China, Kingdom of Chu, Tongbei (Bronze Cowrie)


China, Kingdom of Chu, Tongbei (Bronze Cowrie) (obverse) China, Kingdom of Chu, Tongbei (Bronze Cowrie) (reverse)

It took about 1,200 years for cowrie shells to develop into coins; the last imitation cowries only very vaguely resemble the real thing. The little coin illustrated here circulated in the first half of the 5th century BC in the Chinese kingdom of Chu. On its concave upper side it bears a special form of the character "bei" (cowrie). In historiography, these little coins have never been mentioned. Centuries later, after the Chu culture had been long forgotten, the little copper cowries were rediscovered. The strange character on their obverse was not recognized, however. Chinese scholars thus called these coppers "death's head coins" (guilianqian), or "nose coins" (biqian). Only in the 19th century did they become aware of the resemblance with the character for cowrie. Today, these coins are commonly described as tongbei (copper cowrie).


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