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.
KEY IDEA ONE
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?
KEY IDEA TWO
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.
KEY IDEA THREE
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.
Compose a conversation between the dragon and the tiger. What would they say to each other? How would their speaking style reflect their yin or yang nature? Consider vocabulary, tone of voice, volume, and other qualities. Compare your dialogue with someone else.
Visit the Minneapolis Institute of Art for a discussion-based tour on just about any topic, including Chinese or Asian art. Click here to access the tour request form.
The phoenix is a mythological bird that has been used in art across cultures and time periods. Research the many examples of the phoenix in art around the world. How do different cultures use the phoenix in art? What similarities and differences do you find between cultures? Compile your research and write an essay or create a presentation for your classmates.
Watch Mia’s video “Chinese Bronzes: Ancient Methods Meet Modern Technology” to learn more about Mia’s research related to the bronze collection.