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Nine-Fold Seal Script Charm

Beginning with the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and extending to the last years of imperial China, government seals were engraved in a very stylized Chinese script known as “nine-fold” seal script.

This rounded and convoluted script is both ornate and authoritarian but can be difficult to read by the uninitiated.

A few very rare coins cast during the Song Dynasty had their inscriptions written in nine-fold seal script ( jiu die wen 九叠文).

Ming Dynasty charm with inscription "happiness, longevity, health and composure" written in nine-fold seal script

Ming Dynasty charm with inscription “happiness, longevity, health and composure” written in nine-fold seal script

Shown at the left is a rare Chinese charm dating from the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) which has its inscription written in nine-fold seal script.

According to scholars who can read this script, the inscription on the obverse side is fu shou kang ning (福寿康宁) which translates as “happiness, longevity, health and composure”.

This is a reference to the “Five Blessings” (wufu 五福), which was first mentioned in the ancient Chinese classic known as the “Book of History” (shujing 书经).

This inscription is often found on old Chinese charms.

Reverse side of charm has inscription "one hundred happinesses and one hundred longevities" written in nine-fold seal script

Reverse side of charm has inscription “one hundred happinesses and one hundred longevities” written in nine-fold seal script

The inscription on the reverse side is also written in nine-fold seal script and, according to scholars, reads as bai fu bai shou (百福百寿).  This is an auspicious wish meaning “one hundred happinesses and one hundred longevities”.

While the charm shows some wear after having been handled and handed down for some 500 years, the bronze has adopted a beautiful tone and the nine-fold seal script has a wonderful appearance.

In addition to its wish for happiness, long life and good health, this charm is a work of art.

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Happiness Is Before Your Eyes

The Chinese love visual puns.

A bat on a Chinese cash coin means "happiness is before your eyes"

A bat on a Chinese cash coin means “happiness is before your eyes”

The old Chinese charm displayed at the left is a good example.

The charm shows a bat on top of two coins.

Coins with the inscription wu zhu (五铢) were first used during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and then produced during a number of dynasties until the beginning of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD).

Wu Zhu coins were thus cast for more than 700 years which made them the longest used coin in Chinese history.

For this reason, the two coins symbolize both “wealth” and “longevity”.

But to understand the deeper meaning of the charm, one must be familiar with a few simple numismatic terms.

First, the word for “coin” in Chinese is qian (钱) which happens to have the same pronunciation as the word “before” (qian 前).

Second, the square hole in the center of a cash coin is called a “yan” (眼) which means “eye”.

You will notice that the bat is on the coin’s square hole.

We can therefore say that “the bat is on the coin’s eye”.  In Chinese this would be “the bat (fu 蝠) lies (zai 在) on the eye (yan 眼) of the coin (qian 钱)” or fu zai yan qian.

However, a bat symbolizes “happiness” to the Chinese because the Chinese word for “bat” (fu 蝠) sounds exactly the same as the Chinese word for “happiness” or “good fortune” (fu 福).

Therefore, saying “the bat is on the coin’s eye” (fu zai yan qian) sounds exactly the same as saying “happiness is before your eyes” (happiness (fu 福) is (zai 在) eyes (yan 眼) before (qian 眼).

The design of the charm cleverly includes a visual pun which conveys the auspicious wish fu zai yan qian meaning “happiness is before your eyes”.

One final note of interest concerning this charm.  If you hang it vertically, which is the way it would normally be carried, the shape resembles a gourd which to the Chinese has a multitude of hidden meanings which I discuss in detail at Ancient Chinese Gourd Charms.

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Chinese archaeologists recently completed their work excavating an ancient tomb located near Luoyang (洛阳), Henan Province (河南省), according to recent reports in the Chinese press.

Archaeologists believe the tomb belongs to Emperor Jiemin of Northern Wei

Archaeologists believe the tomb belongs to Emperor Jiemin of Northern Wei

The archaeologists from the Luoyang Municipal Institute of Cultural Relics and Artifacts (洛阳市文物考古研究院) can be seen working in the tomb in the image at the left.

The archaeologists believe that the tomb belongs to Emperor Jiemin (节闵帝) of the Northern Wei (北魏).  Emperor Jiemin is sometimes referred to by his personal name Yuan Gong (元恭).

The Northern Wei was a Mongolian dynasty and Emperor Jiemin ruled during the years 498-532 AD.

Historical sources reveal that after the capital was moved to Luoyang, six Northern Wei emperors died and were buried in the area.  Documents specifically mention the tombs of Emperor Xiaowen (孝文帝长陵), Emperor Xuanwu (宣武帝景陵), Emperor Xiaoming (孝明帝定陵) and Emperor Xiaozhuang (孝庄帝静陵).

