Qin Cao. Retrieved: 02 July 2017.
  22. ^ "Fortune-Telling and Old Chinese Cash Coins. Traditional Methods of Fortune-Telling". Gary Ashkenazy / גארי אשכנזי (Primal Trek – a journey through Chinese culture). 16 November 2016. Retrieved 20 July 2017. 
  23. ^ "What To Expect From A Chinese Fortune Teller: A Guide to Prices, Fortune Telling Methods, and More". Lauren Mack (ThoughtCo). 26 February 2017. Retrieved 20 July 2017. 
  24. ^ "Chinese Coins and Traditional Chinese Medicine". Gary Ashkenazy / גארי אשכנזי (Primal Trek – a journey through Chinese culture). 16 November 2016. Retrieved 20 July 2017. 
  25. ^ "wiseGEEK: In Traditional Chinese Medicine, what is Coining?". Lixing Lao · Ling Xu · Shifen Xu (wiseGEEK). Retrieved 20 July 2017. 
  26. ^ "CAO GIO (Coin Rubbing or Coining) by Lan Pich". Lan Pich (Vanderbilt University School of Medicine). 14 October 2006. Retrieved 20 July 2017. 
  27. ^ "Store Signs of Ancient Chinese Coins". Gary Ashkenazy / גארי אשכנזי (Primal Trek – a journey through Chinese culture). 11 September 2016. Retrieved 22 July 2017. 
  28. ^ "Chinese Coins and Bank Logos". Gary Ashkenazy / גארי אשכנזי (Primal Trek – a journey through Chinese culture). 10 February 2013. Retrieved 22 July 2017. 
  29. ^ (Epical, Prolific, Smart Open Source of Divine Enjoyment) Red Bank of China Logo. Retrieved: 22 July 2017.

 This article incorporates public domain material from the Library of Congress Country Studies website

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