China: The Middle Kingdom - 12-Piece Retrospective Collection
The Middle Kingdom, as China has always been called by its inhabitants, is perhaps the world's most influential civilization. In addition to gunpowder, paper, woodblock printing, and the magnetic compass the so-called Four Great Inventions China also invented or discovered silk, tea, playing cards, toilet tissue, fireworks, boat rudders, umbrellas, kites, porcelain, wheelbarrows, iron casting, hot air balloons, seismographs, matches, horse stirrups, acupuncture, herbal medicine, lacquer, paper money, mechanical clocks, and alcohol.
Unlike the nations of Europe, Africa, India, or the New World, China was united in ancient times, during the semi-legendary Xia Dynasty (2100-1600 BCE). While it has both expanded and fractured a number of times since then, it has been unified more often than not. This is due in part to a culture and system of government established by the pre-Common Era dynasties, which imposed a strict hierarchy among various ancestral cults and standardized the writing script, weights, and measures. The first emperor of one of these early dynasties, the Qin from which the Western word "China" derives established the first unified currency, the Ban Liang, ca. 210 BCE, appropriating a design first introduced by the Zhou.
This system was modified during the reign of the Han emperor Wang Mang (7-23 CE), whose bizarre bao huo monetary overhaul involved tortoise shells, cowries, gold, silver, and archaic spade money, in addition to new coins. This chaotic system wreaked havoc on the Chinese economy and ultimately doomed the Han, the great dynasty that had invented paper. The situation improved under the emperor Guang Wu (25-56 CE), who simplified the monetary system; his Wu Zhu issues, with their distinctive hourglass-shaped design, continued to be issued for centuries.
Gaozu, founding emperor of the Tang dynasty (618-907) abolished the coinage based on a weight of Wu Zhu (i.e., five zhu) and began to cast Kai Yuan Tong Bao ca. 622 CE. From that point on, Chinese money, no longer named after weight, was called Tong Bao, Yuan Bao, or Zhong Bao. The Tang was an era of high culture and innovation; gunpowder and woodblock printing were invented during this period.