Friday, November 18, 2011



In traditional China philosophers and artists preached moderation and simplicity. People did not strive for material comfort, though ostentation was customary at funerals and banquets in order to express respect. Social status and wealth were determined by the extent of one's political power. The only way one could reach political power was through the government examinations. The long nails on scholars’ fingers were considered a symbol of wealth. It was clear that such nails were not made for manual labor. Nail protectors, made to prevent nails from breaking, came into use from the 7th century CE on and served as a status symbol. Some men let the nail of the little finger grow extra long.

    The wealthy owned land and means of payment such as cereals, fabrics, animals, metals and cowries (seashells). Cowries were chosen to serve as a means of payment because it was easy to count them and due to their rarity in the cities. When there were not enough cowries to supply the demand, imitations were made of materials such as stone, jade, bones and copper. The radical (bèi), meaning both "cowry" and "money" appears in many characters associated with wealth, such as (cái)(literally: wealth), (guì)(literally: expensive) and () (literally: property). Archaeological evidence from the 13th century BCE testifies that cowries were considered as treasure and served as gifts. During the Spring and Autumn period (770-221 BCE), following the development of a consumer economy, various new means of payment appeared, including fabrics, knife-shaped coins (with handle to hang them), bronze coins shaped like seashells and round coins. The various coins changed from region to region and from city to city.

Knife-shaped and spade-shaped coins, which were in circulation in the State of Zhao (403—222 BCE), were inscribed with their weight, the name of the ethnic group that used them, and their minting place. Later, all the states issued spade-shaped coins, except the State of Chu (chǔ) in the south, which issued seashell-shaped money made of bronze, and the State of Qi (), which issued knife-shaped bronze money.

Qin Shi Huang Di  (qín)(shǐ)(huáng)() (259-210 BCE), the first Emperor of China,  introduced coin standardization by issuing a round coin with a square hole. This shape was developed from the handle of the early knife coins, which were round with a hole in the center. The design reflects the ancient Chinese belief according to which heaven is round-shaped and earth is square-shaped. Reliefs of two or more characters inscribed on the coin marked its value. From then on this kind of round coin with a square hole was in use for more than 2,000 years, until the fall of the Qing (qīng) (1644-1911) dynasty. 

During the period of the Three Kingdoms (Wei  (wèi),  Shu (shǔ)and Wu  () 220-266  CE( the use of currency regressed. Every kingdom had its own currency, with no coordination among the different states and dynasties. Products such as silk and cereals served as a means of payment alongside coins.

During the Sui (suí)(581-618 CE) dynasty large sums of money were invested in engineering projects such as canals and transportation routes. These great expenses and the accompanying corruption led to inflation.

Deflation occurred during the Tang  (táng) dynasty (618-907 CE). Prices fell as a result of peace and the growth in production.  The use of credit as a means of payment began and banks began to operate. Coins called "kai yuan tong bao"  (kāi)(yuán)(tōng)(bǎo) (literally: new era of circulating treasure coins) expressed the idea of credit by representing value not correlated with weight.

During the Song (sòng) dynasty (960-1279 CE) the shortage of bronze coins resulted in using only coins made of iron; but iron, as a currency, was too heavy. In order to buy 500 grams of salt one had to pay 700 grams of iron, and in order to buy 28 grams of silver, one had to pay 40 kilograms of iron. To facilitate trade, the merchants in Sichuan ()(chuān) developed paper money.  The merchants, who stored the copper coins, received in return a receipt that they or their family members could exchange for coins. This system was called "flying money" (fēi)(qián). During the 11th century CE the state expanded the use of receipts by enabling them to be exchanged for monopoly products such as tea and salt. Twenty-six million receipts, valid for a limited time and in certain specific regions, were issued during the 12th century. The local people deposited iron in stores and used the deposit notes as banknotes, which gradually replaced the awkward system of using iron coins. Banknotes, backed up by gold and silver and valid throughout the entire empire, were issued between the years 1265-1274.

The growth in the amount of money in circulation led to inflation, and the punishment for counterfeiting banknotes was death. High-quality coins were designed,   marked by calligraphy styles that reached their peak during this period.

During the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279 CE) the oldest known coins with an inscription marking their year of issue were minted. On their reverse was inscribed the character "seven", to mark the seventh year of the rule of Emperor Chun Xi (chún)()  (ruled 1174-1189). Marking the year of issue continued to characterize the coins that were in use until the end of the Song dynasty, preceding such marking in the West by more than 300 years. 

During the Mongolian feudal Yuan (yuán)  dynasty (1280-1368 CE) paper bills were used as a basic currency and the use of gold and silver as means of payment was forbidden. From the Yuan dynasty on, silver served as an index of monetary value.

