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Treasure of the Sichuan – Coins and Cultural Heritage

By Peter Anthony for PCGS ……

Treasure of the Sichuan - Coins and Cultural Heritage: A 2002 silver 20 Yuan Sichuan Sanxingdui Relics coin. Courtesy of PCGS.
A 2002 silver 20 Yuan Sichuan Sanxingdui Relics coin. Courtesy of PCGS.

Only splish, splash, splish, splash – the sounds of oars and the creaking of wood – break the Sichuan Province silence this July night of 1647. Cloaked by blackness and a mist that hangs over the water, imperial government ministers and courtiers alike huddle inside the ships’ cabins. Soldiers keep a tense watch over the rowers, as well as the river banks. If some early-rising farmer should spy the convoy, he would be amazed. Boats are strung in a line all up and down the river. While some of the crafts are just little flat-bottomed bamboo sampans, others, like the gaw Qiang (pronounced “Chang”), an oarsman is on, are much bigger and sport silk sails.

From behind him, Qiang can hear the rudder strain as it shifts direction to follow the current. Of course, nobody tells common people like him anything — like their destination, say, or why high officials are onboard, or that they ride low in the water due to the weight of the empire’s gold. The rower only guesses that this route will lead to the mighty Yangtze River. Beyond that, who knows?

Qiang is happy enough to put Chengdu City behind him. No word had come from his parents, or sisters, in weeks. Every day brings hushed talk of more executions. People whisper that the emperor, Zhang Xianzhong, has gone mad. So many died that Chengdu, the capital, hardly has enough people left in it to supply the emperor’s wants. When the boats reach a harbor, Qiang will make a break for it. With a handful of the emperor’s bronze coins in his pocket, he will take his chances.

As the boats bob toward a point where their river merges into the wider Minjiang, the skill of the tiller men will be tested — it is all too easy to run onto a rock. Suddenly, Qiang hears drum beats. Moments later arrows whistle through the air. An oarsman in front of him screams as a missile pierces him. Two guards topple overboard. Then the tillerman disappears, too. With no one to steer it, the boat swings around wildly. Qiang drops his oar and leaps over the side. On the far shore, fog and smoke hide him from the archers’ sight. He scrambles up the river bank and never looks back.

A 50 taels grain tax silver ingot, or sycee, from 1629 – near the end of the Ming Dynasty. This is similar to ones recovered from the Minjiang River. Courtesy of Peter Anthony.
A 50 taels grain tax silver ingot, or sycee, from 1629 – near the end of the Ming Dynasty. This is similar to ones recovered from the Minjiang River. Courtesy of Peter Anthony.

No one today knows the exact when, or how, this convoy met its end that summer night. Over the centuries, memories faded until even its existence became the stuff of legends. The general events that led up to the battle, though, are documented. Sichuan — once called the Shu Kingdom — was separated from China’s central plains by mountain ranges. In its isolation, a distinct culture and vibrant economy developed. That independence ended in 316 BCE when the Qin Dynasty conquered it. Even so, the region continued to prosper.

The middle years of the 1600s were an evil time, though. While the Ming Dynasty was a tyrannical regime that many people detested, they lived with it. A terrible famine in 1628 weakened the government’s hold. Combined with corruption and nepotism, civil order gradually collapsed. From neighboring Shaanxi Province, 100,000 bandits and revolutionaries, led by a rebel named Zhang Xianzhong, attacked and overran Sichuan in 1644.

As a young man, Zhang had been a Ming Dynasty soldier where he earned the nickname, “Hu Huang”, or the “Yellow Tiger”. Like a tiger, one of his first official acts in Sichuan was to kill the Ming prince. He then proclaimed himself King of the Great West (Da Xi). A civilian administration that minted coins was established. Each coin contained four characters that read: “Da – Shun – Tong – Bao,” or literally, “Big – Conquer – Legal, or Virtuous – Money.”

Zhang’s rule, which began as liberation, soon degenerated into paranoia and slaughter with millions of Sichuan’s native people either dead or having fled. One interesting account of this period comes from a pair of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who were captured and became “guests” of the imperial court.

