My recent trip to Japan allowed me to see many Chinese characters i.e., Kanji (漢字) and one thing that caught my attention was an extensive use of the radical "貝"(かい) on words/characters related to bartering and economy.

For example:

買う - buy

売る - sell (now the traditional Chinese character for this is "賣")

貨 - money/value so 貨幣 (かへい) and 通貨 (つうか) become currency

資 - also related to value so 資金 (しきん) is fund, 資本 (しほん) is capital and so on.

There are a LOT more to these characters with the radical "貝" and many of them have meanings related to money and value.

And "貝" means a shellfish, so I thought maybe ancient China used shellfish as currency. (at this point I've realized maybe this is a wrong stackexchange to ask this question, feel free to migrate.)


So what role exactly does a shellfish play in concepts that are related to value?

1 Answer 1


As I was researching alongside asking the question, I've found a Wikipedia article which states:

In China, cowries were so important that many characters relating to money or trade contain the character for cowry: 貝. Starting over three thousand years ago, cowry shells, or copies of the shells, were used as Chinese currency. The Classical Chinese character for "money/currency", 貝, originated as a pictograph of a cowrie shell.

  • 1
    This is embarrassing...
    – VladeKR
    Jul 25, 2016 at 15:32
  • 1
    Why is it embarrassing?
    – Blavius
    Jul 25, 2016 at 15:34
  • 3
    @Blavius because a simple google search yielded an answer. This happens very frequently to me at least where I'm typing a long question on SE while also googling the question, and halfway through it I find the answer. But I've decided to post this anyways cause I thought this was worth sharing.
    – VladeKR
    Jul 25, 2016 at 15:36
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    I think this is a useful Q&A to have on the SE. It's far more embarrassing spending the rest of your life not knowing the answer than getting an answer and realizing the question wasn't that hard.
    – virmaior
    Jul 26, 2016 at 11:22
  • That, and most questions seem easier to answer once they've already been answered. Hindsight 20/20 and all that. Jul 27, 2016 at 14:05

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