Ancient Chinese coins

Zhi Dao yuan bao
a Zhi Dao yuan bao coin of the Northern Song dynasty, dating 995-997AD

Collecting ancient Chinese cash coins is a fun hobby because there have been thousands of different designs throughout the ages and many have multiple variation in their design. Couple that with the vast time period over which they were used and this gives the collector a chance to learn about the development of Chinese culture as well.

The basic unit of currency for over 1000 years was the “1 cash” coin – round with a square hole in the middle and made from bronze, copper or iron – see right. The coin is usually inscribed with 4 Chinese characters, which can be read either clockwise or top, bottom, right, left. They are usually about 25mm in diameter (with a degree of variability) but other, larger denominations were made to account for inflation.

Spotting fakes

One of the biggest problems for the collector is spotting fake or “replica” coins. In China old coins are often given as gifts to convey good luck or prosperity and copies of old coins are made to serve this market and for the tourist industry. These coins are often sold openly as replicas for i-ching or feng shui and there is nothing wrong with this trade but when it becomes a problem is when unscrupulous sellers deliberately try to pass them off as genuine antiques.

Some tips:

  • Has the coin been pressed or cast? Almost all genuine cash coins were cast in sand molds and only a few fairly modern types were pressed or stamped into sheet metal. Pressed coins tend to be much thinner than cast coins and the fakes can be so thin that you can easily bend or snap them in half.
  • Is the patina and condition correct for the age and type of coin? This is key to everything. Coins were made many 100s or 1000s of years ago from very specific metals and have been through many hands and stored until offered for sale in the modern day so does the coin have the right colour and pattern of wear and corrosion that you might expect?
  • Is the coin in the correct metal? It might seem obvious but I have seen coins that were only ever made in iron, sold in a bronze metal. Also, if the coin should be a dark bronze is it being sold as a pale brass metal?
  • Know your coins – if you are inexperienced then Google is your friend and you should be able to find plenty of photos online that will show you the correct patina and markings.
  • If a collection of coins is being offered for sale then I like to see plenty of variation in the patina, size, wear and markings. If the coins represent dynasties separated by 100s of years then the coins should look markedly different.
  • Use the power if the web – there are a few pages and experts that can  help you:

Examples of some fakes

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