Until very recently, Chinese numismatists were aware that the coins of the Western Xia had inscriptions written in the native Tangut script (xi xia wen 西夏文) or one of the calligraphic styles of Chinese with the notable exception of Seal script.
It was therefore considered a major discovery in 1984 when a cache of coins was unearthed in Ningxia (宁夏) that included a Western Xia coin written in Seal script (纂书). The coin was a guang ding yuan bao (光定元宝) cast during the reign (1211-1223) of Emperor Shenzong (李遵頊).
This coin has a diameter of 25.3 mm, a thickness of 1.4 mm and a weight of 4.3 grams.
A second specimen was unearthed in 2002 in Shaanxi (陕西省), and then a third specimen was dug up in Inner Mongolia (内蒙古自治区). With additional excavations in the area of Tongxin County (同心县) in Ningxia, there are now more than 10 authentic specimens of guang ding yuan bao written in Seal script known to exist.
It was believed that these guang ding yuan bao coins cast towards the very end of the dynasty were the only Western Xia coins produced with a Seal script inscription.
In 2012, however, a farmer digging in a field in Tongxin County, Ningxia uncovered a cache of Western Xia coins that included a different coin written in Seal script. The inscription was qian you yuan bao (乾祐元宝) which indicates that the coin was cast during the reign (1170 – 1193) of Emperor Renzong (李仁孝).
Coin catalogues through the centuries had documented this coin being cast in Regular or Running scripts but not in Seal script.
This newly discovered coin, shown at the left, is the only qian you yuan bao written in Seal script known to exist according to an article written by Dr. Zhu Hu (朱浒) of the Art Research Institute of East China Normal University (华东师范大学艺术研究所) published earlier this year in “China Numismatics” (2016年1期).
The inscription (乾祐元宝) written in Seal script is read in a clockwise rotation starting at the top.
The coin has a diameter of 25.4 mm, a thickness of 1.5 mm and a weight of 3.3 grams.
The inscription can be seen in greater detail in the rubbing of the coin shown at the left.
The Seal script you (祐) character, at the right of the square hole, is in the same style as the you found on inscriptions from coins cast during the Northern Song dynasty (北宋 960-1126) such as jing you yuan bao (景祐元宝 1034-1038), jia you yuan bao (嘉祐元宝 1056-1063), and yuan you tong bao (元祐通宝 1086-1093).
The Seal script yuan (元) character, located below the square hole, is very similar to the yuan found on the Northern Song xuan he yuan bao (宣和元宝 1119-1125) coins.
It is clear that the Seal script inscription on the newly discovered qian you yuan bao was greatly influenced by the style of the Northern Song coins.
As mentioned above, the qian you yuan bao was the second type of Western Xia coinage found to have been cast in Seal script in addition to the more common Regular and Running script varieties.
A few differences can be seen in comparing these two Seal script coins.
An image of an authentic guang ding yuan bao in Seal script may be seen at this Chinese website, but for our purposes we can look at the rubbing at the left.
The yuan (元) character of the guang ding yuan bao has more “twists and turns” while that of the qian you yuan bao is more “dignified”. Also, the last stroke of the yuan character of the guang ding yuan bao touches the rim which is not the case with the yuan on the qian you yuan bao.
The “crown” of the bao (宝) character of the guang ding yuan bao is more “square” while that of the qian you yuan bao is more “round”.
These characteristics are also found on the Seal script coins of the Song.
Dr. Zhu advances a theory as to why Seal script inscriptions only appeared on Western Xia coins toward the end of the dynasty. When the dynasty was established in 1038, the Tangut people (党项族) discarded the Chinese written language and rejected Chinese clothing in an effort to restore their original national character. They created their own writing system known as Tangut and the first coins had inscriptions written only in Tangut.
By the time of Emperor Ren Zong’s Qian You reign (1139 – 1193), however, there was political stability, economic prosperity, and less warfare. The Emperor attached importance to education and the establishment of schools including an Imperial Academy. He established an imperial examination system similar to that of the Chinese. There was also greater respect for Confucianism and the culture of the Song. This period was considered to be the heyday of Western Xia rule.
The first Western Xia coinage had inscriptions only in Tangut but the Song dynasty custom of casting “Matched Coins” (dui qian 对钱), where two or more different calligraphy styles were used on coins of the same period title, continued during the Western Xia. These styles included Official script (Li Shu 隶书), Regular script (Zhen Shu 真书), Running script (Xing Shu 行书), and Grass script (Cao Shu 草书).
With the recent discoveries of the qian you yuan bao and guang ding yuan bao coins, the Seal script (Zhuan Shu 纂书) has now been added to the calligraphic styles used to form the “Matched Coins” of the Western Xia.
Discovery of a new Chinese coin variety is a rare occurrence nowadays so the Seal script qian you yuan bao caused great excitement among collectors. The discovery also means that the qian you yuan bao is the only Western Xia coin known to exist in three calligraphic varieties, namely Regular, Running and Seal scripts.
The fact that this coin is very well-made and, to date, is one of a kind, lends credence to the belief that the coin may be a trial piece and that very few were actually cast for circulation.