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Chinese numismatic art, pt. I : Calligraphy


Lhevae
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What makes a coin beautiful to you? I am pretty confident to say that most of us will answer, "design", among other factors. And that is a fact, the iconography of a coin plays a major role in its attractiveness when it comes to western coins. We will enjoy a coin for its original design or its refined and particularly detailed engraving. When confronted to chinese coins, we are often disoriented by what we think to be a total lack of design and originality. Indeed, our conception of numismatic art is almost exclusively based on the iconography (from the latin iconographia, ~"drawing art", coming itself from the greek Εἰϰονογραφία). Ancient coins might be seen as little pieces of ancient art, and some if not a large part of engravers were definitely trying to reach something more than just a formal design with their work. But I'm preaching to the choir here. On the other hand, calligraphy is not really the strong point of western coinage, inscriptions having a purely functional role.

One of the main features of ancient chinese coins is the absence of iconography. Since the birth of chinese coinage to the early 20th century only, chinese coins only had characters for themselves. Does that mean that people in China weren't seeking art in their coin production or that they couldn't come with anything artistic? I will not dwell on the particularity of the production (i.e. by casting coins in mass) that without a doubt contributed to the this absence of designs, but chinese coins are definitely more than just characters. There has been numismatists in China for a long time, and their interests were very different from the western collectors. This post will focus on the beautiful writing (literally) : calligraphy. I will speak about the main and more noticeable calligraphy styles used on coins.

Although the interest in calligraphy in China traces back to the early antiquity, its importance on coinage really gained momentum during the reign of (the usurper) Wang Mang (9 - 23 AD). Before that, little to no attention was given to the calligraphy of spades and knives (most of them). On the same page, the calligraphy on Wu Zhu and Ban Liang was standardised the result of a simplification of the traditional seal script (small seal script).

Wang Mang, in his first monetary reforms, kept using the small seal script in use on the during the Han Dynasty, although the care brought to it was definitely more noticeable. However the former Han official was a nostalgic for the golden confucean era and quickly created a complex monetary system, reintroducing spades, knives and other fancy coin shapes that were discontinued for centuries. With this new coinage, he also gave the Great Seal script (大篆, Dàzhuàn) an elegant and refined revival, sometimes called "suspended needles seal script". This name is pretty self speaking (see fig. 2 below). However, Wang Mang reign was short-lived and his reform of coinage was quickly abandoned.

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1. Xin dynasty, Wang Mang (9-23 AD), 大泉五十 / Da Quan Wu Shi (27mm, 4.30g), large coin worth 50, small seal script.

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2. Xin dynasty, Wang Mang (9-23 AD), Huo Bu, spade of 25 (57x22mm, 17.20g), great seal script.

The centuries following Wang Mang's death saw a lot of political changes and marked an era of division and chaos for chinese coinage. Coinage was overall very poor in terms of workmanship and diversity. Most of the coins in circulation at a given moment were Wu Zhu : old coins, chiselled ones, private cast, reduced coins... Some kingdoms and dynasties tried to reintroduce the great seal script alongside coins of higher quality, but this was eventually a roller-coaster and all these initiatives didn't last long. The poor Wu Zhu were always coming back. I will share one of the finest uses of the great seal scripts of this period, for the sake of it, but it's not from my collection (unfortunately).

image00787.jpg

 

3. Northern Zhou, anonymous (557-581 AD), Yong Tong Wan Guo / 永通萬國 (580-581 AD), "jade sticks" seal script.  Picture : SARC.

With the durable unification of China under the rule of the Tang dynasty, from the 7th century to the 10th century, the Lishu script became the new dominant script on coins. This was originally the one used by merchants and civil servants on a daily basis. This is a more angular script, easier to write, with regular and almost straight strokes. This straightforward and clear script was perfect for one of the most important and durable reforms of coinage China had ever seen : the introduction of a new coin, the Kai Yuan Tong Bao (but I won't discuss the Tang coinage here in detail). 

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4. Tang dynasty, Su Zong (756-762 AD), 乾元重寶 /Qian Yuan zhong bao, 10 wen (30mm ; 7.25g)

However, the turning point of calligraphy on chinese coins really was the Northern Song dynasty (960 - 1127 AD). You have to see this period as the equivalent to the european Renaissance. Culture was florishing, the interest in art and history was growing, and calligraphy was one of the more popular arts alongside poetry and painting. Being a talented calligrapher could get you as much recognition a great sculptor could have in ancient Greece. The first important calligraphy style used was the kaishu, or regular script. Albeit similar to the lishu, from which he was inspired, the regular script is based on what a painting brush would create : it's less angular, and a single stroke should not be even in terms of thickness (fig. 5).

