American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars: The History of Money

Ancient and Medieval East and South Asia


East Asian coins are noticeably different from Western coins and evolved separately from the Greco-Roman tradition. China and India both created independent coinages and weight standards at about the same time that the Lydians were creating the first coins of the Mediterranean world.

India's native silver bars were influenced by Greek coins. The conquests of Alexander the Great brought a Bactrian Greek population into India, and Indian rulers imitated the coinage of Alexander and his successors. Roman merchants also traded extensively with India, which established the use of the Roman denarius. Over the centuries, these imitations evolved into purely Indian designs.

In China, money evolved from the use of cowrie shells to the casting of coins in the form of tools, such as knives or spades. The state of Qin united the country in 221 BC and imposed its copper-nickel banliang, or half-ounce coin, on the rest of the empire. The Chinese emperor was distant from his subjects and portraiture is not a feature on these coins. The banliang was a round coin with a square hole in the center. Its weight and size continued to evolve, but its basic design was used in China, Japan, Korea and Viet Nam until the 19th century. Although these copper issues were use for daily purchases, silver and gold were also used as bullion.

Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Laos and Cambodia were culturally influenced by both India and China. Although coins themselves are rare, the designs incorporated on their silver ingots often reveal features of both empires.