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Song Dynasty Coin Moulds Found in Salt Lake

Two enthusiasts of the “salt lake culture” were taking pictures of birds at the Yuncheng “salt lake” (运城盐池) when they accidentally discovered a number of clay moulds (模具) used to cast iron coins (铁钱) during the Northern Song dynasty (北宋 960-1127), according to an article published June 16, 2015 by the Yuncheng News Network (运城新闻网).

Yuncheng (运城) is located in north China’s Shanxi Province (山西) and its large salt lake (盐湖) is known as “China’s Dead Sea” (中国死海).

Because of its huge quantities of salt, the salt lake has historically been a valuable resource.  Beginning in the Tang Dynasty (唐朝 618-907), a “Forbidden Wall” (禁墙) was built around the lake to protect this important source of tax revenue and to prevent stealing and smuggling.

While the wall no longer exists, it is fortunate that a few old and rare photographs have survived which show the wall’s gates.

This photograph, which is in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution (史密森学会), shows one of the wall’s gates seen by the Robert Sterling Clark expedition in 1908-1909.  Also, the undated photograph in this article shows the wall’s middle gate (中禁门).

Two bird photographers at the Yuncheng salt lake discover more than 500 clay moulds used to cast iron coins during the Song Dynasty

Two bird photographers at the Yuncheng salt lake discover more than 500 clay moulds used to cast iron coins during the Song Dynasty

The image above shows Mr. Jing Xiaoxiong (景晓雄) and Mr. Zhang Xiaobie (张小别) who are credited with discovering the coin moulds at the Yuncheng salt lake.

They recovered more than 500 moulds although many are in poor condition.

Inscriptions on the coin moulds include chong ning tong bao (崇宁通宝), zheng he tong bao (政和通宝) and zheng he zhong bao (政和重宝) written in seal script (篆体), as well as da guan tong bao (大观通宝) and yuan feng tong bao (元丰通宝).

Clay mould used to cast "chong ning tong bao" iron coins during the Song Dynasty

Clay mould used to cast “chong ning tong bao” iron coins during the Song Dynasty

As can be clearly seen in the above image, the inscription is chong ning tong bao (崇宁通宝) which indicates that this mould was used to cast iron coins during the years 1102-1106 of the reign of Emperor Huizong (宋徽宗) of the Northern Song dynasty.

The beautiful calligraphy used for this coin is known as “Slender Gold” script (瘦金书) and was done by Emperor Huizong himself.

Examples of moulds used to cast Northern Song iron coins discovered at Yuncheng's salt lake

Examples of moulds used to cast Northern Song iron coins discovered at Yuncheng’s salt lake

The image above displays 26 of the coin moulds.

The inscriptions are still very distinct.

Several of the better preserved clay coin moulds

Several of the better preserved clay coin moulds

The inscriptions on the clay moulds in the image above are identified in the article as “chong ning tong bao (崇宁通宝), zheng he zhong bao (政和重宝),   zheng he tong bao (政和通宝), and yuan feng tong bao (元丰通宝)”.

However, the inscription on the mould at the far right appears to me to be da guan tong bao (大观通宝).

The discovery of the coin moulds is actually quite puzzling.

Yuncheng was known as Hedong (河东) in ancient times.  According to historical documents, Hedong did not have a mint during the Song dynasty.  Furthermore, no ruins of any mint have ever been discovered in the area.

The discovery of the clay moulds will encourage further study of Song dynasty ruins in the Yuncheng area in the search for an ancient coin mint.

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Villagers Dig for Coins in Grand Canal

Villagers in Linqing (临清), Shandong Province (山动省) dig for old coins in China’s ancient Grand Canal (大运河) when the water level is low, according to an article published July 2, 2015 by linqing zaixian (临清在线).

The Grand Canal is the longest canal in the world.  Construction began in the 5th century BC.  The canal runs from Beijing (北京) to Hangzhou (杭州) and links the Yellow River (Huang He 黄河) and the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang 长江).

The Grand Canal beneath the Linqing Bridge. Villagers can be seen digging for coins at the lower left.

The Grand Canal beneath the Linqing Bridge. Villagers can be seen digging for coins at the lower left.

Linqing is located about 380 km (240 mi) south of Beijing where the Wei River (卫河) meets the Grand Canal.

During the Ming (明朝 1368-1644) and Qing (清朝 1644-1912) dynasties, Linqing was an important trading center for textiles and grains.  It was also famous for its brickyards which produced bricks that were used to build palaces and tombs in the capital.

Linqing’s nightlife was immortalized in the famous Ming dynasty sexually graphic novel Jin Ping Mei (金瓶梅), known in the West as The Plum in the Golden Vase or The Golden Lotus:

《金瓶梅》书中所写临清是个热闹大码头去处,“有三十二条花柳巷,七十二座管弦楼”.

Linqing is a place having large and bustling docks with “thirty-two ‘Flower and Willow’ lanes and seventy-two ‘Wind and String’ houses”.

“Flower and Willow” refers to a red-light district (花街柳巷) and “Wind and String” (musical instruments) refers to sing song houses.

Villagers digging for buried coins

Villagers digging for buried coins

The months of June and July are traditionally the dry period along the Wei River.  Whenever the water level is low, the villagers take the opportunity to dig for ancient coins on the river bottom.

At the left, villagers can be seen digging for the buried “treasure”.  The villager in the red shirt can even be spotted in the image of the bridge above.

The coins recovered are usually from the Ming or Qing dynasties but much older coins are also found.

Qing Dynasty coins dug up in Grand Canal

Qing Dynasty coins dug up in Grand Canal

Shown at the left are the Qing dynasty coins a villager found after only a few minutes of digging.

Even though the coins have been buried for hundreds of years and show surface corrosion, the coin inscriptions can still be easily read.

The inscription on the coin at the top is qian long tong bao (乾隆通宝) which means the coin was cast during the years 1736-1795 of the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (乾隆帝).

The Grand Canal in Suzhou during the Qing dynasty

The Grand Canal in Suzhou during the Qing dynasty

The photograph above shows the Grand Canal as it existed in Suzhou (苏州) during the Qing dynasty.

Boat trackers towing a boat on the Grand Canal during the Qing Dynasty

Boat trackers towing a boat on the Grand Canal during the Qing Dynasty

When conditions permitted, the boats relied on wind power to move along the canal.

Otherwise, the boats were pulled on ropes by teams of men known as “boat trackers” (纤夫), as can be seen in this Qing dynasty photograph.

Since there usually was no tow-path on the shore, trackers frequently waded through chest deep water in the canal.

The boats and barges had flat bottoms.  In bad weather conditions, winds could cause them to overturn and lose their cargoes.

After having been buried for several centuries, some of those cargoes have been recovered and are displayed in the the China Great Canal Museum (中国京杭大运河博物馆) located in Hangzhou (杭州).

Among the coins on display are wu zhu (隋五珠) coins dating from the time of the Sui dynasty (隋朝 581-618) when the various sections of the canal were finally combined.

Some of more than 40,000 Tang dynasty "kai yuan tong bao" coins excavated from the Grand Canal in 2004

Some of more than 40,000 Tang dynasty “kai yuan tong bao” coins excavated from the Grand Canal in 2004

At the left is a small portion of the more than 40,000 Tang dynasty (唐朝 618-907) kai yuan tong bao (开元通宝) coins that are on display at the museum.

These coins were unearthed in 2004 from the Grand Canal in an area near the Da Guan Bridge (大关桥) in Hangzhou.

Close-up of "kai yuan tong bao" coins dug up from the Grand Canal in 2004

Close-up of “kai yuan tong bao” coins dug up from the Grand Canal in 2004

A more detailed view of some of the coins is shown here.

As can be seen, the coins are very well preserved despite having been buried for more than 1,300 years.

Large quantities of ancient coins from other dynasties have also been recovered.