The historical records are not clear in regard to the tombs of Yuan Ye (Prince of Changguang 长广王元晔) and Emperor Jiemin.

Because Yuan Ye reigned for only a few months (530-531), the archaeologist do not believe that a tomb of this magnitude could not have been built during his reign.

Given the scale of the tomb, its location and configuration, as well as the length of time it would have taken to build, the archaeologists have preliminarily concluded that the tomb must therefore belong to Jiemin.

This would be the fifth Northern Wei emperor tomb discovered in Luoyang.

The path leading down to the grave is 39.7 meters in length and 2.9 meters in width.  The tomb chamber is 19.2 meters in length and 12 meters in width.

While a number of artifacts were recovered, many had suffered damage.

Gold coin found in the tomb of Emperor Jiemin of Northern Wei and minted during the reign of Anastasius I of the Byzantine Empire.

Gold coin found in the tomb of Emperor Jiemin of Northern Wei and minted during the reign of Anastasius I of the Byzantine Empire.

However, the most important artifact discovered in the tomb was a gold coin (solidus) in excellent condition.

The coin, shown at the left, was minted during the reign of Anastasius I (阿纳斯塔修斯一世) who was the Byzantine Emperor during the period 491-518 AD.

The coin is 2.1-2.2 cm in diameter and is one of only a few Byzantine gold coins ever unearthed by archaeologists in China.

According to the archaeologists, the discovery of this Byzantine gold coin in a Chinese emperor’s tomb provides further evidence that Luoyang was the eastern terminus of the ancient Silk Road (丝绸之路).

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Knife Money from State of Qi Unearthed in Shandong

A farmer working in a field in Shandong Province recently unearthed an ancient knife-shaped form of money from the Warring States period (475 BC – 221 BC), according to a Chinese newspaper article published today.

A farmer from Shandong displays the knife money he discovered from the ancient State of Qi

A farmer from Shandong displays the knife money he discovered from the ancient State of Qi

Mr. Jia Qingguang (贾清广) was sifting sand at his farm in Liaocheng (聊城市) in China’s eastern province of Shandong when he discovered this knife-shaped money known in Chinese as dao bi (刀币).

The image at the left shows Mr. Jia holding the knife money.

The newspaper report provides little information regarding the the knife other than it is believed to have been cast during the Warring States period.  The knife is 15 cm in length and has Chinese characters on one side only.

The newspaper article does not specify the type of knife money but “hopes that the relevant departments will help identify it”.

Inscription on the State of Qi knife translates as "Jimo Legal Money"

Inscription on the State of Qi knife translates as “Jimo Legal Money”

However, if you look carefully at the close-up image of the knife shown here, you can see that it is a “four character” (四字)  large knife from the State of Qi (齐国).  The inscription is ji mo fa hua (即墨法化) which translates as “Jimo legal money”.

The State of Qi existed from 1046 BC to 221 BC and occupied the area of what is now Shandong Province where the knife was discovered.

Jimo (即墨) was a city in the State of Qi and was the site of a very famous battle in 283 BC which I describe in detail in an article entitled “Battle of Jimo Horse Coin”.

It is believed that Qi produced knife money during approximately 400-220 BC.  Besides “four character” (四字) knives, Qi also issued knife money with three (三字), five (五字) and six characters (六字).

Some knives have Chinese characters on the reverse side and some do not, as is the case with this specimen.

Specimens of this type of knife money are typically 15-16 cm in length and weigh 23-45 grams.

The State of Qi was the last state to be conquered by the armies of Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) who then unified China in 221 BC.

All State of Qi large knives are considered to be rare.

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Stringing Cash Coins

Arthur Henderson Smith was a famous American missionary who went to China in 1872.  He worked in Shandong Province until the Boxer Rebellion forced him to flee and take refuge at the Legation Quarter in Peking in 1900.

Smith wrote several books about China including “Village Life in China” which was published in 1899.

Stringing Cash Coins

Stringing Cash Coins

The book contains a rare photograph, shown at the left, of men in the process of putting cash coins on strings.

Counting the coins and placing them on strings was a laborious task as described below:

“The sales which have been made during the day are for small sums only, and as all the cash has to be counted and strung on hemp cords so as to make the full string of 1,000 cash (or 500 in some parts of the country), this counting and stringing of the money takes a great deal of time, and is very tiresome work when done by the quantity…”

Money-changers charged for this service according to “Guttag’s Foreign Currency and Exchange Guide” published in 1921:

“Money-changers charge for the trouble of stringing the coins and also for the cost of the string by deducting a certain number of Cash from each roll.  This rate of discount is fixed locally so that the Tiao (diao 吊), which normally consists of 1,000 Cash, may contain in one district 965 and in another 980 actual coins.”

