Two enthusiasts of the “salt lake culture” were taking pictures of birds at the Yuncheng “salt lake” (运城盐池) when they accidentally discovered a number of clay moulds (模具) used to cast iron coins (铁钱) during the Northern Song dynasty (北宋 960-1127), according to an article published June 16, 2015 by the Yuncheng News Network (运城新闻网).
Because of its huge quantities of salt, the salt lake has historically been a valuable resource. Beginning in the Tang Dynasty (唐朝 618-907), a “Forbidden Wall” (禁墙) was built around the lake to protect this important source of tax revenue and to prevent stealing and smuggling.
While the wall no longer exists, it is fortunate that a few old and rare photographs have survived which show the wall’s gates.
Two bird photographers at the Yuncheng salt lake discover more than 500 clay moulds used to cast iron coins during the Song Dynasty
The image above shows Mr. Jing Xiaoxiong (景晓雄) and Mr. Zhang Xiaobie (张小别) who are credited with discovering the coin moulds at the Yuncheng salt lake.
They recovered more than 500 moulds although many are in poor condition.
Inscriptions on the coin moulds include chong ning tong bao (崇宁通宝), zheng he tong bao (政和通宝) and zheng he zhong bao (政和重宝) written in seal script (篆体), as well as da guan tong bao (大观通宝) and yuan feng tong bao (元丰通宝).
Clay mould used to cast “chong ning tong bao” iron coins during the Song Dynasty
As can be clearly seen in the above image, the inscription is chong ning tong bao (崇宁通宝) which indicates that this mould was used to cast iron coins during the years 1102-1106 of the reign of Emperor Huizong (宋徽宗) of the Northern Song dynasty.
The beautiful calligraphy used for this coin is known as “Slender Gold” script (瘦金书) and was done by Emperor Huizong himself.
Examples of moulds used to cast Northern Song iron coins discovered at Yuncheng’s salt lake
The image above displays 26 of the coin moulds.
The inscriptions are still very distinct.
Several of the better preserved clay coin moulds
The inscriptions on the clay moulds in the image above are identified in the article as “chong ning tong bao (崇宁通宝), zheng he zhong bao (政和重宝), zheng he tong bao (政和通宝), and yuan feng tong bao (元丰通宝)”.
However, the inscription on the mould at the far right appears to me to be da guan tong bao (大观通宝).
The discovery of the coin moulds is actually quite puzzling.
Yuncheng was known as Hedong (河东) in ancient times. According to historical documents, Hedong did not have a mint during the Song dynasty. Furthermore, no ruins of any mint have ever been discovered in the area.
The discovery of the clay moulds will encourage further study of Song dynasty ruins in the Yuncheng area in the search for an ancient coin mint.
These coins were unearthed in 2004 from the Grand Canal in an area near the Da Guan Bridge (大关桥) in Hangzhou.
Close-up of “kai yuan tong bao” coins dug up from the Grand Canal in 2004
A more detailed view of some of the coins is shown here.
As can be seen, the coins are very well preserved despite having been buried for more than 1,300 years.
Large quantities of ancient coins from other dynasties have also been recovered.
Song dynasty coins recovered from the Grand Canal on display at the Zhongce Accounting Museum in Hangzhou
At the left are some of the Song dynasty (宋朝 960-1279) coins that have been unearthed from the canal.
These coins are on display at the Zhongce Accounting Museum (中策财会博物馆) in Hangzhou.
Like the Great Wall (万里长城), the Grand Canal was one of the monumental engineering projects of ancient China, and to this day continues to reveal its history through discoveries of long buried treasures.
This is a rare and exquisitely made charm. However, there is no Chinese inscription and collectors are still uncertain as to its theme.
The charm, which first appeared during the Liao (辽朝 907-1125) or Song (宋朝 960-1279) dynasties, is believed to depict huren playing musical instruments, dancing, and doing acrobatics (胡人乐舞杂伎).
