YANG (2011) Rise and Fall of Cowrie Shells. Asian Story.pdf

Journal of World History, Vol. 22, No. 1 © 2011 by University of Hawai‘i Press 1 The Rise and Fall of Cowrie Shells: The Asian Story * bin yang National University of Singapore A half century ago, William C. White, reviewing The Beginnings of Chinese Civilization: Three Lectures Illustrated with Finds at Anyang, a pioneering study of Chinese archaeology by Li Chi, found himself disappointed that “Dr. Li did not mention the widespread use of cowrie shells—for currency, decorati
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   Journal of World History, Vol. 22,  No. 1 © 2011  by University of Hawai‘i Press 1 The Rise and Fall of Cowrie Shells: The Asian Story * bin yang  National University of Singapore A   half  century ago, William C. White, reviewing The Beginnings of  Chinese Civilization: Three Lectures Illustrated with Finds at Anyang,  a pioneering study of Chinese archaeology by Li Chi, found himself disappointed that “Dr. Li did not mention the widespread use of cowrie shells—for currency, decoration, or reward, or for good-luck amulets.” 1 This disappointment still lingers. While cowries (both true cow-ries and their imitations in jade, stone, bone, earthenware, gold, tin, and bronze) have been found in archaeological sites throughout China, appropriate academic attention has still not been paid. While cow-rie shells have been listed by numerous archaeological reports, few interpretations have been attempted, and, far less, any comprehensive examination of their significance for early Chinese civilizations, such as the Shang (ca. seventeenth century b.c.e.– eleventh century b.c.e. ) and the Zhou (ca. eleventh century b.c.e.–222   b.c.e. ). When cow-ries are studied, what scholars address is whether or not they served as money, and when. 2  The source of these shells and the routes that * An early version was presented at the First Congress of the Asian Association of World Historians, 29–31  May 2009 , Osaka, Japan. I would like to extend my thanks to the organizers and to the reviewers of the  Journal of World History  for their comments and sug-gestions. 1  William C. White, review of The Beginnings of Chinese Civilization: Three Lectures Illustrated with Finds at Anyang  , by Li Chi,  Journal of Asian Studies   17 , no. 3  ( 1958 ): 464–465 . 2  Peng Xinwei, Zhongguo Huobi Shi [A History of Chinese Currencies] (Shanghai: Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe, 1965 ); Huang Xiquan, Xianqin Huobi Tonglun  [A Compre-  2 journal of world history, march 2011 made possible their spread are usually not taken into consideration. 3  As a result, the implications of the cowrie network with respect to the links between the Chinese world and other worlds have remained unexamined.Understandably, the magnificence of early Chinese civilization does not necessarily need this small marine product for its glorifica-tion, which has been well established by the jade culture, the oracle culture, and the bronze culture in the Shang and Zhou periods. These art objects, with the implications of cultural complexity and sophisti-cation they carried, have been widely scrutinized, and have, as a result, come to represent the essence of Chineseness, whereas the cowries have been allowed to remain in obscurity.Unlike China, India had been well known for its use of cowries.  Numerous cowries have been found in India from its prehistorical period to the modern era. The monetary system in which cowrie shells functioned as “small money,” while silver functioned as “big money,” has been vividly illustrated in many accounts of early Indian society. The cowrie trade is also connected to the slave trade, linking the Indian Ocean with Africa and the Atlantic slave markets. Surprisingly, however, the role of cowrie shells in the Silk Road seems not to have been much explored, though cowries were widely used as money in northern India, including modern Pakistan and Afghanistan, in addi-tion to Orissa and Bengal. Little statistical work has been done on the archaeological finds in these areas, let alone a comprehensive research project. Nor has the pre- 1500  period been well studied. As things stand, the historical expansion of cowrie currency in India remains unclear.In addition to northern India and Central Asia, cowries also reached Southeast Asia, through both overland and maritime routes, though they functioned as money only in some places and societies. Cowrie shells were used as a medium of trade in Assam, Arakan, Lower Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Yunnan. Yunnan is an area located in hensive Examination of the Pre-Qin Currencies] (Beijing: Zijincheng Chubanshe, 2001 ); Li Yung-Ti, “On the Functions of Cowries in the Shang and Western Zhou China,”  Journal of East Asian Archaeology 5  ( 2006 ): 1–26 . 3  Ke Peng and Yanshi Zhu are the only scholars who have done serious research on the srcins of cowries used in ancient China. Ke Peng and Yanshi Zhu,  New Research on the Origins of Cowries Used in Ancient China , Sino-Platonic Papers 68  (Philadelphia: Depart-ment of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania, 1995 ). Many thanks to Wang Luman for obtaining this paper that I had attempted to get for more than three years. And I was extremely excited when I found that the two authors shared the same conclusion that the srcins of cowries in ancient China were the Indian Ocean, a rebuttal to the conventional South China Sea hypothesis.  