by Richard Giedroyc
An article posted to the Ancient Origins web site on Nov. 14 sheds some light on the details surrounding a vast hoard of coins discovered in 2011 in China.
The treasure was discovered in the burial chamber of the Han Dynasty’s Marquis of Haihun, Liu He (about 92-59 BCE) in the Xinjian district of Nanchang, Jiangxi Province. The site has been under the administration of the Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archaeology of Jiangxi Province and the Jiangxi Institute of Archaeology ever since.
Liu He was a colorful figure known to be unruly, vulgar, and a spendthrift. Liu He was declared emperor in 74 BCE but was quickly impeached by China’s prime minister Huo Gang after only 27 days.
Liu He was accused of misconduct including feasts and games at the time he was to mourn his deceased uncle (Liu Che, the Emperor Wu of Han), refusing to abstain from meat and sex during the mourning period, failure to secure the palace, and promoting subordinates improperly. The list gave 1,127 examples of this misconduct.
Liu He was later appointed a marquis and was allowed to keep 2,000 families that would pay him taxes. Three generations of Haihun marquises would follow Liu He.
Liu He was the shortest reigning emperor during the Han Dynasty, which is considered to be a golden age of China. The dynasty ruled between 206 BCE and CE 220, having been preceded by the Qin dynasty and succeeded by the Three Kingdoms period of CE 220 to 280. China’s major ethnic group today refers to themselves as the Han Chinese or Han Zu.
Despite some minor looting prior to the government taking over the site of Liu He’s burial chamber, the gravesite contained more than 20,000 gold, copper, jade, amber, and bronze objects in addition to what was reported to be more than two million wu zhu bronze coins.
According to the Ancient Origins article, “They (the coins) have the combined weight of over 10 tons and are worth around 50 kilograms (110.23 pounds.) of gold today. The coins were all piled up, making a two-meter (6.56 feet.) high mound. Originally they were piled up on strings or sticks, one thousand per string.”
The Ancient Origins article continues, “It is speculated that the two million coins would have been highly valued in their time – equivalent to a million US dollars. The coins are singlehandedly the largest discovery of their type in our time and are remarkably preserved, with some of them even having the remaining sticks and the original ‘strung’ layout. The ancient Chinese interred their noble dead with all the goods needed in [the] afterlife – and judging from such wealth and so many coins, the deceased had big plans for after his death.”
Wu zhu or 5-zhu coins replaced earlier ban liang or half-ounce coins as well as the short-lived san zhu (3 zhu) in 118 BCE. In fact, the ban liang coins were inconsistent in their weight, fabric, and design. Throughout their estimated 250 years of circulation, the ban liang coins at times were only allowed to be minted by the central government, while at other times by anyone. Officially ban liang coins should have weighed 16 g. Many do not.
Wu zhu coins were to weigh the same as 100 millet seeds. The coinage was suspended briefly by Wang Man (45 BCE-CE 23) during the Xin dynasty, then resumed by the Han dynasty. Wu zhu was replaced by Kaiyuan Tongbao cash coins in CE 621 during the Tang dynasty. Five zhu was an official measuring unit for four grams, even though wu zhu were inconsistent in weight.
The 736 years in which wu zhu coins were cast makes this the longest circulating coin in world history.