During the Ming (míng) dynasty (1368-1644 CE), banknotes, copper coins and silver coins were in use. Zinc refinement technology during the first half of the 16th century was quite developed and zinc was added to bronze in order to produce brass – another alloy from which coins were minted. This was a breakthrough in the technology of minting coins. The government of the early Ming dynasty prohibited the use of gold and silver as a means of payment in order to encourage the use of paper money. Mining silver was prohibited as well. Despite these prohibitions, the people, who had been used to it for centuries, since the 10th century CE, continued to use silver as a means of payment. During the late Ming dynasty, the trade relations created between China and the West, where metals including silver were used as means of payment, forced the government to repeal the ban on using silver.

The Qing (qīng)dynasty (1644-1911 CE) minted large numbers of coins in various shapes. This was the product of the peace and prosperity that prevailed during the long rule of Emperor Kang Xi (kāng)() (ruled 1662-1722 CE) and his grandson Emperor Qian Long (qián)(lóng)(ruled 1736-1795 CE). During the rule of Emperor Dao Guang (dào)(guāng) (ruled 1831-1851 CE), when trade developed between distant cities, carrying cash was dangerous. In order to ensure their personal safety, merchants used bank checks (piào)(hào).

Following the fall of the Qing dynasty and in the shadow of the two opium wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860), the value of silver fell drastically and the copper coins, which were of low quality, significantly lowered the value of money. This took place after the joint forces of the British and French armies had burnt the old summer palace of the emperor to the ground and forced the Manchurian rulers to transfer territories to them and pay them compensation.

In 1901, with the fall of the Qing dynasty, the joint forces, including the British, American, French, German, Japanese, Russian, Austrian and Italian, invaded China, which became a colonial society and semi-feudal. Groups of peasants who revolted against the invasion began to mint coins independently, both for civilian and military supply purposes.

The invasion by Western countries of China brought with it the use of advanced foreign technologies. During the rule of Emperor Guang Xu (guāng)()  (ruled 1875-1908), Zhang Zhidong (zhāng)(zhī)(dòng) 1837-1909)) the governor-general of Guang Dong  广(guǎng)(dōng)and Guang Xi 广(guǎng)西() provinces, introduced a new advanced technology of minting coins, using machines. Thus, all money became standardized and of good quality, resembling that which we use today.

During the Chinese republic (1912-1949) the yuan (yuán) currency, which is also used in present-day China, was introduced. Gradually, the use of paper money increased and became the main means of payment, while the use of coins was secondary.

As already mentioned, in traditional China, alongside the possession of money, wealth was also expressed through the possession of land. During the Zhou (zhōu)  dynasty1046-221)   BCE) the jing tian  (jǐng)(tián))literally: well [and] field) feudal system was customary, according to which the land was divided equally among the peasants. The character (jǐng) expresses in its form the division into nine equal plots, of which the central one is worked cooperatively by the peasants for the ruler, and the other eight are worked by each peasant for himself. This system ensured a good income to the ruler, while protecting the peasants from exaggerated taxation.

During the 4th century BCE Shang Yang (shāng)(yāng)(338-390), Prime Minister of the Qin (qín) dynasty, abolished the feudal system of land division and enabled the common people to buy and sell land. This system persisted for more than 2,000 years.

 The Communists, during the civil war against the kuomingtang in the early 1930s, confiscated the property of officials, landlords, and tax collectors, and redistributed the land to the peasants.

In present-day China land is owned by the state, but individuals and corporations have the right to own all other property, except land. The state still has the right, however, to requisition personal property owned by individuals, for public purposes. In such cases, the state is required to provide compensation.

Philosophical Perceptions of Wealth

In traditional China the mind and soul were appreciated more than material things, and living harmoniously and happily was highly regarded. Chinese philosophy presents various approaches to wealth. According to the conception of yin and yang, just as in disease there are seeds of health, and in health there are seeds of disease, so too does wealth contain seeds of poverty and poverty contain seeds of wealth. Just as he who moves further and further to the east will eventually reach the west, so too will he who accumulates more and more money, eventually become poor.

The philosopher Lao Zi  (lǎo)() (604-531 BCE) wrote that an ideal society is self-sufficient. In such society no one owns more possessions than his neighbor, and thus there is no envy, which is the main cause of rivalry and suffering.

The philosopher Zhuang Zi (zhuāng)(zi)  (369?-286 BCE) believed that life is transient and that the pursuit of wealth and personal glorification was mere vanity. It was therefore better to relinquish the desire for wealth and to live instead a simple life.

The historian Si Maqian () ()(qiān) preceded the economics philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) by about 2,000 years, when he wrote that "wealth and coins should be able to flow freely as heaven flows freely" and that there is no one fixed way to reach wealth. Money, in his view, has no one permanent owner. It finds its way to talented people, just as the spokes of the wheel come together in the center; therefore, these talented people should be called "nobility without title".

Gods of Wealth

Money and wealth are not absent from the realm of the gods either. One of the most popular Chinese gods is the God of Wealth, Cai Shen  (cái)(shén), who is responsible for the creation of profit and the division of wealth. He is presented as one god, a dual entity, or a group of gods. An old tradition originating in the Beijing area has it that on the 2nd and 16th day of each lunar month the God of Wealth visits the Supreme God, the Jade Emperor, and reports to him on the deeds of mortals. According to these reports, wealth is then allocated.

