Three Kingdoms History: Ancient Chinese Coins

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Ancient Chinese Coins: Western 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!

Western Han: Wu Zhu Coins

Western Han Wu Zhu—Chi Ze (Red Edge) variety. Was indicated to me as Schjoth #114, but does not have the unfiled edges of the very first Wu Zhu. Instead, this comes from the second “batch”, c. 115–113 BC. Minted under Emperor Wu. Note: I use the term “mint” throughout this website as a translation convention; all of these coins were cast, not struck.
Western Han Wu Zhu CoinWestern Han Wu Zhu Coin

Western Han Wu Zhu—Shanglin San Guan (Shanglin Three Offices) variety. c. 113 BC onward, also under Emperor Wu. Note the bar above the hole on the obverse.
Western Han Wu Zhu CoinWestern Han Wu Zhu Coin

Ji Mu Wu Zhu—“Chicken Eye”, so named because, well, chicken eyes are small and so are these. According to Cast Chinese Coins a frequently-encountered variety of these has been found in Western Han tombs dating to 73–33 BC, and this variety has sharp legends. My specimen below, although hard to see in the scan, is quite-easily read (for a coin this small) in hand, so I’m tentatively assigning this to Western Han, c. 73–33 BC The rulers of this period were Emperor Zhao, Liu Fuling, posthumous name Xiaozhao Huangdi (87–74 BC), Emperor Xuan, Liu Xun, temple name Zhongzong (74–49 BC) and Emperor Yuan, Liu Shi, temple name Gaozong (49–33 BC)
Western Han Wu Zhu CoinWestern Han Wu Zhu Coin

Jun Guo Wu Zhu—Jun are commanderies and Guo are states or kingdoms. The Han Dynasty administrative divisions were—Zhou—provinces, of which there were (usually) nine, headed by Inspectors; then came commanderies and states/kingdoms, the difference between which was simply that a state or kingdom was a commandery that had been designated as an imperial fiefdom for a member of the royal family, headed by Grand Administrators and Chancellors, respectively; and then came Xian—counties and Hou—marquisates, headed by Chiefs or Prefects and Chancellors, and again the difference between the two was that marquisates were counties that had been awarded as fiefdoms for persons not of the royal family—the highest level of marquis, that of a Full Marquis, was the highest level of royal rank to which someone not of the aristocracy could attain to.

Aside from the very beginning of Western Han, when various persons at the head of factions involved in the civil war that erupted after the fall of Qin were awarded kingdoms, the difference between the two was strictly semantic—the head of the latter was called a Chancellor, but the King of the territory had no power over administration, and everything was run the same as in a commandery. Anyway, in 118 BC the commanderies and states/kingdoms were ordered to cast 5 Zhu coins with rims such that they could not be clipped and pocketed by the populace. These are heavier than other, later Wu Zhu. They have unfiled rims, but the specimen below is extreme—it is exactly as it was when it came out of the mold, with the casting sprew and all the other extraneous metal still intact. One wonders if it circulated like this?
Western Han Wu Zhu CoinWestern Han Wu Zhu Coin

San Zhu—“Three Zhu”. Though this is, obviously, not a Wu Zhu I am including it here because these coins were cast for such a short period, and are scarce enough, that an entire page devoted to them seems unwarranted. The records apparently leave room for two possibilities, re: casting period for these, either 140–136 BC or 119–118 BC Since we know that Wu Zhu began in 118 BC that date seems to be favored, making these an intermediary between Ban Liang and Wu Zhu. On the other hand, though these are scarce they are hardly impossibly rare—they are encountered about as often as the Da Quan Dang Qian coins of Wu, which would seem to argue in favor of them being cast for more than just one year. Either way, thanks to Emperor Wu’s longevity they are definitely coins of his regime. Of the “normal” variety (as opposed to the ones with reversed legends) this is the scarcer, with no rims. Diameter: 22.2mm Weight: 1.8 g
Western Han Wu Zhu CoinWestern Han Wu Zhu Coin

Xuan Di Wu Zhu—As the name says, these were cast under Emperor Xuan of Western Han. His reign dates can be found on the Western Han Ban Liang page. As opposed to the other Wu Zhu with the bar across the top, inner rim of the obverse shown on this website, the Wu character is somewhat narrower and the top and bottom horizontal lines extend further out beyond the width of the “bullet” portions. It is also a somewhat thinner and lighter coin. Diameter: 25.9 mm Weight: 4 g
Western Han Wu Zhu CoinWestern 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