Hu (胡) means “beard” so the term huren (胡人) means “bearded people”. Huren referred to foreigners from north, west and central Asia who wore thick beards. In ancient times, the term huren translated as “barbarian” because the Chinese believed the huren were “uncivilized” in comparison to the Han Chinese (汉族) and their great culture.
Nevertheless, these “barbarians” would eventually rule China during the Tartar dynasties. The Liao dynasty (907-1125) was ruled by the Qidan (Khitan 契丹族), the Jin dynasty (金朝 1115-1234) was ruled by the Nuzhen (Jurchen女真族), and the Western Xia (Xi Xia 西夏 1032-1227) was ruled by the Tangut (西藏人).
As seen at the left, the charm displays four individuals. Three are playing musical instruments while the fourth (bottom) is doing a handstand or similar acrobatic stunt.
Even though the figures are referred to as huren in numismatic catalogs, none appear to have beards.
The four figures are remarkably lively. They can easily be compared to the famous Eastern Han (东汉朝 25-220) tomb sculpture of a storyteller dancing and beating his drum.
Huren were noted for their musical and dancing prowess. Poets at the time described their energetic dances as “barbarian leaps” (胡腾舞).
The figure to the right of the square hole is standing on his left leg. He is holding a stick in his right hand and striking an object in his left hand.
He appears to be playing an ancient musical instrument known as a wooden fish (muyu木鱼).
The wooden fish was originally used in rituals by Confucians, Buddhists and Daoists.
Over time, however, the common people began to use the wooden fish as a musical instrument.
The figure at the bottom is performing a handstand or similar acrobatic stunt.
To the left is another musical instrument, or possibly a Chinese yo-yo (kongzhu空竹).
Historical documents are unclear as to when the Chinese yo-yo, which evolved from the very ancient Chinese “gyro” (陀螺), actually appeared. Some references mention the yo-yo appearing as early as the Three Kingdoms (三国 220-280) while others indicate a later date such as the Yuan (元朝 1271-1638) or Ming dynasties.
The reverse side of the charm is usually described as showing four “babies” playing and having fun (婴孩嬉戏玩耍).
It is not unusual for Liao dynasty charms to include children playing.
Also, the figure above the square hole is often shown riding a dragon.
More than 12,000 iron coins dating from the Northern Song (北宋 959-1126) have been recovered from ruins located in Shanxi Province (山西省) following 20 months of excavation and research, according to a report by the Shanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology (山西省考古研究所) published January 26, 2015 by the Shanxi News Network (山西新闻网).
The archaeological site, situated on a high precipice, is located at Jiangzhou (绛州) which was the historical name of what is now Xinjiang County (新绛县). China’s most famous percussion ensemble, the Jiangzhou Drum Troupe (绛州鼓乐), derives its name from this ancient prefecture.
The iron coins were severely corroded. After treating the coins for rust, the archaeologists have determined that most of the coins are from the middle to late Northern Song Dynasty.
Tadpole script, as you might guess, resembles tadpoles. As can be seen here with the character bai (白) in the inscription, the top (head) of the character tends to be large. The stroke then narrows so that the bottom (tail) of the character is very thin.
Tadpole script was developed after the Han dynasty (汉朝 206 BC – 220 AD).
At the time, the term “tadpole script” also referred to the script that had been used during the Zhou dynasty (周朝 c.1046 BC – 256 BC).
Tadpole script was short-lived, however, and by the time of the Tang dynasty (唐朝 618-907) was not frequently used.
These charms first appeared during the Song dynasty (宋朝 960-1279) and usually have a diameter of 62.5 mm, a thickness of 4 mm, and a weight of 62.9 grams. The specimen shown above, however, is unusually large with a diameter of about 90 mm.
This Chinese charm, with the distinctive tadpole script, serves as a testament to the qualities the ancient Chinese admired in a government official. Officials were expected to be well-versed in the classics and to display the highest moral character.
On special occasions in ancient times, Chinese mints would cast an unusually large, thick, heavy and well-made coin.
The coin was known as a “vault protector” (zhen ku qian镇库钱).
