Bobby Kennedy said when you have a problem, hang it on a lantern. Recently, I wrote about Chinese knife money. I didn’t understand the etymology of using knives as money, so I googled it. I discovered that during the Zhou dynasty, there was the period of the Warring States from 475-221 BCE in which they used knife money.
But why? All that I could find were three possible explanations. One had to do with a Chinese prince that needed money to pay his soldiers and allowed them to barter their knives with local merchants. An alternate story was that the prince permitted the locals to pay small fines with knives. The other explanation was that sea traders brought knife money to China from overseas. None of those theories make any sense to me.
So, since I am not an Asian expert, I asked Sim Chae Sung, my Korean neighbor. If I was pondering the correct answer, he was more perplexed as he looked at my Chinese knife money.
I merely watched him attempting to process how to explain the Chinese knife money. I admitted to him that I told my college class I was teaching about the three theories regarding the origins of this bronze money. It bothered me that I was teaching about something that didn’t make sense.
As he pondered, I realized that my friend was determined to explain the genesis of this Chinese money. Then I showed him my backpack, which had several large Chinese coins attached to it. He started to compare the writing on the knives and coins.
I asked him about my other Chinese treasures, like a wooden container. He read the words on the top of the box.
While he was at my home, I took him to what I call my China Room. It is a guest bedroom, which is more of an Asian museum than a place to sleep. It will be Ti Ti’s room when she gets her student visa and comes to America.
We talked about everything in the room, which I call my treasures. As we spoke, other questions raced around in my mind, like why am I so fascinated by Asia? I have traveled all over the world half-century. I did a year of post-graduate studies at the U. of Edinburgh, Scotland and also taught overseas. While in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South America, and Asia, I have been a tour guide, had tour guides, and been on my own. I have pictures on the walls of my home from my trips and have hundreds of souvenirs.
I have quoted George Santayana about what he saw as the value of traveling. “A child educated only at school is an uneducated child.” Ibn Battuta also saw value in traveling and added the emotional aspect. “Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
However, Santayana and Battuta don’t explain my fascination with China. Name a place I have been, and I’ll tell you what I love about that place. However, China is different, which is a part of it. I have no love for the present-day government in China. Nevertheless, I love their past, their art, and their culture.