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August 8, 2010

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Counting the coins of a heavenly kingdom

LONG ago Chinese, like other peoples, bartered with livestock, crops and other goods. But China became the first to use a currency, at first small, light, hard cowry shells that were easy to carry. Shells became a symbol of wealth and when the supply of shells ran out, coins in the shape of shells were made from bronze, bone, ceramic and other materials.

It was not until Emperor Qinshihuang unified the country and currency in 221 BC that shells finally were withdrawn from circulation. Bronze coins were shaped like implements such as hoes, knives, spades and shovels. Round coins came into being, some with round holes, but most of them with a square in the center, reflecting the ancient notion that heaven is round and earth is square. The holes made them easy to string and count.

And so this continued, different dynasties and rulers in different areas placing their stamp on their bronze coins.

One of the most interesting of many fascinating coins is the one named hua qian (patterned coin), cast by the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (1850-1864). The coins were also used as talismans and to balance inflation after the Heavenly Kingdom established its capital in Tianjing (capital of Heaven, which is today's Nanjing) around 1853.

The coin is extremely rare. It is decorated on one side with two dragons chasing a pearl and four Chinese characters "Tai Ping Tian Guo" (Taiping Heavenly Kingdom) in the middle. On the other side of the coin are the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism with the characters "Sheng Bao" in the center. Each symbol is an illustration of the power of Buddha. The patterns reflect the expectations of the regime to enjoy a long and stable rule.

The kingdom collapsed only 11 years after the coin was cast. The capital was burned and few relics remained. The coin reminds us of the vicissitudes of China in the 19th century.


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