South China Sea Shipwrecks
The Treasure Coins of the South China Sea...
Chinese cash coins are found anywhere there was trade with Chinese or Asian merchants, from ancient shipwrecks in the South China Sea to the Yangtze River. Storms, wars, pirates (yes, there were Asian pirates, too!) and simple mishaps on the boats were all reasons why the coins went to the bottom.
The coins in this special collection come from both shipwreck and buried treasure discoveries. Placed in a Sterling silver bezel, they are often worn for luck by both men and women!
The shell money transitioned into currency of different shapes; bridge money, fish money (fish meaning prosperity in many cultures), spade and knife money, are a few examples. Circular coins with holes in the middle came into use about 350 B.C., and were issued for over 2,000 years, by every major ruler and many rebels and pretenders, ending with the Qing (Ch’ing) Dynasty in 1911.
So why are the holes square in the center of the coins? Well, the first round coins had both square and round holes, depending on where they were minted, and who minted them. “Official” coins had square holes, while those issued by merchants, plantations and mines had round holes. But they quickly changed to all square holes. There is still some debate as to why the hole is square, but most numismatist, including Asian coin expert, Howard A. Daniel III, says: “The square center hole in the coin represents the earth and the round outer shape represents the universe. With the king or emperor’s reign title in two of the four characters on the obverse side, this showed the king or emperor was a supreme being.”
The cash coins were also cast in molds, unlike coins from other cultures that were struck on metal planchets, so the square hole was needed to hold the coins fast while the sprue and excess metal was filed off. File marks are still visible on some of the coins. Due to their low value compared to gold or silver, the coins were also strung together to keep track of them. Thus each “string” often consisted of 500 and 1,000 coins each; 1,000 coins being equal to one tael of pure silver (a tael weighed around 40 grams, a Spanish “piece of eight” was 27 grams).
But perhaps the most practical reason for the hole in the coins, according to Mr. Daniel, is that, “A great majority of East Asians did not have pockets in their clothes.” The upper classes had small coin bags or purses that were tied on their belts to hold their coins. But the poorer people didn’t have bags and had to string their coins together then attach them to a belt, their wrist or even a carrying pole.
So whether the coins are found buried, or on the bottom of the Yangtze River or South China Sea, they have slept silently out of site for hundreds of years, waiting to be discovered. And we often wonder what their makers might think if they knew their creations were teaching us the stories about the people who used to own them.
Personal Note from Robert: I don’t remember the first time I heard that Chinese “cash” coins were lucky, but it was probably one of the many tales my old mentor and treasure diving buddy Captain Carl “Fizz” Fismer told me many years ago. I remember the days I would stop by his house just south of where I lived in Key Largo, Florida Keys, and he would have treasure coins and artifacts spread out on his kitchen table. Most of the time it was hot and tropical, and of course, there was always a cold beer or glass of rum nearby, and before long he was spinning a story about searching for sunken or buried treasure! Life was pretty exciting on those days!
Many years later, my wife April, Fizz and I were filming on the set of The Treasure Experience in Scottsdale, Arizona. Dave, a production friend of mine who was doing our lighting, was gazing wide-eyed at the $300,000 worth of treasure we had spread out on the set - this included about 2,000 Chinese treasure coins. He pulled a well worn Chinese coin out of his pocket. “I got this when I was a filming an archaeological site in China a few years ago,” he said, grinning. “The lady archeologist gave it to me and said it was good luck!” We gave him another one to add to increase his luck!