Coins and Commodities – A Monetary History of the Tang Dynasty

Yang Xinmin, Money and Goods Negotiable. The History of Currency in Tang Dynasty. (Chinese). The Commercial’s Press, Bejing 2018. Paperback. ISBN-10: 7100155614 / ISBN-13: ‎978-7100155618. CAD 38.19 (Amazon Canada).
[bsa_pro_ad_space id=4]

When people talk about a cultural flourishing and economic prosperous period in Chinese history, most of them will tell the Tang Dynasty. One of the achievements of the Tang is the monetary reform. Kaiyuan Tongbao, which literally means Inaugural Circulating Treasure, was the first cash coin that no longer practically named after weights but bore such labels as “Tongbao” (circulating treasure), “Yuanbao” (original treasure), or “Zhongbao” (heavy treasure). The Kaiyuan Tongbao’s calligraphy and inscription inspired subsequent Central Asian, Japanese, Korean, Ryūkyūan, and Vietnamese cash coins and became the standard until the last cash coin to use the inscription “Tongbao” was cast until the early 1940s in French Indochina. Unfortunately, we don’t have a particular book that focuses on the Tang’s monetary history until Qianhuokeyi – Tangdaihuobishigouchen (Coins and Commodities – A Monetary History of the Tang Dynasty) came out in 2018.

Investigating Four Aspects of Tang’s Monetary History

The book is completely in Chinese and it is Yang Xinmin’s Ph.D. dissertation at Nanjing Normal University. In this book, Yang investigates four aspects of Tang’s monetary history. The first chapter, the research of different kinds of Tang’s coins, occupies almost the first half of the book. Yang fully examines all kinds of coinages during the Tang Dynasty and its sequel Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. What is new and novel about his presentation lies in his efforts to examine not only historical documents and books but also coins themselves. By looking into the actual size and weight of each coin, as well as archaeological records, Yang concludes that the character “Yuan” with a shorter first stroke was the very first variant of Kaiyuan Tongbao that was produced in the Year of Wude. Moreover, Yang reviews some Kaiyuan Tongbao and Qianyuan Zhongbao coins that have decorative flying birds or lucky clouds on the reverse and concludes that such coins function as numismatic charms. Observations like this are prominent throughout the book.

Yang questions the identity of Xiantong Xuanbao that has been seen as one of the extremely rare ancient coins during the Tang period. For a long time, scholars have accepted the uncorroborated evidence which suggests that Xiantong Xuanbao was minted in the Year 11 of Xiantong. However, by examining individual rubbings and photos of the existing coins and comparing them with other coins, Yang asserts that Xiantong Xuanbao might belong to Chu State, a kingdom in south China during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. Although the author does not provide a concrete conclusion (no one can currently), his analyses shed new light on numismatic research.

The second chapter examines the casting and production of Tang’s coins. Yang challenges the viewpoint that Tang’s mints used the lost wax method to cast coins because it was too expensive. He asserts that the character “La” (wax) in the historical document should be zinc (an alloy with lead and tin) and it reads as same as wax in Chinese. Movable types in the Huichang Kaiyuan have been studied in this book as well. The third chapter and the fourth chapter investigate the circulation and management of Tang’s coins and the monetization of gold and silver during the Tang period.

Some Weaknesses

Admittedly, there are some obvious weaknesses in Yang’s book. For example, in the first chapter, Yang concludes that single character coins as “Zhong” and “Yuan” are private issues of Western Region local authorities because he thinks that bronze cash coins without inscriptions have played an important role in the Silk Road trades. However, Central Asian states and the Tang Dynasty applied completely different monetary systems. Central Asian states used gold and silver coins for daily transactions while the legal tender of the Tang’s government was bronze coins. We may argue that bronze cash coins might not be widely accepted in the Silk Road trade but rather gold, silver, and clothes. The Tang Dynasty’s monetary system inherited the traditions of the Jin and Northern and Southern Dynasties. Coins and cloth constituted the primary moneys and were used as a measure of value and as a means of payment. Unfortunately, Dr. Yang does not discuss clothes as money in his book. Dali Tongbao and Jianzhong Tongbao also confuse scholars for years. These two coins were arguably privately minted by Tang’s armies in Western Regions according to an impressive hoard found in the ancient city of Tonggusibashi, Kuqa, Xinjiang. However, from the point of view of geography, Yang deliberately challenges this point of view, indicating that the Tonggusibashi might have been merely a warehouse of the coins. Besides, he argues that most Jianzhong and Dali coins could be systematically destroyed by the following dynasties because such coins were severely smaller and lighter than standard coins so that they were rarely discovered in inner China. Pre-Tang dynasties produced inferior coins as well, such as smaller and lighter Banliang and Wuzhu but these coins could be easily found everywhere. Yang’s conclusion might not be solid.

Perhaps the true value of Yang’s book, then, is that it reminds us that we still have unsolved problems and provides new approaches and methods to the research of Tang’s monetary history. Yang’s statements and opinions may not be palatable to every researcher, and there is certainly much to be debated with regards to his approach and conclusions, but a work like this deserves careful consideration, and in my mind is certainly a step in the right direction. I believe that Yang’s book will prove to be an important work that scholars in many fields will consult and discuss for years to come.


The book can be ordered online through Amazon.

Here you can find Yawei Zhang’s review of Sun Hao’s book “One Hundred Years of Chinese Silver and Gold Coins”.

Read more about the history of Chinese coinage in our series: part 1, part 2 and part 3.