Song dynasty coins recovered from the Grand Canal on display at the Zhongce Accounting Museum in Hangzhou

Song dynasty coins recovered from the Grand Canal on display at the Zhongce Accounting Museum in Hangzhou

At the left are some of the Song dynasty (宋朝 960-1279) coins that have been unearthed from the canal.

These coins are on display at the Zhongce Accounting Museum (中策财会博物馆) in Hangzhou.

Like the Great Wall (万里长城), the Grand Canal was one of the monumental engineering projects of ancient China, and to this day continues to reveal its history through discoveries of long buried treasures.

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Chinese Charm with Musicians, Dancers and Acrobats

This is a rare and exquisitely made charm.  However, there is no Chinese inscription and collectors are still uncertain as to its theme.

The charm, which first appeared during the Liao (辽朝 907-1125) or Song (宋朝 960-1279) dynasties, is believed to depict huren playing musical instruments, dancing, and doing acrobatics (胡人乐舞杂伎).

Hu (胡) means “beard” so the term huren (胡人) means “bearded people”.  Huren referred to foreigners from north, west and central Asia who wore thick beards.  In ancient times, the term huren translated as “barbarian” because the Chinese believed the huren were “uncivilized” in comparison to the Han Chinese (汉族) and their great culture.

Nevertheless, these “barbarians” would eventually rule China during the Tartar dynasties.  The Liao dynasty (907-1125) was ruled by the Qidan (Khitan 契丹族), the Jin dynasty (金朝 1115-1234) was ruled by the Nuzhen (Jurchen 女真族), and the Western Xia (Xi Xia 西夏 1032-1227) was ruled by the Tangut (西藏人).

Charm depicting three dancing musicians and an acrobat

Charm depicting three dancing musicians and an acrobat

As seen at the left, the charm displays four individuals.  Three are playing musical instruments while the fourth (bottom) is doing a handstand or similar acrobatic stunt.

Even though the figures are referred to as huren in numismatic catalogs, none appear to have beards.

The four figures are remarkably lively.  They can easily be compared to the famous Eastern Han (东汉朝 25-220) tomb sculpture of a storyteller dancing and beating his drum.

Huren were noted for their musical and dancing prowess.  Poets at the time described their energetic dances as “barbarian leaps” (胡腾舞).

Tang Dynasty tomb painting of Huren dancing and playing musical instruments

Tang Dynasty tomb painting of Huren dancing and playing musical instruments

At the left is a wall painting from a Tang dynasty (唐朝 618-907) tomb that was excavated in Loyang (洛阳), Henan province (河南省).

The painting depicts a similar scene of beardless huren from central Asia being proficient in music and dance.

Huren playing a string instrument

Huren playing a string instrument

As can be seen in the detail at the left, the musician above the square hole of the charm is playing a string instrument.

If you look closely, you can see that the instrument has four strings as confirmed by the four pegs near the end of the long neck.

(Based on his energetic dance moves, the musician might have been the Chuck Berry of his time.)

Ruan Xian playing the ruan

Ruan Xian playing the ruan

The four string instrument may be a ruan (阮).

The ruan was named after Ruan Xian (阮咸) who lived during the Six Dynasties (220-289).  The pipa (琵琶), or Chinese lute, evolved from this early string instrument.

The ruan was held horizontally and played with a plectrum (pick) in a manner similar to today’s guitar.

In the Tang and Song dynasties, however, musicians gradually began to hold the instrument vertically which is the way the pipa is played today.

Huren playing a flute

Huren playing a flute

The musician at the left of the square hole is dancing and playing a flute (dizi 笛子).

Flutes are among the world’s oldest musical instruments.

Chinese archaeologists have discovered flutes dating back more than 9,000 years.

A huren flutist can also be seen on this sculpture.

A Ming dynasty (明朝 1368-1644) porcelain  also displays a huren playing the flute.

Huren playing a wooden fish

Huren playing a wooden fish

The figure to the right of the square hole is holding a stick in his right hand and striking an object in his left hand.

He appears to be playing an ancient musical instrument known as a wooden fish (muyu 木鱼).

The wooden fish was widely used in rituals by Confucians, Buddhists and Daoists, and gradually became to be used by the common people as a musical instrument.

Huren doing a handstand

Huren doing a handstand

The figure at the bottom is performing a handstand or similar acrobatic stunt.

To the left is another musical instrument, or possibly a Chinese yo-yo (kongzhu 空竹).

Historical documents are unclear as to when the Chinese yo-yo, which evolved from the very ancient Chinese “gyro” (陀螺), actually appeared.  Some references mention the yo-yo appearing as early as the Three Kingdoms (三国 220-280) while others indicate a later date such as the Yuan (元朝 1271-1638) or Ming dynasties.

Four children playing and having fun

Four children playing and having fun

The reverse side of the charm is usually described as showing four “babies” playing and having fun (婴孩嬉戏玩耍).

It is not unusual for Liao dynasty charms to include children playing.

Also, the figure above the square hole is often shown riding a dragon.

The dragon-riding figure is the “mother” known as Xi Wangmu (西王母), the “Queen Mother of the West“, as can be seen in this Liao dynasty charm.

Regarding the charm shown here, however, the person at the top is not the Queen Mother of the West.  The figure resembles the other “babies” but, nevertheless, does appear to be riding something.

As mentioned above, this is a very rare charm.  It sold at auction in 2011 for about $46,280 (RMB 287,500).

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More than 12,000 iron coins dating from the Northern Song (北宋 959-1126) have been recovered from ruins located in Shanxi Province (山西省) following 20 months of excavation and research, according to a report by the Shanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology (山西省考古研究所) published January 26, 2015 by the Shanxi News Network (山西新闻网).

The archaeological site, situated on a high precipice, is located at Jiangzhou (绛州) which was the historical name of what is now Xinjiang County (新绛县).  China’s most famous percussion ensemble, the Jiangzhou Drum Troupe (绛州鼓乐), derives its name from this ancient prefecture.

The iron coins were severely corroded.  After treating the coins for rust, the archaeologists have determined that most of the coins are from the middle to late Northern Song Dynasty.

The coins are from six reign periods (nian hao 年号) as follows:

Of these six types of coins, the zheng he tong bao (政和通宝) were found in the largest number.

According to experts, China first began using coins made of iron at the beginning of the Western Han (西汉 206 BC – 9 AD).  During the years 1955-1959, iron “ban liang” (铁半两) coins dating to the Western Han were unearthed from tombs in Hengyang (衡阳) and Changsha (长沙), Hunan Province (湖南省).

The issuance of iron coins reached its peak during the Northern Song.

Rubbings of the Northern Song coins. The earthenware vessel that contained the coins.  A furnace and crucible unearthed at the ruins.

Rubbings of the Northern Song coins. The earthenware vessel that contained the coins. A furnace and crucible unearthed at the ruins.

The article includes an image (shown above) that displays rubbings of some of the coins.

From left to right, the rubbings (拓片) are:

  • xi ning tong bao (熙宁通宝) written in regular script (楷书)
  • yuan you tong bao (元祐通宝) written in seal script (篆书)
  • shao sheng yuan bao (绍圣元宝) written in seal script
  • shao sheng yuan bao (绍圣元宝) written in running script (行书)
  • chong ning tong bao (崇宁通宝) written in Slender Gold script (瘦金书)
  • da guan tong bao (大观通宝) written in Slender Gold script
  • zheng he tong bao (政和通宝) written in Li script (隶书)
  • zheng he tong bao (政和通宝) written in seal script

At the bottom left of the image is an earthenware vessel that contained some of the coins.

Besides the coin, several furnaces (炉灶) and crucibles (坩埚) were unearthed at the site.  One of the furnaces is shown at the bottom middle.  A crucible can be seen at the bottom right.

Whether or not the furnaces and crucibles are related to the large number of iron coins discovered is a question the archaeologists say will require further study.

Regarding major archaeological discoveries of huge quantities of Song Dynasty iron coins, please also see “Tons of Song Dynasty Iron Coins Discovered” and “Mystery Surrounding 100 Tons of Song Dynasty Iron Coins“.