The coin was not for circulation but occupied a special place at the treasury.
The treasury had a spirit hall where offerings could be made to various gods including the God of Wealth (财神). The special coin would sometimes be hung with red silk and tassels above the incense table in the spirit hall.
The vault protector coin was believed to have charm-like powers that provided protection from disaster and evil while ensuring good fortune and wealth.
Vault protector coin “da tang zhen ku” of Southern Tang
Shown at the left is the earliest vault protector coin know to exist, and also the most famous.
The inscription da tang zhen ku (大唐镇库) translates as “Vault Protector of the Tang Dynasty”.
The translation is a little misleading, however, because the coin was not produced during the great Tang Dynasty (618-907).
The coin is actually attributed to the short-lived Southern Tang (nan tang 南唐 937-976) which was one of the Ten Kingdoms that existed after the fall of the Tang.
The coin was cast during the baoda period (保大 943-957) of the reign of Yuanzong (元宗), also known as Li Jing (李景 or 李璟), of the Southern Tang.
The obverse side (not shown) of the coin has the inscription xian feng tong bao (咸丰通宝) which means the coin was cast during the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor (咸丰帝), 1850-1861.
The inscription on the reverse side, seen above, is da qing zhen ku (大清镇库) which means “Vault Protector of the Qing Dynasty”.
According to this article, there were a total of five of these special vault protector coins cast. In the early years of the Republic (1912-1949), a eunuch stole the coins. Three of the coins were sold to an Englishman for “a large amount of money”. One of the remaining coins is at the Leizhou City Museum and the other is at The Palace Museum (故宫博物院) in Beijing.
The coin has a diameter of 14 cm. The square hole is 2.5 cm. The coin weighs 1050 grams.
Vault protector coin cast at the Board of Works during the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor of the Qing Dynasty
The inscription reads bao yuan ju zao (宝源局造) which means “made by the Board of Works”.
The reverse side has the Chinese inscription zhen ku (镇库) which means “vault protector”.
According to Mr. Ma Dingxiang (马定祥), one of the most famous Chinese numismatists of the 20th century, this vault protector is consistent with the style of coins cast during the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor.
Reverse side of vault protector coin cast during the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor
This very large coin has a diameter of 11.52 cm and weighs 837.3 grams. The center hole is 1.8 cm.
According to “Coins in China’s History” published in 1936 by Arthur B. Coole (邱文明), only 4 or 5 of these vault protector coins from the Board of Works (宝源局) exist. Mr. Ma Dingxiang states in his book on the coins of Xianfeng (咸丰泉汇), that there exists just one specimen of a companion vault protector coin that was cast at the same time at the Board of Revenue (宝泉局).
The description in the exhibit reads “A Taiping Sample Coin Permanently Placed in the Heavenly Treasury as a Symbol of Wealth”.
It can be clearly seen in this image just how thick these vault protector coins really are.
There is some speculation that a very large and heavy banliang coin (半两) made of silver was cast by the State of Qin (秦) in 336 BC to serve as a vault protector. Please see “State of Qin Silver Banliang Coin” for a detailed discussion.
Because vault protector coins are so rare, there is no shortage of fakes appearing on the market. In doing research for this article, I found several coins described as vault protectors which I found questionable. Collectors of these special coins therefore need to be especially careful.
China nowadays issues on a regular basis a large variety of special commemorative coins made of precious metals such as gold or silver. These coins are not meant for circulation. They are popular as collectables and investments.
Some of these modern coins are modeled after the vault protector coins of ancient times.
In 1998, a gold coin modeled after the “Vault Protector of the Tang Dynasty” discussed above was issued. A gold version of the Emperor Xianfeng vault protector discussed above was minted in 1990. Finally, a gold coin based on a different Emperor Xianfeng vault protector was produced in 1982.
Mr. Qi Yuezhang (祁悦章) with the Pengyang County Office of Chronicles Compilation (彭阳县史志办公室) is the author of the article. Based on his more than 10 years experience in cultural relics, he states that the coins are authentic.
