Money Tree


Money Tree
Money Tree
Bronze and green glazed earthenware
Eastern Han dynasty 1st/2nd century
Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton

This Chinese Han dynasty money tree is decorated with coin designs and lively scenes to sustain its owner in the afterlife.


Money Does Grow on Trees

Clearly, the person who coined the adage “money doesn’t grow on trees” had never seen this ancient Chinese sculpture. Known as a money tree, this sculpture’s name comes from the coin-like designs that hang from the tree branches. Supported by a glazed pottery base, the tree trunk and branches are made from bronze. A phoenix-like bird (feng shuang), a good omen, majestically stretches toward the sky atop six layers of branches—five nearly identical, and one unique. Period literature suggests that money trees were inspired by folktales about money growing on trees. The coins on this money tree resemble Han dynasty coins found in archaeological excavations.

Look closely at the money tree. Its base shows imaginary animals stacked as if to travel up the tree. Lively scenes of ancient Chinese ritual, including performers, acrobats, figures wearing long robes, and animals (both real and imagined) decorate the branches. A complex pattern of people, animals, and coins define the lower portion of each branch. What kinds of people, animals, and activities do you see in the branches?

A small monkey hangs by one hand from the lowest branch. It holds a coin half the size of its body. Why might the monkey swing from the lowest branch, holding a coin?

Some scholars suggest that pottery lamps made for Han tombs inspired the creation of money trees. China, Pottery lamp, Eastern Han dynasty, 1st century, earthenware with green glaze, Gift of Wayne and Rosalee MacFarlane

Depictions of the phoenix were often included in Han tombs to represent royalty and the imperial court. China, Phoenix, Western Han dynasty, 2nd–1st century BCE, gilt bronze, Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton


The Afterlife in the Tomb

Made during the Eastern Han (25–220) dynasty, this money tree was found in a tomb in the Szechuan province of China, a site where more than 50 money trees have been discovered. Most tombs were stockpiled with furnishings that mirrored the extravagant homes of their inhabitants. Indeed, tombs incorporated all aspects of luxe lifestyle, including sculptures of servants, guards, farmhands, musicians, and jugglers. The money tree was thought to provide a source of eternal income for the tomb occupant; it represents a renewable, sustainable, never-ending source of prosperity and sustenance, while also symbolizing rebirth and eternal life.

Furthermore, placing a money tree in a tomb likely had spiritual significance for Han dynasty citizens. The tree’s verticality represents the soul’s journey from the earthly to the spirit world. At the time, coins were thought to emit supernatural light, guiding and helping to sustain the deceased’s journey to the immortal world. The imaginary animals composing the tree base likely served as vehicles to the afterlife.

Sculptures of musicians were often included in Han tombs as a source of entertainment for the occupant. China, Figure of a Squatting Drummer, Eastern Han dynasty, 1st–2nd century, earthenware, Gift of funds from the Regis Foundation

Sculptures of dancers in performance dress were often included in Han tombs as a source of entertainment for the occupant. China, Female “Long Sleeve” Dancer, Western Han dynasty, 2nd century BCE, earthenware, Gift of funds from Ruth and Bruce Dayton


Taoism and Hsi Wang-mu

Look at the top center of each branch for a figure seated beneath a canopy. This is Hsi Wang-mu (shee wong moo), a deity in Taoism (dowism) known as the Queen Mother of the West. Atop the lower branches, she is seated in a shrine and is being entertained by flying horses on both sides and performers below. On the higher branches, spiritual attendants (xian) make offerings to her. In each depiction, she wears a customary flowing robe and a headpiece (sheng).

During much of the Han dynasty, Hsi Wang-Mu was worshipped as the ruler of mythical Mt. Kunlun and holder of the secret to longevity. In some portrayals, she possesses an elixir that, when consumed, would guarantee immortality. People of all social statuses, from commoners to royalty, worshipped her. Particularly in Szechuan province, she augured good fortune, thus explaining her central placement on the money tree.

At the end of the Han dynasty (c. 220), Taoism became an established religion in China. Taoism focuses on nature, the quest for longevity, spiritual cultivation, and the “Tao” as the source of all things. Taoism incorporated much older philosophy and deities, including Hsi Wang-mu, into its system of beliefs. In time, Taoism and Buddhism overlapped in China, and Hsi Wang-mu was depicted alongside the Buddha and other enlightened figures of Buddhism.

This tapestry shows Hsi Wang-mu descending from mythical Mt. Kunlun to attend her birthday party, which celebrated peaches as a source of immortality. China, Pictorial Hanging Illustrating the Feast of Peaches, Ch’ing dynasty, late 18th century, silk tapestry, The John R. Van Derlip Fund

This ink stone, modeled in the form of a turtle, features the “eight trigrams” of Taoism carved into its removable shell. These symbols are the basis for the I-Ching, the Taoist text formulated during the Western Chou period (1050–772 BCE). China, Ink Tablet in the Form of a Turtle, Eastern Han dynasty, 1st century, earthenware with modeled and incised décor including the Eight Trigrams of the I-Ching (The Book of Changes), The William Hood Dunwoody Fund

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