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The history of money in Eastern Asia goes back to at least the 2nd millennium B.C.  The earliest reference to money appeared in China in the 7th century B.C. in a work known as the Book of Master Guan. Chinese money during this time consisted of pearls, jade, gold, bronze spades and knives. Cowrie shells were especially important as symbols of wealth and were originally used in gift exchanges. 

China’s neighbors were heavily influenced by Chinese ideas of money, especially Japan, Korea and Vietnam, where coinage on the Chinese model was adopted relatively early. The areas around modern Thailand and Burma had their own traditional forms of money which continued in use into the 19th century and included metals (silver, tin and bronze) shaped into original forms.

The inhabitants of the Pacific Islands were relatively poor in metals, but had an abundance of shells, stone and other materials which they used in creative ways as forms of money. Some of the more exotic materials included feathers from the Bird of Paradise (Papua, New Guinea), whale teeth, and even multi-ton stones on the island of Yap.

Did You Know?

In the Fiji Islands, teeth from sperm whales, known as Tambua, were a highly prized medium of exchange. Large, well-colored teeth could be used to purchase a bride or a canoe, while smaller white examples were used to purchase food. Tambua are also given as gifts at weddings and as presentation pieces to foreign dignitaries.



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