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Korean Inscription on Ancient Chinese Knife-Shaped Money

The Yonhap News Agency is reporting that a Korean scholar believes a previously unknown inscription on a 2,500-year-old Chinese knife-shaped form of money is actually written in Korean.

Dr. Lee Chan-gu is an expert on the ancient Chinese book of divination known as the “Book of Changes” (I Ching, yijing 易经).  In his new book entitled “Money”, Dr. Lee claims that the inscription on a specimen of Chinese knife-shaped money (daobi 刀币) dating from the middle to late Spring and Autumn Period (771 BC – 476 BC) is written in the Korean alphabet known as Hangul (한글).

Korean inscription on ancient Chinese knife-shaped money

Korean inscription on ancient Chinese knife-shaped money

The “pointed tip knife” (jian shou dao 尖首刀), shown at the left, was discovered in northeast China and has been included in such famous Chinese numismatic works as the “Xu Quan Hui” (续泉汇) published in 1875 by Li Zuoxian (李佐贤) as well as the Pre-Qin Volume of the “The Great Dictionary of Chinese Numismatics” (中国钱币大辞典:先秦篇) published in 1995.

These authoritative works state that the inscription is written in “unknown characters” (未知文字).

Dr. Lee claims that the “unidentified” inscription is written in ancient Korean characters and is the Korean word don (돈) which means “money”.

Dr. Lee’s premise has evoked a great deal of controversy among scholars in both Korea and China.

The fundamental question is how a specimen of ancient Chinese “knife money” could possibly have an inscription written in Korean when Sejong the Great (King Sejong) of the Joseon Dynasty did not even invent the Korean alphabet Hangul until 1443-1444 AD, which was some 2,000 years later.

The answer, according to Dr. Lee, is found in a document written by Sejong the Great in 1446.  In “The Proper Sounds for Instructing the People” (Hunmin jeongeum 훈 민정음 해), Sejong the Great reveals that some of his new writing system imitates an ancient Korean script.

Dr. Lee believes that the inscription on this knife money is evidence that Sejong the Great did indeed incorporate ancient Korean characters in the Hangul script he invented.

It is believed that this particular example of “knife money” originated in the ancient state of Guzhu (guzhuquo 孤竹国) which was situated in northeast China and was a vassal state during the Shang and Zhou dynasties.

According to the ancient Korean historical text “Legends and History of the Three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea” (samguk yusa 삼국유사, 三國遺事), the people of Guzhu also lived on the Korean peninsula and the traditions of Guzhu continued under the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo (고구려,高句丽).

Based on this, Dr. Lee speculates that the Korean script first began to be used about 3000 years ago in the area of Guzhu.

This new theory challenges the accepted view of the origin of the written Korean language.  Many scholars, however, remain skeptical and are reluctant to accept Dr. Lee’s theory without additional proof.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Li Jing August 14, 2012, 3:34 pm

    Thank you for another fascinating article. Enjoyed it very much!

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