But the Song wouldn't stop there. One style wasn't enough. They soon introduced a great variety of calligraphy style in their coins, often issuing a single type in two or three different styles, declining the era names in various aesthetics. The running script was born during the Han dynasty but was only used on coins during the Song (fig. 6). It is a more natural, quick way of writing characters following the kaishu script, reducing the straight lines and allowing different strokes to merge. Another style in use, and this is probably my favourite, was the grass style. It was also a centuries-old style mastered by the Song. It goes one step further than the running script : straight lines are almost non-existent, components of the characters are ommitted, reducing the character to a fluid movement, in an almost abstract way (fig. 7). Notice how each character change from one style to another.

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5. Northern Song, Tai Zong (976-997), 至道元寶 / Zhi Dao yuan bao (995-997), 1 wen, regular script.

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6. Northern Song, Tai Zong (976-997), 至道元寶 / Zhi Dao yuan bao (995-997), 1 wen, running script.

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7. Northern Song, Tai Zong (976-997), 至道元寶 / Zhi Dao yuan bao (995-997), 1 wen, grass script.

The Song also did not fail to use the classic seal script (fig. 8.) on a fair amount of types. The very special nine fold seal script was also used on some coins of Ren Zong (fig. 9). This script was the one actually used on official seals and for daoist fulu talisman. The nine fold is a very intricate, ornate and complicated version of the traditional seal script. You can see how every character has multiple folds and layers, compared to the usual seal script. There is only one type of coin with this script, only known to a handful of examples, and it was probably not meant for circulation.

However, the pinnacle of calligraphic artistry was probably reached during the reign of Hui Zong (1101-1125). Hui Zong himself was a famous painter, poet and calligrapher. The large coins bearing the era names Chong Ning exist in a peculiar script called slender gold script (fig. 10). This script, whose base is the kaishu script, is said to be from the hand of the emperor Hui Zong himself. The fact that these coins initially valued at 10 cash are large (~34mm) allow a great display of this particularly fine and elegant calligraphy style. I won't share my own specimen here because it's in particularly bad shape and I've yet to upgrade it, but these coins are hopefully very common and affordable. This was not the first time an emperor was involved in the calligraphy process of a coin type, and history records attribute a few other coin types to the hand of a given emperor.

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8. Northern Song, Ren Zong (1022-1063), Ming Dao yuan bao / 明道元寶 (1032-1033), seal script.

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9. Northern Song, Ren Zong (1022-1063), Huang Song tong bao / 皇宋通寶 (1039-1054), nine folded seal script, later cast charm (weight: 7 grams).

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10. Northern Song, Hui Zong (1101-1125), Chong Ning tong bao (1102-1106), 10 wen, slender gold script. Picture : Ira and Larry Goldberg.

I will end here this post, it's already long enough. I only wanted it to be a short introduction for those of you who are not familiar with chinese calligraphy on coins. However, other variants of the above scripts as well as other scripts do exist on coins (special mention to the very sepcial 'phags-pa script and to the later manchu on Qing coins), as well as a single coin can actually bear characters of different scripts. Whatever, I hope you enjoyed the post and feel free to share your old chinese coins or coins with a fine calligraphy (islamic coins, I'm looking at you!).

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Posted · Supporter

@Lhevae Very interesting post! I was only able to skim read it just now, but I will for sure be re-reading it in detail later on today.

 

In the meantime, here's one of my Chinese coins:

20220505_164346.thumb.jpg.c186be2968650ac669b126d7b1c0b409.jpg

 

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Posted · Supporter

Here is one of my "Slender Gold Script" coins together with a painting and the hand writing of emperor Hui Zong (of course not mine, source Wikipedia). 

Perhaps it should be mentioned that Hui Zong was a great artist but an incompetent leader who brought the dynasty to an unnecessary and premature end.