Symbols of Wealth

Among the traditional symbols of wealth[1] are the fish, turtle, deer, peony, and the big belly of the smiling Buddha.



Literally: These things.

A phrase that means "money".

This originates in the following story:

During the Jin(jìn) dynasty (265-420 CE) there was a man named Yan Wang  (yǎn)(wáng), who considered himself elevated above considerations of material interest and refrained from uttering the word "money".  His wife did not, understandably, accept his approach, and one day when Wang Yan was sleeping she sent the servants to fill his bed with piles of money. She thought that when he would wake up he would have no choice but to say the word "money". Wang, however, although seeing the money around him when he woke up, was still determined not to utter the word. Instead, he called out, "Take these things from here!" 



A poor man, [though] he lives in a noisy city – nobody is interested in him, [whereas] a rich man who lives in a desolate mountain area - [even] distant relatives visit him



Literally: The sun is rising and setting [and] the moon is waxing and waning.

Wealth, like poverty is in not permanent. Economic conditions may change throughout life.

  In the Bible it is written:

לא לעולם חוסן (משלי כז 24)

For riches do not last forever (Proverbs, 27, 24)



A wealthy person is like a dragon, [whereas] a poor person is like a worm



He who lacks a strong will, will be poor for a lifetime



Literally: He who has eyes [both] in the front and in the back, will be wealthy and respected for a thousand years

A person who is cautious will be wealthy and respected for many years.



One coin of money [can] conceal a hundred [spots of] ugliness



Beggars appear in the dragon lantern parade - poor people's joy

The same idea is found in the idiom:


A beggar hums the song "A Peaceful Year" - poor people's joy



He who wants to become rich must take risks



A poor person - his relatives[1] cut themselves off from him


(qióng)(yǒu) (qióng)(chóu)()(yǒu)()(chóu)

Wealthy people have wealthy people's worries, [just as] poor people have poor people's worries

In Hebrew they say:

מרבה נכסים מרבה דאגה (אבות , ב, ז).

He who has many assets has many worries (Pirkei Avot,  2, 7)



The poor do not have to learn frugality [and] the wealthy do not have to learn spendthriftiness



He who reaches the front door to which a tall horse is tied up - [though] he is not a relative [of the people in the house], he will consider himself a relative

A rich person or he who has high position, attracts people who expect to benefit from him.



Literally: The full do not understand the hungry.

The rich do not understand the poor.



The [cost] of one banquet held by a wealthy family is like [the cost] of the food consumed by a poor family in six months



Money is like dirt [whereas] face[2] is worth a thousand pieces of gold 



The hungry have no common language with the satiated

The wealthy and the poor have no common language.


Money is not omnipotent

This, as opposed to the much-used idiom in English:

Money makes the world go round



Land of fish and rice

A land of plenty.

In the Bible it is written (21 times):

ארץ זבת חלב ודבש

Literally: Land of milk and honey.



Literally: Reads "The Hundred [Chinese] Family Names"[3] without reading the first character

Said of those who speak about money before anything else.

The first name in the list of the Chinese family names is Zhao (zhào), and the second is Qian (qián), which means "money".



Literally: [When] there is water in the big rivers, the small rivers are filled.

When the community prospers, the individual prospers too.

The same idea is found in the idiom:


Literally: [When] there is no water in the big rivers, the small rivers dry up.

When there is a shortage in the community, the individual is poor.



Harmony brings wealth



Walking dressed up in an embroidered robe at night

Said of a person who cannot reveal his wealth and high position to the public.

This is based on the following story:

Xiang Yu (xiàng)()[4], who led his army to the occupation of Xianyang (xián)(yáng), killed the surrendering King of the State of Qin (qín), burnt the palaces of Qin, and began withdrawing eastward with the looted treasures and captured women. One of his advisers advised him to stay in the region of the city of Guangzhong  (guān)(zhōng), saying, "Guanzhong is protected from all sides by mountains and rivers, and its earth is fertile. Establish your capital city here, and then you will be able to rule the entire state".

Xiang Yu saw the ruined palaces of the State of Qin and missed his home. Then he said, "Not returning home after becoming rich and gaining high position, is like walking dressed up in an embroidered robe at night. Who will notice that you are rich?"  Therefore, he was determined to return to the east.

[1](liù) (qīn), literally: six kinds of family relatives: father, mother, big brothers, small brothers, wife and children. 
[2] On the meaning of the term "face" (liǎn)in Chinese, see the chapter on face and on losing face.
[3] "The Hundred Family Names" (bǎi)(jiā) (xìng)is the title of a text written by an anonymous writer from the period of the Song (sòng)  dynasty (960-1279 CE), which sets out the Chinese family names. See also the chapter on family.
[4] Xiang Yu (232-202 BCE ) was a prominent general during the fall of the Qin dynasty.

[1] See also the chapter on symbols in the Chinese culture.

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