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On the Function of Cowries in Shang and Western Zhou China

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Cowrie shells are often found in Bronze Age sites in China. The commonly accepted explanation for their function is that they were used as money or currency during the Shang and the Zhou periods, if not as early as the Neolithic. References to cowrie shells in Shang and Zhou bronze inscriptions and in received classical texts are often regarded as evidence for such an interpretation. This paper reviews the hypothesis that cowries were money and examines textual evidence commonly cited in support of the hypothesis. It argues that a number of different concepts, such as wealth, value, and money, are often misleadingly conflated in the discussion of "cowrie money," and that some of the textual references to cowries have been misinterpreted. The paper suggests that, on present evidence, cowries began to assume the role of a standard of value only during the Middle Western Zhou period. The main function of cowries in the Shang and Western Zhou periods is more likely to have been ornamental, funerary, or ritual.


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