The coins were obtained by a local Pengyang County coin collector from a Mr. Hu (虎姓) who lives in Mengyuan Village (孟塬乡).
Rare “Da An Bao Qian” coin from the Western Xia
Shown at the left is a rare coin minted during the Western Xia (xi xia 西夏 1038-1227).
The inscription is written in Tangut (xi xia wen 西夏文) which was the script used by the Tangut people who ruled during the Western Xia.
The inscription (Chinese translation) reads da an bao qian (大安宝钱) and the coin was cast during the years 1075-1085 of the reign (1068-1086) of Emperor Hui Zong (惠宗, 李秉常).
Unfortunately, the images of the coins published with the article are small. However, the coin appears to be the “slanted character” variety (斜字版).
This bronze coin has a blank reverse side and a diameter of 2.4 cm.
Rare variety of “Chun Hua Yuan Bao” coin from the Northern Song Dynasty
The inscription is written in regular script (kai shu 楷书) and reads chun hua yuan bao (淳化元宝).
Chun hua yuan bao coins written in regular script are actually very common.
However, this particular coin is a very rare variety.
The radical (shui 氵), which resembles three vertical dots and is on the left side of the first character chun (淳) at the top of the coin, is “shortened” and does not extend all the way to the bottom of the character.
“Chun” character on common “Chun Hua Yuan Bao” coin
This may be easily seen by comparing the coin’s chun (淳) character with that of a “common” variety of chun hua yuan bao coin as displayed in the image at the left.
The coin is thus known to Chinese numismatists as the “shortened shui” or “shrunken shui” variety (suo shuiban缩水版) and very few authentic specimens are known to exist.
According to legend, Emperor Tai Zong personally did the calligraphy for the chun hua yuan bao coin inscription. For this reason, the coin is known as “royally inscribed currency” (yu shu qian御书钱).
Pengyang County is located in the territory once ruled by the Western Xia and large quantities of both Western Xia and Song dynasty coins have been excavated in the area.
Not surprisingly, more than half of the ancient coins in the collection of the Pengyang County Office of Cultural Relics (彭阳县文物馆) date from the Western Xia and Song dynasty.
The inscription reads ru tu wei an (入土为安) which means “to be laid to rest” or “burial brings peace”.
The coin was not minted to circulate as money but was privately cast as a funerary object. It was buried with the corpse with the hope that the deceased will rest in peace and that the living relatives will have peace of mind.
The coin has a diameter of 2.45 cm and a thickness of 0.13 cm.
Because these coins are not included in catalogues or other Chinese coin references, it is difficult finding authoritative information.
The article states that several of these coins were discovered in a grave dating to the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
The article also emphasizes the importance the ancient Chinese placed on proper burial of the dead and that coins with the inscription ru tu wei an were placed in graves as a matter of course.
Reverse side of “laid to rest” funerary charm
The coins discovered in the grave had a diameter of 2.4 cm, a thickness of 0.14 cm and a weight of 3.8 grams.
The coins also had a broad rim of 0.3 cm and a fairly small square hole with a diameter of 0.6 cm.
The reverse sides of the coins were blank with no inscription.
Other specimens of this funerary coin may be seen here and here.
In years past, there was some controversy regarding the age of these coins.
The controversy centered on how the Chinese character wei (为) is written in the inscription.
On the coin, the wei is written in simplified Chinese (为) instead of traditional Chinese (為). The argument was that because simplified Chinese did not exist prior to its adoption in 1956, these coins could not date from the Qing Dynasty or earlier.
Research has shown, however, that variant forms of the character wei, including 为, existed at least from the time of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) so the controversy has been put to rest.
Forum members describe the coins as “really scary” and “horrifying”. Many members state that they would not buy or own such a coin.
One forum member mentioned that because these coins were “put into the mouth of the deceased” during burial, they should be “thrown away because they are unlucky”.
In China today, the tradition of burying the dead has changed. Cemeteries require a great deal of land and with China’s immense population, burials are no longer allowed. Cremation is the law of the land although enforcement, particularly in rural areas, can be lax.
