The bamboo from which the
tallies were made came from the Zhejiang (浙江)
and Anwei (安慰) areas.
After the outer skin of the bamboo was removed, the stalk
was cut into small rectangular strips usually about 90 mm
in length, 12 mm in width and 6 mm thick.
At the top of the strip was drilled a 8 mm wide hole and
the side of the strip was slightly notched adjacent to the
Metal tools were used to sculpt out areas on the obverse
side of the bamboo strip and then used to form the Chinese
characters indicating the denomination, and, sometimes,
the year of issue. On the reverse side, usually on
the bottom portion, was sculpted the name of the issuing
merchant or bank. The middle area on the reverse
side usually had a serial number written in ink.
On the sides of some tallies is written in black ink the
name of the company that actually manufactured the
tally. The other side sometimes has written a
warning such as shi qu
bu bu (失 去不补) meaning "not
compensated if lost" in order to enhance the authority and
to prevent counterfeiting.
Finally, the bamboo strip was coated in a lacquer in order
to improve the appearance and provide added strength.
As a result, the bamboo tally took on most of the
attributes of "real" money including a stated
denomination, the name of the issuer, the year of issue, a
serial number, the name and address of the manufacturer,
and even included some basic anti-counterfeiting measures.
At the left is a very nice example of a bamboo
Just below the hole and coated with yellow paint, are
the Chinese characters shi wen (十文) which means "10 cash
coin" or "value 10 cash coin". A "10 cash coin"
was slightly larger than the a normal "cash coin" and
had the equivalent value of ten cash coins.
Written vertically below this is chuan qian er bai wen
(串錢貳百文) which means "a string of 200 cash
coins". Traditionally, large numbers of cash
coins would be tied together with a string to
facilitate carrying and counting. One string
would frequently contain 1,000 cash coins although, in
this case, the stated number on a string would be 200
The meaning of this inscription is that this bamboo
tally token is worth the equivalent of 200 "cash
coins" but that, if redeemed, would be paid with "10
cash" coins. This means that the token was worth
20 each "10 cash coins" which would be the equivalent
of 200 each "one cash" coins.
Why so complicated? Why not just make the
denomination equivalent to 200 each of the common "one
The reason has to do with the concept of "token"
money. For example, government minted "10 cash"
coins were only slightly larger and heavier than the
normal "one cash" coins. This meant that one "10
cash" coin did not have the equivalent metal (bronze
or copper) and, therefore, the same intrinsic value of
10 each cash coins.
Similarly, this bamboo token has a stated value of 200
cash coins. However, if redeemed by the issuer,
a person would receive 20 each of the "10 cash" coins
instead of 200 each of the normal "1 cash"
coins. The value, in terms of weight of bronze
or copper, would be less.
In this way, the issuer of the tally would make a
profit since the issued value was more than the
promised redeemed value. Chinese central
authorities found it profitable throughout history to
issue coins of large denominations but less intrinsic
value. During times when the central government
was losing authority and there was a shortage of
smaller denomination coins, such as during the
collapse of the Qing Dynasty, private companies and
local authorities took advantage of the situation to
issue this type of token currency.
Also, in general, these tallies would continue to
circulate in their local areas as currency and were
not turned in to be "redeemed" by the issuer as long
as the people maintained "trust" that the token had
"value" or "worth". This meant that the profit
was kept by the issuer.
At the very bottom of the tally are the two Chinese
characters xin hao
(信号) which translates as "warranty mark" which implies
that the bearer of the token can trust that the tally
issued by this company is worth the stated value.
At the far left is the reverse side of this bamboo tally
Above the round hole are the
Chinese characters yi
wei (乙未). This is the year the token was
issued according an ancient Chinese calendar system which
dates back to the time of the oracle bones (circa 1350 BC)
of the Shang Dynasty (16th century BC -
11th century BC). The years are indicated
by pairing one of the ten Heavenly Stems with one of the
twelve Earthly Branches (animals of the Chinese
Zodiac). The cycle repeats itself every 60 years.
In this case, the characters (yi wei 乙未) indicate
that the token was issued in the year 1895 during the
reign of Emperor De Zong (1875-1908) who adopted the
period title of Guang Xu.
Below the hole is handwritten in black ink in very nice
calligraphy the serial number of the token. Tokens
were issued in a certain quantity with each having its own
serial number. It is believed that this particular
series of bamboo tokens was issued in a quantity of 10,000
pieces although this has not been confirmed.
The serial number on this token is 5,119.
At the bottom of the token is written guang shan zhuang
(光山庄) which is the name of the company that issued the
The image in the middle is the left side of the token.
Written by hand is shi
qu by bu (失去不补) which is a warning that
translates as "not compensated if lost" or "if lost no
refund". The character 补 (bu) is written here
in the abbreviated form 卜 (bu).
The third image is the right side of the tally and has two
Chinese characters, or parts of Chinese characters,
written against a black background. Unfortunately, I
am not clear as to their meaning but they appear to be a
seal mark. If this is a seal mark, then this tally
when placed together with the matching tally would reveal
the full Chinese characters.
There is some controversy regarding the meaning of the
paint which is commonly found at the top of these
tallies. Some believe that red or yellow paint may
mean that the token has been canceled.