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Legacy of an Untarnished Reputation

China has historically admired government officials who displayed the highest degree of learning and moral integrity in their work.

Chinese charm written in "tadpole script" honoring Yang Zhen, an official of the Eastern Han Dynasty

Chinese charm written in “tadpole script” honoring Yang Zhen, an official of the Eastern Han Dynasty

At the left is a charm which honors such an official.

The inscription, written in a particular style of seal script to be discussed later, reads qing bai chuan jia (清白传家) which translates as “pureness handed down in the family”.

This inscription refers to Yang Zhen (样震 ?-124 AD) who was a government official during the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD).

Reverse side of charm honoring Yang Zhen

Reverse side of charm honoring Yang Zhen

Yang Zhen was known for his erudition and impeccable moral character.

There is a famous story concerning Yang Zhen told in Chinese as follows:

当他前往郡里路过昌邑时,从前他推举的荆州茂才王密正任昌邑县长,去看望杨震,晚上又送给杨震金十斤。杨震说:“老朋友知道你,你为什么不知道老朋友呢?”王密说:“现在是深夜,没有人会知道。”杨震说:“天知、神知、我知、你知,怎么说没有人知道呢。”王密惭愧地离开.

Yang Zhen was appointed the prefecture governor of Jingzhou (荆州刺史).

On the way to Jingzhou, he passed through Changyi prefecture (昌邑县).

An old friend by the name of  Wang Mi (王密) came out late at night to meet him.

Yang Zhen refuses the gold

Yang Zhen refuses the gold

Yang Zhen had appointed Wang Mi as the Changyi prefecture head (昌邑县长).

Wang Mi wanted to thank his friend with a gift of ten catties (jin 斤) of gold.

Yang Zhen refused to accept the gold.

Yang Zhen said to Wang Mi, “This old friend knows you but why is it that you do not know your old friend?”

Wang Mi replied, “It is now the middle of the night, no one will know”.

Yang Zhen replied, “Heaven knows, the spirits know, I know and you know.  How can you say that no one would know?”

Wang Mi departed feeling very ashamed.

Yang Zhen felt that an untarnished reputation would be the greatest legacy he could leave to his descendants.

This untarnished legacy has served as a rich inheritance for the Yang clan through the generations down to the present time.

In Chinese, the word “know” (zhi 知) is the same as the word “wisdom” (zhi 知).

The Hall of Four Wisdoms

The Hall of Four Wisdoms

The expression “Heaven knows, the spirits know, I know and you know” is known as the “Four Knows” or “Four Wisdoms” (si zhi 四知).

The Yang clan even today name their clan hall the “Hall of Four Wisdoms” (四知堂) as can seen in the image at the left.

Qing bai chuan jia charms have a very strong aesthetic appeal because the inscription is always written in a specific seal script style.

The calligraphy is known as “tadpole script” (ke dou wen 蝌蚪文 or ke dou shu 蝌蚪书).

Tadpole script

Tadpole script

Tadpole script, as you might guess, resembles tadpoles.  As can be seen here with the character bai (白) in the inscription, the top (head) of the character tends to be large.  The stroke then narrows so that the bottom (tail) of the character is very thin.

Tadpole script was developed after the Han dynasty (汉朝 206 BC – 220 AD).

At the time, the term “tadpole script” also referred to the script that had been used during the Zhou dynasty (周朝 c.1046 BC – 256 BC).

Tadpole script was short-lived, however, and by the time of the Tang dynasty (唐朝 618-907) was not frequently used.

These charms first appeared during the Song dynasty (宋朝 960-1279) and usually have a diameter of 62.5 mm, a thickness of 4 mm, and a weight of 62.9 grams.  The specimen shown above, however, is unusually large with a diameter of about 90 mm.

This Chinese charm, with the distinctive tadpole script, serves as a testament to the qualities the ancient Chinese admired in a government official.  Officials were expected to be well-versed in the classics and to display the highest moral character.

Please also see “Not Being Greedy is a Treasure” for a discussion of another charm with a similar theme.

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Vault Protector Coins

On special occasions in ancient times, Chinese mints would cast an unusually large, thick, heavy and well-made coin.

The coin was known as a “vault protector” (zhen ku qian 镇库钱).

The coin was not for circulation but occupied a special place at the treasury.

The treasury had a spirit hall where offerings could be made to various gods including the God of Wealth (财神).  The special coin would sometimes be hung with red silk and tassels above the incense table in the spirit hall.

The vault protector coin was believed to have charm-like powers that provided protection from disaster and evil while ensuring good fortune and wealth.

Vault protector coin "da tang zhen ku" of Southern Tang

Vault protector coin “da tang zhen ku” of Southern Tang

Shown at the left is the earliest vault protector coin know to exist, and also the most famous.

The inscription da tang zhen ku (大唐镇库) translates as “Vault Protector of the Tang Dynasty”.

The translation is a little misleading, however, because the coin was not produced during the great Tang Dynasty (618-907).

The coin is actually attributed to the short-lived Southern Tang (nan tang 南唐 937-976) which was one of the Ten Kingdoms that existed after the fall of the Tang.

The coin was cast during the baoda period  (保大 943-957) of the reign of Yuanzong (元宗), also known as Li Jing (李景 or 李璟), of the Southern Tang.

Yuan Zong cast large quantities of coins including kai yuan tong bao (开元通宝), tang guo tong bao (唐国通宝), bao da yuan bao (保大元宝) and da tang tong bao (大唐通宝).

In addition to the da tang tong bao (大唐通宝) coins, he also had cast this large vault protector coin with the inscription da tang zhen ku (大唐镇库).

The coin retains the characteristics of Southern Tang coins.

The diameter is 6 cm, the thickness is 0.6 cm, the diameter of the hole is 1.24 cm and the coin weighs 93.7 grams.

The coin was originally acquired in the early 20th century by Mr. Fang Yaoyu (方药雨), a well-known coin collector in Tianjin.  The coin was later owned by Mr. Chen Rentao (陈仁涛).

Since the early 1950’s, this famous da tang zhen ku vault protector coin has been in the collection of the National Museum of China (中国国家博物馆).

It is the only authentic specimen known to exist.

Qing Dynasty vault protector on display at the Leizhou City Museum

Qing Dynasty vault protector on display at the Leizhou City Museum

At the left is a vault protector coin dating from the Qing dynasty on display at the Leizhou City Museum (雷州市博物馆).

Leizhou City (雷州市) is located in Guangdong province (广东省).

The obverse side (not shown) of the coin has the inscription xian feng tong bao (咸丰通宝) which means the coin was cast during the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor (咸丰帝), 1850-1861.

The inscription on the reverse side, seen above, is da qing zhen ku (大清镇库) which means “Vault Protector of the Qing Dynasty”.

According to this article, there were a total of five of these special vault protector coins cast.  In the early years of the Republic (1912-1949), a eunuch stole the coins.  Three of the coins were sold to an Englishman for “a large amount of money”.  One of the remaining coins is at the Leizhou City Museum and the other is at The Palace Museum (故宫博物院) in Beijing.

The coin has a diameter of 14 cm.  The square hole is 2.5 cm.  The coin weighs 1050 grams.

Vault protector coin cast at the Board of Works during the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor of the Qing Dynasty

Vault protector coin cast at the Board of Works during the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor of the Qing Dynasty

Shown at the left is another vault protector coin from the Qing Dynasty.

The inscription reads bao yuan ju zao (宝源局造) which means “made by the Board of Works”.

The reverse side has the Chinese inscription zhen ku (镇库) which means “vault protector”.

According to Mr. Ma Dingxiang (马定祥), one of the most famous Chinese numismatists of the 20th century, this vault protector is consistent with the style of coins cast during the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor.

Reverse side of vault protector coin cast during the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor

Reverse side of vault protector coin cast during the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor

This very large coin has a diameter of 11.52 cm and weighs 837.3 grams.  The center hole is 1.8 cm.

