An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

huanqian 圜錢, round coins of the Warring States and the Qin Periods

Jun 24, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

Round coins (huanqian 圜錢 or huanjin 圜金) was the common currency from the foundation of the Qin empire 秦 (221-206 BCE) on. The term was used to differentiate with other shapes of coins, like spade coins (buqian 布錢, bubi 布幣) or knife coins (daoqian 刀錢, daobi 刀幣). Typical for the traditional Chinese coin was the square hole (fangkong 方孔) in the middle, yet there were also some with round central holes. It is commonly believed that the coins resembled the ancient jade circles (bihuan 璧環) which symbolized the round of the sky. The central hole is said to represent the earth (tian yuan di fang 天圓地方). The body of the coin was also called "flesh" (rou 肉), the hole "the good" (hao 好).

Apart from the regional state of Qin, the round coin was used in the dominion of the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) and the three successor states of Jin 晉, namely Han 韓, Wei 魏, and Zhao 趙. While the denomination in the kingdom of Qin was liang 兩 (see weights and measures), the denomination was yin 釿 in central and northern China, and hua 化 or yanhua 匽化 in the east and northeast (with the denominations aihua 賹化, ai si hua 賹四化, ai liu hua 賹六化 in the state of Qi 齊; ai 賹 was a weight unit of Qi; and yi hua 一化, minghua 明化 or mingsi 明四 in the state of Yan 燕. In Qi, coins of larger denominations had the shape of knives (daobi), and such of smaller ones were round. The ming coins of Yan were derived from the earlier knives with the inscription ming (mingdao 明刀).

Other denominations of early round coins were gong 共, gong ban yin 共半釿, yuan 垣, gongtun chijin 共屯赤金, gong ban yi 共半釿, gu 古, qi yuan yi yin 漆垣一釿, shu huan yi yin 黍圜一釿, lian 藺, lin 閵, lishi 離石, anzang 安臧, wu'an 武安, wenxin 文信, chang'an 長安, pishi 皮氏, jiyin 濟陰, pingbei 平備, Xizhou 西周 or Dongzhou 東周. The most widespread were gong and yuan, both used in the kingdom of Wei. Apart from 1-yin coins (with a weight of 9-10g), there were also half-yin coins (banyin 半釿). The Western Zhou coin weighed about 5.5g, that of Eastern Zhou 4g. Both were of minor quality in comparison with other coins. The heaviest one was 15g of weight. Qin coins were inscribed with the words zhu zhong yi liang 珠重一兩 "pearls (round coins) heavy one liang", and a kind of lot number, others weighed half a liang (ban liang 半兩) or one zi {中冖田} (甾, 錙), i.e. six zhu 銖 or half a liang. One-liang coins had a round hole, and half-liang coins a square hole. The reverse side was blank.

The chapter on the equalization of agronomical matters (Pingzhun shu 平準書) in the history book Shiji 史記 explains that after the unification of China, the Qin introduced two types of coins, namely gold coins (yi 鎰) and copper coins with an inscription indicating weight (and thus also the nominal value). Other precious objects were means of payment, but not perceived as money. The standardized half-liang coin became the most widespread means of payment in the early centuries of the empire.

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