Shang-Era bronze wampum

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The “Shiji”, which was written a century after the close of the Classical age, and subsequent early Imperial histories give us a considerable amount of information concerning issues of economics: tax and landholding patterns, infrastructure development, and so forth....The “Treatise on Food and Money” is a long and detailed examination of economic history as it was understood at the time of its compilation in the first century A.D. It forms a section of a history of the Han Dynasty by Ban Gu, but in the course of its discussions it incorporates much material on the Zhou period, largely derived from the “Shiji”. It is divided in two parts. The first deals principally with issues of agricultural production and the second with issues of currency and commerce. The portions translated here are only those that pertain to the period before the founding of the Qin empire in 221 B.C. They constitute the most sophisticated understanding of the ancient Chinese economy available at the time of their composition. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Ban Gu’s first century A.D. history of the former Han Dynasty, the “Han shu”, is the source of the text for this reading. It, in turn, built on Sima Qian’s “Shiji”. This text is the basis of a monograph by Nancy Swann, Food and Money in Ancient China (Princeton: 1950). Swann’s book is outstanding and has remained important for sixty years – the translation here was repeatedly guided by her choices and interpretations.” Images that dovetail the reading can be found in Sun Ji, Handai wuzhi wenhua ziliao tushuo [Illustrated materials of Han period material culture] (Beijing: 1991). The sketches depict rubbings of incised stones and tiles, and terra cotta figures dating from the Han Dynasty (202 B.C. – A.D. 220)

According to the “Treatise on Food and Money”: “Of the eight facets of government discussed in the “Great Plan,” the first is food and the second is goods of exchange. The former refers to the blessed grains and other edible things that are produced through agriculture. The latter refers to cloths of fibers and silk from which clothes may be fashioned, and metals, knife-shaped coinage, turtle shells and cowries. These are all media by means of which wealth may be divided and benefits distributed; they are the conduit between those who have and those who lack. These are the roots of sustaining the people. [Source: Han shu 24a.1117, “Treatise on Food and Money” by Ban Gu, 1st century A.D.]

Eno wrote: The “Great Plan” is a text found in the “Book of Documents”, highly revered as the Dao of government revealed to King Wu by the Shang Prince Ji, but probably a concoction of the fourth or third centuries B.C. Turtle shells were valued by the Shang for their spirit powers in divination; strings of cowries were the major form of currency during the early Zhou. /+/

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland ; 2) WWW VL: History China ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) e-book ; Links in this Website: Main China Page (Click History);

Legendary Origins of Exchange in China

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Gift-giving and barter are frequently mentioned in bronze engravings, and comprise an important part of property transfer and economic activity in the Western Zhou. The terms of exchange also provide insight into the relative values of land, carriages and horses, clothes, and ornaments of that time. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

According to the “Treatise on Food and Money”: “In the era of The Spirit Farmer, wood was first cut into plowshares and bent into plough handles. The advantages of ploughing and weeding were taught throughout the empire and there was sufficient food for all. Markets were set up at mid-day and all the people of the empire would come, bringing with them all the goods of the empire. They would exchange goods there and then return to their homes. Thus circulating, goods flowed to their appropriate places. With food adequate and goods circulating, the state was prosperous, the people wealthy, and the transforming instruction of the people was complete. [Source: “Treatise on Food and Money” by Ban Gu, 1st century A.D.<<< ]

“The Yellow Emperor and his successors made adjustments according to the needs of their times to ensure that the people would never be wearied. The Emperor Yao ordered the four sons of Xi and He respectfully to impart to the people their calendar of the seasons. The Emperor Shun appointed Prince Millet to office because the people were then for the first time in want of food, and so confirmed that agriculture was the most important task of government. <<<

“The Emperor Yu settled the great flood and demarcated the Nine Provinces. He established regulations recording field locations and qualities, and adjusting, according to their productivity and distance from the capital, rates of taxation in kind and of tribute. He encouraged the exchange of goods between those who possessed them and those who were lacking, and in this way the myriad states were well ruled. (“Han shu”24a.1117)” <<<

Bronze cowries, Shang money

Ethical Principles of Political Economy in Ancient China

According to the “Treatise on Food and Money”: “The books of “Poetry” and “Documents” tell of the flourishing days of the Shang and Zhou. The pivot of government lay in comforting the people with prosperity and then instructing them. The Yi jing calls the great beneficence of heaven and earth “life”; it calls the great jewel of the sages “office”; it calls the means of guarding one’s office “humaneness”; it calls the means of gathering the people “goods.” Goods are the root that the sage emperors relied on to gather the people and so guard their office, to nurture the living things to completion and receive the beneficence of heaven with compliance, to rule the state and comfort the people. [Source: Han shu 24a.1117-18, “Treatise on Food and Money” by Ban Gu, 1st century A.D.<<< ]

