What Was Used for Money in Ancient China?

Round coins with a square center, called
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Currency first appeared in China in the form of shells. Soon, metal coins became the predominant form of money in ancient China. Over time, the materials in which the coins were made changed as did their weights, marks and shapes. China also claims the invention of the first paper currency.

1 From Shells to Copper and Paper

Currency in the form of cowrie shell appeared in ancient China toward the end of the Neolithic Era, or New Stone Age -- between 10,000 and 2,000 B.C. The “peng," two clusters of ten shells each, was the basic unit of money. In Northeast China, where natural shells were not available, shell money was made of pottery, stone, bone and jade. The first metal currency appeared at the end of the Shang Dynasty, between 1675 and 1029 B.C. “Copper cash” was used in the Qin Dynasty. Most copper coins were round with a characteristic square hole, but coins of different shapes, such as spade, ring and knife, were used, as well as silver ingots and gold ingots. The oldest paper money, called “Jiao Zi” was produced in China between A.D. 960 and 1127.

With degrees in biology and education, Jennifer VanBuren now utilizes her research and instructional skills as a writer. She has served as educational columnist for "Austin Family Magazine" for four years and also reports on area businesses for "Faces and Places" magazine.