This coin is particularly rare because it is gilded in gold (鎏金) and only a very few gilt bronze (铜质鎏金) tian ce fu bao coins have been discovered.
Ma Yin began minting these coins in the year 911 to commemorate his promotion to the rank of Supreme Commander of the Tiance Prefecture (天策上将军) as bestowed by Emperor Taizu of Later Liang (后梁太祖).
Both the bronze and iron coins have a nominal value of 10 which means they had a denomination equivalent to ten normal size bronze “cash” coins.
The inscription is read in a clockwise fashion (xuan du 旋读) beginning with the top character.
The characters are deeply cut in regular script (kai shu 楷书) and the coin is well-made.
This coin has a distinctive feature. Regarding the tian (天) character at the top, the vertical line connecting the two horizontal strokes is very short. Most of the other coins exhibit a slightly greater distance between the two horizontal strokes. For this reason, the coin is known as the “short neck Tian” (短颈天) variety.
As mentioned above, this very rare coin has a gold coating although the reason why only a few specimens were treated in this manner is unknown.
Gilt tian ce fu bao coins tend to be slightly larger than the plain bronze coins and the iron coins.
This particular specimen has a diameter of 43 mm and weighs 36.6 grams. The width of the square hole is 9.5 mm and the coin has a thickness of 5.5 mm.
The Shanghai Museum also has a gilt tian ce fu bao coin.
According to the Shanghai Museum website, this coin has a tian (天) character above the square hole on the reverse side. The website, however, does not show an image of the reverse side of this coin.
I have learned that the Shanghai Museum actually has three of these very rare gold-gilt tian ce fu bao coins.
A Chinese reference book (中华珍泉追踪录) displays rubbings of both the obverse and reverse sides of these three coins. The rubbings do not show a character on the reverse so I believe the Shanghai Museum website is in error.
Regarding the rarity of the coins, Baidu Baike (百度百科), the online encyclopedia of China’s major search engine, states that among the approximately 40 specimens of bronze tian ce fu bao coins known to exist, only 5 are gilded with gold.
During the 1950’s, a number of banliang (半两) coins were unearthed at a site near Xian (西安). Among the coins was one unusually large and very heavy banliang coin.
While banliang coins cast in Qin (秦) during the Warring States period typically have a diameter of 32 – 34 mm and weigh about 8 grams, this particular specimen is 66 mm in diameter, 7 mm thick, and weighs an astonishing 96.15 grams.
Even more remarkable is that the coin is made of silver instead of bronze.
Mr. Ma Dingxiang (马定祥), one of the most famous Chinese coin collectors of the 20th century, obtained the coin from a friend and fellow numismatist in Xian. Other famous numismatists of the time, including Mr. Luo Bozhao (罗伯昭), Mr. Sun Ding (孙鼎) and Mr. Li Weixian (李伟先), had the opportunity to admire the coin.
This coin is the only known specimen of its type and it is said that Mr. Ma treasured it for the rest of his life.
The coin sold at auction in 2011 for the equivalent of $334,103 (RMB 2,070,000).
Regarding the silver banliang coin, Mr. Guan Hanheng (关汉亨), a well-known Chinese numismatist and author of a book (半两货币图说) on banliang coins, has carefully examined the photographs and rubbings. His findings are discussed below.
Reverse side of a unique silver banliang coin from the State of Qin
The coin clearly shows signs of having been buried for a long period of time. The surface displays the oxidation that would be expected on a coin that had been buried for some 2,000 years. There are small cracks on the reverse side.
Mr. Guan states that this appearance could not have been created artificially.
Even though banliang coins were also cast at the beginning of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), this silver coin matches those cast by Qin.
The casting of this silver coin is consistent with this method. Its sprue (17 mm) is at the bottom which means that it would have been one of the two top coins in the mould.
