Humans have long been fond of cowry shells. Cowries have turned up in archaeological sites from Australia to Egypt to Germany, Russia, Scandinavia, and even North America. Some anthropologists attribute this global fancy to a cowry’s resemblance to the female reproductive orifice, and if that’s how they manage to convince themselves they’ve gotten to third base then okay sure.
Ancient Chinese believed that giving cowries to a woman improved fertility. The character for infant, 嬰, is a pictograph of two cowries above a woman. 貝 is cowry, 女 is woman.
The cowry 貝 forms the root component of many Chinese words associated with wealth and exchange:
|rule, regulation, law. a cowry next to a knife. (etymology)
|buy, purchase. a net over a cowry. (etymology)
|greedy. a talking mouth and a cowry. 今 means “now”. (etymology)
|thief. a cowry and a weapon and armor. (etymology)
By 6th or 7th century BC, the number of cowries in circulation could no longer keep up with economic expansion. Near the Yangtze River in the south, states started minting imitation cowries.
In the northeast and Shandong peninsula, states issued coins shaped like knives. Early knife coins looked much like real knives. They were called 化, a word meaning “conversion”: It’s a pictograph of a person 人 next to an upside-down person 匕. The knife coins were intended to convert into some other commodity. (The character for “commodity” is 貨, a conversion above a cowry).
In the Yellow River valley, states issued coins shaped like gardening tools. Maybe they were even used as gardening tools. Some had hollow sockets to attach the tool to a handle.
Inscriptions in ceremonial bronze vessels refer to these coins as 布. 布 is the character for “cloth”, but these things are obviously not cloth. It’s possible that a spade coin represented a value equal to a bolt of cloth.
Around 350 BC, states began to use standard weights to measure denominations. Coins were stamped with the character 釿, the word for hand-axe. It is an ideogram of metal 金 and axe 斤.
The word for metal 金 is a pictographic bell. Other metal objects like weapons and jewelry existed before bells, but could be fashioned from other materials. Bells were recognizably metallic.
金 is the root component of many Chinese words for metal objects.
|bell. there’s that talking mouth again. (etymology)
|qian, gardening spade. (etymology)
China was a big country with many different states minting their own currencies. Not everyone understood what a hand-axe 釿 was supposed to weigh. To keep things straight, some states cast coins with printed exchange rates.
Even back then, state officials didn’t believe in free-market exchange rates.
Once the hand-axe 釿 became a widespread unit of account, texts and inscriptions stopped referring to coins as “cloth” 布, but instead called them “spades” 錢.
So 錢 is the Chinese word for money today.
彭信威, 中國貨幣史. 1967.