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The Bronze Axe
by [?]

There is always a certain fascination in beginning a subject at the wrong end and working backward: it has the charm which inevitably attaches to all evil practices; you know you oughtn’t, and so you can’t resist the temptation to outrage the proprieties and do it. I can’t myself resist the temptation of beginning this article where it ought to break off–with Chinese money, which is not the origin, but the final outcome and sole remaining modern representative of that antique and almost prehistoric implement, the Bronze Age hatchet.

Improbable and grotesque as this affiliation sounds at first hearing, it is, nevertheless, about as certain as any other fact in anthropological science–which isn’t, perhaps, saying a great deal. The familiar little brass cash, with the square hole for stringing them together on a thread in the centre, well known to the frequenter of minor provincial museums, are, strange to say, the lineal descendants, in unbroken order, of the bronze axe of remote Celestial ancestors. From the regular hatchet to the modern coin one can trace a distinct, if somewhat broken, succession, so that it is impossible to say where the one leaves off and the other begins–where the implement merges into the medium of exchange, and settles down finally into the root of all evil.

Here is how this curious pedigree first worked itself out. In early times, before coin was invented, barter was usually conducted between producer and consumer with metal implements, as it still is in Central Africa at the present day with Venetian glass beads and rolls of red calico. Payments were all made in kind, and bronze was the commonest form of specie. A gentleman desirous of effecting purchases in foreign parts went about the world with a number of bronze axes in his pocket (or its substitute), which he exchanged for other goods with the native traffickers in the country where he did his primitive business. At first, the early Chinese in that unsophisticated age were content to use real hatchets for this commercial purpose; but, after a time, with the profound mercantile instinct of their race, it occurred to some of them that when a man wanted half a hatchet’s worth of goods he might as well pay for them with half a hatchet. Still, as it would be a pity to spoil a good working implement by cutting it in two, the worthy Ah Sin ingeniously compromised the matter by making thin hatchets, of the usual size and shape, but far too slender for practical usage. By so doing he invented coin: and, what is more, he invented it far earlier than the rival claimants to that proud distinction, the Lydians, whose electrum staters were first struck in the seventh century, B.C. But, according to Professor Terrien de la Couperie, some of the fancy Chinese hatchets which we still retain date back as far as the year 1000 (a good round number), and are so thin that they could only have been intended to possess exchange value. And when a distinguished Sinologist gives us a date for anything Chinese, it behoves the rest of the unlearned world to open its mouth and shut its eyes, and thankfully receive whatever the distinguished Sinologist may send it.

In the seventh century, then, these mercantile axes, made in the strictest sense to sell and not to use, were stamped with an official stamp to mark their amount, and became thereby converted into true coins–that was the root of the ‘root of all evil.’ Thence the declension to the ‘cash’ is easy; the form grew gradually more and more regular, while the square hole in the centre, once used for the handle, was retained by conservatism and practical sense as a convenient means of stringing them together.

So this was the end of the old bronze hatchet, perhaps the most wonderful civilizing agent ever invented by human ingenuity. Let us hark back now, and from the opposite side see what was its first beginning.