According to “Coins in China’s History” published in 1936 by Arthur B. Coole (邱文明), only 4 or 5 of these vault protector coins from the Board of Works (宝源局) exist.  Mr. Ma Dingxiang states in his book on the coins of Xianfeng (咸丰泉汇), that there exists just one specimen of a companion vault protector coin that was cast at the same time at the Board of Revenue (宝泉局).

This coin sold at auction in 2013 for $408,279 (RMB 2,530,000) which, at the time, broke the record for the most ever paid for a Qing dynasty coin.

In 1861 during the last days of his life, the Xianfeng emperor made arrangements for his son, Zaiqun, to succeed him as emperor.

Rare Qixiang vault protector coin

Rare Qixiang vault protector coin

The new emperor was to take the reign title of Qixiang (祺祥).

With the passing of Xianfeng, however, a coup took place resulting in a change of the reign title.  The new reign title was to be Tongzhi (同治).

For a period of about one month, however, the mints produced coins with the inscription Qixiang.  Authentic Qixiang coins are scarce because they were only cast for a very short period of time.

Displayed above is a rare Qixiang vault protector coin.

The inscription reads qi xiang zhong bao (祺祥重宝).

Reverse side of Qixiang vault protector

Reverse side of Qixiang vault protector

The inscription on the reverse side is da qing zhen ku (大请镇库) which translates as “Vault Protector of the Qing Dynasty”.

This coin is 10.1 cm in diameter and has a thickness of 0.47 cm.

The coin does not indicate the mint that produced it.

This very large and rare Qixiang vault protector coin sold at auction in 2013 for $745,755 (HK$5,750,000).

Qing dynasty "guangxu tong bao" vault protector coin

Qing dynasty “guangxu tong bao” vault protector coin

Another vault protector coin from the Qing dynasty is shown at the left.

The inscription reads guang xu tong bao (光绪通宝).

The coin was cast as a vault protector during the reign of the Guangxu Emperor (光绪帝) 1875-1908.

The coin is very well cast and the bronze is exquisite.

Reverse side of Qing dynasty vault protector coin

Reverse side of Qing dynasty vault protector coin

The reverse side, shown at the left, has the inscription bao yuan (宝源) meaning it was cast at the Board of Works in Beijing.

The diameter is 6.2 cm.

The thickness is a remarkable 1 cm.

This coin sold at auction in 2010 for $51,485  (RMB 319,200).

Taiping Rebellion "Taiping Tian Guo" vault protector coin

Taiping Rebellion “Taiping Tian Guo” vault protector coin

According to Mr. Ma Dingxiang (马定祥), this is a vault protector coin cast during the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864).

The inscription on the obverse reads tai ping tian guo (太平天国) which translates as the “Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace”.

The coin has a diameter of 7.6 cm.

Reverse side of Taiping Rebellion vault protector coin

Reverse side of Taiping Rebellion vault protector coin

The reverse side of the coin has the inscription sheng bao (圣宝) which translates as “Sacred Currency”.

Mr. Ma discusses the coin in his book “Coins of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom” (太平天国钱币).

These large, well-crafted vault protector coins were produced during the later period of the Taiping Rebellion in Hunan, Suzhou and Hangzhou.

This specimen was in the collection of Mr. Ma and sold at auction in 2011 for $111,286 (RMB 690,000).

There are only five or six of these coins known to exist and they all display very slight differences.

Taiping Heavenly Kingdom vault protector coin at Taiping Heavenly Kingdom History Museum

Taiping Heavenly Kingdom vault protector coin at Taiping Heavenly Kingdom History Museum

Another specimen of a Taiping Heavenly Kingdom vault protector coin (太平天国镇库钱) is shown at the left.

The coin is in the collection of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom History Museum (太平天国厉史博物馆) in Nanjing.

The description in the exhibit reads “A Taiping Sample Coin Permanently Placed in the Heavenly Treasury as a Symbol of Wealth”.

It can be clearly seen in this image just how thick these vault protector coins really are.

There is some speculation that a very large and heavy banliang coin (半两) made of silver was cast by the State of Qin (秦) in 336 BC to serve as a vault protector.  Please see “State of Qin Silver Banliang Coin” for a detailed discussion.

Because vault protector coins are so rare, there is no shortage of fakes appearing on the market.  In doing research for this article, I found several coins described as vault protectors which I found questionable.  Collectors of these special coins therefore need to be especially careful.

China nowadays issues on a regular basis a large variety of special commemorative coins made of precious metals such as gold or silver.  These coins are not meant for circulation.  They are popular as collectables and investments.

Some of these modern coins are modeled after the vault protector coins of ancient times.

In 1998, a gold coin modeled after the “Vault Protector of the Tang Dynasty” discussed above was issued.  A gold version of the Emperor Xianfeng vault protector discussed above was minted in 1990.  Finally, a gold coin based on a different Emperor Xianfeng vault protector was produced in 1982.

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Two Rare Coins Discovered in Ningxia

Two rare ancient Chinese coins were recently discovered in northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (宁夏回族自治区) according to an official government website.

According to an article on the Pengyang County (彭阳县) website published May 11, 2015, one coin is from the Western Xia (西夏 ) and the other coin is from the Northern Song dynasty.

Mr. Qi Yuezhang (祁悦章) with the Pengyang County Office of Chronicles Compilation (彭阳县史志办公室) is the author of the article.  Based on his more than 10 years experience in cultural relics, he states that the coins are authentic.

The coins were obtained by a local Pengyang County coin collector from a Mr. Hu (虎姓) who lives in Mengyuan Village (孟塬乡).

Rare "Da An Bao Qian" coin from the Western Xia

Rare “Da An Bao Qian” coin from the Western Xia

Shown at the left is a rare coin minted during the Western Xia (xi xia 西夏 1038-1227).

The inscription is written in Tangut (xi xia wen 西夏文) which was the script used by the Tangut people who ruled during the Western Xia.

The inscription (Chinese translation) reads da an bao qian (大安宝钱) and the coin was cast during the years 1075-1085 of the reign (1068-1086) of Emperor Hui Zong (惠宗, 李秉常).

Unfortunately, the images of the coins published with the article are small.  However, the coin appears to be the “slanted character” variety (斜字版).

This bronze coin has a blank reverse side and a diameter of 2.4 cm.

Rare variety of "Chun Hua Yuan Bao" coin from the Northern Song Dynasty

Rare variety of “Chun Hua Yuan Bao” coin from the Northern Song Dynasty

The second rare bronze coin, shown at the left, was cast during the years 990-994 of the reign of Emperor Tai Zong (太宗, 赵光义 976-997) of the Northern Song dynasty (959-1126).

The inscription is written in regular script (kai shu 楷书) and reads chun hua yuan bao (淳化元宝).

Chun hua yuan bao coins written in regular script are actually very common.

However, this particular coin is a very rare variety.

The radical (shui 氵), which resembles three vertical dots and is on the left side of the first character chun (淳) at the top of the coin, is “shortened” and does not extend all the way to the bottom of the character.

"Chun" character on common "Chun Hua Yuan Bao" coin

“Chun” character on common “Chun Hua Yuan Bao” coin

This may be easily seen by comparing the coin’s chun (淳) character with that of a “common” variety of chun hua yuan bao coin as displayed in the image at the left.

The coin is thus known to Chinese numismatists as the “shortened shui” or “shrunken shui” variety (suo shui ban 缩水版) and very few authentic specimens are known to exist.

According to legend, Emperor Tai Zong personally did the calligraphy for the chun hua yuan bao coin inscription.  For this reason, the coin is known as “royally inscribed currency” (yu shu qian 御书钱).

Pengyang County is located in the territory once ruled by the Western Xia and large quantities of both Western Xia and Song dynasty coins have been excavated in the area.