Second, the shape and appearance of the coin is correct for coins cast in Qin during the Warring States period. The center hole is rectangular, as opposed to the square holes of the Han Dynasty banliang coins, and the top and bottom horizontal lines have bent corners.
The characters are vertically elongated and the top horizontal stroke of the liang (两) character is short. As the script evolved further, the top horizontal line became longer as is seen in banliang coins from the Han Dynasty.
For the above reasons, Mr. Guan is convinced that the coin was minted by the State of Qin.
As to why such a large coin made of silver was cast, Mr. Guan considered several possibilities.
In 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇帝) succeeded in uniting China for the first time in history. Following the unification, he standardized the country’s units of measurement including weights and currency.
It is possible then that this unique silver banliang was cast to serve as an official “weight”.
According to the standard “weights and measures” (度量衡) of Qin, one liang (两) was equivalent to about 14.4 grams. A “ban liang“, which means “half liang” or “half tael”, would therefore be about 7.2 grams.
Mr. Guan did a survey of Qin banliang coins excavated during the past 30 years. The coins weighed 6.5 – 7.5 grams each. This would be within the range of the standard weight of 7.2 grams per coin.
As mentioned earlier, this very large silver banliang weighs 96.15 grams. Taking into consideration that the coin may have lost some weight due to wear and oxidation, its original weight could have been 100 grams or more. This would have been the equivalent of 14 government minted coins of standard weight.
It is possible, therefore, that this silver banliang was cast to serve as an official weight to be used with a scale to confirm that 14 regular banliang coins met the required weight of about 100 grams (100/14 = 7.14).
And, an official coin weight like this could very well have been cast in silver to signify its importance.
However, Mr. Guan feels that the coin was more likely cast for a different reason.
As has been seen with the six character knives (六字刀) produced by the State of Chu (楚), money was sometimes cast to commemorate a special event.
According to Mr. Guan, there were two important events that took place in Qin that could have resulted in the issuance of a commemorative coin.
However, no historical records mention that Qin Shi Huang ordered the casting of a special commemorative coin to mark the occasion.
Also, it is considered significant that Mr. Ma Dingxiang during all the years he owned the coin never personally proposed that it may have been made cast for this purpose.
For this reason and others, Mr. Guan feels that this large silver banliang coin was most likely cast to commemorate the first issuance of banliang coins in 336 BC.
Throughout Chinese history, when a new imperial reign or dynasty was founded, or a new mint was established, a special coin would frequently be produced to mark the occasion. The coin tended to be larger than normal, well-crafted and made of very good metal.
A special coin produced for these occasions is also known as a “vault protector” (镇库钱). The coin would not circulate as normal currency but was believed to have charm characteristics that would bring good fortune and avert calamity.
In conclusion, Mr. Guan feels that this very large and unique silver banliang coin served as a vault protector and was cast in 336 BC to commemorate the firing of the furnaces that began production of the first banliang coins of Qin.
At approximately 10:00 AM on March 21, the excavator was dredging a small 6-meter wide river that runs through Longgang Town (龙冈镇) in Yancheng when it uncovered a pile of ancient Chinese cash coins that had been stored in a earthenware pot.
Villagers digging for buried coins
Word of the discovery quickly spread and, as can be seen in the image at the left, many of the local villagers hurried to the site to search for “treasure” buried in the mud.
It is estimated that the villagers recovered 200 – 300 catties (斤) equivalent to about 267 – 400 lbs (121 – 181 kgs) of coins before the authorities arrived on the scene to restore order and protect the “cultural relics” which, according to Chinese law, belong to the state.
Mr. Zhao Yongzheng (赵永正) of the Archaeology Department of the Yancheng Museum (盐城市博物馆考古部) rushed to the scene and provided information on the discovery.
A preliminary investigation, according to Mr. Zhao, identifies the coins as dating to the Tang and Song Dynasties.
Media reports mention that among the coins dug up were kai yuan tong bao (开元通宝) from the Tang dynasty as well as tai ping tong bao (太平通宝), zheng he tong bao (正和通宝), and xiang fu yuan bao (祥符元宝) from the Northern Song dynasty.