Even in stringing cash coins, the Chinese did not want to miss an opportunity to make an additional profit as Smith describes below:

“In the case of firms having any considerable business, after the day’s work is all over, the clerks are liable to be required to spend the evening in untying all the numerous strings of cash that have come in, with a view to the discovery of any rare coins that might be sold at a special price.  All is fish that comes to a Chinese net, and sooner or later there is very little that does not find its way there to the profit of its owner.”

While it is common for coin collectors to closely examine each coin in a string of cash looking for rare specimens, it is surprising to learn that merchants during the Qing Dynasty routinely did so as well.

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Cycling Across Imperial China

The two American cyclists reach north China in 1892. Few Chinese had ever seen a Westerner, much less a bicycle.

The two American cyclists reach north China in 1892. Few Chinese had ever seen a Westerner, much less a bicycle.

Two Americans decided to take a trip.

The year was 1890 and Thomas G. Allen Jr. and William L. Sachtleben had just graduated from my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis.

The “ordinary” (“penny-farthing“) bicycle with the very large front wheel and very small back wheel was just beginning to be replaced by the new “safety” bicycle which had two small wheels with the rear wheel driven by chain and sprocket.

They decided to ride around-the-world on this new type of bicycle.  They also purchased the newly introduced Kodak film camera to record their journey.

Their adventure was documented in a book they authored entitled “Across Asia on a Bicycle” and published in 1894.

During the three year journey, they experienced tremendous adventures.

Their travel across China began in 1892 in Kuldja which was the Russian name for the city of Yining in the far western region of Xinjiang.

Preparations for the grueling crossing to Peking were meticulous:

“Our work of preparation was principally a process of elimination.  We now had to prepare for a forced march in case of necessity.

“Handle-bars and seat-posts were shortened to save weight…

“The cutting off of buttons and extra parts of our clothing, as well as shaving of our heads and faces, was also included…”

But a major challenge was how to carry money as these excerpts reveal:

“And now the money problem was the most perplexing of all.

“This alone,” said the Russian consul, “if nothing else, will defeat your plans.

“We thought we had sufficient money to carry us, or, rather, as much as we could carry…for the weight of the Chinese money necessary for a journey of over three thousand miles was, as the Russian consul thought, one of the greatest of our almost insurmountable obstacles.

William L. Sachtleben (right) with a Russian friend “loaded with enough Chinese ‘cash’ to pay for a meal at a Kuldja restaurant”.

“In the interior of China there is no coin except the chen or sapeks (referring to qian 钱 or “cash coins”), an alloy of copper and tin, in the form of a disk, having a hole in the center by which the coins may be strung together.

“The very recently coined liang, or tael (referring to Chinese minted ‘silver dollar’ coins), the Mexican piaster (referring to the Mexican silver coin) specially minted for the Chinese market, and the other foreign coins, have not yet penetrated from the coast.  For six hundred miles over the border, however, we found … the Russian money… serviceable among the Tatar merchants, while the tenga (a silver coin of Russian Turkestan), or Kashgar silver-piece, was preferred by the natives even beyond the Gobi, being much handier than the larger or smaller bits of silver broken from the yamba bricks.

“All, however, would have to be weighed in the tinza, or small Chinese scales we carried with us, and on which were marked the fün, tchan, and liang of the monetary scale.

“But the value of these terms is reckoned in chen (Chinese cash coins), and changes with almost every district.  This necessity for vigilance, together with the frequency of bad silver and loaded yambas, and the propensity of the Chinese to “knock down” on even the smallest purchase, tends to convert a traveler in China into a veritable Shylock.

“There being no banks or exchanges in the interior, we were obliged to purchase at Kuldja all the silver we would need for the entire journey of over three thousand miles.

“How much would it take?” was the question… That our calculations were close is proved by the fact that we reached Peking with silver in our pockets to the value of half a dollar.

“Our money now constituted the principal part of our luggage…

“Most of the silver was chopped up into small bits, and placed in the hollow tubing of the machines to conceal it from Chinese inquisitiveness, if not something worse.

“We are glad to say, however, that no attempt at robbery was ever discovered, although efforts at extortion were frequent, and sometimes…of a serious nature.”

The journey took three years and ended in New York in 1893.  They became instant celebrities just as bicycling was beginning to become very popular.

Their extraordinary adventure, which I encourage you to read in its entirety, was described by one journalist as “the greatest journey since Marco Polo”.

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World’s Largest Copper Coin Sculpture

In the year 621 AD, Emperor Gaozu of the newly established Tang Dynasty introduced a new coin with the inscription kai yuan tong bao (開元通寶) which set a standard that lasted for some 1200 years.

Although the last kai yuan tong bao coin was cast many centuries ago, a new kai yuan tong bao coin recently appeared in Guiyang Prefecture (桂阳县) which is part of the city of Chenzhou (郴州) located in China’s southern province of Hunan (湖南).

