Primal Trek

Horse Coins

 maqian

Originating in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), the "horse coin" was not actual currency. Although Chinese literary figures have made mention of horse coins throughout the centuries, few have made it clear exactly how the coins were used. Collectors today believe horse coins were either pieces used on game boards or counters for gambling.

Images of horses also appear on old Chinese chess pieces and examples can be seen at Ancient Chinese Chess (Xiangqi) Pieces.

Old Chinese horse coinHorse coins are usually made of bronze or copper although, in some rare cases, ivory and horn were used.  Most common horse coins measure around 3 centimeters in diameter with a square or circular central hole.

The horses depicted on the coins vary in position.  Some are lying on the ground sleeping.  Others are turning their head and neighing.  Or, as in the example shown here, the horse is shown galloping forward with its tail raised high.  Unfortunately, the horse's saddle always seems to be at the central hole of the coin which prevents us from learning more about this aspect of ancient Chinese culture.

Among all the horse coins, those made in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) are considered to be the finest. They were made from high-quality metal and with fine detail.  The coin shown at left is representative of the Song horse coins although it would be difficult to confirm that this particular piece dates from that period.

Horse coins display many of the most famous horses in Chinese history. For instance, in the early Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century-771 BC), King Mu (穆王) once rode on a chariot with eight outstanding steeds.  The names of the eight horses can be found on horse coins although there is some disagreement as to which set of eight names passed down through history is correct.  The names of King Mu's horses described their outstanding characteristics and included "Beyond Earth", "Rush by Night", "Windswept Plumes",  "Finer than Flashing Light", "Faster than Shadow", "Wing Bearer", "Faster than Light" and "Rising Mist".  Other historical texts list King Mu's horses as "Bay Steed", "Smoked Ebony", "Skewbald Chestnut", "Great Yellow" and "Green Ear".

There are also horse coins depicting the victorious, yet ruthless, General Bai Qi of the ancient Kingdom of Qin during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

When Qin Shi Huang put an end to the Warring States Period and united China into the first empire (221-207 BC), he chose the seven best horses from the thousands of military horses who had fought in the battles.

In order to improve the quality of his stable, Emperor Wudi of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - 24 AD) searched for the best stallions outside his empire. To get the mysterious hanxue (sweating blood) horse which he believed were the divine "Horses of Heaven" that could be ridden to immortality, he fought a three-year war beginning in 101 BCE against a small kingdom (Ferghana) located in today's Uzbekistan.  While the emperor's army captured some 3,000 hanxue horses, only about 1,000 survived the long trip home. Many legends and historical records state that when such horses galloped, their sweat was the color of blood.  Some modern scientists now attribute the "blood" sweat to the parasites which infested the tissues beneath the skin of the horses.  After strenuous movement, the blood would flow out with the sweat.

Another set of famous horses depicted on horse coins is associated with Emperor Taizong (Li Shimin) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).  These horses are also celebrated in a famous relief sculpture outside his tomb and are known as the "Six Chargers of Emperor Taizong".

Finally, a very few horse coins will display a rider on the horse in order to commemorate famous battles from ancient Chinese history.  Please see the "Battle of Jimo" Horse Coin as an example.



Old Chinese horse coin with inscription "Great Song metal money"Chinese with galloping horse and inscription "a rider of the Song (Dynasty)"

The Chinese characters on the obverse side of this old horse coin read da song jin qian (大宋金钱) which means "Great Song (dynasty) metal money".

The reverse side shows a galloping horse with the inscription song qi (宋骑) which means "a rider of the Song (dynasty)". 

The coin is 37.7mm in diameter and weighs 18.1 grams.










Chinese horse coin with inscription qin jiang san qiReverse side of qin jiang san qi Chinese horse coin displaying a galloping horseThe inscription on this horse coin is qin jiang san qi (秦将散骑).

Qin jiang (
秦将) refers to a general from the ancient state of Qin during the Warring States period (475-221 BC).

The general referred to is General Bai Qi (白起), a ruthless military leader, who won more than 70 battles.  Following each victory, he would order his men to slaughter the defeated soldiers.  Historical records credit him with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of enemy soldiers.

General Bai Qi was forced to commit suicide by the King of Qin in the year 257 BC.

San qi (
散骑) in ancient Chinese has the meaning of shi cong (侍从) which means "followers".

The inscription therefore refers to the attendants or followers of General Bai Qi who would advise or counsel him.

The reverse side of the coin depicts a galloping horse.

The coin has a diameter of 27.5 mm and a weight of 9 grams.




Old Chinese horse coin with inscription "Great Yellow"Reverse side of old Chinese "Great Yellow" horse coin




This horse coin depicts Qu Huang (渠黄), meaning "Great Yellow", which was one of the eight great horses mentioned above of King Mu of the Western Zhou Dynasty.