 

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Songhuizong4.thumb.jpg.6ac3391cb1c6f6901070d9cdc711311f.jpg

 

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I am a fan of the Chinese iron cash coins, but getting good quality ones seems to be extremely difficult.  Here are a few:

Imperial China, Southern Song: Kai Xi (1205-1207) FE 2 Cash, Tongan Mint (Hartill-17.529)

Obv: 開(开)禧通宝 Kai Xi tong bao
Rev: 同 Tong above. Tongan mint, Anhui. Numbers for the year of casting below. 三 san (Year 3 - 1203)

Hartill-17_529.thumb.jpg.88be34fee1f8b07af4e3e09f063a4944.jpg

 

Imperial China, Ch'ing Dynasty: Xian Feng (1851-1861) FE 10 Cash, Baoding Mint (Hartill-22.1055)

Obv: 咸豐重寶 Xian Feng zhong bao
Rev: Numbers for denomination above and below, mint left and right in Manchu; 當十 ᠪᠣᠣ ᡷᡳ; Dang Shi (Value Ten) Boo jyi

Hartill-22_1055.jpg.3b8a1974a50e22af2b7556b2d15e4814.jpg

 

Imperial China, Ch'ing Dynasty: Xian Feng (1851-1861) FE 10 Cash, Board of Revenue, Peking (Hartill-22.737)

Obv: 咸豐重寶 Xian Feng zhong bao
Rev: Numbers for denomination above and below, mint left and right in Manchu; 當十 ᠪᠣᠣ ᠴᡠᠸᠠᠨ; Dang shi (Value Ten) Boo chiowan

Hartill-22_737.jpg.52047874d1bb60ba098a19d4c55c07a6.jpg

 

Imperial China, Ch'ing Dynasty: Xian Feng (1851-1861) FE 50 Cash, Board of Revenue, Peking (Hartill-22.702)

Obv: 咸豐重寶 Xian Feng zhong bao
Rev: Numbers for denomination above and below, mint left and right in Manchu; 當十五 ᠪᠣᠣ ᠴᡠᠸᠠᠨ; Dang wushi (Value Fifty) Boo chiowan

Hartill-22_702.jpg.1481c82c9f74509b3ca318f1ab8f403f.jpg

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 That was a very informative post. I have some Chinese coins, but knew next to nothing about them. I will now be able to return to your post for help. I hope you continue with more.

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image.thumb.jpeg.8618745a8f725ca1014e484bd0a9e312.jpeg

937450281_CHINA-ZHOUDynasty1122-255BCsquarefootspade350-250BCANYANG-3linesrevbronze31x52mm7.45gH3.184S13.JPG.9ee1fdc4c27783068db9a955c88a6ac8.JPG

CHINA - ZHOU Dynasty, 1122-255 BC square foot spade 350-250 BC AN YANG - 3 lines rev bronze 31x52mm 7.45g H3.184 S13+

 

1925954416_ChinaWangMang7-27CEAE5ZhuXinDynasty-Emperor5Zhustroketolowerleft.JPG.fd9f887cd623015c02a3f814137970c9.JPG

China Wang Mang 7-27 CE AE 5 Zhu Xin Dynasty - Emperor 5 Zhu stroke to lower left

 

1328200730_ChinaWangMang7-23CEHsinAECashXiaoQuanZhiYiH9_14.jpg.c18bceaf74f8cc4d3761f80b0db049be.jpg

China Wang Mang 7-23 CE Hsin AE Cash Xiao Quan Zhi Yi H 9.14

 

194324491_ChinaWangMang7-23CEXinDynAE5Zhu23mmHuoQuanH9_43.jpg.b10d68e310bdf33bfd59dea79470993f.jpg

China Wang Mang 7-23 CE Xin Dyn AE 5 Zhu 23mm Huo Quan H 9.43

 

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TANG DYNASTY

Favorite Dynasty with wonderful Tang Horse art

[IMG]

[IMG]
China Tang Dynasty - Anon Middle Type 718-732 CE AE Cash

[IMG]
China Tang 718-732 CE AE Cash Kai Yuan Tong Bao - Crescent H 14.3


[IMG]
China Tang 845-846 CE AE Cash Kai Yuan Tong Bao - Luo H 14.77


[IMG]
China Tang AE Cash H 14.101

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Posted (edited)

All of these are magnificent.  @shanxi, Hui Zong has to remind me of Henry III (son of the equally distinguished King John), who was a huge patron of the arts, especially architecture, and whose total tone-deafness toward the aristocracy and bourgeoisie resulted in the '(Second /) Barons' War.'

...Rats, there aren't pics of any of my East Asian cash, or Islamic that shows off the calligraphy.  Anyway, @Spaniard, that one of Rum trounces all of my Islamic.  With that kind of calligraphy, why would anyone need one of the figurative ones?  --Wait, there's a metaphor for how cool this is for a complete illiterate like yours truly: abstract art!  On one level, that one of Rum evokes what Jackson Pollock might have done if he's stayed on his meds.

