Three Kingdoms History: Ancient Chinese Coins

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Ancient Chinese Coins: Shu-Han Dynasty Coins

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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; 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!

Shu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) Coins

Zhi Bai Wu Zhu—“Worth 100 of 5 Zhu” c. AD 221–263 Emperor Zhaolie, Liu Bei, temple name Shu Xianzhu (AD 214–222; prior to assuming the throne of Han, in exile, in response to Cao Pi’s deposition of Emperoro Xian, Liu Bei had already had possession of Yi province for some years and after defeating Cao Cao’s forces at Hanzhong had taken the title of King of Hanzhong in AD 219); and Emperor Liu Shan, temple name Houzhu (AD 223–263) I’m such a 3K cliche—Shu-Han supporter and all. But it’s based on history, not the novel, so that makes it okay! Anyway, there are a number of dates given in various coin books and websites for the end-date of Shu-Han. I use AD 263 because it was in the winter of this year that the Wei general Deng Ai received the surrender of Liu Shan at Chengdu. Some use AD 264, no doubt because some further intrigue—including the murder of Deng Ai and a failed plot by Jiang Wei—Shu-Han’s General-In-Chief—and Wei general Zhong Hui occurred before Liu Shan left to live out his life as a defeated and exiled ruler at Luoyang, but I think in AD 263 it was all over but the shouting. The date of AD 265 seen in some places is incorrect.

This particular specimen below is the victim of unskilled cleaning on my part. I kind of nicked a lot of bare metal. Can’t wait for that Deller’s Darkener to get here…
Shu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) CoinShu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) Coin

This one has an interesting mark running up the left side of the reverse. Intentional mark or worn-out/error mold?
Shu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) CoinShu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) Coin

More Zhi Bai Wu Zhu—This is a “thick” type, excellent condition and patina.
Shu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) CoinShu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) Coin

Another of the “thick” type—characters are less clear, but love that green color.
Shu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) CoinShu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) Coin

Another “thin” type with excessive overhang on the inner rim.
Shu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) CoinShu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) Coin

Some think this last could be a sand-cast fake, others say specimens like this come out of river shipwrecks all the time. You all can decide for yourselves.
Shu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) CoinShu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) Coin

Zhi Bai—“Worth 100 (cash)” c. AD 214–263 According to the histories, after taking Liu Zhang’s surrender at Chengdu in AD 214 Liu Bei was advised to cast these coins as a measure for paying his soldiers. The specimen below is a “goose eye” coin—same rationale behind this as for the “chicken eye” or “elm seed” names.
Shu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) CoinShu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) Coin

A larger specimen with clearer characters. These coins are a good example of a fiduciary currency—the value is set by the government, not by the intrinsic worth of the material from which the currency is made. U.S. paper money is all fiduciary—the paper a dollar is printed on is not worth anything even close to 1 dollar, but people accept it at that value because everyone buys into its worth. In the early Chinese dynasties this was usually not the case. More often—as with Wang Mang’s fiduciary coinage—the cycle went: government issues coins, government sets value, people don’t accept them, the currency doesn’t trade, inflation sets in and counterfeiting becomes prominent. Apparently Liu Bei managed to forestall this problem for awhile with price controls but eventually the markets would have succumbed, possibly after Bei’s death or that of his masterful Prime Minister, Zhuge Liang, who, though not really a powerful wielder of magical forces, was nonetheless a veritable god of government and administration.
Shu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) CoinShu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) Coin

Ding Ping Yi Bai—“Settled Peace 100 (cash)” c. 221–263 The top specimen has an incuse character—Wang, “king”—on the left side of the reverse.
Shu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) CoinShu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) Coin
Shu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) CoinShu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) Coin

Another Ding Ping Yi Bai. This specimen came to me with badly obscured characters—although, honestly, most of these have at least one of the characters either badly obscured by patina or poorly cast. I experimented on it with commercial-grade hydrochloric acid to see if anything could be made clearer thereby—and it had not been an expensive coin. The results were so-so. The underlying metal is quite attractive, and the character visibility was improved somewhat, but much of the poor visibility was, in the end, due to poor casting.
Shu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) CoinShu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) Coin

Tai Ping Bai Qian—“Great Peace 100 (cash) Coin” c. AD 221–263 Originally these were thought to have been coins of the Wu dynasty of the 3 Kingdoms period because Emperor Sun Liang enacted a reign title of Taiping in AD 256 However, subsequent research and archaeology has confirmed that these coins were first cast at least 30 years earlier than this and most are found in the former territory of the Shu-Han dynasty alongside other, known coins of that dynasty. Like the Ding Ping Yi Bai, many of these are poorly cast with weak rims and characters, although the larger specimens—none pictured here, for now—naturally tend to be clearer. The specimen below appears to show the impression of another coin’s rim in its reverse patina. It also has an abbreviated form of the Tai character-type usually seen on these.
Shu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) CoinShu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) Coin

The specimen below was treated to an acid bath just like that of the Ding Ping Yi Bai at the top of the page, for similar reasons, except that in this case it was readily apparent that the Ping character—on the bottom—was badly cast, such that it was nearly non-existent. Already a low-grade, inexpensive specimen, I decided to see if anything else at all, detail-wise, lay beneath the patina. As it turns out, there was—the faintest outline of the Ping could be seen and it cleared up the Qian somewhat—these two characters, especially the Qian, seem to be the weakest on most of these that I have seen (admittedly not that many). The Tai and the Bai are usually more clear. For whatever reason this scan shows almost none of the actual in-hand detail
Shu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) CoinShu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) Coin

This is a Tai Ping Bai Qian with “stars and water waves” pattern on the reverse. Despite the weakness in some of the characters and the reverse design, this is still one of the best cast Tai Ping Bai Qian I’ve seen. Some have opined that these are charms, and indeed it is unusual for coins intended for general circulation in the markets, etc, to have this sort of ornate pattern on them. However some others feel that they are just that—regular issues. It is worth noting that there are a couple of different types of these, distinguished by calligraphy variations and the number of “stars” (dots) on the reverse design. The type shown below is one of the more common ones, along with a type done in “normal” script. Some more peculiar versions exist, and it seems not unreasonable that the more ornate varieties could be charms based on the more common types that were cast and circulated as regular-issue coins. Or I could be clueless. Regardless, I believe all of the Tai Ping Bai Qian are contemporaries of each other because the ones I’ve seen, anyway, seem to share the same casting style and types of defects (the Qian character, no matter how it’s done, seems always to be weakly cast, etc).
Shu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) CoinShu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) Coin

Shu Wu Zhu—According to the seller I got this from these are known as “Liu Yan” Wu Zhu in China. Hartill lists these as one of two types of Wu Zhu called Shu Wu Zhu, and Liu Yan was Inspector of Yi Province (the Shu region) during the later days of Latter Han, though it is also suggested they could be coins of Liu Bei’s Shu-Han Dynasty, which was established after Bei took over the region from distant relative Liu Zhang, who was Yan’s son. According to the Great Dictionary of Chinese Numismatics vol. 3, a very thorough Chinese reference, these are coins of Shu-Han, and are specifically delineated as coins of Liu Bei, in contrast to other Wu Zhu attributed to Liu Shan, Bei’s successor. Since this is in accord with Hartill I have to lean towards these being coins of Shu-Han, and so have moved this from its original attribution under Eastern Han Wu Zhu.
Shu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) CoinShu-Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms) 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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March 7, 2014