Not surprisingly, more than half of the ancient coins in the collection of the Pengyang County Office of Cultural Relics (彭阳县文物馆) date from the Western Xia and Song dynasty.

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Chinese “Laid to Rest” Burial Charm

There is a certain Chinese bronze “coin” that is not included in Chinese coin catalogues.

It is sometimes referred to as a “charm” but is not included in Chinese charm catalogues either.

It seems that no one wants to have this coin in their collection.

Chinese "laid to rest" burial charm

Chinese “laid to rest” burial charm

At the left is an example of the “coin”.

The inscription reads ru tu wei an (入土为安) which means “to be laid to rest” or “burial brings peace”.

The coin was not minted to circulate as money but was privately cast as a funerary object.  It was buried  with the corpse with the hope that the deceased will rest in peace and that the living relatives will have peace of mind.

The coin has a diameter of 2.45 cm and a thickness of 0.13 cm.

Because these coins are not included in catalogues or other Chinese coin references, it is difficult finding authoritative information.

However, an article published in the Xinmin Evening News (新民晚报) in 2007 provides some insight.

The article states that several of these coins were discovered in a grave dating to the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

The article also emphasizes the importance the ancient Chinese placed on proper burial of the dead and that coins with the inscription ru tu wei an were placed in graves as a matter of course.

Reverse side of "laid to rest" funerary charm

Reverse side of “laid to rest” funerary charm

The coins discovered in the grave had a diameter of 2.4 cm, a thickness of 0.14 cm and a weight of 3.8 grams.

The coins also had a broad rim of 0.3 cm and a fairly small square hole with a diameter of 0.6 cm.

The reverse sides of the coins were blank with no inscription.

Other specimens of this funerary coin may be seen here and here.

In years past, there was some controversy regarding the age of these coins.

The controversy centered on how the Chinese character wei (为) is written in the inscription.

On the coin, the wei is written in simplified Chinese (为) instead of traditional Chinese (為).  The argument was that because simplified Chinese did not exist prior to its adoption in 1956, these coins could not date from the Qing Dynasty or earlier.

Research has shown, however, that variant forms of the character wei, including 为, existed at least from the time of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) so the controversy has been put to rest.

A different specimen is particularly interesting.  According to the description, the coin was found in a hoard of coins from the Northern Song dynasty (959-1126).

If the account is true, this burial coin would be considerably older than those from the Qing dynasty.

Comments to Chinese coin forums clearly demonstrate the prevailing attitude towards these funerary coins.

Forum members describe the coins as “really scary” and “horrifying”.  Many members state that they would not buy or own such a coin.

One forum member mentioned that because these coins were “put into the mouth of the deceased” during burial, they should be “thrown away because they are unlucky”.

In China today, the tradition of burying the dead has changed.  Cemeteries require a great deal of land and with China’s immense population, burials are no longer allowed.  Cremation is the law of the land although enforcement, particularly in rural areas, can be lax.

But traditions die hard and before the law came into effect some elderly people actually committed suicide to ensure that they would receive a proper burial.

Even now, some Chinese have a coin placed in their mouth upon death.  After cremation, the remains are interred and the coin is given to the family.

For a related article concerning money buried with the dead, please see Chinese Burial Money.

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Kingdom of Chu “Tian Ce Fu Bao” Gilt Bronze Coin

Among the rarest of ancient Chinese coins is the tian ce fu bao (天策府宝) coin which was minted by Ma Yin (马殷) of the Kingdom of Chu (楚 907-951) during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period.

Both bronze and iron specimens exist.

Very rare Tian Ce Fu Bao gilt bronze coin (National Museum of China)

Very rare Tian Ce Fu Bao gilt bronze coin (National Museum of China)

At the left is an example of a bronze tian ce fu bao.

This coin is particularly rare because it is gilded in gold (鎏金) and only a very few gilt bronze (铜质鎏金) tian ce fu bao coins have been discovered.

Ma Yin began minting these coins in the year 911 to commemorate his promotion to the rank of Supreme Commander of the Tiance Prefecture (天策上将军) as bestowed by Emperor Taizu of Later Liang (后梁太祖).

Both the bronze and iron coins have a nominal value of 10 which means they had a denomination equivalent to ten normal size bronze “cash” coins.

The inscription is read in a clockwise fashion (xuan du 旋读) beginning with the top character.

The characters are deeply cut in regular script (kai shu 楷书) and the coin is well-made.

This coin has a distinctive feature.  Regarding the tian (天) character at the top, the vertical line connecting the two horizontal strokes is very short.  Most of the other coins exhibit a slightly greater distance between the two horizontal strokes.  For this reason, the coin is known as the “short neck Tian” (短颈天) variety.

As mentioned above, this very rare coin has a gold coating although the reason why only a few specimens were treated in this manner is unknown.

Gilt tian ce fu bao coins tend to be slightly larger than the plain bronze coins and the iron coins.

This particular specimen has a diameter of 43 mm and weighs 36.6 grams.  The width of the square hole is 9.5 mm and the coin has a thickness of 5.5 mm.

The coin is in the collection of the National Museum of China (中国国家博物馆).  It was donated by Mr. Luo Bozhao (罗伯昭) who was one of the most respected Chinese numismatists of the 20th century.

Tian Ce Fu Bao gilt bronze coin (Shanghai Museum)

Tian Ce Fu Bao gilt bronze coin (Shanghai Museum)

The Shanghai Museum also has a gilt tian ce fu bao coin.

According to the Shanghai Museum website, this coin has a tian (天) character above the square hole on the reverse side.  The website, however, does not show an image of the reverse side of this coin.

I have learned that the Shanghai Museum actually has three of these very rare gold-gilt tian ce fu bao coins.

A Chinese reference book (中华珍泉追踪录) displays rubbings of both the obverse and reverse sides of these three coins.  The rubbings do not show a character on the reverse so I believe the Shanghai Museum website is in error.

Regarding the rarity of the coins, Baidu Baike (百度百科), the online encyclopedia of China’s major search engine, states that among the approximately 40 specimens of bronze tian ce fu bao coins known to exist, only 5 are gilded with gold.

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State of Qin Silver Banliang Coin

During the 1950’s, a number of banliang (半两) coins were unearthed at a site near Xian (西安).  Among the coins was one unusually large and very heavy banliang coin.

While banliang coins cast in Qin (秦) during the Warring States period typically have a diameter of 32 – 34 mm and weigh about 8 grams, this particular specimen is 66 mm in diameter, 7 mm thick, and weighs an astonishing 96.15 grams.

Even more remarkable is that the coin is made of silver instead of bronze.

Mr. Ma Dingxiang (马定祥), one of the most famous Chinese coin collectors of the 20th century, obtained the coin from a friend and fellow numismatist in Xian.  Other famous numismatists of the time, including Mr. Luo Bozhao (罗伯昭), Mr. Sun Ding (孙鼎) and Mr. Li Weixian (李伟先), had the opportunity to admire the coin.

This coin is the only known specimen of its type and it is said that Mr. Ma treasured it for the rest of his life.

The coin sold at auction in 2011 for the equivalent of $334,103 (RMB 2,070,000).

State of Qin silver banliang coin

State of Qin silver banliang coin

This very large banliang coin made of silver from the State of Qin (9th century BC – 221 BC) is shown at the left.

Although made of silver more than 2,000 years ago, the coin is not China’s earliest form of silver money.

In 1974, a farmer in Fugou County (扶沟县), Henan Province (河南省), unearthed a bronze three-legged tripod (鼎).  Stashed inside the tripod were 18 specimens of spade money.  One was a hollow-handled spade (空首布) while the remaining 17 were flat-handled spades (平首布).

All are made of silver and are now displayed at the Henan Museum.

According to an article in “China Numismatics” (1983年第3期), these spade money specimens were cast during the middle Spring and Autumn period (春秋时代) and are the earliest silver money ever unearthed in China.

Regarding the silver banliang coin, Mr. Guan Hanheng (关汉亨), a well-known Chinese numismatist and author of a book (半两货币图说) on banliang coins, has carefully examined the photographs and rubbings.  His findings are discussed below.