“Tai ping tong bao” coin dating from the Song Dynasty found by a Yancheng villager
Beginning in very ancient times, the Chinese included money among the objects buried with the deceased.
This burial money was referred to as yi qian (瘗钱), meaning “buried money”, or ming qian (冥钱), meaning “dark money”.
The money was to be used by the deceased in the afterlife to make life more comfortable. It was also offered as a “bribe” to Yan Wang (阎王 or yanluowang 阎罗王), the judge of the underworld, to encourage him to act quickly and favorably in regard to the spirit.
Ancient China had a number of interesting forms of money.
Graves evacuated from the Shang Dynasty (商朝 c. 1600 BC – 1046 BC) sometimes include thousands of cowrie shells. As an example, the Tomb of Fu Hao (妇好墓), dating from about 1200 BC, was found to contain 6,900 cowry shells.
These forms of money were also buried as funerary objects.
Unfortunately, the custom of burying money in tombs attracted the attention of grave robbers who throughout the ages have dug up graves in order to steal buried money and other valuable artifacts.
Having the grave of a relative desecrated in such a manner was extremely unsettling to the living relatives. The spirit of the deceased was disturbed and the money meant to ensure his comfort in the afterlife was gone.
To minimize the chances that a tomb would be disturbed, a change took place involving burial money. Instead of real money, imitation money was sometimes used.
This imitation money resembled real money but instead of being made of bronze, silver or gold, it was made of hardened clay.
These imitation coins are known as “clay money” (ni qian 泥钱) or “earthenware money” (tao tu bi 陶土币).
According to “Han Material Culture” by Sophia-Karin Psarras, any representation of currency was acceptable as legal tender in the afterlife. Therefore, surrogate forms of money made of clay could be used in lieu of real bronze, silver or gold money.
Since clay money had no value in the world of the living, it was believed that grave robbers would leave the deceased to rest in peace.
The use of surrogate currency was used by both the rich and poor alike since even families of modest means could afford to buy the imitation coins to bury with their relatives.
Clay cowrie shell money (泥贝币)
The wealthy who buried real money in tombs would often also include coins made of clay.
At the left can be seen cowries made of clay that were produced specifically to be buried in graves.
These particular specimens are unusually well-made.
Clay banliang (泥半两) coins excavated from a Han Dynasty tomb at Mawangdui
The primary form of money that circulated during the Qin Dynasty (秦朝 221 BC – 206 BC), as well as the early Western Han Dynasty (西汉 206 BC – 24 AD), was the banliang (半两) coin made of bronze.
In addition, the “zhu” in wuzhu can refer to the trunk of the 300 li tall fusang (扶桑) tree which is an auspicious symbol that guides the dead on the journey to the heavens and immortality, according to Susan Erickson in her article “Money Trees of the Eastern Han Dynasty”.
(For more information about money trees discovered in Han Dynasty tombs please see “Chinese Money Trees“.)
The wuzhu coins played a more down-to-earth role as well. The Chinese view of the afterlife gradually evolved so that the spirit world was seen to be similar to the earthly world. The money in the tombs could therefore be used by the deceased to pay taxes to the otherworldly government.
Clay “daquan wushi” (泥大泉五十) coin
Clay versions of coins from later dynasties have also been unearthed in tombs.
As an aside, during the Tang Dynasty there was an autonomous region in what is now Hebei that was under the control of a warlord named Liu Rengong (刘仁恭). He minted clay coins and iron coins, and then forced the people to trade in their bronze coins for these coins. This is a rare case where clay coins were officially minted for circulation and not for funeral use. Unfortunately, no specimens of these clay coins are known to exist.
Clay burial coins which imitate Song and Jin dynasty coins discovered in a tomb in Shanxi Province.
The coin at the far right, for example, is a clay version of the chong ni zhong bao (崇宁重宝) coin written in Li script (“clerical script” 隶书) and minted during the years 1102-1106 of the reign of Emperor Huizong of the Northern Song Dynasty.