The ancient coin measured about 24 mm in diameter.  The new “coin” is actually a sculpture and is considerably larger with a diameter of 24 meters (78.7 feet).

This is the largest copper coin sculpture in the world according to Chinese news reports published August 30, 2013.

World's largest copper coin sculpture at the Baoshan National Mining Park in Guiyang.

World’s largest copper coin sculpture at the Baoshan National Mining Park in Guiyang.

At the left is the image of the new copper sculpture of a kai yuan tong bao coin being put on display at the Baoshan National Mining Park (宝山国家矿山工园).

The Baoshan National Mining Park is a theme park commemorating the long history of mining in the area which dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).

The new coin sculpture will be open to the public beginning in the middle of September.

The coin sculpture has an internal steel structure with copper sheets on the exterior.  It has a thickness of 3.8 meters (12.5 feet).

A construction worker is dwarfed by the huge Chinese characters on the coin sculpture.

A construction worker is dwarfed by the huge Chinese characters on the coin sculpture.

This image gives a better indication of the large scale of the sculpture.

Workers are dwarfed by the huge size of the Chinese characters forming the coin’s inscription.

The calligraphy on the original coins was done by Ouyang Xun (欧阳询) who was one of the most famous calligraphers of the time.

The style is a unique combination of  “seal” (zhuan 篆), “official” (li 隶) and “regular” (kai 楷) scripts evoking a solemn and dignified appearance which had a profound impact on the calligraphy used on the generations of cash coins that followed.

The coins cast during the earlier years of the Tang Dynasty had no Chinese characters on the reverse side although some did exhibit “moons” (月) and “stars” (星).

This changed, however, during the reign (840-846) of Emperor Wu Zong who was devotee of Daoism.  During his “Huichang” (会昌 841-846) era, he ordered the confiscation of copper statues, bells, gongs, etc. from Buddhist temples and used the copper to cast kai yuan tong bao coins.

These “Huichang” period coins are distinguished from the earlier ones by having a Chinese character on the reverse side indicating where the coin was minted.

There were a total of 22 mints operating at the time.

One of the 22 mints was in Guiyang near where the coin sculpture is located.

Coins cast at the Guiyang mint had the Chinese character gui (桂) on the reverse side.

The Chinese character "gui" represents the coin mint in Guiyang during the Tang Dynasty.

The Chinese character “gui” represents the coin mint in Guiyang during the Tang Dynasty.

As can be seen in the image at the left, the reverse side of the coin sculpture also has the Chinese character gui (桂).

Emperor Wu Zong reigned for only 6 years.

The “huichang” era kai yuan tong bao coins did not begin to be produced at the Guiyang mint until the 5th year (845) of this reign period.  Coins with the “gui” (桂) mint mark were only cast for a little more than one year.

The news reports state that because not many of these coins were cast, they are now fairly difficult for coin collectors to obtain.

As already mentioned, this sculpture of a copper coin is believed to be the largest in the world.  The Guiyang Tourism Department has arranged for representatives from Guinness World Records to visit the site this month to verify the fact.

(A video of this large coin sculpture may be seen here.)

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Interior of Southern Dynasty brick tomb discovered in Xiangyang City.

Interior of Southern Dynasty brick tomb discovered in Xiangyang City.

A video broadcast by Hubei TV (HBTV 湖北网台) on August 13, 2013 reports that a tomb dating from the Southern Dynasties was recently unearthed at a construction site in the city of Xiangyang (襄阳).

The discovery is considered remarkable because many of the bricks used in the construction of the tomb display the design of a Chinese cash coin.

Other bricks identify the family name of the owner, the craftsman who made the bricks, and the year the tomb was built.

The television broadcast in Chinese may be viewed here.

The reporter interviews Mr. Liang Chao (梁超) who is an archaeologist with the Xiangyang Archaeology Institute (襄阳市考古研究所).  The tomb was discovered in June of this year.

The tomb includes many bricks with a Chinese cash coin design.

The tomb includes many bricks with a Chinese cash coin design.

As can be seen in the video broadcast, many of the tomb bricks display a circle with a square in the middle which is universally recognized as representing a traditional Chinese cash coin.

(Bricks with a Chinese cash coin design have also been discovered in ancient city walls as discussed in this article.)

No artifacts were discovered in the tomb which means tomb robbers had looted the tomb at sometime in the distant past.

Nevertheless, the tomb still reveals important information from a historical period which was marked by almost constant warfare.

Close-up of tomb bricks with Chinese coin design.

Close-up of tomb bricks with Chinese coin design.

Mr. Liang explains that a tomb with so many bricks having a coin design must have belonged to a member of the nobility.

