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Banliang coins
Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE)
Diam. (average) 2.3 cm
Collection of Shandong Provincial Museum
(cat. #18A)


A variety of different coinage was in use in ancient China until the First Emperor of China unified the currency during the Qin dynasty with the banliang (“half ounce” or four zhu) coin, which was round with a central square hole. This standardization of coinage was part of a broader plan to consolidate political and administrative power that included standardizing weights and measures (see cat. nos. 20, 21) as well as axle widths to make countrywide communication more effective. The banliang coins typically weigh between ten and six grams. In 118 BCE a new coin type, the wuzhu (five zhu) coin (cat. no. 19), was introduced by the Han emperor Wudi (r. 141–87 BCE). The wuzhu coin weighed on average 3.5 grams and remained in circulation for over seven hundred years. In contrast to Western coinage, which was most often stamped and where the intrinsic value of the metal content generally created the value of the currency, Chinese coins were cast with metal of little value. Value was imparted by a fiduciary relationship between issuer and user, the inscription on the coin in effect transforming the object into one of value. Although the bronze and, later, copper metal of coins had little intrinsic value, bronze was itself a signifier of importance in ancient Chinese rituals, as seen in such ritual bronze vessels as the ding (cat. no. 4) in our exhibition. During the Warring States period and continuing through the Han dynasty, replicas of money produced in clay as well as miniature coins began to be placed in tombs.

To make coins like those in our exhibition, ceramic master molds would have been used to make the secondary molds—usually of ceramic, stone, or metal, as we see here. Molten bronze was poured into the upper channel of this secondary mold and would then flow into the offshoots of this casting tree.[1] The mold would then be broken open and the resulting “coin tree” removed. The connecting metal would be broken off, filed down, and reused, and the coins put into circulation. During the Eastern Han dynasty the repertoire of financial resources within a tomb expanded with the introduction of bronze money trees whose branches were laden with wuzhu coins. It is thought that the idea for creating them came as a result of seeing coin trees during the casting process. This mold in our exhibition would have cast forty banliang coins, and our other coin mold (cat. no. 19) would have cast twelve wuzhu coins.

Back: Mold for banliang coins (four zhu)

all text & images © China Institute Gallery


1. Metal molds, such as for our wuzhu coins (cat. no. 19), would have been backed with a disposable earthenware mold, which aided in gas absorption, and the two would have been secured with iron clamps along the two brackets on the back of the secondary mold. The mold in the exhibition, however, does not have brackets. For more details on the technology of coin mold casting see Anthony Barbieri-Low’s discussion in Liu et al., Recarving China’s Past, nos. 60–63. For more information on money trees during the Eastern Han dynasty, see Susan N. Erickson’s essay in the same publication, as well as Susan N. Erickson, “Money Trees of the Eastern Han Dynasty,” Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 66 (1994), pp. 1–116.

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