Chinese legends speak of a tree
(yaoqianshu 摇钱树) that
from its branches to fall to the
ground. Stories of these "money trees" are even mentioned in such
ancient Chinese historical texts as the "Records of the Three Kingdoms"
(san guo zhi 三国志) written in
the 3rd century AD.
In numerous tombs in southwest China
dating from as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC -220 AD), archeologists
have discovered "trees" made of bronze and having
in the form of Chinese cash coins. Based on the ancient legends,
these objects have been designated as "money trees"
and are believed to be
burial objects used to guide the deceased to heaven and to provide for
their financial support while there.
The Chinese have always believed strongly in the efficacy of charms and
amulets. Based on
the legends and the common desire to be instantly and permanently
wealthy, the Chinese have over the millennia created smaller examples
these "money trees" with the wish that they will bring good fortune to
the owner while still alive.
A specimen of such a Chinese money tree, which happens to include
replicas of very rare ancient coins, is discussed in detail below.
Coin Trees and Money Trees
First, it is important to
differentiate a "money tree" (yaoqianshu
摇钱树) from what is commonly referred to as a "coin tree" (qianshu 钱树).
The term "coin tree" is usually associated with the traditional method
of casting Chinese coins. Beginning in the Warring States period
(475 -221 BC), Chinese coins were cast in molds which were made of clay, stone
bronze. By the time of the Tang Dynasty (618 -
907 AD), the coins were being made in sand molds.
Each mold would have a number of coin impressions so that
many coins could be produced at a time. These coin impressions
were connected by channels so that the molten bronze could be poured
into the mold at one opening and then flow to all parts of the mold.
Once the bronze had cooled and hardened, the two halves of the mold
were separated and the coins removed. However, since all the
coins were connected by the channels through which the bronze had
flowed, the bronze in the channels had hardened as well resulting in
all the coins being connected together.
The metal object that came out of the mold actually looked like a small
"tree". The main channel through which the bronze had
flowed resembled the "trunk" of a tree. The smaller channels
which ran from the main channel to each individual coin looked like
"branches". The coins were the "leaves".
This is what is commonly referred to by Chinese numismatists as a
"coin tree" and a very nice example, which is in the collection of The
Museum, is displayed at the left.
It appears that in China at least, the adage that "money does not grow
on trees" is not quite correct.
The coins were then broken off of the "branches". This left a
small metal stub, called a "sprue",
each coin where it
had been attached to the "branch". The molding process would also
leave a little excess metal on the edge of the coins. The sprues
and excess metal needed to be filed off to improve the appearance of
The coins, which all had square holes in the center, were then stacked
onto a square
metal rod. The combination of a square rod threaded through the
coins' square holes locked the coins from rotating on the rod and
thereby made it easier for the worker to file off the sprue and excess
metal on the edges of the coins.
Therefore, "coin trees" are different from the "money trees" being
discussed here. However,
because of the similarity in appearance, some scholars believe that in
the very distant past the "coin tree" may have been the model
for the "money tree".
Stories of the Origin of the Money Tree
There are several legends
relating to the origin of the Chinese money tree.
One story tells of an old white-haired man who gave a peasant a very
seed. The old man told the farmer to plant the seed and then to
everyday. Not just any water could be used, however. The
had to be the beads of sweat from the peasant himself. Since the
seed needed a lot of water in order to sprout, the farmer would
need to provide a great deal of sweat everyday.
The old man then told the peasant that once the seed had sprouted, it
need to be continually watered. But not just any "water" could be
used. The sprout would need to be watered with drops of blood
from the farmer himself.
The peasant did as he was instructed and the resulting plant grew up to
be a "money tree". The peasant found that by shaking the tree,
coins would fall to the
ground. The peasant became rich and, because new coins grew back
to replace the coins that had fallen, the tree became a source of
While the story provides a magical origin for the money tree, the
implied meaning is that a person actually becomes
rich through hard work and relying on one's own sweat and blood.
A more literary source for the origin of the money tree has to do with
the identical pronunciation of the Chinese word for "bronze" (tong 铜) and the Chinese word for
the paulownia tree (tong 桐),
also known as the phoenix tree or tung tree. The leaves of this
tree are said to resemble Chinese coins. The leaves turn yellow
autumn, and when the wind blows, they look like bronze or gold coins
from the tree.
