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Chinese Cash Coin
Circa 1735

The design of this small copper alloy coin, round with a square in the middle, originated in China in the fourth century BCE.  Its round shape symbolizes the dome of heaven and its square center symbolizes the Earth.  It was believed that heaven communicated with Earth through the emperor who governed the people and issued the coins. The square hole was also functional.  In order to quickly finish the rough edges of the cast coins, a square rod was inserted into their center which held them firmly in place while they where filed smooth.  Once issued, the hole enabled people to thread them in strings of 100 and 1,000 for ease in carrying and trading.

For thousands of years, these coins were produced in varying sizes by more than 30 different mints throughout China.  Unlike the European coins which often had political or religious figures represented on their sides, the only design on the cash coins was the Chinese lettering noting the ruler and the mint were they were manufactured.  With the increase of interregional trade, a problem arose: the currency from the different regions was incompatible. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Song dynasty tried to resolve this problem and open up 'free markets' by issuing paper money and by forbidding the export of coins in many Chinese regions.  During this period, the export of even one string of cash coins brought the death penalty. 

This cash coin (circa 1735) details the reign of one of the longest ruling and most brilliant emperors in China's history, Ch'ien-Lung T'ung-pao, who was born in 1711 and died in 1799.  On one side is the emperor's name and on the reverse side is the name of the Boo Yuwan (Beijing) Mint. 

The term "cash", as applied to these coins, is a Western word derived from the Indian word "karsha", meaning 'copper coin'.  With the growing acceptance of paper money in China, the use of cash coins moved out to Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Southeast Asia where they are still in common use today.  The Chinese refer to this coin as 'tsien'. 

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