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Chinese Coins and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Old Chinese "cash coins", which are round copper or bronze coins with a square hole in the middle surrounded by four Chinese characters, served as the major form of currency in China for two thousand years.

It is less well known, however, that Chinese cash coins are believed to have curative powers and have historically played a role in traditional Chinese medicine (中 医 TCM).  Old cash coins have been used in two ways.  One was to have the patient boil the coins in water and then drink the decoction as a form of medicine.  The second use was for the Chinese doctor to use a cash coin as a medical tool or instrument to "scrape" the skin along acupuncture meridians to force an illness to move and dissipate.

The following is an introduction to these two uses of old Chinese cash coins in traditional Chinese medicine.

Chinese Cash Coins as Medicine

Old Chinese Kai Yuan Tong Bao cash
                coin used in traditional Chinese medicineAccording to ancient books on traditional Chinese medicine, such as the authoritative Compendium of Materia Medica (ben cao gang mu 本 草纲目) written during the Ming dynasty (明 朝 1368 - 1644 AD) and consisting of more than 52 volumes, old Chinese copper or bronze coins could be used in medications to treat such maladies as heart and stomach pain, bladder diseases, corneal opacity, fever, etc.

While any old Chinese bronze coin could be used, there were a few specific coins that tended to be favored by Chinese doctors.

Li Shizhen (李 时珍), the author of the Compendium of Materia Medica, recommended using
Kai Yuan Tong Bao cash coins and Chinese doctors for generations afterwards favored using this particular Tang Dynasty cash coin.  The Kai Yuan Tong Bao (开 元通宝), such as the one pictured at the left, was cast beginning in the year 621 AD during the reign of Emperor Gaozu of the Tang dynasty (唐 朝 618-907).

Li Shizhen, for example, wrote that if walnuts and kai yuan tong bao were chewed together, syphilis (梅 毒) could be cured.  Also, it was well-known at the time that the patina (铜 绿) on these coins would kill bacteria.

Yang Shiying (杨 士瀛), who lived during the Southern Song (南 宋 1127-1279), wrote the Straightforward Guide to Recipes and Discourses of [Yang] Renzhai (仁齋直指方論).  He advised that using ordinary kaiyuan tongbao coins would not be good enough.  He recommended choosing a kaiyuan tongbao coin that had two "moons" (crescent marks) on the reverse side.  The practitioner should place the coin on the hot charcoals of a fire.  The copper coin contains tin and lead components.  Because tin and lead have a lower melting point than copper, these metals will melt first and form white "beads" (珠子).  These white beads have a "miraculous" effect on phlegm (利痰).  It should be noted that the people at the time regarded the molten tin and lead to be mercury.

During the Qing dynasty (清 朝 1644-1912), Zhao Xuemin (赵 学敏) wrote the Supplement to the Compendium of Materia Medica
(本 草纲目拾遗) which expanded on the work of Li Shizhen's Materia Medica.  Zhao Xuemin considered the kaiyuan tongbao coin to be so important to Chinese medicine that he included in the book a summary, entitled "Kai Yuan Money" (开元钱), where he collected and organized from the major medical books of the time all the prescriptions using this coin.  He found that the coin was able to cure many diseases and was used for internal medicine, surgery, gynecology, pediatrics, etc.

For example, the "Supplement to the Compendium of Materia Medica" records that ancient texts describe a condition called "forbidden mouth dysentery" (禁 口痢) in which people vomit after eating certain foods.  The prescription is to heat a kaiyuan tongbao coin until red, quench with vinegar, grind into powder and mix with porridge.

In Shaanxi province (陕 西), there was a traditional Chinese medicine prescription that was popular for removing "dead muscle" (死肌):  combine 2 each kaiyuan tongbao coins, 2 each walnut kernels, 1 or 2 sparrow feces, boil the mixture 7 times, quench 7 times with vinegar and then apply externally.

Ji Yun (纪 昀), also known as Ji Xiaolan (纪晓岚), in his book entitled "Notes of the Thatched Abode of Close Observations" (阅 微草堂笔记槐西杂志) states that in the case of a broken bone, the powder of a kai yuan tong bao coin should be taken into the body.  The powder will actively find the place of a broken bone and begin to connect and heal the break.

At the beginning of the Qing dynasty, the price of kai yuan tong bao coins increased greatly because they were believed to be an effective cure for a number of ailments.  According to Ji Yun, the "Autumn Lantern Series Talks" (秋 灯丛话), for which the author is unknown, stated that it took 1,000 shun zhi tong bao (顺 治通宝) coins, which were the cash coins in circulation at the time, to buy just one kai yuan tong bao coin.

Use of particular coins by Chinese doctors during the later dynasties followed the general recommendation that cash coins "at least 500 years old" be used in medical procedures.

                Yuan Tong Bao coin used in Chinese medicineAnother cash coin that was favored for its medicinal properties was the Zhou Yuan Tong Bao (周元通宝) which was cast beginning in the year 956 AD during the reign of Emperor Shi Zong of the Late Zhou.  A Zhou Yuan Tong Bao coin is shown at the left.  Metal for the casting of these coins came from the melting down of Buddhist statues and was, therefore, considered to be of very high quality.  For hundreds of years, the Chinese have used this coin in medicine to prevent miscarriages.

Chinese coins of the Han, Tang, Song, Ming and Qing (Ch'ing) Dynasties are mainly composed of copper, tin, iron, lead, and zinc along with the trace elements of barium, calcium, silver, and gold.  Since the human body requires very small amounts of trace elements, it is possible that the trace elements in the cash coins provided those missing, or provided the necessary quantities, to cure or improve the health of those deficient in these necessary minerals.

However, there is one form of ancient Chinese bronze money that was not used in medicine and that is the knife shaped money (daobi 刀币) of the Warring States Period (475 - 221 BCE).

A "pointed" knife (jian shou dao 尖首刀), shown at the left, is an example of this ancient form of currency from the State of Yan.

                Chinese Warring States Period knife shaped money from
                the State of YanModern analysis shows that, for example, the "ming" character knives (ming zi dao 明字刀) of this same Warring States period are composed of almost 50% lead.  Serious health problems from lead poisoning would have occurred if this ancient form of bronze money were used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medications.

Chinese Cash Coins as a Medical Tool

Old Chinese cash coins are also used as a medical tool or instrument in a traditional Chinese medical treatment called gua sha (刮痧).  Gua sha is a Chinese medical technique that was historically used to reduce fever in patients suffering from cholera but is also used in cases of sunstroke, asthma, bronchitis, headaches, digestive disorders, etc.

Oil is first placed on the skin and then the edge of an old cash coin is used to scrape the skin along acupuncture meridians.  It is believed that this medical procedure will help release the disease which is stagnant under the patient's skin.

The technique leaves some skin bruises but these fade away in a few days.

Many Chinese believe in gua sha and find it to be an effective medical treatment.

Nevertheless, there are doubters who claim that positive results are due to either the medicinal ingredients of the oil used or simply the patient's belief (placebo effect) that the procedure will work.

Note:  To see how old Chinese cash coins were also used to foretell the future, please visit Fortune-Telling and Old Chinese Cash Coins.

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