Reverse side of a unique silver banliang coin from the State of Qin

Reverse side of a unique silver banliang coin from the State of Qin

The coin clearly shows signs of having been buried for a long period of time.  The surface displays the oxidation that would be expected on a coin that had been buried for some 2,000 years.  There are small cracks on the reverse side.

Mr. Guan states that this appearance could not have been created artificially.

Even though banliang coins were also cast at the beginning of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), this silver coin matches those cast by Qin.

His reasoning is as follows.

First, coins were cast in two-piece moulds (钱范) in Qin and these moulds could produce 6 coins at a time.  The coins have only one sprue.

The casting of this silver coin is consistent with this method.  Its sprue (17 mm) is at the bottom which means that it would have been one of the two top coins in the mould.

Second, the shape and appearance of the coin is correct for coins cast in Qin during the Warring States period.  The center hole is rectangular, as opposed to the square holes of the Han Dynasty banliang coins, and the top and bottom horizontal lines have bent corners.

Also, the characters are written in small seal script (小篆) which was the calligraphy used on the coins of Qin.

The characters are vertically elongated and the top horizontal stroke of the liang (两) character is short.  As the script evolved further, the top horizontal line became longer as is seen in banliang coins from the Han Dynasty.

For the above reasons, Mr. Guan is convinced that the coin was minted by the State of Qin.

As to why such a large coin made of silver was cast, Mr. Guan considered several possibilities.

In 221 BC,  Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇帝) succeeded in uniting China for the first time in history.  Following the unification, he standardized the country’s units of measurement including weights and currency.

It is possible then that this unique silver banliang was cast to serve as an official “weight”.

According to the standard “weights and measures” (度量衡) of Qin, one liang (两) was equivalent to about 14.4 grams.  A “ban liang“, which means “half liang” or “half tael”, would therefore be about 7.2 grams.

Mr. Guan did a survey of Qin banliang coins excavated during the past 30 years.  The coins weighed 6.5 – 7.5 grams each.  This would be within the range of the standard weight of 7.2 grams per coin.

As mentioned earlier, this very large silver banliang weighs 96.15 grams.  Taking into consideration that the coin may have lost some weight due to wear and oxidation, its original weight could have been 100 grams or more.  This would have been the equivalent of 14 government minted coins of standard weight.

It is possible, therefore, that this silver banliang was cast to serve as an official weight to be used with a scale to confirm that 14 regular banliang coins met the required weight of about 100 grams (100/14 = 7.14).

And, an official coin weight like this could very well have been cast in silver to signify its importance.

However, Mr. Guan feels that the coin was more likely cast for a different reason.

As has been seen with the six character knives (六字刀) produced by the State of Chu (楚), money was sometimes cast to commemorate a special event.

According to Mr. Guan, there were two important events that took place in Qin that could have resulted in the issuance of a commemorative coin.

The first event occurred in 336 BC which was the second year of the reign of King Huiwen of Qin (秦惠文王).  This was the first year that banliang coins were produced (初行钱).

The second major event occurred in 221 BC when Emperor Qin Shi Huang unified China.  He abolished the use of the various forms of money that had been circulating in the other six states and decreed that the banliang would be the legal copper (bronze) currency of the country.

However, no historical records mention that Qin Shi Huang ordered the casting of a special commemorative coin to mark the occasion.

Also, it is considered significant that Mr. Ma Dingxiang during all the years he owned the coin never personally proposed that it may have been made cast for this purpose.

For this reason and others, Mr. Guan feels that this large silver banliang coin was most likely cast to commemorate the first issuance of banliang coins in 336 BC.

Throughout Chinese history, when a new imperial reign or dynasty was founded, or a new mint was established, a special coin would frequently be produced to mark the occasion.  The coin tended to be larger than normal, well-crafted and made of very good metal.

As an example, China’s biggest ancient coin was cast to commemorate the opening of a new mint during the Ming Dynasty.

A special coin produced for these occasions is also known as a “vault protector” (镇库钱).  The coin would not circulate as normal currency but was believed to have charm characteristics that would bring good fortune and avert calamity.

In conclusion, Mr. Guan feels that this very large and unique silver banliang coin served as a vault protector and was cast in 336 BC to commemorate the firing of the furnaces that began production of the first banliang coins of Qin.

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Tang and Song Dynasty Coins Dug Up in Yancheng

A large quantity of coins dating to the Tang and Song dynasties was recently unearthed by a large excavator removing silt from a river in Yancheng (盐城市), Jiangsu Province, according to media reports.

At approximately 10:00 AM on March 21, the excavator was dredging a small 6-meter wide river that runs through Longgang Town (龙冈镇) in Yancheng when it uncovered a pile of ancient Chinese cash coins that had been stored in a earthenware pot.

Villagers digging for buried coins

Villagers digging for buried coins

Word of the discovery quickly spread and, as can be seen in the image at the left, many of the local villagers hurried to the site to search for “treasure” buried in the mud.

It is estimated that the villagers recovered 200 – 300 catties (斤) equivalent to about 267 – 400 lbs (121 – 181 kgs) of coins before the authorities arrived on the scene to restore order and protect the “cultural relics” which, according to Chinese law, belong to the state.

Mr. Zhao Yongzheng (赵永正) of the Archaeology Department of the Yancheng Museum (盐城市博物馆考古部) rushed to the scene and provided information on the discovery.

A preliminary investigation, according to Mr. Zhao, identifies the coins as dating to the Tang and Song Dynasties.

Media reports mention that among the coins dug up were kai yuan tong bao (开元通宝) from the Tang dynasty as well as tai ping tong bao (太平通宝), zheng he tong bao (正和通宝), and xiang fu yuan bao (祥符元宝) from the Northern Song dynasty.

"Tai ping tong bao" coin dating from the Song Dynasty found by a Yancheng villager

“Tai ping tong bao” coin dating from the Song Dynasty found by a Yancheng villager

The image at the left shows one of the coins found by a villager.

The image is clear enough that the coin can be identified as a tai ping tong bao (太平通宝) which was cast during the years 976 – 989 of the reign of Emperor Taizong of the Northern Song Dynasty.

"Tian sheng yuan bao" coin from the Song Dynasty

“Tian sheng yuan bao” coin from the Song Dynasty

Another coin dug up by a villager can be seen in this image.

The coin is a tian sheng yuan bao (天圣元宝) written in seal script.

Coins with this inscription were cast during the years 1023 – 1031 of the reign of Emperor Renzong of the Northern Song Dynasty.

The newspaper articles contained the image of one additional Song Dynasty coin.

"Zheng he tong bao" coin from the Song Dynasty found by a villager

“Zheng he tong bao” coin from the Song Dynasty found by a villager

At the left is a zheng he tong bao (正和通宝) coin written in Li script.

This coin was cast during the years 1111 – 1117 of the reign of Emperor Huizong of the Northern Song.

Mr. Zhao stated that because the coins were mainly from the Tang and Northern Song dynasties, this coin cache was probably buried at the beginning of the Southern Song dynasty (1127 – 1279).

Several of the village elders were able to provide information in regard to the possible source of the coins.

In the distant past, a temple was situated on the site.  The temple was later destroyed but the coins may be linked to the ancient temple.

The village elders also recalled that old coins were discovered in about the same area in 2007.

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Chinese Burial Money

Beginning in very ancient times, the Chinese included money among the objects buried with the deceased.

This burial money was referred to as yi qian (瘗钱), meaning “buried money”, or ming qian (冥钱), meaning “dark money”.

The money was to be used by the deceased in the afterlife to make life more comfortable.  It was also offered as a “bribe” to Yan Wang (阎王 or yanluowang 阎罗王), the judge of the underworld, to encourage him to act quickly and favorably in regard to the spirit.

Ancient China had a number of interesting forms of money.

Cowrie shells (贝币) were one of the first forms of money that circulated extensively.

