Ancient Chinese Gold Coins

Share this page:

Ancient China is well known for exemplary examples of metalworking evidenced by weaponry, armor, artistic objects - and even coinage. Even before the standardization of any form of Western currency, the Chinese have already developed a complex and exotic system of currency that made use of various metals, both precious and semiprecious, for use in day to day transactions as well as international trade. While the staple metals of Ancient Chinese currency are semi-precious ones such as bronze, copper, and early alloys of brass, certain dynasties also issued currency made from precious metals, which they used in the international market to trade with a vast array of cultures from the middling periods of their antiquity until well into the height of their power.

The Chinese classical historian Sima Qian related that the earliest forms of Chinese currency were rudimentary commodity money that made use of tortoise shells, cowry shells, and millet, tea or rice. The use of metal for coinage followed thereafter, but unlike the penchant of the West for circular shaped coins, the Chinese have a variety of exotic coinages in the shape of knives, spades, cowries, and rings. [1] While the Chinese have their own gold currency to flaunt, it was the lesser metals like copper and bronze that became the standardized material used for the production of many types of their currency. Unlike western coins which were created by striking a hard die unto the base of a coin, Chinese currency was made using a casting process that involved pouring molten metal into molds and then inscribing them with their origin, value, or other legends that may denote it as currency. [2]

The use of gold as a currency metal in China came about during the earliest period of its monetary development, where gold dust or nuggets were employed as a form of currency used for trade. Later on, the development of gold ingots known as sycee as standards in barter were also applied[3] , a method which was adopted by many other Asiatic countries who conducted trade with Chinese merchants. These ingots were usually made to resemble fanciful shapes like turtles, boats, or nuts. Made from a variety of different metals – with the most ornate being made of gold and reserved for Imperial use – sycee (from sai-si, lit. 'fine silk) were used as mediums of exchange, with silver and copper ones being more common than gold ones. The presence of gold sycee does merit mention as it is one of the earliest uses of gold in the Chinese monetary system. An even earlier use of gold currency was for archaic 'Hell Money', funerary offerings that were left in tombs for the 'use' of the dead[4] , with some forms of gold currency being disc-shaped, while others were small shards denoted as currency by certain markings, while some were even authentic or imitation Byzantine coins acquired most probably through trade. [5]

It was not until the Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 256 BC) that the use of gold as a form of currency truly became somewhat commonplace, more so in the State of Chu. The most common type of Chinese gold currency during this era is the Yuan Jin, and the Cheng Yuan. While strictly similar in purpose, they were not similar in form - as the former took on the shape of the now iconic square-holed round coin, while its earlier prototypes was simply nothing more than a stamped block or sheet of gold with the characters Ying and Cheng printed on the metal along with borders that served to function as cutting guides. The earliest form of gold currency issued in the Zhou Dynasty could be divided up into tiny pieces to pay for smaller purchases, respectively. [6]

The use of gold as currency continued to thrive, although extant examples of truly ancient Chinese gold coins are rare, suggesting the possibility that lesser metals were used more extensively than gold. Modern gold Chinese coins are usually bullion coins that are especially minted and made for the bullion market. [7] Both ancient and modern Chinese gold coins are highly sought after by collectors and investors for their intrinsic value, cultural interest and rarity.

Ancient Chinese Gold Coins - References:


Content researched and created by Alexander Leonhart for ©

Note - this site provides general information about gold, silver, coins and bullion. None of the contents of this web site should be seen as financial or investment advice.

Privacy Policy | Cookie Policy | GDPR