The bamboo from which the tallies
were made came from the Zhejiang (浙江) and Anwei
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 hole.
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
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)
compensated if lost" in order to enhance the authority and to
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
At the left is a very nice example of a bamboo tally.
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
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
Why so complicated? Why not just make the denomination equivalent
to 200 each of the common "one cash" coins?
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
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
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
At the far left is the reverse side of this bamboo tally token.
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
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
zhuang (光山庄) which is the name of the company that issued
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 cash coin".
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
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
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
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 above.
Just like the above tally, the name of the issuing company guang shan zhuang (光山庄)
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
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 grams.
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
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 "seven".
The rest of this inscription reads tong
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
cash coins, the ones with the square hole in the middle, that had
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 coins.
An example of a typical Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty tong yuan coin is shown here:
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 yuan coins".
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)
means "immortal". The meaning of this combination of
characters will require additional research.
The reverse side of the tally is most distinctive because it displays a
picture of Cai Shen (财神), the
"God of Wealth".
Caishen is shown holding a scroll with the
inscription jiang ji (姜记)
which means "the seal of 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
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
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
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
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.