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Museum Special: China Numismatic Museum

05-27-2011 10:46 BJT

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What I like most about the museums is the connections they make me feel. Those silent, cold objects behind the glass windows come to life to me, with stories told or untold, about the people who lived before us.

And today, let's follow Yin Chen into a museum that tracks the history of something that every Chinese has owned, more or less, in their lives. And now, let's get the time machine started.

Located behind the Tian'anmen Square, on the famous lane of Xijiaominxiang, stands a grand three-story building. And what it contains, is the stuff that no Chinese can live without.

People say money doesn't grow on trees. But check out this exhibit here. Imagine planting one of these in your backyard. Well, this was an ancient burial item from over a thousand years ago, and it reflects people's pursuit for wealth even back then, and their wishes to take this wealth into their after lives. You can really imagine just taking your hands, touching the leaves, shaking it all up so that all the coins falling to the ground. But let's get back to reality. Here we're at the China Numismatic Museum, to learn about the background, history, and the culture of coins and currency in China's past and present. Now let's go check it out.

Time has left holes on the shells, but they survived the erosion of time. As one of the earliest trading media, shells were used by our ancestors before the 4th century BC for they were countable and portable. And in order to make them more durable, their crispy body was given copper or even a gold coat.

Located behind the Tian'anmen Square, on the famous lane of Xijiaominxiang, stands a
grand three-story building. And what it contains, is the stuff that no Chinese can live

The earliest cast coin in China was the spade-shaped coin in the Spring-Autumn period. It was an imitation of an ancient farming tool. Characters were usually cast on their surface, showing their weight or names of places. And the spade coins were mostly discovered in central China.

And another kind of important coin that is a crowd favorite is the knife coin in the pre-Qin period. Its shape was like a bronze tool called Xiao, used for cutting meat or wood. And there were generally four types of knife coins, used by four warring states.

Ma Jing, narrator of China Numismatic Museum, said, "These were the Qi knife coins used in the East China back then. They had different types with 3 to 6 characters. And this one, with six characters on it, is the most precious one."

And then came a critical moment in Chinese history. Qinshihuang, China's first emperor, not only unified the country, but also ordered the unification of coins by using exclusively the Banliang coin of the Qin State. And this round coin with a square hole in the middle became the model for almost all later coins.

Following the Qin Dynasty was the West Han Dynasty. During Emperor Wudi's reign, the Banliang coin, for the first time, had a ring at its circumference. This was a measure to prevent private casting of coins. And Wudi ordered that the coins should be cast only by the central government. These measures greatly improved the quality of coin casting.

Also during the West Han dynasty, the Western Region was opened up and the silk road was formed. The Hetian Horse coin is good proof of the exchange and mingling between the East and West. And also this one with the characteristic of Greek coins.

The Tang Dynasty was a brilliant period in Chinese history. Founding Emperor Gaozu issued a new coin called "Kaiyuan Tongbao", which meant the opening of a new era. And the names of later currencies all carried the character Bao, meaning treasure.

Then came the Northern and Southern Song dynasties. During the 320 years of ruling of Song, each emperor cast his own coins. Coins of each reign title had various types. It's said that, if all the coins cast during the Song dynasties were lined up one by one, they could circle the equator of the earth three times.

Well, this corner of the exhibition, you can find a model of one of the earliest types of banks. And people would come here with their coins like these and engage in currency exchange. Well, you can see here, this is a sample of one of the strings of coins, it's really, really heavy. Back then, there was a Chinese phrase that is still even used today that refers to having ten thousands of these strings of coins around your belt, around your stomach to be carried along. It's really insane. But in real life, it got to a point where there were too much of this money, too much of these coins that people really couldn't carry these around any more. And what was the solution? That was the paper currency.

Also in Song, paper money was first invented in the world. Some merchants jointly issued a kind of note, which could be transferred or cashed. It was called "Jiaozi".

And also in the Song Dynasty, silver became an official currency. Silver was cast in the form of ingots and used by the imperial court, the army and the public, and for war compensations to the Liao and Jin dynasties.

Located behind the Tian'anmen Square, on the famous lane of
Xijiaominxiang, stands a grand three-story building. And what it
contains, is the stuff that no Chinese can live without.

After Yuan and Ming dynasties, China came to its most tumultuous period in the late Qing Dynasty. Foreign merchants arrived with silver coins. And in 1889, China produced its first machine-made silver dollar, called "Guangxu Tongbao", or "Dragon Dollar". And also, commercial banks began to flourish in China, and large varieties of paper money were issued by government and private banks.

The currency system was about the same when Dr. Sun Yet-sen founded the People's Republic, with both silver dollars and paper money circulating. And during the reign of Kuomintang and the Japanese invasion, China's financial system hit rock bottom and people suffered inflation they had never seen before.

And that was Renminbi, issued by the People's Bank of China in 1949. Now the fifth batch marks the latest collection of the museum. And will the museum face the drainage of resources?

Huang Xiquan, dir. general of China Numismatic Museum, said, "We'll have endless resources. For ancient coins, besides those circulating among the people, there are always new discoveries from underground excavations. And with the development of E-banking, new media of money exchange, like deposit and credit cards, can be our new resources of exhibitions."

With its vision and varied collections, the China Numismatic Museum will always be an ideal home and window to the long development of the currencies of China.


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