Chinese mingdao knife coin from the Zhou dynasty (475-255 BC)

Reading time: 3'14"


Nowadays when someone mentions coins, we generally think of round ones.

Back in ancient times, however, things were not always quite as...clean-cut when it came to this geometric association.

And in some rather surprising ways.

Over the course of antiquity, the Chinese were never a people to being outdone when it came to their innovation and originality in this respect.

Cauri as money

Talk about shelling out for something...

For example, they were the first to introduce the use of cowries, small shells which served as a form of exchange currency in Asia from around 1600 BC under the Shang dynasty.

As a result, these little shells became extremely well-traveled. By the 10th century, carried along not by the currents of the ocean but rather in the pockets of sailors ,they had reached the shores of Africa... In the 21st century, they are still found on the same continent, now as a complement to banknotes.

Chinese mingdao knife coin from the Zhou dynasty (475-255 BC)


As the Maldives were the principal source of this natural resource, they can still be seen there...printed on the banknotes.

But let us now return to antiquity and the focus of our story.

Under the Zhou dynasty, the cowry became symbolic and circulated elegantly sculpted in jade and even carved more prosaically into the pits of fruit trees.


Illustrations from a Chinese coin catalogue of 1721

Spades at the ready and knives drawn

Around the end of the Shang dynasty and dawning of the Zhou dynasty, the new practice of monetary exchange also emerged. The currency itself became less poetic.

Spades and knives began to appear around the 7th to 6th century BC thanks to the emergence of bronze.

China Monnaie Bêche

1400-1500, EF(40-45), Bronze

The use of knives has a relatively practical explication since their use is equally important for...hunting and fishing. In this way, they are passed down from hand to hand over several centuries.

Finally, round coins became citizens of the Seven Warring States when the dynasties were unified. The early ones, produced from bronze, of course, have a round hole in their center and date from 350 BC.


Mingdao chinese knife

And what about our mingdao?

(coming cutting back to our topic)

The knife coin shown here was in circulation during the Zhou dynasty, the third dynasty, which ruled from (around) 1046 BC to 256 BC. It likely dates from the latter part of the dynasty (475-255 BC).

As is the case with our modern currencies, there were a number of different types of knives: among others, the needle tip knives, the qidao from the province of Shandong, the pointed tip knives from the State of Yan...

And, of course, the mingdao. They were originally named thus based on the character engraved on the blade, which was long thought to be “míng”.


Chinese mingdao knife coin from the Zhou dynasty (475-255 BC)


Another, more recent interpretation tends to favor “yì”, from the name of the eponymous city, the capital of the State of Yan (don’t worry, there’s no lame pun on yin and yang coming – there are some letters missing anyway), the kingdom in which the knife in question was in circulation.

The mingdao or... perhaps we should actually say yidao shown here is made of bronze and in excellent condition.

Coin China

Zhu dinasty, Couteau, 475-255 BC, AU(50-53), Bronze, Hartill:4.43

Legend has it that some inscriptions on the different types of knives remain a mystery to be solved right up to the present day...

Going further

It is worth noting that the Chinese were also the ones to invent banknotes and the first to use paper money on mulberry leaves starting in the 10th century.

You can also discover Shanghai Museum’s magnificent coin collection here.

Translation: Michael Wright

Illustrations :

  1. Unidentified painting, China, Qing dynasty, 1800s (CC)
  2. Chinese shell money 16th to 8th century BC (CC) – photograph by PHGCOM
  3. Illustrations from a Chinese coin catalog printed in 1721 (CC) – Wellcome Trust
  4. Chinese knife coin, Zhou dynasty (DR) –

Sources :

Selection published on 24/04/2020