The East Asian Department of the ANS incorporates the coins and monetary objects of China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and Vietnam. From very early on, this vast region developed its own peculiar monetary tradition, which led to a coinage system very different from that of the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cultures. After centuries during which bronze spades, hoes, knives, and cowries were used, Han China moved during the 3rd – 2nd century BC towards a standardized system based on holed cast bronze coins, assembled in strings of a thousand (called ‘cash’ in English) when needed to large transactions, these strings being divisible by 10 into sections of 100 each. Although silver and gold did represent commodities of high value, these metals were not used under a coined form until much later in Chinese history. The practice of private minting and the early appearance of paper money in the 9th century AD represent other signs of the sophisticated character of the early Imperial Chinese monetary system, which in return largely influenced all the neighboring nations of East Asia. Inscriptions were very brief: four Chinese characters on the face of the coin named the emperor or ruler in whose reign the coin was struck, and described the type of coinage. The earliest coins of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam followed the Chinese model, but later all three countries developed more distinctive national coinages. From the Mongol Yuan dynasty and especially under the Ming and Qin, silver progressively became a more prevalent monetary medium, first as ingots. Benefitting from the supply of silver and gold from the New World from the 16th century onward, precious metal coins were adopted throughout the region, and particularly in Japan. In the 19th century all these countries began manufacturing coins of European style.
In addition to the cash coins, there were many other coinages of East Asia that were not much like what we think of as coinage in the 20th century. As said above, the earliest Chinese coins were in the form of bronze spades or knives, having become symbolic representations of the actual implements that had served as a means of exchange. Japan in the Shogun era had silver coins in the form of little rectangular bars, while its gold coinage consisted of rather large oval flat discs that were both stamped and labeled in ink: these were kept wrapped in cotton in little boxes, because a stiff fee was charged by the government to renew the ink inscription if it wore off. Rectangular silver coins were also used in Vietnam, while Korea, which kept to the copper cash system, developed a complex system for the inscription on each coin of the district workshop, furnace, and batch of metal from which it was made.
During the 20th century, the political fragmentation of the region and the encroaching of various colonial powers led to an increasingly complex monetary situation, characterized by a very high number of currency issuers and authorities, which lasted sometimes for very short periods of times.
The Society’s East Asian collection is one of the largest in the world, with about 50,000 objects of all kinds, from cowries, ingots, spades, coins to ancient and contemporary paper money. At present, there is no in-house dedicated curator for the collection, but volunteer work and the computer cataloging of the collection continue, while the entire East Asian collection is available for study by any serious researcher, upon request.
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