Graves evacuated from the Shang Dynasty (商朝 c. 1600 BC – 1046 BC) sometimes include thousands of cowrie shells.  As an example, the Tomb of Fu Hao  (妇好墓), dating from about 1200 BC, was found to contain 6,900 cowry shells.

Because the quantity of natural cowries were limited and could not meet the demand, bronze versions of the cowrie shell were cast and circulated as money.

During the Warring States period (战国时代 475 BC – 221 BC), other metal forms of money appeared.  These early “coins” took on various shapes and included spade (bubi 布币), knife (daobi 刀币), ring-shaped coin (huan qian 环钱), ant nose (yibiqian 蚁鼻钱) and banliang (“half-tael” 半两).

These forms of money were also buried as funerary objects.

Unfortunately, the custom of burying money in tombs attracted the attention of grave robbers who throughout the ages have dug up graves in order to steal buried money and other valuable artifacts.

Having the grave of a relative desecrated in such a manner was extremely unsettling to the living relatives.  The spirit of the deceased was disturbed and the money meant to ensure his comfort in the afterlife was gone.

To minimize the chances that a tomb would be disturbed, a change took place involving burial money.  Instead of real money, imitation money was sometimes used.

This imitation money resembled real money but instead of being made of bronze, silver or gold, it was made of hardened clay.

These imitation coins are known as “clay money” (ni qian 泥钱) or “earthenware money” (tao tu bi 陶土币).

According to “Han Material Culture” by Sophia-Karin Psarras, any representation of currency was acceptable as legal tender in the afterlife.  Therefore, surrogate forms of money made of clay could be used in lieu of real bronze, silver or gold money.

Since clay money had no value in the world of the living, it was believed that grave robbers would leave the deceased to rest in peace.

The use of surrogate currency was used by both the rich and poor alike since even families of modest means could afford to buy the imitation coins to bury with their relatives.

Clay cowrie shell money (泥贝币)

Clay cowrie shell money (泥贝币)

The wealthy who buried real money in tombs would often also include coins made of clay.

At the left can be seen cowries made of clay that were produced specifically to be buried in graves.

These particular specimens are unusually well-made.

Clay banliang (泥半两) coins excavated from a Han Dynasty tomb at Mawangdui

Clay banliang (泥半两) coins excavated from a Han Dynasty tomb at Mawangdui

The primary form of money that circulated during the Qin Dynasty (秦朝 221 BC – 206 BC), as well as the early Western Han Dynasty (西汉 206 BC – 24 AD), was the banliang (半两) coin made of bronze.

At the left are several clay banliang coins (泥半两) that were excavated from Tomb No.1 at Mawangdui and are seen here at an exhibit held at the Tianjin Museum.

Mawangdui (马王堆) is a major archaeological site located at Changsha (长沙), Hunan Province that includes three Western Han Dynasty tombs.

Tomb No. 1 is the resting place of Lady Dai (Xin Zhui 辛追).

Lady Dai’s tomb was one of China’s most important archaeological discoveries.  As an example, more than 100,000 clay banliang coins were recovered from her tomb.

Clay wuzhu coins (泥五铢) unearthed from a Han Dynasty grave

Clay wuzhu coins (泥五铢) unearthed from a Han Dynasty grave

Beginning in 118 BC of the Western Han Dynasty (西汉) and continuing for more than 700 years, the major form of currency was the bronze wuzhu (五铢) coin.

These coins are commonly referred to as “cash coins”.

Clay versions of wuzhu coins (泥五铢) also exist and are frequently found in Han Dynasty graves.

As an example, a Han Dynasty tomb located near Shanghai’s fu quan shan (福泉山) contained several hundred clay wuzhu coins.

Examples of clay wuzhu coins can be seen in the image above.

The wuzhu coin, which is round with a square hole in the center, had a special significance in reference to the afterlife.

For the deceased ascending to the heavens, the wuzhu coin served as a cosmic map of the universe reflecting the Chinese view that the earth is square and the heavens are round.

In addition, the “zhu” in wuzhu can refer to the trunk of the 300 li tall fusang (扶桑) tree which is an auspicious symbol that guides the dead on the journey to the heavens and immortality, according to Susan Erickson in her article “Money Trees of the Eastern Han Dynasty”.

(For more information about money trees discovered in Han Dynasty tombs please see “Chinese Money Trees“.)

The wuzhu coins played a more down-to-earth role as well.  The Chinese view of the afterlife gradually evolved so that the spirit world was seen to be similar to the earthly world.  The money in the tombs could therefore be used by the deceased to pay taxes to the otherworldly government.

Clay "daquan wushi" (泥大泉五十) coin

Clay “daquan wushi” (泥大泉五十) coin

Clay versions of coins from later dynasties have also been unearthed in tombs.

For example, a Han Dynasty tomb in Henan (南阳英庄) contained more than 20 specimens of the Xin Dynasty (9 – 23) da quan wu shi (大泉五十) coin.

At the left is an example of a clay da quan wu shi coin.

Clay "kaiyuan tongbao" (泥开元通宝) coin

Clay “kaiyuan tongbao” (泥开元通宝) coin

Also, clay versions of the Tang Dynasty (618-907)  kai yuan tong bao (开元通宝) coin have been unearthed in Tang and Song Dynasty tombs.

A clay specimen of a kai yuan tong bao (泥开元通宝) coin is shown at the left.

As an aside, during the Tang Dynasty there was an autonomous region in what is now Hebei that was under the control of a warlord named Liu Rengong (刘仁恭).  He minted clay coins and iron coins, and then forced the people to trade in their bronze coins for these coins.   This is a rare case where clay coins were officially minted for circulation and not for funeral use.  Unfortunately, no specimens of these clay coins are known to exist.

Clay burial coins which imitate Song and Jin dynasty coins discovered in a tomb in Shanxi Province.

Clay burial coins which imitate Song and Jin dynasty coins discovered in a tomb in Shanxi Province.

At the left are examples of clay coins discovered in a tomb located in Shanxi.  The tomb dates to the time of the Song (宋朝 960-1279) and Jin (金朝 1115-1234) dynasties.

The coin at the far right, for example, is a clay version of the chong ni zhong bao (崇宁重宝) coin written in Li script (“clerical script” 隶书) and minted during the years 1102-1106 of the reign of Emperor Huizong of the Northern Song Dynasty.

Clay burial coins from the Liao Dynasty

Clay burial coins from the Liao Dynasty

Shown at the left are rare examples of clay coins unearthed from Liao Dynasty ruins.

These clay coins have different inscriptions.

The inscription on the clay coin at the top left, for example, is tian chao wan shun (天朝万顺).  Authentic Liao coins with the inscription tian chao wan shun are extremely rare and even clay burial versions are not often seen.

Liao and Jin dynasty clay coins recovered from a Liao dynasty pagoda

Liao and Jin dynasty clay coins recovered from a Liao dynasty pagoda

Clay burial coins with inscriptions of other very rare Liao coins were also discovered in the foundation of a Liao Dynasty pagoda.

Examples of these coins can be seen at the left.

The clay Liao coins included bao ning tong bao (保宁通宝), seen at the top left, and da kang tong bao (大康通宝) , seen at the bottom left.

Also discovered were a clay version of the da ding tong bao (大定通宝) coin from the Jin Dynasty which is shown at the top right.

Clay burial coin from the Qing Dynasty

Clay burial coin from the Qing Dynasty

Clay coins for burial use were being “minted” even as late as the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

At the left is a clay version of a qian long tong bao (乾隆通宝) coin.

Coins with this inscription were cast during the years 1736-1795 of the reign of the Qianlong Emperor.

In addition to “low currency” (下币) money consisting of bronze coins such as the banliang and wuzhu coins that commonly circulated during the Qin and Han dynasties, there was also  a “high currency” (上币) form of money that made its appearance during the Warring States period.

This money was made of gold and was used as currency as well as for sacrificial offerings, rewards, fines, etc.

