Episode 4: Revenge of the Xia!

This time, we take an in depth look into Shao Kang, the prince born in hiding who would rise from his dynasty’s ashes to seek revenge against the Usurper-General Han Zhuo who had ruthlessly pursued him. Through a combination of skill, luck, and patience, Shao Kang will cobble together a force able to meet Han Zhuo’s armies in battle.

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4 thoughts on “Episode 4: Revenge of the Xia!

  1. Very interesting and informative podcast. I thought I heard the term ‘coinage’ in this episode, seems far too early for coins, were the Bronze Age Chinese using something equivalent to coins?

    1. Hi Russell,

      great question, it does seem really early to have a sophisticated monetary system… but this is kind of a 2 part answer…

      I mentioned coins because the Shiji tells of Emperor Tang minting golden coins to distribute to the suffering poor during the long period of drought so that they could buy back their children they were forced to sell in slavery. Of course, it goes on to claim he prayed to the ancestors and made it rain… so take that as you will.

      In terms of evidence, we know that the people of the Yellow River valley used a reasonably sophisticated economic system based around sea-snail shells called cowrie. Here’s an example:
      cowry shell

      These were used throughout the Xia and Shang period, and were valuable since they were both inland empires with relatively little contact with the coast or its peoples… so there was scarcity. In Lady Fu Hao’s tomb at Yin, archaeologists found she was buried with more than 6,900 bronzed shells to serve as currency in the hereafter… so that’s almost a coin right there.

      In fact, the ancient Chinese word for money, 貝 (bèi), is a pictogram of a cowry shell. As a radical it’s also found in the traditional forms of “goods” (貨, huò), “buy” (買, mai), and “sell” (賣, maì)

      We won’t have to wait too long to get to good old metal coins. They’ll start supplanting the cowry shell system around 900 BCE, about a century and a half after the fall of the Shang state.

      So the short answer is: they definitely used a “coin-like object” for transactions, and over time that sort of fluidly became more metal-oriented, until the shell part was dropped altogether. As for whether Tang ordered gold coins struck? Who knows. Our only records were written a millennia after the fact.

      1. New listener here. Anyhow, piping up with a factoid:

        string of shells is called a 賏(ying),and it shows up in 婴(baby),and 罂(first character of poppy),both pronounced ying. Could a string of shells have been a monetary unit and thus accounting for its popularity in other characters?

      2. Cowrie and other shell-based currency system were almost uniformly strung together – likely for as simple a reason as they were just easier to carry around, count, and trade rather than individually… probably significantly easier to keep unbroken, too. I’d have every confidence that the Chinese cowrie currency system did likewise.

        As for the second part of your question, I can give it a shot… If the character for infant, 嬰, is looked at pictographically… it would be the “currency/value of a woman” … which makes sense, in context… an ancient woman’s chief social value would have been her capacity to produce children.

        The second character, 罂, we could break apart similarly. Again, the string of cowries being “money” and the underlying character – 缶 (fou, meaning “jar”). So we could think of it as “money in a jar”… i.e. opium.

        Great question!

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