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Mold for wuzhu coins
Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE)
Bronze; H. 22.7 cm, W. 7.7cm, D. 0.9 cm
Excavated from Cangshan
Collection of Shandong Provincial Museum
(cat. #19A)


In tombs of the Han dynasty, we often find either real or imitation coinage.[1] Clearly the purpose of these coins was cosmological as well as monetary.[2] Round coins with a square center hole are viewed as cosmic maps, imaging the relationship between the round heaven and the square earth, whereby the deceased could ascend to paradise. For this reason, bronze trees laden with wuzhu coins are sometimes called shengxianshu, “immortal ascension trees,” rather than yaoqianshu, “money trees.” [3] Impressions of wuzhu coins are often found in clay tomb tiles such as our directional tiles (cat. nos. 46–50), which came from the walls of the Eastern Han tomb at Linyi. Wuzhu coins are also depicted in the center and corners of the liubo game in our exhibition (cat. no. 7), again linking this coin with immortality as well as with divination. The name wuzhu itself indicates why there is an abundance of such coins in tombs.[4] From a more practical point of view, the wuzhu coins had another function. As the bureaucracy of the afterlife began to replicate that of the mundane world, coins in tombs enabled the deceased to pay taxes to the underworld government without causing misfortune to their living relatives.[5] In ancient China, even if you could avoid death and achieve immortality, you still had to pay taxes.

Detail: Wuzhu coins

all text & images © China Institute Gallery


1. Mawangdui Tomb 1 yielded two types of clay imitation coinage: banliang coins and Chu yingcheng ingots. There were 300 imitation yingcheng ingots and 40 containers of imitation banliang coins, each container holding approximately 2500–3000 coins. All the imitation coins were called tuqian (dirt cash) on the tomb inventory records. Hunan sheng bowuguan et al., Changsha Mawangdui yihao mu, vol. 1, p. 126; and ibid., vol. 2, p. 198, plate 226 (banliang); p. 220, plate 254 (banliang); p. 197, plate 227 (yingcheng); and p. 220, plate 255 (yingcheng).

2. In the 123 years after 118 BCE, when wuzhu coins first came into use, more than twenty-eight billion coins were cast. Lien-sheng Yang, Money and Credit in China: A Short History, Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series 12 (1952; repr. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).

3. Zhang Maohua, “Money Trees Explained,” China Archaeology and Art Digest 4, no. 4 (April-May 2002), pp. 20–21.

4. Susan Erickson discusses the term wuzhu in the context of a cosmic pillar that acts as a conduit to heaven. On the long side of a stone coffin excavated from Eastern Han Tomb 3 at Guitoushan, Jianyang county, Sichuan province, there are depictions of creatures associated with heaven, such as a dragon (see cat. nos. 43, 44), liubo players (see cat. no. 7), and the deities of the sun and moon. Below the sun and moon, there is a small tree and an inscription that reads zhushu. The zhu is a vertical support or pillar mentioned in the “Tian wen” of the Chuci, where the question is asked: “Where did the eight pillars (zhu) meet the sky?” Similarly in the Shanhaijing it is noted that the zhu (trunk) of the fusang tree is 300 li tall. The fusang tree is an auspicious symbol associated with the journey to immortal realms. The character shu is a measure of weight, but it is also pronounced zhu and is used in the word for wuzhu coin. Erickson extrapolates that since this tomb also contained a branch of a money tree with a wuzhu coin, that this image of a tree below the sun and moon may refer to pillars like the money tree that act as conduits to heaven. Erickson, “Money Trees of the Eastern Han Dynasty,” pp. 31–32.

5. Poo Mu-chou, In Search of Personal Welfare: A View of Ancient Chinese Religion (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998), p. 170. Also see Anna Seidel, “Tokens of Immortality in Han Graves,” Numen 29 (1982), p. 111.

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