Coins & culture

Updated: 2008-07-30 07:07

By Joy Lu(HK Edition)

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 Coins & culture

Coin-shaped charm collector Alex Fang Chengyu. Edmond Tang

Of the more than 1,000 coin-shaped charms that Alex Fang Chengyu has in his collection, his favorite is quite an enigma.

The Song Dynasty (960 - 1279) bronze coin depicts a man on horseback attended by servants on the obverse. On the reverse, three people stand on a river bank, looking down at a person in the water.

"Some believe the front side depicts Xuan Wu (a Taoist god)," said Fang from the Department of Chinese, Translation and Linguistics, City University of Hong Kong (CityU). "Maybe... The God of North became an important icon in the Song Dynasty after Emperor Huizong had a dream about him."

But the story on the reverse is inexplicable. Who are the people on the bank? Why is there a person in the water? What does the charm signify? So far, Fang hasn't been able to find satisfactory answers.

When the coin was cast, the allusions should be unmistakable - "something people could tell with one look," Fang said. "But now nobody knows. A piece of our cultural heritage is lost, probably forever."

Coins of luck

 Coins & culture

The stories delineated on the Song Dynasty coin have no satisfactory explanation. Left: Obverse of Song coin Right: Reverse of Song coin

The exhibition titled Chinese Charms: Arts, Religion and Folk Belief at CityU Gallery is part of the efforts to preserve this unique aspect of Chinese culture. The exhibition that displays Fang's personal collection is a "visual feast", said Joe Cribb, British Museum's Keeper of Coins and Medals.

China has a long history of making coins for reasons other than a medium of exchange. Some scholars point to a knife-shaped coin, of the Warring States (475 - 221 BC), as an early example of the "not for circulation" coins.

Coin-shaped charms appeared in large numbers during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD). Taoism is a driving force behind the coin-shaped charms: Coins, along with silk or food, are offered to gods in various rituals and the offerings are believed to carry spiritual power.

Taoist and Confucian motifs are popular, though Buddhism has inspired beautiful designs, too. Many aspirations expressed by the charms are down-to-earth - health, wealth, matrimonial harmony or being spared in wars. And some seemed to be crafted mainly for the aesthetic value.

"The purposes of the charms are basically inviting auspiciousness and warding off the evil spirit... On top of that, they serve functions such as gaming, decorating or commemorating," said Fang.

It is an interesting study to find out who issued the coin-shaped charms. Bronze, the material to mint real coins with, was historically controlled by the governments, Fang said.

There are records of governments and temples minting the numismatic charms. Fang believes that some people could commission a batch through special permits to mark occasions such as their mothers' birthdays.

Dating charms

 Coins & culture

The Liao Dynasty coin should best be interpreted in the context of Shamanism. Left: Obverse of Liao coin Right: Reverse of Liao coin

Fang estimated there are 5,000 to 6,000 major types of coin-shaped charms. But historians scarcely paid them any attention, probably because traditionally the folk customs were not considered important, Fang said.

In the authoritative Twenty Four Histories - the dynastic histories from antiquity till the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) - not a single mention was made of the coin-shaped charms though the issuance of official money was meticulously documented.

It is the foreign missionaries, diplomats and custom officials in China in the 18th and 19th centuries who had prized these charms, seeing a parallel to the religious medals in the West. Many coins "were brought out of China, kept in private collections and later often donated to major museums and art galleries in Britain, France, the USA, Russia and even the Vatican," said Fang in his newly published book Chinese Charms: Art, Religion and Folk Belief.

The CityU exhibition on coin-shaped charms is actually the first of its kind in China. But more will come, said Fang, given the renewed interest in the coin-shaped charms in recent years.

"Nice specimens of coin-shaped charms have almost disappeared from the collector's market five years ago, indicating a strong demand," Fang said.

Fang is certainly glad to see more participators in the study of the coin-shaped charms, which require extensive knowledge about different fields.

 Coins & culture

A copy of Chinese Charms: Art, Religion and Folk Belief (The Commercial Press, Beijing 2008, ISBN 978-7-100-05832-2), by Alex Fang Chengyu. Courtesy of Alex Fang

Unlike real coins that are inscribed with reign titles indicating casting time, dating of the coin-shaped charms is a major challenge. To estimate when a coin was made, a collector has to rely on the material, patination, style of characters, calligraphy and decorative designs.

For coins that were unearthed from tombs, information derived from other relics can be used as reference. But the finest coins are often handed down through generations, said Fang.

Dating a coin is often about understanding its cultural, artistic and religious information. "It's largely a matter of knowledge and experience," he said.

Fang hoped the exhibition would stimulate a new round of discussion on the coin-shaped charms. And he was already rewarded with a new insight into his collection, through an international symposium jointly held with CityU.

One of his coins, belonging to the Liao Period (916 - 1125), was commonly thought to show a dragon and a phoenix, dancing between the sun and a mountain, Fang said. But at the symposium, a Liao culture expert pointed out that the coin should be interpreted in the context of the kingdom's Shamanism.

The sun-worshipping people believed the soul of a shaman would leave his body during religious rituals. The "dragon" on the coin is actually a shaman and the "phoenix", the shaman's soul, according to the expert.

Coins & culture

The incident is an object lesson that the coin-shaped charms are best studied via multiple angles. "We need to analyze these objects from a cross-cultural perspective," said Zhang Longxi, Chair Professor of comparative literature and translation at CityU, speaking at the opening of the international symposium attended by scholars from China, France, Britain and Russia.

It's also a reminder of how rapidly some cultural heritage is being forgotten. Fang is determined to protect the legacy handed down in the form of coin-shaped charms.

"You might want to ask why I care so much about what the ancient Chinese think, believe or love... If we don't understand our past, we don't know ourselves," he said.

(HK Edition 07/30/2008 page4)