In addition to the bricks with the coin design, a number of other tomb bricks display the Chinese character wang (王).

Even though “Wang” (王) is a common Chinese surname, Mr. Liang does not believe that the tomb owner was named Wang.

Tomb bricks with Chinese character "wang" (王) believed to be the logo of the brickmaker.

Tomb bricks with Chinese character “wang” (王) believed to be the logo of the brickmaker.

Mr. Liang says that the character wang was probably the “logo” of the craftsman who made the bricks for the tomb.

Perhaps this was a famous brand of tomb bricks at the time.

The identity of the tomb owner is not completely unknown, however.

Tomb brick identifies the tomb owner as "Zong from Nanyang".

Tomb brick identifies the tomb owner as “Zong from Nanyang”.

Two other bricks display the inscription nanyang zong (南阳宗) which translates as “Zong from Nanyang”.

Nanyang (南阳) was a city in Henan during this period.  Zong (宗) would be the family name of the tomb owner.

In addition to having bricks that identify the family name of the tomb owner, another brick provides the date of the tomb.

The inscription on this brick reads song da ming wu nian zao (宋大明五年造).  This translates as “Built in the 5th year of the Da Ming reign of the State of Song”.  “Da Ming” (大明) was the reign title of Emperor Xiaowu of Liu Song (刘宋孝武帝).  The fifth year (五年) of his reign would be the year 461.

Tomb brick dating the tomb to the year 461 and the Liu Song Dynasty.

Tomb brick dating the tomb to the year 461 and the Liu Song Dynasty.

Historical records portray Emperor Xiaowu as a cruel and sexually immoral ruler.

However, Emperor Xiaowu is familiar to Chinese coin collectors for another reason.  It was during his reign that coins known as “Xiaojian (period) Four Zhu” (孝建四铢) were issued.  These coins have the inscription xiao jian (孝建), representing his Xiao Jian reign, on the obverse and the denomination si zhu (四铢 “four zhu“) on the reverse.

The tomb can therefore be positively dated to the year 461 and that it contained the remains of a nobleman with the surname Zong who came from Nanyang.

Mr. Liang further explains that because of the constant warfare, Mr. Zong probably fled to Xiangyang for safety and it was here where he eventually died.

Because of the turmoil of the times, there is a lack of historical records from the Southern Dynasties period.  Mr. Liang emphasizes the importance of the discovery of this tomb because it can be positively dated and identified.

Because of its importance and the interesting design of the tomb bricks, the tomb will be dismantled and moved to a museum.

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Carrying Cash in Republican China

My recent post entitled “Carrying Cash in Imperial China” illustrated the inconvenience of carrying “cash” coins at the end of the Qing Dynasty.

Surprisingly, carrying cash in the 40 to 50 years that followed continued to be inconvenient even though paper money replaced coins as the primary form of money.

Due to the severe inflation and the falling value of the official paper currency (fabi 法币) during the war years, carrying any amount of “cash” in the latter years of the Republic meant having to deal with a large and heavy pile of paper money.

The photographs below clearly illustrate this fact.  This undated series of photos documents the story of a business needing to obtain cash from a local bank in order to pay wages to its employees.  While we do not have specific details as to the name of the business, bank, or city, the situation was probably typical throughout China during the 1940′s.

Local bank employees removing paper money from wooden boxes

Local bank employees removing paper money from wooden boxes

As can be seen in the photo above, money was shipped to local banks in wooden boxes.  The local bank employees are busily unpacking the boxes.  While we cannot see the entire name of the bank printed on the wooden box in the foreground, it is probably the Central Bank of China (中央银行).

Local bank employees preparing for a customer's cash withdrawal

Local bank employees preparing for a customer’s cash withdrawal

Because a local business needs money to pay its employees, the bank employees are seen in the above photo preparing for the withdrawal.

Money being packed into large bags for transport to the customer

Money being packed into large bags for transport to the customer

To transfer the needed funds to the customer requires packing many large money bags as shown above.

The bank appears to have a Sikh as a bank guard.

Heavy sacks of money being carried on shoulder poles from the bank

Heavy sacks of money being carried on shoulder poles from the bank

The large number of heavy bags of money are then carried from the bank to a truck which will deliver the funds to the customer.  Because of the weight, each bag needs to be hung on a wooden shoulder pole and carried by two people.

Loading bags of money into a truck

Loading bags of money into a truck

The bags of money are seen here being loaded into a truck for delivery to the customer.

Preparing to pay wages

Preparing to pay wages

Once the funds arrive at the company, the bags are unpacked and preparations are made to distribute the wages.