This particular specimen is 35 mm in diameter and weighs 11.9 grams.











Chinese horse coin with inscription "Green Ear"Reverse side of "Green Ear" horse coinThis is another horse coin honoring one of King Mu's famous horses.

The obverse side of the coin, at the far left, displays a galloping horse.

The two character inscription, with one Chinese character above and one character below the square hole, reads lu er (绿耳).

The heavy green patina on the coin is appropriate because lu er translates as "Green Ear".

The reverse side of the coin is blank.

The coin has a diameter of 28 mm and weighs 7.4 grams.



Old Chinese horse coin with inscription "fast and slender"Chinese horse coin with blank reverse



The inscription on the obverse side of this horse coin reads piao niao (骠袅) which translates as "fast and slender".

The reverse side is blank.

The coin is 27 mm in diameter and weighs 6 grams.







Old Chinese horse coin with inscription "black spotted horse"Reverse side of old Chinese horse coin with inscription "black spotted horse"



This "double obverse" horse coin has the inscription wu zhui (乌骓) which means a "black spotted horse".

The diameter of the coin is 30mm and the weight is 9 grams.








Old Chinese horse coin with inscription "Tang General 1,000 li"Reverse side of Chinese charm with inscription "Tang General 1,000 li"



The obverse of this coin reads tang jiang qian li (唐将千里) which literally means "Tang General 1,000 li ".

The coin is 27mm in diameter and weighs 5.5 grams.









Old Chinese horse coin with inscription "ten thoroughbreds of Zhen Guan"Reverse side of Chinese charm with inscription "bursting as a wave"
The inscription on the obverse side of this horse coin is read top to bottom and right to left as zhen guan shi ji (贞观十骥) which means "ten thoroughbreds of Zhen Guan".  Zhen Guan refers to the era during which
Emperor Taizong (Li Shimin) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) ruled.

The Chinese characters on the reverse side are jue bo (诀波) which was the name of one of these horses.  Jue Bo would roughly translate as "bursting as a wave".

The coin is 30mm in diameter and weighs 9.7 grams.





Obverse side of old Chinese horse coinReverse side of old Chinese horse coin



Additional research is required to identify this horse coin.

The coin is 31mm in diameter and weighs 9.5 grams.










Old Chinese horse coin with inscription "1,000 li"Reverse side of Chinese charm with inscription "1,000 li"

The Chinese characters qian li (千里) on this horse coin mean "1,000 li ".  The li (里) was a measure of distance in ancient China which varied over history.  One li was equal to roughly 300 - 400 meters.

The term qian li or "1,000 li" refers to the ancient accomplishment of Zhaofu who was the carriage driver of King Mu of the Western Zhou Dynasty. Zhaofu was able to cover a distance of 1,000 li in a single day in order to return King Mu from a hunting trip in time to put down a rebellion in the capital.

The coin is 28mm in diameter and weighs 6.4 grams.



Horse coin with inscription qian li zhi ma (1,000 li horse)Reverse side of qian li zhi ma (1,000 li horse) horse coin


This old horse coin shows considerable wear.

The inscription is similar to the above coin and reads qian li zhi ma (千里之马) which translates as "1,000 li horse".

The coin has a diameter of 27mm and a weight of 5.2 grams.








Chinese horse coin with inscription "Dragon's Colt"Reverse side of "Dragon's Colt" Chinese horse coinThe inscription on the obverse side of this old Chinese horse coin is long ju (龙驹) which translates as "Dragon's Colt".

The reverse side depicts a "dragon colt" horse.

Dragon colt usually refers to a horse that is white and tall.

The term
long ju (龙驹) can be traced back to the ancient Chinese text the "Rites of Zhou" (zhou li 周礼) which dates to the second century BC and is considered one of the classics of Confucianism.  This ancient ritual text describes a "dragon colt" as a horse which is "more than eight chi (尺) tall" measured from the front hoof to the shoulder.  One chi, during the time of the Zhou, was about 16.5 centimeters.

The coin has a diameter of 23 mm and a weight of 3.4 grams.




Horse coin with inscription "yan jiang yue yi" meaning General Yue Yi of the State of YanGeneral Yue Yi of the State of Yan on horsebackHorse coins typically honor only famous horses but a few of these coins display a rider on the horse in order to commemorate famous battles from ancient Chinese history.

The horse coin at the left has the inscription yan jiang yue yi (燕將樂毅) which translates as General Yue Yi of the State of Yan.
  (Sometimes the name is translated as General Le Yi.)

The reverse side of the coin shows General Yue Yi carrying a weapon while on horseback.

General Yue Yi played a major role in one of the most famous battles of ancient China.

This coin and the "Battle of Jimo" which it commemorates is discussed in detail at "Battle of Jimo" Horse Coin.



 
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