Historical Context of "Ming Rebels" Coinage

(under construction by jjhartwell@hotmail.com)


Without an intimate knowledge of Chinese language and calligraphy, there are severe limits to the degree of expertise to which western collectors can aspire. Only a very small fragment of the vast Chinese numismatic literature is available in English (or other European language) translations. A great deal is available, however, on the history, economy, and society of ancient, mediaeval, and early modern China. It is my belief that the study of the historical context of our collections is, perhaps, the most rewarding way to truly increase our appreciation of the meaning and value of our collections.

Western collectors of Chinese cast cash coinage usually base their collecting on Frederick Schjoth's "Chinese Currency" (), the most readilly available, and thus widely used catalog. Coins sold in the West are generally listed by their Schjoth numbers. Leaving aside the virtues and shortcomings of Schjoth as a catalog, the very brief historical background it provides for its listings is sketchy in the extreme, often muddled, and sometimes inaccurate. Other available catalogs in English (Glover, Lockhart, Fisher's Ding, etc) lack any real historical information at all.

This site is intended to provide an accurate historical context for a very small segment of the 2500 year history of cash coinage: that usually described merely as "the Ming Rebels." It is hoped that it will help new collectors in the West to better understand and appreciate this part of their collections, and also to offer some guidance and suggestions for further study.

I. The Dashing Prince and the Yellow Tiger

LI ZICHENG (Li Tzu-cheng)

Coinage: (as Emperor) Yong chang tong bao


ZHANG XIANZHONG (Chiang Hsien-chung)

Coinage: (as Da Xia Wang) Dashun tong bao

Early in his carreer as a rebel, Zhang Xianzhong was known by the sobriquet "The Yellow Tiger." Another product of the 1628 Shensi rebellion, he gradually built up his power until, by 1638, he was the chief, indeed the only real rival of Li Zicheng as leader of the anti-Ming movement.

Zhang is a figure at once fascinating and repellant. The acts of wanton savagery of which he is accused are so outrageous as to challenge credulity. It was said he put swords into the hands of young children and forced them to hack to death helpless prisoners. Those who hesitated joined the victims. Those who seemed to most relish the exercise were organized into a Childrens' Army, and given license to vent their bloodlust on defenseless villages. In the less than six months duration of his proclaimed "Slaughter Policy," he is sid to have caused the murder of some six million people in Sichuan province alone. Survivors were too often missing hands, feet, or joints (the peculiar habit of lopping off elbows and heels seems to have been a favorite pastime of his). Such stories, and there are many more, surely make him a leading contender for the title of greatest monster in human history.

We must keep in mind, of course, that such stories all come from his most inveterate enemies -- writers to whom no crime is too horrendous to be laid at his door. Still, to the end he maintained the almost fanatical loyalty of a large army. And there are scattered folk stories in which he is seen as a heroic light -- leading the people against oppression and exploitation.

But, despite the obvious exaggerations (6 million was several times the population of Sichuan before he began) there is ample, indeed overwhelming confirmed testimony to reveal Zhang as a figure of wanton and savage cruelty. Those unfortunate enough to fall under his shadow were only too often victims of brutal and merciless treatment. Even Communist historiographers who rehabilitated Li Zicheng as leader of a great Peasant Revolution, could do little to lighten the image of Zheng Xianzhong.