Chinese Coins

On this page we will talk about the Chinese coins but first let’s make a brief introduction.

The Chinese currency is called Renmimbi which literally means “currency of the people” and is the actual currency in use in the Republic of China. Now, the official abbreviation is CNY, while the commonly used abbreviation is RMB.

The basic unit of the Chinese currency is the yuan, which in turn is divided into 10 jiao. One jiao is subdivided in 10 fen which are the smallest cut and are equivalent to practically cents.
The biggest one is the 100 yuan banknote.

Yuan in the popular Chinese language means “round” or alternatively “round coin”. This indication is a clear example of how the Chinese language has a very strong impact on the name of what is also the official currency.

As for the symbols, in addition to those already seen, very often shops use a Y with two bars on top. This symbol is an indication of the price even if it is not recognized in a completely official way.  In fact, according to the Unicode coding system, this symbol would identify the Japanese currency Yen.

History of the Chinese Coins

In order to better understand the characteristics of the Chinese coin, it is necessary to retrace its history.

As we all know, the oriental world is able to hide charm and mystery around its legends and traditions. Also in this case, the Chinese coin or currency if you like, is not exempt from this fascinating past.

Chinese Coins
The Chinese currency through millennia of history.

Origins of the Chinese Coins

Before talking about the Renmimbi and in general about today’s Chinese currency, it is essential to retrace what has been the “path” of the Chinese economy up to the present day.

In this regard, it is essential to know that in ancient times China had no monetary system. Like many other countries, China used barter and shells as means of exchange or payment.

Chinese Coins shells
The famous shells used as “currency” of exchange in China but also in other countries overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

In the first case, as we know, we are talking about a very simple economic system; we exchange goods and objects in exchange for other goods and other objects in an exchange considered on an equal footing between the two traders.

In the second case the shells were used as real coins and had a purchasing power that, even if with enormous limits, allowed to get food and various tools.

Starting from the second half of the XII century B.C., the Chinese Empire witnessed a real introduction of an early coin.

In that period, in fact, they began to exploit the metal, in particular bronze, to create small objects that play the role of today’s coins.

These are made once again in the shape of a shell and do not have any engraving or writing that can identify them. A form of minting decidedly primitive but that begins to mark the path to future civilization.

The earliest Chinese coins

We can officially speak of the first Chinese coins only from the end of the 12th century B.C. It was in this period that, under the Zhou dynasty, the first ancestral forms of Chinese currency began to spread.

In particular, these abandoned the shell shape and began to be represented as objects and tools of mass consumption. It was not uncommon at that time in fact to pay with coins in the shape of shovel, spade or knife on which began to appear even the first engravings.

They were also called “spade coin” or “knife coin” because of their shapes.

Chinese Coins - cash - pala chan
Various types and shapes of Chinese Coin – Cash – shovel chan

In addition to the symbols of heaven and earth, information such as weight and authority began to be glimpsed.

These types of Chinese coins saw their greatest development in the period between 770 and 476 BC in the so-called “Warring Period”. Instead between 771 and 250 BC was produced a coin in the shape of a “shovel chan” an ancient agricultural tool very useful which gave the coin a certain popularity.

In the following periods were produced many variations of currency which presented the most different forms.

From the 4th to the 3rd century B.C., for example, coins in the shape of a door arch were produced, which reminded us of Korean coins in an incredible way.

From the 3rd century onward, they produced human-shaped coins which were larger or smaller in size and elongated or shrunk in shape according to the area they belonged to.

Unification of China and the first round coins

This period, which was decidedly confusing from an economic and monetary point of view, was followed by a period characterised by a long process of unification.

In particular, under the dominion of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi in 221 B.C. there was a cultural unification of the whole Empire which began to become a single economic power and not only.

Chinese Coins Ban Liang
“Ban Liang” chinese coins

During this period, Chinese coins called “ban liang” also began to circulate. They were made of bronze and had a round shape for the outside with a hollow square inside. This was probably made to save metal.

Other legends have it that the two symbols (circle and square) represented the sky and the earth respectively, two elements irreparably united and hoped for at the same time. In addition, the inner hole allowed for easier transport of coins by going and inserting a thread of linen or cotton to tie them together.

This shape for the chinese coins was kept until the end of the Qin dynasty in 1911 A.D. and therefore for more than 2000 years.

Development of the Chinese Coins

In the period of the Song and Tang dynasties from 618 to 1279 A.D., the coins begin to show scripts and engravings.

More specifically, most of the coins are inscribed by famous poets or artists and usually bear phrases of peace or philosophy. Each coin may contain two or even four different coins depending on the denomination.

It is not by chance that this historical period is considered a period of great development for the currency, the economy and in general for the whole Chinese social life.

Chinese Coins
The first engravings on a Chinese coin

From the 10th to the 12th century China, particularly the northern part, was occupied by nomadic and barbaric tribes. It was these tribes that together with the Mongols, who occupied China a century later, began to issue different currencies.

It is estimated that from the mid-nineteenth century there were about 5000 different issues with coins that, as it is easy to understand, were of virtually all kinds.

What we have to underline, however, about the Chinese currency is that, unlike other countries, it has remained unchanged over many centuries.

The principle that has guided the realization of these currencies has always been the one according to which the currency had to respect what was the tradition. In fact, it had to present, always and in any case, signals that could lead back to religion and beliefs.

Modern history of Chinese Coins

After this journey through the centuries we can get to what are the present day to fully understand what has been the path of today’s Chinese currency.

The renmimbi was first introduced to China in 1949 shortly before the victory of the Communist forces. At the same time, strict rules and regulations were established regarding trade and the value of the currency itself. We can say that, with rare exceptions, the value of the currency has remained at the rate of 2.56 renmimbi per U.S. dollar almost always.

Chinese Coins Renmimbi
The Chinese currency is the Renmimbi

A wave of change only took place towards the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s.

In this period, in fact, Chinese society and culture witnessed a sudden opening towards the western world, which began to be seen with completely different eyes.

The renmibmi in fact became much easier to convert and the laws less rigid and more oriented to openness towards other cultures.

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Between 1997 and 2005, the exchange rate of the renmimbi against the U.S. dollar continued to change, reaching 6.38 per USD. In a nutshell, an RMB was worth about 13 cents of a dollar. With the passing of time and years, however, internationalization and globalization favor an increasing opening also on foreign markets.

Precisely for this reason, in 2013 it is officially established that the Chinese coins renmimbi is the second most traded currency after the dollar, going far beyond the Euro and the European Union.

In addition, the Chinese currency is also one of the most widely used in international trade. In fact, according to 2014 statistics, China is the country “responsible” for 12.4% of international trade worldwide.

Collecting and history

As we have seen the history of the coin in China is seasoned with many interesting nuances. These have allowed an economy so closed and limited to its national territories to become one of the largest (if not the largest) economic power in the world.

ancient Chinese Coins
Ancient Chinese Coin

Certainly the development of currency has gone through many centuries of history in which changes and social changes have been fundamental to its development.

It is enough to think of the raw coins in the ancient period in the shape of tools and those bearing phrases and poetic maxims of the immediately following periods.

In any case the numismatics also as far as the Chinese coin is concerned is very active and interested in what have been the various types of coins of this fascinating country. Naturally as far as the ancient chinese coins going back to centuries and centuries ago are concerned we speak of pieces from museum not collectible but, for those more today, the search and the collecting are incredibly active under this point of view.

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