“It is said that one should not be anxious about scarcity of people, but rather about even distribution; one should not be anxious about poverty, but rather about tranquility. In general, if distribution is equal there will be no poverty; if there is harmony there will be no scarcity of people; if there is tranquility the government will not fall. Thus the sage kings encircled the people by building double walled towns within which they could reside; they established settlements of huts and wells in order that the people could share equitably. They opened marketplaces for the circulation of goods and set up village schools for the instruction of the people. <<<

“There are appropriate enterprises for each of the four classes of people: the shi class, the farmers, the artisans, and the merchants. Those who study in order to attain their offices are called shi. Those who reclaim land and plant grain are called farmers. Those who create objects by means of their skills are called artisans. Those who circulate wealth and sell goods are called merchants. [This is a precise statement of the classical model of social classes]. The sage kings entrusted officers with tasks according to their capacities; the four classes of people accepted their duties according to their strength. Hence at court there were no unfilled offices; in the towns there were no vagrant people; in the lands there were no uncultivated fields.” /+/

Eno wrote: “Note that distributive equality here is probably conceived in terms of the non-patrician classes, where static egalitarianism would be a natural ideal from the standpoint of the patrician class (minimizing the effects of lean years, ensuring general contentment, and militating against the rise of any sub-group that might challenge patrician supremacy – though this is a Han Dynasty text, the conservative nature of Han Confucianism would continue to recommend such Zhou patrician views). /+/

Zhou bronze spade money

Standard Measures in Ancient China

According to the “Treatise on Food and Money”: “The root of the Dao of bringing order to the people is to settle them on the land. For this reason, the length of a standard pace must be fixed, the size of a standard mu of land must be set, and then the boundaries of the fields may be determined. Six chi (one chi = about nine inches) were constituted as one pace. One hundred paces square constituted a mu of land. One hundred mu constituted a fu (the land allocated to support the household of one farm laborer); three fu constituted a wu; three wu constituted a “well-field.” The well-field was thuscomposed of nine fu, and was held conjointly be eight families. It was, in area, one li square. Each household received one hundred mu of land as a private field and also cultivated ten mu of the remaining land, which was a public field. This accounted for 880 mu; the remaining twenty mu of the public lands were set aside for cottage huts (where the farmers set up residence during the spring and summer). [Source: “Treatise on Food and Money” by Ban Gu, 1st century A.D.]

Dr. Eno wrote: “This text was written well after the standardization of weights and measures imposed by the government of the Qin Dynasty (221-208 B.C.). During the period of classical China, different regions used widely different sets of measures, and as the economy became more complex during the last centuries of the Eastern Zhou, non-standardization became a major problem, and standardization an important element of modernist political programs such as Legalism. This passage projects the urge to standardize back into the distant past; it is not at all clear that measures were fixed for the entire Zhou empire in this way. Of the measures referred to here, there are two which we will encounter repeatedly: the mu (sometimes called an “acre”: it was actually about one-twentieth of an acre – the size of a large garden plot today) and the li (or Chinese mile – actually about one-third of a mile).” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“It is impossible to give accurate equivalents for measures of weight and volume in ancient China – not only were the systems complex, but prior to the Qin they varied widely among the patrician states. “Peck” is a conventional translation that refers to a Chinese volume measure far smaller than a U.S. peck; “picul” translates a Chinese weight measure which became in the Han the basic unit in which bureaucratic salaries (payable in grain) were measured. A peck of grain would have weighed about three pounds; a picul weighed about 65 lbs.” /+/

Early Systems of Currency in China

According to the “Treatise on Food and Money”: As far as media of exchange are concerned, gold, copper coins, silks, and cloths, no details are recorded concerning the periods of the Xia and the Shang. When Grand Duke Wang served the Zhou, he established the nine economic ministries and the system of round coinage. [Source: Han shu 24b.1149-50, “Treatise on Food and Money” by Ban Gu, 1st century A.D.<<< ]

“Yellow gold was minted in squares one inch (about 0.9 English inches) square and weighed one catty (about 8 oz.). Copper coins were round with a square hole in the 17 center and they were weighted by the gram. The standard width of silks and textiles was two feet two inches and the length of a bolt of fabric was forty feet. <<<

Zhou ant-nosed-shape coins

“The precious nature of wealth was found in gold coinage; its sharp profitability was found in knife-shaped cooper coins; its flowing nature was expressed in strings of coins; its widespread nature was expressed in textile cloths; its worth when gathered in bolts of silk. After the retirement of the Grand Duke, he set up this system throughout his patrimonial estate in Qi. <<<

Eno wrote: “As this concerns the founding days of the Zhou, relevant information must be considered the stuff of later prescriptive legend (imagined accounts of the past meant to guide future practice). The nine ministries are variously identified; they are said to have had control over supervision of natural resources, regulation of commerce, minting of currency, state finances, and management of the royal treasuries....A series of typical Classical puns. The word “profit” means “sharp” as well, and there was indeed coinage minted in the shape of a knife; the term used for coins strung together as a cash unit was a homophone for a “spring” of water; the word for “cloth” also means “to spread over.”