The reign of terror was short-lived; the army of the newly installed Qing Dynasty marched on the Da Xi from the north in 1647. Zhang and his men burnt Chengdu to the ground as he left, but his army was destroyed by the Qing military, and he was killed. The missionaries escaped to later write about their experiences.

Because Zhang Xianzhong’s rule was so brief, coins from this time are quite scarce. The Qing administration melted as many as possible. I once showed a Zhang Xianzhong coin to a dealer with decades of experience who commented, “I have never seen one of these.” The commemorative medals that were issued to court and military members and even favorite concubines are rarer still. They are reportedly made of gold and silver melted from temple statues in Chengdu.

After his death, word got out that the Yellow Tiger had tried to move his treasury down the Minjiang River on a hundred (or maybe a thousand) boats. Three centuries later, locals regarded the story as a fairy tale.

The city of Meishan lies along the Minjiang River 73 km (46 miles) south of Sichuan’s Provincial capital, Chengdu. It’s known as the birthplace of Su Shi (“shi” rhymes with “de”), a famous poet of the Song Dynasty. Tourists visit Meishan to see the Temple of the Three Sus which honors the great writer and two relatives, but it is not a place that often makes national news. In 2005, something happened that would bring international attention.

Near where the Minjiang and Fuhe rivers flow together, a work crew was digging an irrigation ditch. Suddenly, one shovel struck something hard. To the men’s surprise, it wasn’t a rock, but an ancient sycee, or ingot of silver. Their shovels turned up six more. Word of this discovery quickly got around.

Suddenly, people saw the legend of the Yellow Tiger and his treasure in a new light. The banks of the river became a popular place to stroll and swim. More artifacts turned up, some even engraved with Zhang’s name. As it became obvious that “something” was definitely there, the local government designated a stretch of the river as a registered historical site. The area was too large to patrol carefully, though, and did little to deter scuba divers, who called it a good place to “practice.”

The Meishan police investigated the trade in “national treasures” and filed charges against dozens of people. Some $44 million of artifacts from 10 different bands of traffickers were recovered. There could no longer be any doubt that the Minjiang River was a site of great importance. The State Administration of Cultural Heritage authorized a full-scale archaeology dig.

A 2002 gold 200 Yuan Sichuan Sanxingdui Relics coin. Courtesy of PCGS.
A 2002 gold 200 Yuan Sichuan Sanxingdui Relics coin. Courtesy of PCGS.

As a first step, dikes were built around 20,000 square meters of the river. The enclosed area was drained during the dry season. With the riverbed searchable, archaeologists scoured it with metal-detecting devices. A total of 42,000 objects were extracted from the mud during the 2017 and 2018 campaigns. The location of each find was carefully noted for future study.

“For archaeologists, it’s not important what we find, but how much information we can derive from the artifacts we find,” observed Liu Zhiyan, co-leader of the excavation and project chief of underwater archaeology at the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute.

Mr. Liu confirmed to China Daily that, “[more than 1,000 of the] gold and silver coins we found had words related to Zhang Xianzhong.” Engraved on silver ingots are characters that provide clues to how the Da Xi kingdom was organized, while gold and silver coins show how its military was paid. There are even hints of the structure of the court: some gold pieces bear the titles awarded to Zhang’s concubines. One amazing seal that was found looks as if it could have belonged to the Yellow Tiger himself: on it is a fearsome `effigy of a golden cat with its jaws opened wide.”

That gold tiger seal of Zhang Xianzhong resembles the animals that grace the 1981 People’s Republic of China Bronze Archeological Finds commemorative coins. This set is among the most collectible of modern Chinese coins. One-thousand sets were struck in 91.6% gold at the Shanghai Mint, their designs based on ancient Chinese tomb art. The leopard statuette represented on a 200 yuan gold piece was buried inside a king’s tomb on Mount Zhongshan in Hebei Province about 2,500 years ago. It is one of four found there. Each original figurine weighs between 300 to 500 grams and is inlaid with a gold and silver plum blossom pattern. Its eyes glow with precious stones. The 1981 coin that portrays it is 22 millimeters in diameter and contains 7.764 grams of 91.6% gold. The designer is Sun Qiling, who may be familiar to numismatists as the artist who originally designed the Temple of Heaven on Panda coins.