(I was unsuccessful in trying to identify the banknote in the employee’s hand until I realized that the negative must have been flipped horizontally when the original photograph was printed.  If you flip the above image right to left, the denomination can be seen as 5000 yuan (伍仟圓).  I think this is a Central Bank of China 5000 yuan note.  Notes of this large denomination were issued in 1945 and 1947.  If this is correct, then this series of photos would roughly date to that time period.)

Happy employees having just been paid

Happy employees having just been paid

This photograph shows the smiling faces of employees having just been paid.

Trying to stuff money into a pocket

Trying to stuff money into a pocket

However, carrying such a large quantity of paper money could be quite a challenge.  This employee is having a problem trying to stuff a large stack of paper money into his very large trouser pocket.

Pile of Chinese paper money with face value of "one billion dollars"

Pile of Chinese paper money with face value of “one billion dollars”

The photograph above clearly demonstrates the extent of inflation and the devaluation of the currency during the late 1940′s.

This large pile of paper money has a face value of one billion “dollars” (1,000,000,000 yuan)!

The equivalent in US currency is shown as the small stack of bills in the foreground worth $3,400.

While my intention was to show the inconvenience of carrying cash, this series of old photographs graphically reminds us of the deteriorating economic situation the Chinese people endured during those last years of the Republic.

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Carrying Cash in Imperial China

"Chinese Pictures: Notes on Photographs" written by famous British explorer Isabella Bird

“Chinese Pictures: Notes on Photographs” written by famous British explorer Isabella Bird

Isabella Lucy Bird was a famous English explorer, writer and photographer who traveled the world in the late 1800′s.

She visited China and documented her adventures in a book entitled “Chinese Pictures: Notes on Photographs” written under her married name of Mrs. J.F. Bishop and published by Charles L. Bowman & Co. in the year 1900.

Among the photographs in the book is one entitled “Mode of Carrying Cash and Babies“.

Photograph of a man carrying cash coins during the Qing Dynasty

Photograph of a man carrying cash coins during the Qing Dynasty

At the left is the photograph which has been cropped to better show a man carrying cash coins.

Isabella Bird wrote the following in describing the photograph:

“In travelling, the carriage of money is a great annoyance, owing to the smallness of its value and the large number of coins or “cash” necessary to make up an amount of any size.

“Exchanging eighteen shillings English for brass cash, the weight of them amounted to seventy-two pounds, which had to be carried by the coolies.

“These cash have a square hole in the middle, and are strung together upon a piece of straw twist.  Should the straw break, the loss of time in getting up the pieces is much more than the loss of the money.

“The Chinese are honest, very keen at a bargain, but when the bargain is made the Chinaman may be depended on to keep it.”

As a collector, I was aware of how these cash coins were strung together and carried.

This rare photograph, however, captures the reality of such a moment from about 115 years ago.

It strengthens the ties to the ancient past and provokes a sense of wonder as to how the cash coins I now hold in my hand played a role in the daily lives of common people who lived so long ago when China was still ruled by emperors.

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Korean Charm Teaches Chinese

Despite having invented the excellent phonetic writing system known as Hangul (한글) in 1443, Korea continued to use Chinese inscriptions on its coins until the early 20th Century.

These inscriptions were written in a calligraphic style known as “regular script” (楷書).

Old Korean charms also had their inscriptions written in the same style of Chinese characters.

Old Korean charm that teaches Chinese characters

Old Korean charm that teaches Chinese characters

The Korean charm displayed at the left is therefore unusual for a couple of reasons.

First, the Chinese characters appear to be written in a very ancient form of seal script known as “bird-worm seal script” (鸟虫篆).

And second, the apparent purpose of the charm is not to promote good luck or provide protection but rather to teach Chinese characters.

According to “The Korean Coins and Banknotes Catalogue”  (大韓民國貨幣價格圖錄), the inscription is read clockwise beginning at about the 8 o’clock position as:

水得女汝, 月於日明

shui de nü ru, yue yu ri ming (Chinese pronunciation)

Imagine, for example, a father wanting to teach Chinese characters to his young son.  This charm does this as follows.

The first four characters (水得女汝) gives a simple way to remember the character meaning “you” (汝).

The charm explains that the Chinese character for “you” (汝) is composed of water (氵) on its left and “woman” (女) on its right.

The “formula” is thus:

氵+ 女 = 汝

Similarly, the last four characters (月於日明) explain how to recognize the Chinese character meaning “bright” (明).

The word “bright” (明) has the “sun” (日) on its left and the “moon” (月) on its right.

The “formula” is therefore:

月 + 日 = 明

Simple!

But there may be more here than meets the eye.

I have not been able to find any Chinese or Japanese source that agrees with this reading of the inscription.

Chinese familiar with ancient styles of Chinese calligraphy state that this is a “mutilated” seal script with many “modernized” characters.

Choosing a “faux” seal script may have been intentional, however, since the inscription may have a hidden meaning.