Kings, nobility and the wealthy were frequently buried with this type of gold money in their tombs.

Gold plate money (ying yuan 爰金) from the State of Chu

Gold plate money (ying yuan 爰金) from the State of Chu

An example of the gold money that circulated in the State of Chu during the Warring States period may be seen at the left.

This money is known as yuan jin (爰金) and consists of small square gold cubes connected together in a form best described as a slab, plate or sheet.  Individual squares could be broken off and spent as needed.

The yuan (爰) was a unit of weight and jin (金) means “gold”.

Each of the gold squares was also inscribed with Chinese characters.  For this reason, these “coins” are also known as yin zi jin (印子金), jin ban (金钣) or gui bi (龟币).  They are sometimes referred to in English as “ying yuan”, “gold plates”, “seal gold”, or “gold cube money”.

Some have the characters ying yuan (郢爰).  Ying (郢), which was situated in what is now Jingzhou (荆州) County in Hubei Province, was the capital of the State of Chu.

The other inscription found on these gold coins is chen yuan (陈爰).  After the Qin army captured the capital city of Ying, the State of Chu moved their capital to Chen which was located in what is now Huaiyang (淮阳), Henan Province.

Clay versions of State of Chu gold plate money (泥"郢称"(楚国黄金货币)) found buried in tombs of the Warring States Period

Clay versions of State of Chu gold plate money (泥”郢称”(楚国黄金货币)) found buried in tombs of the Warring States Period

At the left are clay specimens of the State of Chu’s yuan jin gold money (泥”郢称”(楚国黄金货币)) that have been recovered from tombs.

These particular specimens were unearthed in Zhejiang Province which was part of the ancient State of Chu during the Warring States period.

More than 300 pieces of this clay replica gold currency were also recovered from Lady Dai’s tomb at Mawangdui.

As can be seen, the imitation money has the same overall shape as the real gold money but is made of clay.

Careful observation shows that the surface design on these imitation sheets of gold money resembles square pieces of cloth or fabric.

This design could not be adequately explained prior to the discovery of Lady Dai’s tomb.

Silk funerary money (丝织品做的冥币) recovered from Tomb No. 1 (Lady Dai) at Mawangdui

Silk funerary money (丝织品做的冥币) recovered from Tomb No. 1 (Lady Dai) at Mawangdui

Silk was a valuable commodity in ancient times and bolts of silk could also function as a form of currency.  Small “denominations” of this “money” were created by cutting the silk into small squares.

Several of these small square silk “coins” (丝织品做的冥币) were recovered from Lady Dai’s tomb at Mawangdui.  This was the first time such silk squares functioning as a form of burial money had been discovered.

Shown above are several examples of this silk funerary money recovered from the tomb of Lady Dai that are now on display at the Hunan Provincial Museum.

It is believed that the State of Chu’s distinctive sheet form of gold money with the connected small squares may have been based on this very early type of silk money.

This would also explain why the clay imitation version of the gold money has a surface design that resembles fabric.

Various forms of burial money recovered from Tomb No. 1 (Lady Dai) at Mawangdui

Various forms of burial money recovered from Tomb No. 1 (Lady Dai) at Mawangdui

Lady Dai’s tomb actually contained a rich assortment of burial money.

Shown at the left is an exhibit case from the museum containing a variety of the imitation money from her tomb.

At the top left is a string of clay banliang coins.

At the lower left is the display of silk funerary money just discussed.

The lower middle of the display case has clay replicas of the State of Chu gold money.

At the lower right are clay imitation “gold pies” which will now be discussed.

Gold pie (jin bing 金饼) money unearthed from a Han Dynasty tomb

Gold pie money (jin bing 金饼) unearthed from a Han Dynasty tomb

During the Western Han Dynasty, a surprisingly large quantity of gold was in circulation with the estimate being more than one million jin (斤) equivalent to more than 248 tons.

One type of gold currency was about the size of a “cookie” and had the shape of a flattened half-sphere with the top convex and the bottom concave.

This form of gold money is variously referred to as a gold pie, gold cake, gold biscuit, gold bing ingot, gold button ingot, etc.

In Chinese it is known as jin bing (金饼).

According to this article, a gold pie has a high gold content of 97-99% and weighs about 248 grams (210 ~ 250 g.) which would be the equivalent of about 1 jin (斤) during the Han Dynasty.

The specimens shown above are on display at the Shaanxi History Museum in Xian.  These gold pieces date from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 8 AD) and were excavated from a tomb in Xian.

Han Dynasty gold pie coin displaying Chinese character

Han Dynasty gold pie coin displaying Chinese character

As can be seen in the image here, gold pie coins sometimes have a Chinese character engraved on the bottom (right image).

Some of the characters can be identified such as , , 长, , 吉, 马, 租, 千, 金, , and “V“.  Other characters will require further research.

Clay "gold pie" money (陶质"金饼") unearthed from Han Dynasty graves

Clay “gold pie” money (陶质”金饼”) unearthed from Han Dynasty graves

Imitation specimens of these pie-shaped gold disks made of clay or earthenware (陶质”金饼”) are also being found in tombs dating to the Han Dynasty.

These cake-shaped funeral objects (mingqi 冥器) have not always been recognized in the West for what they really are.

For example, they have sometimes been mistakenly referred to as a “glazed plate of food”.

And just like the authentic gold pie money, some of the imitation clay cakes have inscriptions on the bottom.

Clay gold pie coin with inscription "fields of bountiful harvest"

Clay gold pie coin with inscription “fields of bountiful harvest”

As can be seen in the image at the left, this clay imitation gold pie has the Chinese characters feng nian tian (丰年田) inscribed on the bottom.

Feng nian (丰年) translates as a “good year” and tian (田) means a field or farm land.

The expression refers to a good year’s harvest and thus the value of this imitation gold “coin” is equal to a good year’s harvest from a plot of land.

Clay "gold pie" coin with denomination equivalent to 1,000,000 bronze coins

Clay “gold pie” coin with denomination equivalent to 1,000,000 bronze coins

There is no doubt as to the value of  the clay specimen displayed at the left.

The inscription on the bottom reads zhi qian bai wan (直钱百万).

This translates as “worth one million cash coins”!

(Despite what the inscription says, a real gold pie was worth the equivalent of about 10,000 cash coins during the Han Dynasty.)

Nowadays, Chinese burial customs have changed somewhat.  Real and imitation money is no longer buried with the dead.  Instead, paper money known as joss paper (“gold paper” 金纸, 阴司纸), Hell money, Hell banknotes, and ghost money is burned instead.

While the custom has evolved, the basic concern for the financial well-being of the deceased remains the same.

Hell bank notes burned at funerals today have hyperinflated denominations of $10,000 to $5,000,000,000 or more.

While such large bank note denominations may appear excessive to us today, we have already seen that 2000 years ago there existed “clay” gold cake money valued at 1,000,000 cash coins.

Printed paper money involves two of the Four Great Inventions attributed to the Chinese, namely the inventions of papermaking and printing.

Cai Lun (蔡伦 50 – 121 AD), an official of the imperial court during the Han Dynasty, is recognized as the inventor of paper.

The Chinese were the first to use paper money which began during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) but was not widely used until the beginning of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279).

Historians can only speculate as to what that first paper money from the Tang Dynasty, known as “flying cash” or “flying money” (飞钱), may have looked like since no verified specimens are known to exist.

But, even as early as the Jin Dynasty (晋朝 265-420), joss was being made of gold foil.

And, it is possible that the first paper money may have been printed on yellow paper in order to give the appearance of the ancient gold sheet money dating back to the State of Chu.

There exist specimens of paper money which some collectors claim to be authentic “flying money” notes from the Tang Dynasty that are “printed on yellow paper using black ink”.

The current practice of burning joss and hell bank notes to provide money for the afterlife can be seen as the latest stage in the evolution of a custom that began in very ancient times with the burying of real and imitation money.

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