As for later coins and medals that commemorate the Da Xi himself? It should be no surprise there aren’t any. However, there is another Sichuan treasure that is represented on modern Chinese coinage.

In the spring of 1929, in the hills near Guanghan City, 40 kilometers north of Chengdu, a man needed to repair the sewage line to his house. As the man labored dirt his shovel unexpectedly hit something solid. More digging revealed a large cache of jade and stone artifacts. Very soon these turned up in Chinese antiquities markets where dealers called them the Jadeware of Guanghan City. The artifacts had a unique style and characteristics that suggested they might belong to a culture known only through legend, the Shu. Archaeologists swarmed to the area, but nothing more was recovered at that time. The makers of the jadeware remained a mystery.

A 2002 silver 20 Yuan Sichuan Sanxingdui Relics coin. Courtesy of PCGS.
A 2002 silver 20 Yuan Sichuan Sanxingdui Relics coin. Courtesy of PCGS.

A breakthrough occurred during the summer of 1986 when two sacrificial pits were discovered. Unearthed from these were a dazzling array of cultural relics unmatched in terms of archaeological quantity, quality, academic value and diversity compared to other Sichuan sites. Scholars date them to between 4,800 and 2,800 years ago. Since 1986, locations have been found that hold the ruins of an ancient city, sacrificial pits, residential quarters, and tombs. This is by far the largest and most important archaeological site in southwestern China.

All the objects in the first pit were badly damaged by fire, apparently deliberately burned. The second pit, although also burned, contained objects in better condition. Uncovered in it were 735 bronzes. Highlights are a 2.62-meter-tall statue of a man, a nearly four-meter-long bronze divine tree, a bronze human head covered by a gold mask, and a large bronze head with protruding eyes. Nothing like these had ever been discovered before in China.

The Sanxingdui site is extraordinarily important to when piecing together the history of southern China and understanding the roots of Chinese culture. Some of the artifacts recovered are trade items. They demonstrate that the Shu people were in contact with the Han society to their north. But, until this discovery nothing was known of the Shu, or their customs. Now, it is established that they were a prosperous, major culture that existed independently in ancient Sichuan.

China Gold Coin, Inc., issued a two-coin set to celebrate the Sanxingdui discoveries in 2002. It includes a 200 yuan half-ounce .999-fine proof gold coin with an image of a Shu bronze masked head with protruding eyes on the reverse. On the obverse is the Sanxingdui Museum that opened near the dig site in 1997. A run of 5,000 coins of this 27-millimeter-diameter design were struck at the Shenzhen Guobao Mint.

A companion two-ounce proof .999-fine silver coin illustrates a bronze head with a gold mask on the reverse. The obverse design is identical to that on the gold coin, except scaled larger. This coin has a mintage of 30,000 and was produced at the Shenyang Mint in Northeast China.

In June of 2022, Xinhua news agency reported that a spectacular bronze altar and a dragon with a pig’s nose had been excavated from a seventh and eighth pit at the Sanxingdui site. A highlight from the dig is a bronze box with a tortoise-shaped lid. The box may have originally been wrapped in silk.

“The vessel is one of its kind, given its distinctive shape, fine craftsmanship, and ingenious design. Although we do not know what this vessel was used for, we can assume that ancient people treasured it,” said Li Haichao, a professor at Sichuan University. It’s an example of how, just as in numismatics, there are constantly new discoveries that expand our knowledge and give us things, both old and new, to treasure.

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Peter Anthony
Peter Anthonyhttps://www.pandaamerica.com/
Peter Anthony is an expert on Chinese modern coins with a particular focus on Panda coins. He is an analyst for the NGC Chinese Modern Coin Price Guide as well as a consultant on Chinese modern coins.

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