An Important Eastern Han Money Tree
Among the many types of luxury burial goods newly introduced during the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), the money tree ranks among the most visually spectacular. Such money trees were especially popular in central Sichuan province during the Eastern Han period (AD 25–220), their popularity continuing into the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220–280), particularly in the southwestern state of Shu (AD 221–263). Termed in Chinese a qianshu —or occasionally a yaoqianshu —a money tree comprises a central bronze pole, or trunk, to which are attached a series of cast bronze “branches” organized in tiers, each tree typically with three to six tiers of branches; this bronze tree has four tiers. A phoenix with outstretched wings and a long, segmented tail comprising five strands stands on top of the tree. The central trunk typically rises from a brick-red earthenware base molded in the form of one or two animals and covered with emerald-green or caramel-brown lead-fluxed glaze; the base of the present example is modeled in the form of two crouching beasts, one on top of the other, and it sports a green lead glaze , now degraded and showing a silvery iridescence. Such money trees are rare in collections outside of China, lending this beautiful, well-preserved example special importance.
Each tier of the present money tree has four main branches, which are set at right angles to each other and, given the Han interest in directional symbolism, are oriented toward the points of the compass. Moreover, a smaller, subsidiary branch projects outward at a ninety-degree angle from the center of each main branch. Cast with openwork designs, each branch, whether main or subsidiary, includes a wealth of real and mythical animals but always features Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, seated on a throne supported by a dragon and a tiger as the central motif and always boasts several coins from which rays project around the periphery, likely rays of light. The coins are wuzhu coins—i.e., the familiar circular coins with a square opening at the center—which were minted in Sichuan province and which were the standard coin of the realm from 118 BC until AD 618.
Money trees embody wishes for the continued well-being and prosperity of the deceased’s spirit in the afterlife as evinced by the coins on each branch. Of greater importance, the representation on each branch of Xiwangmu, the most important of the deities venerated during the Han, attests to the hope that she will assist the deceased in gaining immortality, as she was believed to have the ability to dispense long life, even eternal life. 2 The presence of the phoenix at the top suggests that the tree represents the magical fusang tree, which was believed to grow in the Eastern Sea and which, according to ancient mythology, was the perch on which a golden sun-bird alighted each morning, bringing light and warmth to the new day.
Because of the coins, such bronze trees today are called qianshu, or money trees, but that term first appeared only in texts from the eighth century AD; it remains unknown whether or not there were any connections between early discoveries and such later records. Stephen Little states that the later designation as money trees is “… a somewhat misleading one because the main decorative motifs on both the bronze tree and its clay or stone base are not coins, but deities on dragon-and-tiger thrones, immortals playing the liu bo game, heavenly horses, the drug-pounding hare, and musicians and dancers. Coins appear only as leaves hanging down from each branch. In view of the fact that some trees are decorated with large, iconlike, divine images, if we must give this object a name, a “divine tree” (shen shu) probably better reflects its nature.”
The origin of the money tree remains obscure, though some scholars cite a possible descent from the bronze sculptures of trees recovered from the ancient site of Sanxingdui, also in central Sichuan province. Scholars note that in the late 1980s, eight cast-bronze sculptures of trees—termed shen shu (“sacred trees”, “holy trees”, or “divine trees”) by modern archaeologists— were excavated from the Sanxingdui site at Guanghan in Sichuan province. 5 The majority of the hundreds of bronze sculptures and vessels, jades, and other artefacts recovered at Sanxingdui date to the twelfth and eleventh centuries BC; though, the exact date of the bronze trees is uncertain, they likely were produced at that same time. Designated Tree Number 1, the tallest of the eight bronze trees measures 3.96 m., or thirteen feet, in height, implying that the tree sculptures were both very important and highly symbolic to the people who made them;6 indeed, they likely were considered sacred. Tree Number 1 has nine pendulous branches; perched on a blossom, a bird appears at the crest of each downward-curving branch, while a fruit or flower hangs from the lower end of each branch. Modern archaeologists assume that the trees represent the magical fusang tree and further assume that the nine birds represent deities associated with the sun, though no inscriptions or other written records from the period survive to substantiate this assertion.
If they indeed date to the twelfth or eleventh century BC, the Sanxingdui bronze trees were created more than 1,000 years before the Eastern Han money trees. Intriguingly, both Sanxingdui bronze trees and Eastern Han money trees were produced in the same general area—in central Sichuan province. Without written records from the people who made them, however, it is impossible to know whether or not a connection exists between the Eastern Han money trees and the much earlier Sanxingdui bronze trees. It of course is possible that people of the area maintained a tradition of sacred trees in the long intervening period, even if they didn’t create sculptures of them.
In terms of artistic predecessors closer in time to the money trees, the authors of the Kaikodo Journal in 1996 noted the similarity in general appearance of Eastern Han money trees to the depiction of fusang trees on a painted lacquer chest recovered from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng (c. 433 BC), near Suizhou, Hubei province, commenting that the “… representations of heraldic trees, stiff and symmetrical, [are] flanked at the top by birds or beasts. Those trees are depictions of the Fusang Tree from which the Archer Yi shot down nine contender suns. The spiky orbs hanging from the Fusang trees and the representations of coins on the Sichuan money trees are strikingly similar.”8 From the mid-second century AD and roughly contemporaneous with the money trees from Sichuan province, bas-relief carvings at the Wu Family Shrines in southwestern Shandong province include highly stylized depictions of fusang trees, demonstrating widespread interest in such trees throughout China during the Eastern Han.
Securely dated on the basis of archaeological excavations, money trees are known to have been used only in Sichuan province and only during the Eastern Han period and into the succeeding Three Kingdom period, and thus they can be securely dated to the first and second centuries AD, with a few perhaps coming from the third. Indeed, the coins depicted on the trees accord with the wuzhu coins in circulation at the time, and the representations of Xiwangmu are akin to those on ceramic tiles recovered from Eastern Han-period tombs from Sichuan.
Each branch of the tree was separately cast in a two-face mold using the lost-wax process. The branches are very thin and bear the same decorative motif on each side; in fact, X-ray analyses of branches from other money trees have revealed that the patterns on the two sides line up exactly, attesting to a perfect registration, or alignment, of the mold faces. At the “inside” end of each branch is a hook which secures the branch in place when inserted into a mortice, or opening, in the bronze tree trunk. With the branches set at right angles to each other and with the branches of each tier placed above each other, the weight is evenly distributed along the tree trunk, and the design is symmetrical and harmonious.
The most famous of all money trees is the one excavated in 1983 at Wanfuzhen, Guanghan in Sichuan province and now in the Guanghan County Cultural Center.12 The best known money trees in public collections in the United States are those in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (1995.79.a-.dd),13 the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (2002.47A-RRR),14 the Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon (2004.114.9A–C),15 and the Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, New Jersey (1999-79).
Robert D. Mowry
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus,
Harvard Art Museums, and
Senior Consultant, Christie’s
The result of Oxford thermoluminescence test no. 766w57 is consistent with the dating of this lot.