Economic Innovations in Qi, C. 650 B.C.

According to the “Treatise on Food and Money”: When Guan Zhong (d. 645 B.C.) became Prime Minister to Duke Huan of Qi (r. 685-643 B.C.), he understood the variables of supply and demand. “Harvests are rich or poor,” he said, “and grain is accordingly cheap or expensive. As government orders for grain are slow or pressing, goods are accordingly in greater or lesser demand. If the ruler does not attend to these matters, traders will roam the markets with stores of goods taking advantage of shortages among the people, and in this way they can increase their capital a hundredfold. Hence in a state of ten thousand war chariots, there will always be merchants with ten thousand in gold, and in a state of one thousand war chariots, there will always be merchants with one thousand in gold. It is because profits tend to become concentrated. Calculating total capital and stores, such states should have sufficient resources, yet the people are hungry nevertheless. This is because the grains are monopolized in storage. [Source: Han shu 24b.1150, “Treatise on Food and Money” by Ban Gu, 1st century A.D.<<< ]

““When the people have a surplus they do not value grain; the ruler should purchase grain when the price falls low. When the people do not have enough they value grain highly; the ruler should sell grain when the price climbs high. If purchases and disbursements are adjusted according to supply and demand, then prices will be stabilized. If prices are stabilized, then it will ensure that a city of ten thousand households will possess stores of ten thousand zhong (a quantity equivalent to about 30,000 piculs – about a two-week store of grain for such a city) and ten million strings of cash coinage in its treasury. A city of one thousand households would possess stores of one thousand zhong and a treasury of one million cash. <<<

““In order for the people to plant in the spring and weed in the summer, they must also have the means to provide plough handles and shares, vessels and implements, seeds for planting and food for the luncheon hampers and family meals.For these reasons, great merchants and hoarders must not be allowed to bully and rob our people.Following these policies, Duke Huan was able to employ the small state of Qi to bring together all the patrician lords and become renowned as hegemon over them.[The state of Qi was by no means small, except in comparison to the other patrician states taken as a whole.] /+/

Royal Coinage Reforms of 524 B.C.

Zhou coin mold

According to the “Treatise on Food and Money”: Over a hundred years later, King Jing of Zhou was distressed at the debasement of coinage (through admixed alloys or short weight). The king wished to issue a new form of larger coin. His advisor, Duke Mu of Shan objected. “This would be unacceptable. In ancient times, when heaven sent down natural disasters and calamities, the rulers would adjust the measurements of cloth currency and the weight of metal coins in order to relieve the people. If the people were distressed because coinage was too light, the ruler would mint a heavier currency and circulate it. [Source: Han shu 24b.1151, “Treatise on Food and Money” by Ban Gu, 1st century A.D.<<< ]

“Thus there came into circulation heavy coins that balanced light coins and the people all benefited. [This probably indicates that existing small coins were weighed against the newly issued large coins, the quality of which would not yet be in question.] If, on the other hand, the market could not absorb large coinage (because prices had dropped and finer denominations were needed) then greater quantities of smaller coins would be minted and circulated. The heavy coins would not be eliminated, but they would be balanced against the smaller coins. Both types of coins were of benefit to the people. <<<

““Now your majesty intends to abolish light coins and mint heavy ones. People will in this way lose their capital; can it be that they will not be bankrupted?It would appear either that the king intended to declare existing currency non-negotiable or to fix too high a price for the new coins. If the people go bankrupt, your majesty’s revenues will become inadequate. If this happens, you will be forced to extract more from the people. Unable to support their needs, the people will set their minds on moving to distant places and in this way you will scatter your own people. “Moreover, to cut off the income of the people to fill the royal treasury is like blocking up the spring of a river to make a stagnant pool. The flow being cut off, it will not be many days before the water in the pool has evaporated away. May your majesty ponder this.”

“The king did not heed this advice, and ultimately did cast the large coins. They were stamped with the words “Precious Goods,” and were round with a central hole, both the inner and outer rim possessing raised edges. The king used the coins to encourage agriculture and provide for insufficiency, and this greatly profited the common people.” <<<

Eno wrote: “In times of famine, peasants presumably might panic if the little grain they could sell were paid for in coinage that had, over time, been debased through admixture of base metals. Early coinage was much more freely minted than today’s regulated currencies, and some licensed coiners profited by selling impure coinage at face value...Commentators are divided as to whether the duke’s arguments were, in fact, wrong, or whether the king followed them to the extent of preserving the small coinage. It is unusual for a text such as this to fail to make its “moral” clear. For our purposes, the importance of the text is its testimony concerning the attention given to the economics of currency at this early date.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, University of Washington

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.