The Chinese Used Knife Money
But Why?

While I have a number of idiosyncrasies, the one that haunts me is wanting to know about the background of something. For some reason, merely knowing something isn’t enough. I want to know about the backstory of things. One of my hauntings relates to Chinese knife money. Most Americans aren’t even aware of Chines knife money. I know that there is Chinese knife money. In fact, I have some of it, which I acquired in China.


My idiosyncrasy kicks in regarding why the ancient Chinese came up with the notion of knife money. I know that humans have used some sort of money for 40,000 years. Money was the next step after trading one thing for another. Millennia ago, a person would trade a cow for grain. Instead of trading items, they used money. A person with a cow might not have needed grain. Hence, money allowed for the transaction to take place. The person could sell his cow for money. Then he could use the money to buy land or save it until he needed something.

The Chinese developed shell money, known as cowrie shells, over three millennia ago in China. Other ancient civilizations also used sea shells for money.


Chinese money

I can grasp the idea of seashells as currency. However, what rattles me is why the Chinese developed knife money. During the Zhou dynasty, there was the period of the Warring States from 475-221 BCE.

No one knew anything about knife money until some farmers discovered around a hundred and fifty of them while digging a well a couple of decades ago. Knife money parallels the discovery of the terra cotta army. While that is interesting, they also discovered spade money, which only adds to my question. What’s with knife or spade money?

As a consequence, I googled the origin of knife money. The best etymology of knife money was that some local Chinese prince needed money to pay his troops. So, he allowed his troops to barter their knives with local merchants. Another explanation is a variant of the first story of the prince. The prince allowed the locals to pay small fines with knives. The other explanation was that sea traders brought knife money from overseas to China. None of those theories make any sense to me.

My collection of knife money, while interesting, haunts me to better understand why the Chinese made this type of currency. The knife’s cutting edge would have difficulty cutting through butter that was at room temperature. That dispels either of the stories about a Chinese prince’s use of these knives. As for the knives coming from somewhere else merely modifies the location. Okay, if the knife money didn’t originate in China, it still doesn’t address why the knives were used as money.

While I am haunted regarding the origins of knife money, it is a teaching moment for us. Ponder. Question. Think.