Three Kingdoms History: Ancient Chinese Coins

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Ancient Chinese Coins: Eastern Han Wu Zhu

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While enjoying the rich stories, personalities, and lessons of the Three Kingdoms era, it is all too easy to forget that this is all taking place within a unique culture. A culture full traditions, unique weapons, armor, and clothing, unique pottery—and coins. That’s right, coins! If you are a coin collector, you are already very curious. If not, read on and enjoy this section. You might find it much more interesting than you anticipated. Presenting a detailed coin-by-coin analysis, presented, photographed, and written by Adrian Loder (web site and more coins; discussion; full credits) of Chinese coins ranging from the Early Han dynasty on into the Jin. And let’s not forget the Three Kingdoms!

Eastern Han: Wu Zhu Coins

Eastern Han Wu Zhu—c. AD 25–220 Emperor Guangwu, Liu Xiu, began casting Wu Zhu again after taking power, and they were the mainstay of Eastern Han currency through to the end of the dynasty, when Cao Pi of Wei forced the last Emperor of Eastern Han—Emperor Xian, Liu Xie—to abdicate. Cao Pi’s father Cao Cao had been Prime Minister of Han for a couple of decades prior to this, and near the end of his reign as de facto ruler (Xian was a figurehead from the time Dong Zhuo removed his older half-brother, Emperor Xiao (“small”—ruled for only a few months as a child, deposed, then killed with his mother), from the throne and replaced him with Xian, to the time of his forced abdication) he was made Duke of Wei and received the Nine Distinctions. The few records of Wei coins indicate that in this pre-abdication period, as well as into Wei times, they continued to use Wu Zhu per Eastern Han models but those would be Wei dynasty coins.

Interestingly, Cao Pi gave his father the posthumous name of Wudi—Emperor Wu, or Martial Emperor—while styling himself Wendi—Emperor Wen. King Wen of Zhou wished to depose the Shang Emperor who held the Zhou and other states as vassals but, according to the stories, could not bring himself to do it, instead accumulating power, territory, and allies. On his death, his son, King Wu, waged war with the Shang and defeated them, establishing the Zhou Dynasty. Cao Pi was giving a not-so-subtle indicator of who was really to blame for overthrowing Han by making his father Wu and himself Wen, despite the fact that the actual abdication was enacted by Pi.

Um..where was I? Oh yeah, the coin. I think the patina is modern—not modern in the “faked” sense but modern in the “cleaned of any old patina 30 years ago and now it has an ugly, powdery patina that I’m going to have to do something about” sense.
Eastern Han Wu Zhu CoinEastern Han Wu Zhu Coin

Eastern Han (?) Wu Zhu—This coin has an incuse character, Xiao—small, carved into the bottom of the obverse. It was sold to me as Eastern Han but given the extreme wear rendering calligraphic analysis difficult, and the fact that the coin is rimless, I’m not certain. If it is Eastern Han the rims were clipped at some point.
Eastern Han Wu Zhu CoinEastern Han Wu Zhu Coin

Eastern Han Wu Zhu—Typical E. Han Wu Zhu, with incuse character Shang—higher, above—on the right side of the reverse.
Eastern Han Wu Zhu CoinEastern Han Wu Zhu Coin

Eastern Han Wu Zhu—This one has multiple incuse characters/symbols. The top of the obverse has a triangle, and the top and bottom of the reverse sport sideways ba—eight—and er—two—respectively. That, then, would be 28—but 28 what? I certainly don’t know what the incuse characters on so many Wu Zhu are supposed to mean and last I checked neither does anyone else. Oh well—they’re neat anyway.
Eastern Han Wu Zhu CoinEastern Han Wu Zhu Coin

Two Eastern Han Wu Zhu with “half-stars”—really half-dots—on the top, inside rim.
Eastern Han Wu Zhu CoinEastern Han Wu Zhu Coin
Eastern Han Wu Zhu CoinEastern Han Wu Zhu Coin

Eastern Han Wu Zhu—“star” (dot) on left side of reverse. As with the rest of these, c. AD 25–220 Too many rulers to list in a coin entry, btw, I’ll make a page with a list of all the Eastern Han Emperors at some point [Han Emperors].
Eastern Han Wu Zhu CoinEastern Han Wu Zhu Coin

Eastern Han Wu Zhu—This one has a mold/cast error—it would seem one half of the mold may have shifted slightly, creating a “doubled” effect on the Zhu character.
Eastern Han Wu Zhu CoinEastern Han Wu Zhu Coin

Eastern Han Wu Zhu—My personal favorite (of the E. Han Wu Zhu). This coin was first cast in the 3rd year of Zhongping, AD 186, under Emperor Ling, Liu Hong. All the sources indicate that Emperor Ling was a real piece of work. And when he died without choosing his heir, and also leaving in his wake a power struggle between court officials and corrupt palace eunuchs, bad things started happening. Like, the beginning of the end. The four rays on the reverse of this coin are supposed to represent wealth flowing forth from a ruined city—not long after gaining power Dong Zhuo sacked Luoyang and burned it to the ground—but Chinese history is filled with all kinds of stories like this where signs and events portend future tragedy. I’m sure this is the meaning later ascribed to the four rays, but it seems somewhat unlikely to me that the people in AD 186 actually interpreted them that way at the time. It seems far more likely that a few years later, in the early-to-mid 190s people looked at the coins and imagined a prognostication therein.
Eastern Han Wu Zhu CoinEastern Han Wu Zhu Coin

Here’s another E. Han Wu Zhu—this one has an incuse character Yi—“one”—on the top of the obverse, as well as a small bar under the Wu that was part of the actual casting.
Eastern Han Wu Zhu CoinEastern Han Wu Zhu Coin

Here’s another with the character Xiao—“small”—carved incusely, this time on the bottom of the reverse. As opposed to the other, this is certainly Eastern Han.
Eastern Han Wu Zhu CoinEastern Han Wu Zhu Coin

Here’s a rather unique one—this E. Han Wu Zhu also, surprise, has an incuse character carved on it. However, unlike the majority of these, which sport numerals or “measure” words like large and small, the character on the bottom of the reverse of this coin is Yang—“sheep”. The character is carved sideways—the two slanted lines on the right are actually the top of the character. This coin is also somewhat warped or bent. The bend is from top to bottom but it appears left to right in the reverse photo because, for whatever reason, when scanned in the correct orientation the Yang character displays poorly. However, if turned so the character is upright, it scans well. So I scanned the reverse sideways, so the Yang would scan clearly, then rotated the image to the correct orientation.
Eastern Han Wu Zhu CoinEastern Han Wu Zhu Coin

Zhu Wu—This Wu Zhu has a reversed legend, with the Zhu on the right and Wu on the left, hence Zhu Wu. Nice strong rims, so definitely Eastern Han, however as with all Eastern Han Wu Zhu the rims (and coins) are thinner and more lightweight than their Western Han dynasty counterparts. Diameter: 24.5 mm Weight: 2.2 g
Eastern Han Wu Zhu CoinEastern Han Wu Zhu Coin

Copyright © 2001–2010 James Peirce
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All coin photographs and instructive text © Copyright 2006 Adrian Loder (Website)
Primary sources: David Hartill’s Cast Chinese Coins (ISBN: 1-4120-5466-4), Robert Kokotailo’s Calgary Coins Website
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January 19, 2015