Featured The evolution of the Yan State knife coin

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by TypeCoin971793, Aug 19, 2018.

  1. TypeCoin971793

    TypeCoin971793 Just a random nobody...

    The Yan state was the originator of the knife coin, basing their currency off of the tool commonly used by the populace. The knife was an important and widely-used tool, so the shape had familiarity and value. The Chinese place much value on objects and ideas important to the function and prosperity of society, so the early currencies were based off of tools that contributed to the prosperity of China: knives and spades. It is estimated that knife currency was introduced around 600 BC, though it could be earlier or later. The State of Yan produced these knife coins until it fell to the Qin state in 222 BC.

    (Image from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yan_(state))

    The earliest knife coins had broad, rimless blades that came to a pointed tip (so they are fittingly called pointed-tip knives). The “cutting edge” of the blade is unobstructed as on actual knives. The back of the blade has a relatively tall ridge, which represents the reinforcing structure seen on actual knives. These are the closest representations of actual knives. (Knives 1 and 2 from the left fall into this category)

    The knives bagan to have a more-stylized shape with the top edge being curved. However, the above attributes are still present. (Knife 3 from the left falls into this category)

    Then the knives were given a rim around the circumference of the blade, possibly to deter clipping. This began the trend of making the knife coins less and less like actual knives. (Knives 4 and 5 are in this category).

    Until now, the obverse inscriptions all featured numbers or cyclical characters. Sometime around 400 BC, the state of Yan began inscribing all of their knives with the same character on the obverse and additional characters on the reverse. This character has traditionally been said to be “Ming”, or “moon”, but it is a bit more likely that this character is “Yi”, the capital of Yan and a major mint for these knives (I will still call the “Ming” knives though for colloquial ressons). Knife 7 still retains a slight curve on the top edge, while knife 6 has a flat top edge. I am not sure what the correct order for these two knives is (knife 6 has a style closer to the pointed knives, while 7 still has the curved top edge). However, they are both very early “Ming” knives.

    Soon the rims became very thick around the blade. This would set the style for all future Yan knives. Knife 8 is one of the earliest knives to have this style of rim. The obverse character still retains the shape of the earlier 6 and 7 knives.

    The obverse character become more compact and the reverse inscription became more complex. The rims became a little more defined. The back edge of the knife still retained the gentle curve seen on all of the earlier knives.

    Finally, the obverse character became even more compact, and the back edge of the blade and handle were each straight, and met at a distinct angle. This is by far the most common type of knife coin produced, and it is available for fairly cheap ($30-50 in nice condition). They have been found across a large area, including Korea and Japan, showing how they were a staple of the ancient Chinese trade economy.


    Another knife coin found in Yan territory is a rare variant called the “needle-tip” knife coin. The purpose of these is unknown. I believe they are a local variant because they do not fit in with the progression above. Some believe that they are the original knife coins and were quickly abandoned due to impracticality, but the blades have a rim around the perimeter, making this theory highly improbable. They have roughly the same fabric as knives 4 and 5.



    Next steps of course would be to assign dates to each type to narrow down the time range from 200 years for each type to 50 or less. There is a clear evolution, and it seems silly to lump all varieties into the same group and date range. But that will take archaeological hoard evidence which I do not have access to at the moment. :( Maybe later. :)

    I hope this was enlightening and fun to read, and feel free to post anything relevant!
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  3. Milesofwho

    Milesofwho Omnivorous collector

    It was! It’s interesting to think about people clipping knives. Are there any partial ones known? I don’t have any knives yet.
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  4. TypeCoin971793

    TypeCoin971793 Just a random nobody...

    I was late to the draw on this one. :(

  5. Milesofwho

    Milesofwho Omnivorous collector

    Ah well, I’m sure there’s still plenty out there.
  6. TypeCoin971793

    TypeCoin971793 Just a random nobody...

    There are actually very few. I probably won’t see another one for a few years.
  7. Milesofwho

    Milesofwho Omnivorous collector

    I actually prefer Wang Mang’s spade and knife money over these early types. A hollow-handle spade would be cool to see though.
  8. Milesofwho

    Milesofwho Omnivorous collector

    Shows you what I know on Chinese stuff. At least it’s only years and not decades!
  9. TypeCoin971793

    TypeCoin971793 Just a random nobody...

