Related News

Home » Feature » Art and Culture

A penny for your thoughts

COLLECTING ancient coins is a serious hobby that requires considerable knowledge as they boast a long and colorful history within China, writes Wang Jie.

In China, there's perhaps nothing smaller than an ancient coin that can fuse history and culture so perfectly.

China was one of the first countries to use metal coinage that can be traced back more than 2,000 years. Despite the country's often turbulent history, there remain several well-known ancient coins.

Ban liang

Emperor Qin Shihuang, famous for his army of terra-cotta warriors, was the first to conquer the many "warring states" and unify China in 221 BC.

He then established a central government which also included unifying scripts, weights, measures as well as a standard monetary system.

At the time, each of the warring states had its own form of currency including coins and other distinctive forms like knives and spades. But Emperor Qin abolished all the others and established a round bronze coin with a square hole in the middle with a value of a "half tael," better known as ban liang.

Wu zhu

In 188 BC, the Western Han (206 BC-24 AD) replaced the ban liang coin with another round coin with a square hole in the middle called the wu zhu.

This type of coin was then used for more than 700 years to become the coin with the longest circulation in Chinese history. Many of these coins have "auspicious symbols," including stars and star constellations, the moon, the sun, swords and reptiles such as a turtle or a snake.

Today many scholars believe that the star, moon, cloud and dragon relate to the fundamental belief of the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, as well as the five elements (gold, wood, water, fire, earth).

Inspiring patterns

The 12 animals - rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig - of the Chinese zodiac were pictured on coins as special patterns.

Even the "auspicious cloud" that appeared on the Beijing Olympic torch could be traced to ancient coins.

Various other Chinese symbols, such as ruyi (an ancient scepter usually made of jade representing power and authority), or halberd (an ancient infantry weapon consisting of a shaft with a spear and a crescent shaped blade on the other end), could also be found on small coins.

Auspicious inscriptions

Chinese traditionally have a strong belief in the efficacy of coins to dispel evil and bring luck and good fortune to oneself and the family.

Thus it's common to see ancient coins with four or eight-character inscriptions or legends wishing for good luck, fortune, wealth, longevity, family reunion and honor.

Some coins have characters with a double meanings. For example, the Chinese character for deer, or lu, sounds similar with the word meaning "high salary of the government official." In another example, the word crab, or xie, is pronounced the same as "harmony."

The value

Today, many ancient coins buyers have a misunderstanding. They think the earlier the coin, the higher the price.

But it does not always work this way.

For example, wu zhu coins, although dating back 2,000 years, are only priced at several hundred yuan because many still exist. In fact, the rarity of a coin doesn't depend on its age.

The amount produced, the number still in existence, the quality and period of history are all vital in determining the value of an ancient coin.

Souvenir coins are usually worth more than circulated coins as they are often rarer.

Gold and silver coins usually command a higher price than those cast in iron or steel during the same period.

Please remember that a lot of coins were privately cast during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). But the quality and technique were poor and these coins have little value among collectors.

Normally coins made by the government at that time were of better quality than those made privately in the same period.

(Special thanks to Zhang Jun, a veteran collector of ancient Chinese coins)


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend