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On the Function of Cowries in Shang and Western Zhou China

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Abstract

Cowrie shells are often found in Bronze Age sites in China. The commonly accepted explanation for their function is that they were used as money or currency during the Shang and the Zhou periods, if not as early as the Neolithic. References to cowrie shells in Shang and Zhou bronze inscriptions and in received classical texts are often regarded as evidence for such an interpretation. This paper reviews the hypothesis that cowries were money and examines textual evidence commonly cited in support of the hypothesis. It argues that a number of different concepts, such as wealth, value, and money, are often misleadingly conflated in the discussion of "cowrie money," and that some of the textual references to cowries have been misinterpreted. The paper suggests that, on present evidence, cowries began to assume the role of a standard of value only during the Middle Western Zhou period. The main function of cowries in the Shang and Western Zhou periods is more likely to have been ornamental, funerary, or ritual.

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... Cowries have physical attributes that make them an appealing form of currency. They are durable, long-lasting, easy to handle, portable, have an alluring gloss, are uniform in shape and size and are impossible to counterfeit-all of which make them suitable for trade by weight, volume or number (Hogendorn and Johnson 1986: 6;Li 2006). They are common at Iron Age sites in Israel. ...
... However, this does not necessarily mean that cowries were used as currency during this period. For an object to circulate as currency and to be accepted in transactions there has to be universal agreement as well as confidence based on faith, habit, or, in complex societies, strong institutional support (Li 2006). ...
... Early inscriptions referred to them as treasures that were used as gifts, as means of exchange and measures of value; the ideogram for 'shell' is embedded in many Chinese characters that are associated with both wealth and value (Meir 2009: 10). However, according to Li (2006) cowries in China were not used as currency until the Middle Western Zhou period. Fah-Hian, a traveller in ca. ...
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... Early inscriptions referred to them as treasures that were used as gifts, as means of exchange and measures of value; the ideogram for 'shell' is embedded in many Chinese characters that are associated with both wealth and value (Meir 2009: 10). However, according to Li (2006) cowries in China were not used as currency until the Middle Western Zhou period. Fah-Hian, a traveller in ca. ...
... Cowries were also the currency used during the African slave trade era (Hogendorn and Johnson, 1986). In some parts of China, they have been used as money since around 2000 BC (Peng and Zhu, 1995;Yang, 2011;Yung-Ti, 2003). This monetary usage of cowries continued in some parts of the world until the early 20 th century. ...
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