    Like these? ;)

    11B78363-8839-4C7A-B122-FA0FCB9F0787.jpeg D6651ADE-85F3-4F66-9930-4B2F0B7BECDF.jpeg
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  10. Milesofwho

    Milesofwho Omnivorous collector

    Yep! The evolution of both knife and spade money is cool, I just can’t convince myself to buy them all to show it. Sort of like Celtic degradation of types.
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  11. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    What a great primer... and a fantastic array of knives! This will be a very helpful post for those who are starting to dabble in Chinese coins thanks to your contest entry and other things. :)

    Here's my early Yan knife. I haven't ID'd the character.
    Screen Shot 2018-08-19 at 1.23.45 PM.jpg
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  12. TypeCoin971793

    TypeCoin971793 Just a random nobody...

    Here are some other types of knives, with a Ming knife and the needle-tip knives for size comparison.

    The large one on the left is a Qi knife, cast by the state of Qi. They were large and impressive, symbolizing the power of the state of Qi. They all had inscriptions of various leangths (most common is 3 characters, this one has 4) which describe how these knives are the official currency of Qi.

    The tiny one on the left is a Boshan knife, cast during troubled economic times when the Yan state had captured some of Qi’s territory. They were cast in the style of Ming knives, possibly for trading purposes. Mine might be a funerary specimen or a fractional denomination.

    The coin on the right is a stright knife, cast by the state of Zhou. Like Qi, they kinda did their own thing. The characters are often softly cast. Mine is odd because it has the tall reinforcing ridge on the back edge; most don’t have this feature.

    And now you all know pretty much all you need to know about knife coins. :cool:


    Attached Files:

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  13. AnYangMan

    AnYangMan Well-Known Member

    An excellent topic that sadly went underappreciated! Your picture urged me to make one of my own:


    As you can see, I don’t have an extremely broad pointed one, and I am severely lacking in the early Ming knives department (you have no less than three of this extremely rare variety!). The middle one is intresting however: it is one of the only ones I have seen where the inscription (Liu = six) is on the reverse, instead of on the obverse. Also note the misplacement of the mould. By the way, I’ve got two more knives underway from our mutal friend. Anyway, one interesting thing to look at in both our pictures is the thickness of the handle and the variation you see between different types of pointed knives.

    One thing to keep in mind however is that this evolution is by no means a unilinear one, and that the typology above represents a general trend over time, not definitive way of relatively dating them. Assigning rough dates to certain types (introduction of rim on the blade, etc.) should be possible, but saying knife 3 is older than 4 is not necessarily true. It is generally accepted that we are not dealing with as single production centre and likewise more than a single issuing entity as well. Emura in his recent study (which is sadly in Japanese, I must admit to having only read the summarised English version) makes a great case for a private mercantile origin for the initial phase of straight knife production, with the Yan state beginning production in the latter stage of the evolution and slowly phasing out the earlier ones, until they began the production of Ming knife somewhere around 400/350 BC-ish. One interesting thing to also note (I apologise for the terrible quality):


    Each square represents a significant hoard find (no single finds included sadly). The huge quantity of these pointed knives in Yan-state territory makes sense, but note the large amount found in Qi territory. As you mentioned, a state that would later be responsible for issuing the large Qi-knives (including your amazing 4-character Qi Knife. Man, I love that specimen), whose early economy seems to also have revolved around pointed knives. Sadly, no analysis of the exact type of pointed knife is given.

    Hate to be that guy, but the state of Zhao 趙 instead of Zhou 周 (why do you keep forgetting my favourite state? ;)). These straight knives were mainly cast in two large Zhao cities, Bairen 柏人 and the capital Handan 邯郸, both major trading hubs, well within Zhao state territory. The are found in Zhao state territory at often times, but are more frequently found together with Ming knives. Interstate trade anyone? I have a couple of these straight knives. They range from completely straight with a straight tip to a rather curved back and circular tip. The bottom one has the same 'Reinforced ridge' you mention, but also notice the distinctly almond-shaped hole that evolves.


    Nice specimen! Yours seems to be a curved variety of Bu卜.