In any case, there does seem to be a consensus among both Chinese and Japanese concerning what is written on the charm.

They believe the character 月 (moon) is actually the character 勿 (do not) and that the character 明 (bright) is the character 易 (easy).

So, instead of 月於日明:

月 + 日 = 明

The inscription is actually 勿於日易:

勿 + 日 = 易.

The British Museum also agrees with this reading of the inscription.

Chinese characters can have different meanings depending on the context.  For example, the character 日 not only means “sun” but is also recognized as an abbreviation for Japan (日本).  The character 易 not only means “easy” but can also mean “exchange” as in to exchange goods (trade or barter).

This inscription could therefore be interpreted to mean “do not do business with Japan” (勿於日易).

This would have been a very common sentiment among Koreans given the suffering they endured under Japanese rule during the 20th Century.

Under the guise of explaining a Chinese character written in a difficult to understand calligraphic style, a popular political expression could be cleverly hidden while still in plain view.

Interestingly enough, this charm apparently did not exist prior to the Japanese occupation of Korea.  The earliest record of its existence seems to date from the 1920′s in a rubbing from a Korean collector known as “Li De Zhuang” (丽德庄).

Reverse side of the Korean charm that teaches Chinese

Reverse side of the Korean charm that teaches Chinese

The reverse side of the charm, shown at the left, teaches two other Chinese characters.

The inscription is read clockwise beginning at the 7 o’clock position as:

寸得冠守,丝负工红

cun de guan shou, si fu gong hong (Chinese pronunciation)

The first four characters explain that the Chinese character meaning “protect” (守) has a “roof” () on the top and an “inch” (寸) on the bottom”:

寸 +  = 守

The last four characters describe the character “red” (红).

“Red” (红) has “silk” (丝) on the left and “labor” (工) on the right:

丝 + 工 = 红

Is there is a concealed meaning here as well?

This it the only charm that I know of that purports to teach Chinese.

In both China and Korea, the traditional method to teach Chinese characters to children was with the “Thousand Character Classic” (千字文).  This ancient primer is a poem composed of 250 phrases with each phrase consisting of 4 Chinese characters.  What is remarkable is that each Chinese character is used only once!  Therefore, a young student will have learned 1,000 Chinese characters after mastering the book.

Curiously enough, Korea used about 50 of the characters from the “Thousand Character Classic” on the sang pyong tong bo (常平通宝) coins which were cast during the years 1633-1891.

The four characters explained on this charm, however, were not among those used on the coins.

But, this raises several questions.

Why were the characters for “you”, “easy (exchange)”, “protect” and “red” chosen from among the thousands of Chinese characters that had not appeared on the coins?

Why were the inscriptions written in an invented “seal script” instead of an authentic “seal script”?

And, because of the added difficulty, why use any “seal script” instead of “regular script” to teach simple Chinese characters to a child?

Under the seemingly innocent pretext of teaching Chinese to children, it may be that this little charm has a hidden agenda.

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Coins and Charms of the Shui Nationality

The Shui people (水族) are one of the ethnic minority groups who live mainly in the Sandu Shui Autonomous County (三都水族自治县) of southwest China’s Guizhou Province (贵州省).

The Shui (Sui) are descendants of the ancient Baiyue (百越) who lived in the area of southern China and northern Vietnam beginning in the first millennium BC.

Shui” (水) actually means “water”.  The Shui people tend to live near rivers and streams and much of their customs and folklore revolves around water.

They are primarily engaged in rice farming but fish also play an important role in their diet and lives.

The ancient 'Shui Shu" pictographic script resembles the symbols used on oracle bones

The ancient ‘Shui Shu” pictographic script resembles the symbols used on oracle bones

While they now use Chinese as their written language, they have a rich cultural heritage that includes an ancient written language known as “Shui Shu” (水书) or “Shui Scripts”.

Examples of Shui Shu characters are shown at the left.

Shui Shu uses pictographs which are similar to the characters (jiaguwen 甲骨文) found on the ancient oracle bones from the Shang Dynasty and the characters (jinwen 金文) on ancient ritual bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties.

There are even scholars who believe that Shui Shu preceded jiaguwen and is, in fact, “the source of the Chinese language”.

The only Shui Nationality coin known to exist

The only Shui Nationality coin known to exist

The picture at the left shows the only coin from the Shui Nationality known to exist.

The coin was discovered in 2004.

The obverse and reverse sides of the coin, which are almost identical, are shown at the bottom with rubbings at the top.

According to Mr. Pan Chaolin (潘朝霖), who is a researcher at the Guizhou University for Nationalities (贵州民族学院), the inscription written in Chinese characters at the left and right of the square hole reads da zhong (大中).

