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Digging deep for money

CHINESE coins were produced continuously for around 2,500 years by casting in moulds, rather than being stamped with dies as was the process with most western coins.

Collectors can obtain affordable yet old, beautiful and interesting coins associated with all the main periods of Chinese history. Many appreciate the fine calligraphy and the patina accumulated by these coins over the centuries. Numismatists, those who study or collect coins, find many challenges in attributing both ancient and comparatively recent coinage. The fluctuation in the quality of the coinage reflects the fortunes of the successive dynasties in Chinese history.

The earliest coinage of China was described by Sima Qian, the great historian of 145-87BC: "With the opening of exchange between farmers, artisans and merchants, there came into use money of tortoise shells, cowrie shells, gold, qian (coins), dao (knives) and bu (spades). This has been so from remote antiquity."

Archaeological evidence shows that the earliest use of spades and knives as money was in the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC). As in Ancient Greece, socio-economic conditions at the time were favorable to the adoption of such coinage.

Hollow-handled spades are a link between weeding tools used for barter and stylized objects used as money. They are clearly too flimsy for use, but retain the hollow socket by which a genuine tool could be attached to a handle. This socket is rectangular in cross-section and still retains the clay from the casting process. In the socket the hole by which the tool was fixed to its handle is also reproduced.

This kind of hollow-handled spade coin, usually with casting characters and signs, was mainly used around the royal area during the Eastern Zhou period. This coin in Shanghai Museum is extraordinarily precious because it has five casting characters. Ordinary hollow-handled spade coins only contain one or two characters.


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