Yang: The Rise and Fall of Cowrie Shells 3 upper mainland Southeast Asia, sandwiched by Tibet and China, and had cultivated a cowrie monetary system from the ninth century until the seventeenth century.Cowries surely went westward to Arabia and Africa. The latter is another well-studied area. Pioneering works by Jan Hogendorn and Marion Johnson have illustrated how this Indian Ocean – based item, which had been shipped to West Africa at least since the fourteenth century, contributed to the spread of the European colonial machine and served to engulf various local economies, especially during the period of the Atlantic slave trade. 4 While the early period seems vague, it is clear that by the fourteenth century, cowrie currency had reached the upper and middle Niger, first the Mali Empire, and then Songhay. The Europeans, pioneered by the Portuguese in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, followed by the Dutch and English in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and finally joined by the French and German in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, brought cowries from the Indian Ocean to West Africa in such quantities that they eventually ruined all local money systems and economies, though of course contributing mightily to the prosperity of both the Atlantic slave trade and the palm oil trade.Originating in the seas, especially those surrounding the low-lying Maldive islands, cowrie shells migrated to various parts of Asia as pre-cious goods in the prehistoric era and were transformed into a com-modity money and currency in various societies over a long period. This article sketches the complex range of roles occupied by the cowrie in eastern Eurasia from the archaeological period to the nineteenth century. The focus on eastern Eurasia reflects the comparative lack of scholarly attention this area has received, compared to the substantial work done on the use of the cowrie in Africa, particularly in the mod-ern epoch.While the three cases of China, India, and Southeast Asia varied over time, they raise similar general questions: Was the cowrie only “small money”? Was the cowrie currency local or global in character? Had there, in fact, ever been a universal cowrie monetary system? What was the interrelation among cowrie money, silver, copper coins, and gold? How do cowrie shells help us understand the rise of Europe and the formulation of the modern world? Why did China not develop such a system? By focusing on these global and local questions, this 4  Jan Hogendorn and Marion Johnson, The Shell Money of the Slave Trade  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986 ).  4 journal of world history, march 2011 article attempts to illustrate the significance of cowrie shells in a cross-regional context over the longue durée  and discuss some implications for the world, past and present. China: Cowries as Precious Ornaments, Commodity Money, or Money? There are more than 250  species of cowrie in the world, but when we talk about cowrie currency, only two are referred to: Cypraea moneta  and Cypraea annulus . The first and most important is C. moneta , or the money cowrie, as its scientific name indicates. C. annulus  is commonly called the ring cowrie. Cowries have been found in Neolithic sties in China. These cowries surely were imported, and they were regarded as precious items that symbolized power, prestige, and wealth. Such a pattern continues, as revealed by the many oracle bone inscriptions that contain messages concerning cowries and by the archaeological discoveries of cowries in the Shang tombs.The discovery of the Yin Site at Anyang, Henan (the mid Yellow River region), has been the fundamental discovery for early Chinese history. One of the remarkable finds at these sites was the tomb of Lady Hao, unearthed in 1975 . Lady Hao was a favorite wife of Wuding, the king of the Shang dynasty in the early twelfth century b.c.e.  She was very influential in the Shang court, as she conducted various ceremo-nies and even led military campaigns. As such, it is no wonder that so many precious items were buried around her body: 1 , 928  articles were discovered, including 468  bronze pieces, 755  jade items, 47  precious stones, and 63  stone artifacts. In addition to these invaluable findings, on 7  June 1976 , workers in the tomb of Lady Hao discovered piles of cowrie shells, so many that they had to put the cowries into some bronze containers to remove and lift them from underground. These cowries amounted to more than 6 , 800  pieces.The tomb of Lady Hao epitomized the conventional narrative of Chinese civilizational srcin: the Yellow River as the mother river and  North China as the cradle. Had major discoveries not been made in many other macroregions, this narrative would be convincing. Finds of the Shang period in the northwest, Upper Yangzi, Middle Yangzi, and Gan River have complicated this early landscape, however. In terms of cowrie shells of that period, the Sanxingdui relics near Chengdu, Upper Yangzi, are surely comparable with those of the Yin site. In Pit 1 , more than 460  items were unearthed (bronze: 178 ; gold: 4 ; jade: 129 ; cowries: 124 ); in Pit 2 , more than 1 , 300  items (bronze: 735 ; gold: 61 ;

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