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Coin Dragon

According to an article in the December 4, 2020 edition of the Science and Technology Daily (科技日报) written by Mr. Zhou Qian (周乾) who is a researcher at the museum, a surprising discovery was made in 2017 during renovation of the Hall of Mental Cultivation (yangxin dian 养心殿) in the Forbidden City (Palace Museum 紫禁城) in Beijing where the emperors of China lived and worked from 1420 to 1911.

Attached to the side of the ridge beam supporting the roof is a dragon. While painted dragons can be found throughout the palace, this dragon is not a painting. It is a “coin dragon”, seen in the image below, which is a dragon sculpture made entirely of old Chinese coins.

Coin Dragon discovered in Forbidden City (gugong)
Coin Dragon discovered in the Hall of Mental Cultivation in the Forbidden City

Since ancient times, a grand ceremony (上梁) always takes place when the main roof beam of a palace building is raised and installed. Hanging above the coin dragon can still be seen the remnants of the red silk satin from this topping-out ceremony which occurred several centuries ago.

Good luck charms, frequently including coins, would traditionally be attached to a roof beam to provide protection from evil spirits, fire and other disasters. There would also be charms expressing the wish for peace and good fortune. In the case of the Hall of Mental Cultivation, this tradition takes the unique form of a dragon made of coins.

There are no historical documents that mention the existence of this coin-dragon so, apparently, it was meant to stay hidden and kept a secret.

The above photograph is actually a still image of the ‘coin dragon’ (‘money dragon’ 钱龙) taken from a video broadcast by Beijing TV on March 2, 2020. (The coin dragon can be seen beginning at around 1:41 in this video.)

The “coin dragon” is composed of Chinese cash coins linked together on strings. The dragon is 182 cm (5.97 ft) long and 47 cm (1.5 ft) high. The backboard is made of paperboard on which is painted a colorful dragon. The strings of coins create the shape of the dragon and are attached to the backboard and beam by “gold-plated round-head copper nails”.

The newspaper describes the dragon’s appearance as “mighty and shocking with fierce teeth and dancing claws, creating clouds and driving the mist“.

Head of Coin Dragon
The head of the Coin Dragon

The construction of the coin-dragon can be better seen in the above close-up of the head.

In defining a ‘coin dragon’, the Baidu Encyclopedia (百度百科) specifically refers to this specimen in the Hall of Mental Cultivation. No other examples are mentioned so it is likely that this particular work of imperial sculptural art is unique.

Coin Dragon 'qianlong tongbao' coins
Coin Dragon constructed from strings of ‘Qian Long Tong Bao’ coins

The above image gives a closer view of the dragon’s body and how the coins are connected to each other by strings or cords made of hemp. The coins are traditional Chinese cash coins which are round with a square hole in the middle. Many believe that the shape of the cash coin reflects the ancient Chinese philosophy that the ‘sky is round and the earth is square’ (天圆地方).

Although Chinese cash coins were used for more than 2,000 years, the coin dragon is composed entirely of one specific coin.

The Qianlong Emperor (乾隆帝) reigned from 1735 to 1796 during the Qing dynasty (清朝). He resided and also held audiences with high government officials in the Hall of Mental Cultivation where the coin dragon “lives”.

Qian Long Tong Bao coin
‘Qian Long Tong Bao’ coin

As can be seen at the left, all the coins have the inscription qian long tong bao (乾隆通宝). Qianlong (乾隆) represents the era name (年号) of this emperor and translates as “Lasting Eminence”. Tongbao (通宝) translates as “circulating treasure” and refers to money.

The coins are about 2.8 cm in diameter and are identical in every way to those that were minted for normal circulation during this emperor’s reign. However, none of these coins show any wear so they were all newly cast for this dragon sculpture and were not taken from circulation.

Dragons have been a totemic symbol of Chinese emperors since the very earliest times. In traditional Chinese culture, the dragon represents the ultimate power and authority in the sky. The emperor, being the ultimate power and authority on earth, is the thus the counterpart to the dragon. (See paper money showing the Qianlong Emperor with dragon symbols.)

Using coins to construct the dragon is consistent with this sky (round) and earth (“square” hole) relationship.

The coin dragon thus serves as the supreme representation of the Chinese belief in charms as objects with supernatural powers able to defeat ghosts and demons, deter disasters, and bring forth peace and good fortune.

Given the close association of a Chinese emperor with a dragon, why is it that a coin dragon did not make an appearance prior to the time of the Qianlong Emperor?

The explanation is actually quite straightforward. By coincidence, this emperor’s name is qian long and the Chinese expression for ‘coin dragon’ is also qian long. The emperor’s name is pronounced exactly the same as ‘coin dragon’!

Because no previous Chinese emperor had a name that sounded like ‘coin dragon’, there had never before been a reason to create a dragon sculpture made of coins to honor a reigning monarch.