(Meanwhile, Honest, I never got into imogees until this forum --well, other than my home-made one, :<} .  Now I'm getting kind of carried away with them.  But the popcorn one comes in Reeeally handy!)

Edited by JeandAcre
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I brought back this one from a coin show just today! I'm quite happy as this is a lovely type, and that makes a new dynasty to my collection (and it was cheap enough). The inscription is based on the wu zhu that were still circulating back then but the characters are quite elegant and the overall workmanship is fine.

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NORTHERN QI, Anonymous, Chang Ping Wu Zhu / 常平五銖 (553-577), 1 wen.

My Collection GIFs | Tenor

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Chinese cash have been slowly gaining my appreciation for several years now.. their pricetags definitely help them sparkle! I recently received a copy of Norman Gorny's book Northern Song Dynasty Cash Variety Guide 2016 (Amazon link) which has really let me appreciate the incredible intentional depth of Northern Song calligraphy. I'd definitely recommend it to anyone looking to look into deeper calligraphy varieties than Hartill and others provide while having it still be very accessible and explained as Gorny does here.

334895014_1056-1063ADH16.152varNS21a.03Z295407JiaYouTongBaoSealBlank2.98g24mmS1.thumb.png.ab9df0279042cb373c5c4edc2ae02def.png

Northern Song Dynasty of China
Issued during the ninth and final era of Emperor Renzong
1056-1063 AD
AE Cash | 2.98 grams | 24mm
Calligraphy note: see the four outward pointed angles on the inner border corners on the obverse, referred to by Gorny as 'Four Springs'
Obv: Jia You Tong Bao, Four Springs on inner border corners
Rev: Blank
Ref: NS#21a.03, H#16.152var, Z#295407

 

1723658875_1068-1077ADH16.191NS24b.32Z295406XiNingYuanBaoBlank3.41g24mmS1.thumb.png.2a8a7c418a329944fe199691983b1709.png

Northern Song Dynasty of China
Issued during the first of two eras of Emperor Shenzong
1068-1077 AD
AE Cash | 3.41 grams | 24mm
Fancy calligraphy note: see the four outward pointed angles on the inner border corners on the obverse, referred to by Gorny as 'Four Springs'
Obv: Xi Ning Yuan Bao, Four Springs on inner border corners
Rev: Blank
Ref: NS#24b.32, H#16.191var, Z#295406

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Posted (edited)

What a fabulous post, thank you!  I like you covered a lot of ground informatively but economically.  More please. 😄

Here's my Hui Zong slender gold 10 wen/cash which has always been one of my favourite Chinese coins:

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I actually really like the archaic calligraphy on this Qi yi hua too (late 4th c. - 220 BCE):

image.thumb.jpeg.12e89cef5568c2d4a152d9d05c2c2e9e.jpeg

My Wang Mang spade:

image.thumb.jpeg.792c874142cd0ddf9f72c1e58fccfa25.jpeg

Cheng Zu (1403-24) yong le tong bao:

image.thumb.jpeg.cac6b08d20dfb0630848c76a299475ef.jpeg

And some Mongol phagspa that you mentioned (Yuan: Wu Zong / Khaishan, 1308-1311):

image.thumb.jpeg.2f9a1b1529db48eb69aec340c6463a46.jpeg

 

Moving on to Islamic calligraphy, here's another Mongol coin, from the Chaghatayids: Qazan Timur, AH 744-747 / AD 1343-1346, 31mm AR Dinar.  The Chaghatayids aren't really known for high production values but I think the calligraphy on this is quite beautiful:

image.thumb.jpeg.ddc7f317bc99ceeaa09336a4495905bd.jpeg

Arghun (1284-1291) of the Ilkans, not too shabby:

image.thumb.jpeg.11b65ab6ec7aca843ac735d6e73deb77.jpeg

Some of the best Islamic calligraphy is Indian, but I don't have any of the really amazing stuff.  Here's one of the first rupees, of Sher Shah Suri (1538-1545, Mughal, well sort of anyway) :

image.thumb.jpeg.41e231a584b5b652fddce272a4c217ad.jpeg

And much later, Furrukhsiyar (1713-1719), very elegant:

image.thumb.jpeg.6fa3d5d07ed2b31d5288a89f861b0e08.jpeg

Looking forward to your next post on Chinese coins!

Edited by Severus Alexander
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This is not my area of collecting 'at the moment '......

But I did pick up my first Chinese cash coin...