Historical Records and Archeological Discoveries
Chinese scholars believe that the
first historical mention of a "money tree" comes from the "Records of
the Three Kingdoms" (san
guo zhi 三国志), written by
Chen Shou (陈寿) in the 3rd century AD, which
documents the turbulent history of the
ancient Chinese states of Wei (魏), Shu Han (蜀汉) and Wu (吴) during
the period 189 - 280 AD.
One day, Bing
discovered a string of cash coins
on the ground
he was walking down the road. Unable to find the owner of the
lost money, he hung the string of coins on a nearby tree. Other
travelers on the road soon noticed the coins hanging on the tree and,
believing that it must be a holy tree, hung additional coins on the
tree with the wish that it will bring them more wealth and good fortune
in the future.
By placing strings of coins on the tree, people were following the
Chinese practice of making offerings and sacrifices with the hope that
actions would result in greater benefit in the future.
Many of these money trees have been unearthed in areas of Sichuan where
the Wudoumi Dao ("Five Pecks
of Rice") Daoist religious sect established by Zhang Daoling
Probably the most famous example is the 198 cm tall
"money tree" unearthed at Eastern Han Tomb No. 2 in Hejiashan Village
in Sichuan Province. This money tree has a pottery foundation
with the tree cast in bronze. The money tree is decorated with
strings of coins, as well as bronze dragons, phoenixes, elephants,
deer, dogs, etc.
A Money Tree with Ancient Chinese Coins
at the left is
a much smaller and modest example of a Chinese money tree.
Unlike the exquisite money trees found in the Han Dynasty tombs, this
bronze specimen does not have a separate pottery base.
Some money trees have auspicious symbols,
such as bats, or images of
immortals such as the Queen
Mother of the
West (xiwangmu 西
王母). This money tree does not have any such symbols.
However, the outstanding characteristic of this particular
money tree is that the "leaves" on the branches are all replicas of
rare ancient Chinese coins which predate the time this money tree was
The coins of ancient China are
typically round with a square hole and
are generally referred to as "cash" coins.
There are twelve such coins on this tree.
All of the "coins" have inscriptions which are identical to real
coins. The inscriptions are also written in exactly the same
calligraphic style as authentic coins.
These coins are identified and discussed in detail in the section
As can be seen, a man is standing on one of the lower branches with his
outstretched and his left hand on his hip. He is holding onto
another branch and, presumably,
shaking it in order to cause the coins to fall to the ground for him to
It is popularly believed that new coins grow on the branches to replace
those that have fallen. The tree, therefore, can provide an
inexhaustible supply of money.
This solid bronze money tree is approximately 18 cm in height and 13.5
Coins of the Money Tree
All the money trees found in
ancient tombs have
replica Chinese cash coins, which are round with a square hole in the
center, attached to their branches. Many times these coins have
no inscriptions or legends. If there is an inscription, however,
it is usually
that of a real
coin from the same historical period in which the money tree was
Many money trees
date have come from Han
Dynasty tombs and the replica "coins" on the branches have the
inscription wu zhu
(五铢). This was the inscription of a very common coin first
at the beginning of the
Han Dynasty. Wu zhu
coins continued to be produced for over 700 years. (The wu zhu coin is discussed in great
at Emergence of Chinese Charms.)
As mentioned above, all the coins on the money tree being discussed
here are replicas of real, identifiable ancient Chinese coins.
There are a total of 12 coins and 4 varieties on this money tree.
For example, the coin displayed at the left has the inscription ding ping yi bai (定平一百). The
ding ping yi bai coin was cast
and used in the Kingdom of
Shu Han during
the years 221-265 AD. The Kingdom of Shu is one of the Three
Kingdoms whose history is recorded in the "Records of the Three
Kingdoms" mentioned above.
The leader of the Kingdom of Shu Han was Liu Bei (刘备) who is well
to all Chinese as one of the heroes of the famous 14th
Century novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" (san guo yan yi 三国演义) written by Luo
This is another "coin" on the money tree.
The inscription, written in seal script, is read right to left as liang zhu (两铢).