    Kind regards,

    Last edited: Aug 21, 2018
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  14. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    Thank you! That makes it Hartill 4.20. (Interesting and strange that this is the character meaning "spade.")
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  15. AnYangMan

    AnYangMan Well-Known Member

    That would be 布, also pronounced Bu (to be precise: (third tone), but I usually leave out these tonal mark for clarities sake). This Bu卜 roughly translates to ‘to divine’. It is a rather common inscription within this pointed knife series, with many varieties existing. The left most knife in my picture is actually also inscribed Bu 卜 and I’ve got one more knife on its way with the same inscription, both having a less-curved calligraphy.
    Last edited: Aug 21, 2018
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  16. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    I should have known better than to hazard a guess about the meaning of the character. This is one of the barriers to collecting Chinese for those of us coming primarily from Roman and Greek. But a fun barrier to attempt to surmount. :) Thanks for your help!
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  17. TypeCoin971793

    TypeCoin971793 Just a random nobody...

    Maybe “broad” was the wrong word. I was referring to the strong curve and the flat top edge. Your leftmost knife fits in this category.

    Ooo. Exciting!

    Good points. I don’t have hoard evidence, so I can’t say one way or another. I was just going off of how one style change clearly led to the next. It is far more likely that knives 1 and 2 are from a different production center than 3, and thus should not be included in the evolution. Maybe those were the ones found in Qi. The style is markedly different.

    Straight knives? That would mean that they are much older than originally thought. But I have seen prototype knife coins (and actual knives), and many are stright and not curved. I would like to read this work.

    Where is that from? I did not see it in any of my references.

    Oops. :oops::shy:

    Very nice set! You think they show an evolution of the type? That curved specimen would suggest roots to the pointed-tip knives, as does the reinforced ridge.

    I think there is plenty of evidence of interstate trade in these knife/spade/round coin/ant nose hoards.
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  18. AnYangMan

    AnYangMan Well-Known Member

    Oops :oops:. My apologies, I made a slight mistake; It should have been ‘pointed’ instead of ‘straight’. That makes a little bit more sense, and was supposed to support the argument of multiple production centres for these early pointed knives. Straight knives are indeed much later in origin.
    The image is from a sort of English summary of recent Japanese scholarship on the origin of Chinese coinage. In 2011, two major Japanese works concerning early Chinese numismatics were published by two renowned experts: One by Haruki Emura, a more archaeological take on the subject and one by Yohei Kakinuma, an analysis based more on economical points of view. Subsequently, Kakinuma published this English article in 2014, drawing heavily from his own as well as Emura’s work. If you want the full reference: Kakinuma, Y., 2014. The Emergence and Spread of Coins in China from the Spring and Autumn Period to the Warring States Period. In Explaining Monetary and Financial Innovation: A historical analysis, pp 79-126.

    A major recent discovery by Emura for example is a more accurate dating for Ant-nose coinage. Using known historical data of Qin expansion, comparing this to a distribution map of Ant-nose hoards (below) and the fall of certain Chu cities into Qin hands, they estimated that casting of these coins did not commence until the mid-warring state period, giving around 300 BC as a rough date. For example, in Hanzhong 汉中 (a relatively large Chu city) in the archaeological layer dating to the Warring states period, precisely zero ant-nose coins were excavated. From the historical records, we know that this city was conquered by Qin in 312 BC. In 278 BC, both the capital of Chu, Ying 郢 (whose exact location sadly has not been located yet), and Yunmeng 云梦 fell into Qin hands. Ant-nose coins were found in significant numbers in the areas surrounding these two sites, as well as in Yunmeng itself. If we take this evidence at face-value, casting must thus have begun somewhere after 312 BC, but before 278 BC. Now I don’t think this definitely proves these late dates (the old ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ comes to mind), but I do believe this is a valid theory and until I see any further evidence, I see no reason to doubt these dates.

    I do think that there is some evolution in straight knives as well. As you mention, the reinforced ridge is strongly reminiscent of these earlier pointed knives, but it disappears quickly. The decrease in curvature and the handle, which becomes more and more flimsy over time, seem to also be part of this evolution. Also, note the round ring on the first specimen, but the tiny, almond shaped hole in the top specimen. The interesting thing about these straight knives is that we have two clearly defined production centres (technically seeing, there are at least two other mints, but these are exceptionally rare).

    Kind regards,


    Ps. Congrats on the featured article! :)
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