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Gold in Ancient China

What was gold used for in Ancient China, and was it even that popular?

06·03·2015

Gold in Ancient China

What was gold used for in Ancient China, and was it even that popular?

06·03·2015

All over the world, gold has long been regarded as one of, if not, the most precious and valuable material. While ancient European, Egyptian, south west Asian, and Indian civilizations attached a supreme measure of value to gold, and even though in modern China recently there has been a growing wide gulf of demand, production, and consumption, somehow, this was not the case in Ancient China. In contrast to jade, which was established as a symbol of imperial wealth and status right from the start, gold did not gain such a distinct standard of value until comparatively later. Instead, it was used for its aesthetic value and decorative purpose, but did not quite gain the same prestigious appreciation.

The first clue is that ancient literary references to gold as a material are not clear cut. The Chinese character for gold, 金 jin was generally used to mean ‘metal’ without specifically referring to gold. Texts telling of either its mining or use are not only scarce but also general. Later on, by the Warring States period, some texts do refer to 黄金 huang jin ‘yellow metal’ specifically, but these still seem relatively few.

Initial descriptions of gold transactions recounted amounts of a few dozen to a hundred jin at a time being handed over, but it has since been confirmed that after the Qin dynasty there was never transactions of that amount at one time. The amount of gold would therefore seem to have mysteriously vanished. There are two main possibilities—either in the chaos of the collapse of the Han Dynasty, the riches were buried and hidden by their owners, or there was not much in the first place, and some of these transactions were copper, or a mixture of metals, once again mixed up in the textual confusion. Certainly since then, there has not been anywhere near an abundance of gold in China, regardless of the amount of respect it has had. This historic lack of gold led to there being little opportunity for it to come into circulation, and it was only the state of Chu which even used it as currency. Otherwise the ‘yellow metal’ coins were mainly kept in storage, and other than the richest in society, very few people were able to get their hands on much at all.

The first documented use of gold was in the Shang dynasty, when it was hammered into a thin foil and then applied to other objects for decorative purposes. It was not however, given as high a monetary value as bronze or jade, which were both sought after and desired to show off high status. While gold foil was being applied to the surface of a ritual vessel for example, the consort of the Shang king was buried in her resting place with seven hundred and fifty jades and four hundred and sixty eight bronzes.

An interesting fact though is that although gold was certainly viewed in a different light to jade or bronze, this assumption is generally based to the central plains. Quite a few gold artefacts from sites associated with minority nationality groups in ancient China have been found and preserved. The gold excavations yielded from these sites are not only slightly more in number but can also give indications that they were culturally distinct from the central Shang and Zhou dynasties. For example, a cast gold earring, consisted of around 85% gold, some silver, and a very small amount of copper. Its shape was also similar to those discovered in areas of Siberia at the time.

Today of course, thanks to years of influence from other countries, the deep thirst for gold has long existed. Yet, it has not quite replaced or paralleled the prestige of jade and the reasons why pose a little bit of a puzzle. Perhaps with more excavations, more answers will come.

 

For effects that the modern gold rush is having on modern China, see Gold Fever.