2202130_CHINA_TOGETHER_WHITE(1).jpg.13425ab8d4337f98262c7e72fc1189d2.jpg

CHINA. Xin Dynasty.
Emperor Wang Mang AD 9-23.
AE Cash, 23mm, 2.8g.
Fifth reform, with inner rim; struck AD 14-23.
Obv.:(wealth coin).
Rev.: blank, as made.
Reference: Hartill #9.32.
Ex-Alex Fishman

Just wondering what would this type of script be described as?

Edited by Spaniard
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11 hours ago, Spaniard said:

This is not my area of collecting 'at the moment '......

But I did pick up my first Chinese cash coin...

2202130_CHINA_TOGETHER_WHITE(1).jpg.13425ab8d4337f98262c7e72fc1189d2.jpg

CHINA. Xin Dynasty.
Emperor Wang Mang AD 9-23.
AE Cash, 23mm, 2.8g.
Fifth reform, with inner rim; struck AD 14-23.
Obv.:(wealth coin).
Rev.: blank, as made.
Reference: Hartill #9.32.
Ex-Alex Fishman

Just wondering what would this type of script be described as?

Nice one! It's in seal script, and more precisely great seal script if I'm not mistaken. See the huobu spade I shared above, the huo character (on the right) is pretty much in the same style, it just have more room to expand on the spade.

@Severus Alexanderand @milesofwho, amazing coins you shared!

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9 hours ago, Alegandron said:

image.jpeg.4cdc2154842e6e86ef5c50dccc31dcd8.jpegimage.jpeg.9b2d0619b872f8b34cc69395860d737d.jpeg

China

Wu Zhu coin

clay mold

unearthed in SanMenXia City in HeNan Province

full obverse impression partial second impression

probly H-8.6

110-90 BCE

Very nice, these moulds are fun and great in a collection! Here's the counterpart to yours, part of a clay 'mother mould' used to print the moulds. 

image.thumb.jpeg.ad6ae9660c781ccf082df6c7565233da.jpeg

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gold10yuan.jpg.44ae24129f474f635aa01a82205e1b6d.jpg

 

I bought this in China a few years ago, this thread reminded me of being there in a park in Nanchang and watching older gentlemen with large brushes practicing calligraphy using water on the granite sidewalk.  It was fascinating to watch because of the concentration and skill involved - but I sensed it was also a source of relaxation.  I thought it interesting because I know only Greek, Cyrillic and Latin alphabets and only can do calligraphy in Cyrillic and Latin.  I write out notes to myself at work in Cyrillic/Ukrainian and people think maybe it is Arabic!

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Posted · Supporter

Have to credit @Lhevae and this great thread for sparking more of a personal interest in these ancient Chinese coins! 

The calligraphy is beautiful, and the variety and styles are intriguing.

Long story short, I have a bunch of new Chinese coins coming in the mail. (isn't that always the "long story short" - more coins?😉 )

I can't wait to see them in hand, and post them up here!

In the meantime, thanks @Lhevae and keep the posts coming! 🙂

 

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Here's an interesting Xi Ning Yuan Bao that I was looking at closer today. It has pretty unique Xi and Ning characters, but it's a perfect match to Gorny's NS#24a.22 in his book Northern Song Dynasty Cash Variety Guide 2016. 

 

image.png.b464527a615091f78fb97d9c3ff5177c.png

Northern Song Dynasty of China
1068-1077 AD
AE cash | 2.67 grams | 22.5mm wide
Obv: Xi Ning Yuan Bao in Seal script
Rev: Blank
Ref: Hartill#16.174var, NS#24a.22, see this coin on Zeno, Z#296205

image.jpeg.d20df0ab7cfaf498456b18ae45c0021a.jpeg

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Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang - 1st Emperor to unite China

[IMG]
China
Qin Shi Huang
34mm 8.5g
ban liang
221-206 BCE
半两 Primitive Line script
r
ex Dr Alex Fishman

Again:

[IMG]
China Qin 220-180 BC AE 12 Zhu Ban Liang Blank H7.7

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The only Chinese coin I've ever bought does not win for iconography or caligraphy. But I got it because it's huge, a beautiful green and from the time of Qin Shi Huang, he of the masoleum in Xi'an guarded by a terracotta army.

Ban Liang, 221-210BC

image.png.d2a25b933a1fa46f8b847646c16eaaa4.png

China. Bronze, 33mm, 9.40g (Hartill 7.6).

Edit: snap, Alegandron 😆

Edited by John Conduitt
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