Coins with this inscription were cast during the years 1736-1795 of the reign of the Qianlong Emperor.
In addition to “low currency” (下币) money consisting of bronze coins such as the banliang and wuzhu coins that commonly circulated during the Qin and Han dynasties, there was also a “high currency” (上币) form of money that made its appearance during the Warring States period.
This money was made of gold and was used as currency as well as for sacrificial offerings, rewards, fines, etc.
Kings, nobility and the wealthy were frequently buried with this type of gold money in their tombs.
Gold plate money (ying yuan 爰金) from the State of Chu
An example of the gold money that circulated in the State of Chu during the Warring States period may be seen at the left.
This money is known as yuan jin (爰金) and consists of small square gold cubes connected together in a form best described as a slab, plate or sheet. Individual squares could be broken off and spent as needed.
The yuan (爰) was a unit of weight and jin (金) means “gold”.
Each of the gold squares was also inscribed with Chinese characters. For this reason, these “coins” are also known as yin zi jin (印子金), jin ban (金钣) or gui bi (龟币). They are sometimes referred to in English as “ying yuan”, “gold plates”, “seal gold”, or “gold cube money”.
Some have the characters ying yuan (郢爰). Ying (郢), which was situated in what is now Jingzhou (荆州) County in Hubei Province, was the capital of the State of Chu.
The other inscription found on these gold coins is chen yuan (陈爰). After the Qin army captured the capital city of Ying, the State of Chu moved their capital to Chen which was located in what is now Huaiyang (淮阳), Henan Province.
Clay versions of State of Chu gold plate money (泥”郢称”(楚国黄金货币)) found buried in tombs of the Warring States Period
At the left are clay specimens of the State of Chu’s yuan jin gold money (泥”郢称”(楚国黄金货币)) that have been recovered from tombs.
These particular specimens were unearthed in Zhejiang Province which was part of the ancient State of Chu during the Warring States period.
More than 300 pieces of this clay replica gold currency were also recovered from Lady Dai’s tomb at Mawangdui.
As can be seen, the imitation money has the same overall shape as the real gold money but is made of clay.
Careful observation shows that the surface design on these imitation sheets of gold money resembles square pieces of cloth or fabric.
This design could not be adequately explained prior to the discovery of Lady Dai’s tomb.
Silk funerary money (丝织品做的冥币) recovered from Tomb No. 1 (Lady Dai) at Mawangdui
Silk was a valuable commodity in ancient times and bolts of silk could also function as a form of currency. Small “denominations” of this “money” were created by cutting the silk into small squares.
Several of these small square silk “coins” (丝织品做的冥币) were recovered from Lady Dai’s tomb at Mawangdui. This was the first time such silk squares functioning as a form of burial money had been discovered.
Nowadays, Chinese burial customs have changed somewhat. Real and imitation money is no longer buried with the dead. Instead, paper money known as joss paper (“gold paper” 金纸, 阴司纸), Hell money, Hell banknotes, and ghost money is burned instead.
While the custom has evolved, the basic concern for the financial well-being of the deceased remains the same.
Hell bank notes burned at funerals today have hyperinflated denominations of $10,000 to $5,000,000,000 or more.
While such large bank note denominations may appear excessive to us today, we have already seen that 2000 years ago there existed “clay” gold cake money valued at 1,000,000 cash coins.
Printed paper money involves two of the Four Great Inventions attributed to the Chinese, namely the inventions of papermaking and printing.
Cai Lun (蔡伦 50 – 121 AD), an official of the imperial court during the Han Dynasty, is recognized as the inventor of paper.
The Chinese were the first to use paper money which began during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) but was not widely used until the beginning of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279).
Historians can only speculate as to what that first paper money from the Tang Dynasty, known as “flying cash” or “flying money” (飞钱), may have looked like since no verified specimens are known to exist.
The current practice of burning joss and hell bank notes to provide money for the afterlife can be seen as the latest stage in the evolution of a custom that began in very ancient times with the burying of real and imitation money.