Da zhong” refers to one of the reign titles of Emperor Zhen Zong (998-1022 AD) of the Northern Song Dynasty.  The dazhong xiangfu (大中祥符) era was the period 1008-1016 AD.

What is particularly interesting, however, are the other symbols on the coin.

Above the square hole in the rubbing on the left, a man can be seen with his arm extended backwards leading an ox.

In the rubbing on the right, a man can be seen above the square hole pulling a “rake” (ba 耙) which is an ancient type of plough.

In Shui Shu, according to Mr. Pan, a symbol resembling the head of the water ox represents wealth.

Similarly, the symbol of the “rake” (耙) also represents wealth because it was an important agricultural tool.

Therefore, using the ox and plough on the coin clearly symbolize wealth according to Mr. Pan.

The coins of the Shui are clearly distinctive from those of the Han Chinese and this is the case for their charms as well.

This rare charm displays the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac with the 12 Earthly Branches written in Shui Script

This rare charm displays the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac with the 12 Earthly Branches written in Shui Script

The image at the left displays a rare charm from the Shui Nationality.

The theme is not unusual and is frequently seen on Chinese charms.  The obverse side displays two dragons and the reverse shows the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.

However, this particular Shui version of the charm is the only specimen known to exist.

As seen here, the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac are shown near the outer rim.

While Chinese versions of the charm have the names of the Twelve Earthly Branches (十二地支) written in Chinese characters around the center hole, you will notice that the names on this charm are written in Shui Shu.

The obverse side of the Shui charm shows a male dragon and a female dragon

The obverse side of the Shui charm shows a male dragon and a female dragon

The obverse side of the charm displays two dragons.

The story being told is of a fish transforming into a dragon.

As already mentioned, the fish is an important part of the lives and cultural heritage of the Shui.

Like the ox and rake, fish represent prosperity and also symbolize the ancestors of the Shui people.

(In Chinese myth, a carp leaping over the Dragon Gate becomes a dragon.)

If you look carefully, you will see a fish near the outer rim at about the 10 o’clock position.

At the 5 o’clock position near the rim can be seen a pearl.

The two dragon design is frequently seen on old Chinese charms. However, there is a major difference in the way the dragons on this charm are illustrated in comparison with those found on Chinese charms.

Unlike Chinese charms, there is clearly one male and one female dragon on this Shui charm.

The dragon at the upper right is the female.

The dragon which is upside down at the lower left is the male.  The tail of the male dragon makes a curve towards the outside rim at about the 9 o’clock position.  Just before the tail hooks towards the outside rim, you will observe that there is an appendage that extends towards the inner hole.

This “appendage” is the male genitals (生殖器).

The female dragon, of course, lacks this feature.

Incidentally, this type of dragon is colloquially known as a “cock dragon” (鸡巴龙) because the shape of the head is similar to that of a chicken.

Curiously enough, this depiction of the male dragon is not unique to the Shui but is also found on charms from other ethnic minority groups from the same geographic area.

An old 'double dragon' charm from the Qiannan area of Guizhou Province

An old ‘double dragon’ charm from the Qiannan area of Guizhou Province

At the left is an almost identical charm from the Qiannan area of Guizhou (贵州黔南).

In this view, the male dragon is on the right and the female is upside down on the left.  The pearl is at the top of the charm and the fish is at the bottom.

As is the case with the Shui charm, the genitals of the male dragon can be seen just below the round hole.

Depicting both male and female dragons is an important difference between the Shui and Chinese charms.

However, another major difference has to do with the area surrounding the dragons.

On the Shui charm this background area is filled with small protruding “dots”.

This characteristic is similar to the design found on ancient Chinese bronzes.  Archaeologists refer to these “dots” as “nipples” (乳丁) because of the similarity to the nipple of the female breast.

The "stars" in the heavens are in high relief

The “stars” in the heavens are in high relief

When the charm is viewed at an angle, as shown at the left, it can be clearly seen that the “nipples” are in high relief.

(The difference between the male and female dragons is also more obvious in this view.)

These dots represent the stars in the heavens.

While dots representing stars are sometimes seen on old Chinese coins and charms, it is rare to see the entire field filled with them as is the case with this Shui charm.

Even the charm from the neighboring Qiannan area does not have this star background.

Such an immense star-studded field is appropriate for the theme of this charm.

Once a fish transforms itself into a dragon, it has the ability to “mount the clouds and ride the mists” (腾云驾雾) and “call for the wind and rain” (呼风唤雨).

The dragon reigns supreme among all the spirits.  But because the transformation begins with the fish, the fish is also considered to be a spirit.

Even today there are areas of China where the local people are afraid of provoking fish, and would never fry one in a wok, because they consider fish to be spirits.

This coin and charm are rare treasures that provide insight into the very ancient cultural heritage of the Shui people.

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