American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

"Spade Money", Anyang (China), 340 BC - 250 BC. (1926.79.1)

East Asian

The coins of China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam are included in the Society's Department of East Asian Coins. For a large part of their history, all these nations produced coins in the tradition introduced by the Han emperor in 221 B.C. East Asian coinage, historically, was quite different from that of the rest of the world. All official coins were made of copper: in China there were no gold and silver coins as in the rest of Eurasia. The copper coins, called yuan in Chinese (their name "cash" in English is derived from Hindi through Portuguese), were cast in molds. Every coin had a square hole in it. Inscriptions were very brief: four Chinese characters on the face of the coin named the emperor or ruler in whose reign the coin was struck, and described the type of coinage. The earliest coins of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam followed the Chinese model, but later all three countries developed more distinctive national coinages.

In the nineteenth century all these countries began manufacturing coins of European style. In addition to the cash coins, there were many other coinages of East Asia that were not much like what we think of as coinage in the twentieth century. The earliest Chinese coins were in the form of bronze spades or knives, having become symbolic representations of the actual implements that had served as a means of exchange. Japan in the Shogun era had silver coins in the form of little rectangular bars, while its gold coinage consisted of rather large oval flat discs that were both stamped and labeled in ink: these were kept wrapped in cotton in little boxes, because a stiff fee was charged by the government to renew the ink inscription if it wore off. Rectangular silver coins were also used in Vietnam, while Korea, which kept to the copper cash system, developed a complex system for the inscription on each coin of the district workshop, furnace, and batch of metal from which it was made. China had the world's earliest paper money, and in the twentieth century it had the most diverse, as pre-revolutionary warlords financed their campaigns through the issue of unsupported paper.

The Society has truly rich holdings of all these and more. Its East Asian collection is surely one of the largest in the world, with over 45,000 objects. At present, there is no expert curator for the collection, but volunteer work and the computer cataloging of the collection continue. The entire East Asian collection is available for study by any serious researcher.

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