While the pronunciation is identical, the qian long Chinese characters are different and have different meanings. ‘Coin dragon’ is written 钱龙 while the emperor’s name is written 乾隆.

What could be a more fitting tribute to the supreme authority of the empire than creating a dragon, literally in his name, made of symbols of wealth to represent the power and prosperity of the country?

There is, however, an intriguing and as yet unsolved mystery concerning the coin dragon.

Portrait of the Qianlong Emperor at the Cleveland Museum of Art
Detail from a portrait of the Qianlong Emperor at the Cleveland Museum of Art

At the left is a detail from an official portrait of the Qianlong Emperor painted in 1736 which was the year he ascended the throne. The painting is by the Jesuit missionary-artist Giussepe Castiglione (郎世宁) and is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

As can be clearly seen, the emperor’s robe displays dragons with five claws.

During the Qing dynasty, all depictions of dragons associated with the emperor had to have five claws. Importantly, only the emperor and his immediate family could display five-claw dragons. High-ranking government officials could display dragons but only with three or four claws depending on rank.

However, the Beijing TV video reveals that the coin dragon has only four claws instead of five.

Coin Dragon Claw
Coin Dragon missing one of its five claws

At the left is a still image from the video showing the four claws. On closer examination, however, there are four claws and also a stub at the very bottom.

The coin dragon must have had five claws originally but, according to the Baidu Encyclopedia (百度百科), “for some reason, all of its legs now have only four claws and one broken claw”.

The reason for the missing “fifth claw” remains an intriguing and unsolved mystery.

Finally, the discovery of the coin dragon was not the only surprise that occurred during the renovation of the building.

Treasure Box discovered under the roof of the Hall of Mental Cultivation
Treasure Box discovered under the roof of the Hall of Mental Cultivation

Discovered under the roof was a sealed “treasure box” (宝匣) made of tin and decorated with an azure dragon (青龙) having five claws.

The square box is 27 cm (10.6 in) on the sides and 6.5 cm (2.6 in) high.

The inscription on the treasure box reads “the sixth year of Emperor Jiaqing” (嘉庆六年) which would be the year 1801.

The Jiaqing Emperor (嘉慶帝) was the son of the Qianlong Emperor and ascended the throne in 1795.

The azure dragon is one of the dragon gods of the Five Deities (五帝) which is associated with the five colors (五色), five phases (wuxing 五行), etc. The box contained various “treasures” including Buddhist sutras, gems in five colors (五色宝石), satins in five colors (五色缎), silk threads in five colors (五色丝线), five spices (五香), five herbal medicines (五药), and five cereal seeds (五谷).

Unfortunately, the scroll, satins, and silk threads had deteriorated to such an extent that they were barely visible. The spices, medicines and grains were also in poor condition and difficult to identify.

Sycee (yuanbao) discovered in Hall of Mental Cultivation "Treasure Box"
Sycee (yuanbao) discovered in the Hall of Mental Cultivation “Treasure Box”

The treasure box also contained five “sycee” (细丝) which are shown in the image at the left.

Sycee, also known as yuanbao (元宝), were a form of currency used during the Qing dynasty. These ingots were usually made of either gold or silver and their value was determined by their weight.

The five sycee found in the treasure box are made of five different metals including one each of gold, silver, copper, iron and tin (seen in the image above from left to right).

Gold coins found in treasure box at Hall of Mental Cultivation
Twenty-four gold coins with the inscription (Chinese and Manchu) meaning “May the world be at peace” found in a Treasure Box under the roof of the Hall of Mental Cultivation

But, what is perhaps the most interesting treasure found in the box were the 24 gold coins shown at the left.

The 24 coins equal the number of gold coins found in the Hall of Supreme Harmony (太和殿) where the grandest rituals took place. These are the most gold coins found among the 50 treasure boxes discovered in the Forbidden City.

These 16k gold coins were not minted to be used as money. They are actually charms and have a traditional ‘good luck’ inscription as opposed to a “coin” inscription such as found on the coins of the coin dragon.

The gold charms are 25.4 to 28.4 mm in diameter, 1.7 to 2.1 mm thick, and weigh 10.7 to 11.36 grams.

The meaning of the inscription is the same on both the obverse and reverse sides. One side is written in Chinese and the other side is written in the Manchu script (满文). Manchu was the native language of the emperors of the Qing dynasty.

The characters read tian xia tai ping (天下太平) which, after all, is a fitting inscription for an imperial treasure. This inscription translates as “May the world be at peace”.

(It should be noted that besides the coin dragon, Chinese coins have also been used to create charms in the shape of a sword. The British Museum has a coin-sword made from qianlong tongbao coins which are the same coins used for the coin dragon. For additional information on sword charms, please see Swords and Amulets.)

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