This bamboo token has a length of 92 mm, a width of 12 mm
and a thickness of 5.5 mm. The weight is 4 grams.
This is another
bamboo tally issued by the same company.
At the far left is the obverse side.
The first two small Chinese characters are written
horizontally and are the same as on the tally above.
They read shi
wen (十文) which means "10 cash coin" or "value 10
Beneath this and written vertically is chuan qian yi qian wen
(串钱壹仟文) which translates as "a string of 1000 cash coins".
As is the case with the bamboo tally discussed above, the
meaning is that this bamboo tally token is
worth the equivalent of 1,000 "cash coins" but that, if
redeemed, would be paid with "10 cash" coins. The
token is therefore worth 100 each "10 cash coins" which
would be the equivalent of 1,000 each "one cash" coins.
At the bottom of the tally are the Chinese characters xin hao (信号) meaning
"warranty mark" and indicating that the tally can be
trusted to be worth its stated value.
The middle image is the reverse side of the token.
Written at the very top and above the round hole are the
Chinese characters wu
chen (戊辰) which, according to the "stem-branch"
60-year cycle mentioned above, indicates that the tally
was produced in the year 1928.
In the middle area of the tally is the serial number
07519. By this time, the serial numbers were printed
in Arabic numerals as opposed to being handwritten in
Chinese characters as is the case with the tally discussed
Just like the above tally, the name of the issuing company
guang shan zhuang
(光山庄) is written at the very bottom.
The image at the far right is the left side of this bamboo
tally. Written vertically by hand is chang men nei li shui guan
qiao dong xia tang da jie shen xiang tai zhi
(阊门内里水关桥东下塘大街沈祥泰制). This is the name (Shen Xiang
Tai) and address of the company that actually manufactured
the bamboo tally for Guang Shan Zhuang, the company that
issued the tally. The address translates as:
Inside the Changmen Gate, east of the Lishuiguan Bridge,
on Xiatang Street.
Changmen Gate is located in the ancient city of Suzhou
which is famous for its classical gardens. During
the late Qing Dynasty, this area of the city was also
known for its wood and bamboo handicrafts.
The right side of this bamboo tally has no inscription and
is not displayed.
This bamboo tally token has a length of 129 mm, a width of
15 mm and a thickness of 6 mm. The weight is 7.6
This bamboo tally is very interesting
for a number of reasons.
The image at the far left has the inscription at the top
written in seal script as yong yu he ji (永裕和记) which translates as
"seal of the Yongyuhe Company".
At the very bottom is written the denomination of this
token. The top right character is di (底) meaning "to
pay the sum of".
The character at the upper left is a "rod numeral". Rod numbers are
based on a very ancient Chinese counting system that used
rods or small bars in different positions to indicate
numbers. In this case, the vertical line with two
horizontal lines perpendicular to it represents the number
The rest of this inscription reads tong yuan yi qian wen
(铜元壹仟文) which means "1000 wen in tong yuan coins.
Beginning in the year
1900, the tong yuan (铜元), also known as tong ban (铜版),
copper coin began to replace the Chinese cash coins,
the ones with the square hole in the middle, that had been
used for about 2,000 years. Tong yuan coins were
made by machines and not cast as were the old cash
coins. Also, each tong
yuan coin was worth the equivalent of 10 cash
An example of a typical Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty tong yuan coin is
Therefore, the complete meaning of the inscription is "the
sum of 1,000 wen
will be paid with tong
yuan coins (valued at 10 wen each) less a commission of 7 tong
Unlike the bamboo tallies displayed above, this tally does
not have a date. However, the tong yuan coins first
appeared in 1900 and continued to be minted into the
1920's so this tally would have been created sometime
during this time period.
There are three Chinese characters written in the middle
of the tally which are difficult to identify. This
is the area which frequently has a "serial number".
The second character appears to be chang (长) which can
mean grow, old, etc. The third character appears to
be xian (仙)
which means "immortal". The meaning of this
combination of characters will require additional
The reverse side of the tally is most distinctive because
it displays a picture of Cai Shen (财神), the "God of Wealth".
is shown holding a scroll with the inscription jiang ji (姜记) which
means "the seal of Jiang".
Jiang (姜) is a family surname in
China. The reference is unclear but Jiang may refer
to the owner of the company.
The inscription at the
very top reads hai yi
gao jia (海邑高家) which was where the company was
located. Haiyi (海邑) was a
city or district in Shandong Province and may have been
the city of Haiyang. Gaojia (高 家)
would have been a small area or part of Haiyi.
The inscription at the very bottom of the bamboo tally is
yong yu he ji
("seal of the Yongyuhe Company"), the same as that written
at the top on the other side of the tally. In this
case, however, the characters are written in regular
script instead of seal script.
Besides the image of the "God of Wealth", bamboo tallies
from the Shandong area can be identified by the
distinctive notches at their top which are different from
those found on the Suzhou bamboo tallies as shown
above. Even though the bamboo tallies from the two
areas have their own local characteristics, it is believed
that the Shandong tallies were actually made in Suzhou and
then shipped north for use in Shandong.
There is one final difference between this tally and the
ones illustrated above from Suzhou. This tally has
no inscriptions written on the sides.
This bamboo tally has a length of 131 mm, a width of 18 mm
and a thickness of 6 mm. The weight is 8.1 grams.