Chinese Money Trees
Chinese legends speak of a
摇钱树) that when shaken causes coins 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 "leaves" shaped 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 of 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
Coin Trees and Money Trees
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 or 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
British 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", on the edge
of 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.
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
One story tells of an old white-haired man who gave a
peasant a very special seed. The old man told
the farmer to plant the seed and then to water it
everyday. Not just any water could be used,
however. The water 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 would 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 perpetual wealth.
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 in the autumn, and
when the wind blows, they look like bronze or gold
coins falling 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
the turbulent history of the ancient Chinese states of Wei
(魏), Shu Han (蜀汉) and Wu (吴) during the period 189 - 280 AD.
day, Bing Yuan (邴原) discovered a string of cash coins
on the ground as 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 ancient Chinese practice of making offerings and
sacrifices with the hope that such actions would result in
greater benefit in the future.
The concept of the "money tree", however, is actually rooted
much earlier in Chinese history. During the excavation
of a number of Han Dynasty (206 BC -220 AD) tombs,
very ornate "money trees" have been discovered.
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 flourished.
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
Displayed 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
Some money trees have auspicious symbols, such as bats, or images of
immortals such as the Queen Mother of the
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 created.
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
As can be seen, a man is standing on one of the lower branches
with his right arm 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 then gather.
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 cm in width.
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 created.
Many money trees found to
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 cast 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 detail at Emergence of Chinese
As mentioned above, all the coins on the money tree being
discussed here are replicas of real, identifiable ancient
There are a total of 12 coins and 4 varieties on this
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
The leader of the Kingdom of Shu Han was Liu Bei (刘备)
who is well known 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 Guanzhong.
This is another "coin" on the money tree.
The inscription, written in seal script, is read right to
left as liang zhu
The liang zhu was
cast in the year 465 AD during the Southern
Dynasties by Emperor Qianfei of Liu Song.
Very few authentic liang
zhu coins are known to exist and they are,
therefore, very rare.
This is an even rarer "coin" cast during the same time
(465 AD) and place as the above coin.
The inscription, also written in seal script and read
right to left, is yong guang
Emperor Qianfei of Liu Song used the reign title "Yong
Guang" for only a few months so real yong guang coins are
The final example of a "coin" from this money tree is
actually much older than any of the others.
The inscription reads right to left as yi hua (益化).
This coin was cast during the Warring States
Period (475 -221 BC) of the Zhou Dynasty.
It was cast and circulated in the State of Qi during the
years 300 - 220 BC.
Return to Ancient
Chinese Charms and Coins