Shells, Kanjis and Money

There are many places where in the old times shells were used as currency. India and China used them during thousands of years and their shell-coins gradually entered the Japanese islands. It is interesting that even nowadays there is a Japanese and Chinese character that means “shell” but if you add strokes to it the meaning changes to “money”.

The Japanese character is 貝(kai) and the simplified Chinese is 贝 (bei / bu). Both are pictographs (They are supposed to look like a shell) and evolvee from and original character that you can see in the next picture:

Picture from Shirakawa.

The character evolved during thousands of years and it became this:


It doesn’t really look like a shell, but if we look at the shape of some money created from shells:

Picture from Shirakawa.

Look at the toothed hole in the middle, it looks like the lines that divide the body of the character 貝.

Picture from Shirakawa.

The character 貝 means “shell”, for example, 二枚貝, a word composed by three kanjis (two, thin things, shell) and it means bivalve, if you change the first character with 1 it becomes 一枚貝 that means univalve… Sometimes I’m amazed with the Japanese language “simplicity”, “intuitiveness” and representative power.

If you add extra strokes to the 貝 it looses the “shell” meaning and acquires the “money/exchange/commerce” meaning. Look at next kanjis where you can easily identify the “shell” part inside them and they all have meanings related with money:


There are many kanjis created from “shell” and they are used to build hundreds of words related with value/money. For the people who is studying Japanese here there is a list of some of the most common words constructed with kanjis with “shell” radical. For Chinese students from this link you have all the derived characters.

: savings, store / 貯まる: saving money, 貯金: savings.
: fortune
: sells / 販売: to sell, marketing
: freight, property
: to lend
貿: trade, exchange / 貿易 foreign trade
: buy
: precious, prize
: rent, fare, fee / 家賃 rent payment
: cost, expense
: poor, insubstantial / 貧しい : poor 貧乳: insubstantial breasts 🙂
: data, materials / 資料: data, documents 投資: investment
Other characters I can remind: 貼, 側, 測, 賄, 賂… If you want more info about these words and kanjis I recommend using JDic

  • sheerblade

    August 16, 2007 at 12:11 pm

    I noticed that all the shells have holes in the middle, could have been that they’d string multiple shells onto something so they wouldn’t get lost in travel.

  • Pozo

    August 18, 2007 at 6:50 am

    Hey there, thanks interesting read and so is the rest of our blog. My spanish is… well nonexistent so thank you for blogging in english too 🙂

  • Pozo

    August 18, 2007 at 6:52 am

    Oh and @ sheerblade:
    They did it with metal coins, so probably earlier too indeed.

  • sheerblade

    August 19, 2007 at 11:52 am

    I remember in Spain back when it was illegal to mint coins they’d melt the gold into chain links.


    March 20, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    wrong transrate…

    販 = SELL(this charactor doesnt have the mean of SHELL)
    貝 = SHELL