Originating in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), the "horse
coin" was not actual currency. Although Chinese literary
figures have made mention of horse coins throughout the
centuries, few have made it clear exactly how the coins were
used. Collectors today believe horse coins were either
pieces used on game boards or counters for gambling.
Images of horses also appear on old Chinese chess pieces and
examples can be seen at Ancient Chinese Chess
are usually made of bronze or copper although, in some
rare cases, ivory and horn were used. Most common
horse coins measure around 3 centimeters in diameter with
a square or circular central hole.
The horses depicted on the coins vary in
position. Some are lying on the ground
sleeping. Others are turning their head and
neighing. Or, as in the example shown here, the
horse is shown galloping forward with its tail raised
high. Unfortunately, the horse's saddle
always seems to be at the central hole of the coin which
prevents us from learning more about this aspect of
ancient Chinese culture.
Among all the horse coins, those made in the Song
Dynasty (960-1279 AD) are considered to be the finest.
They were made from high-quality metal and with fine
detail. The coin shown at left is representative of
the Song horse coins although it would be difficult to
confirm that this particular piece dates from that period.
Horse coins display many of the most famous
horses in Chinese history. For instance, in the early
Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century-771 BC), King Mu
(穆王) once rode on a chariot with eight outstanding
steeds. The names of the eight horses can be found
on horse coins although there is some disagreement as to
which set of eight names passed down through history is
correct. The names of King Mu's horses described
their outstanding characteristics and included "Beyond
Earth", "Rush by Night", "Windswept Plumes", "Finer
than Flashing Light", "Faster than Shadow", "Wing Bearer",
"Faster than Light" and "Rising Mist". Other
historical texts list King Mu's horses as "Bay Steed",
"Smoked Ebony", "Skewbald Chestnut", "Great Yellow" and
There are also horse coins depicting the victorious,
yet ruthless, General Bai Qi of the ancient Kingdom of Qin
during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).
When Qin Shi Huang put an end to the Warring States
Period and united China into the first empire (221-207
BC), he chose the seven best horses from the thousands of
military horses who had fought in the battles.
In order to improve the quality of his stable, Emperor
Wudi of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - 24 AD) searched
for the best stallions outside his empire. To get the
(sweating blood) horse which he believed were the divine
"Horses of Heaven" that could be ridden to immortality, he
fought a three-year war beginning in 101 BCE against a
small kingdom (Ferghana) located in today's
Uzbekistan. While the emperor's army captured some
horses, only about 1,000 survived the long trip home. Many
legends and historical records state that when such horses
galloped, their sweat was the color of blood. Some
modern scientists now attribute the "blood" sweat to the
parasites which infested the tissues beneath the skin of
the horses. After strenuous movement, the blood
would flow out with the sweat. (Please see "Sweating
Blood Horse" Coin for a detailed discussion.)
Another set of famous horses depicted on horse coins
is associated with Emperor Taizong (Li Shimin) of the Tang
Dynasty (618-907 AD). These horses are also
celebrated in a famous relief sculpture outside his tomb
and are known as the "Six Chargers of Emperor Taizong".
Finally, a very few horse coins will display a rider
on the horse in order to commemorate famous battles from
ancient Chinese history. Please see the "Battle
Coin as an example.
The Chinese characters on the obverse side of this old horse
coin read da song jin
qian (大宋金钱) which means "Great Song (dynasty) metal
The reverse side shows a galloping horse with the
inscription song qi
(宋骑) which means "a rider of the Song (dynasty)".
The coin is 37.7mm in diameter and weighs 18.1 grams.
The inscription on
this horse coin is qin
jiang san qi (秦将散骑).
Qin jiang (秦
将) refers to a general from the ancient state of
Qin during the Warring States period (475-221 BC).
The general referred to is General Bai Qi (白起), a ruthless
military leader, who won more than 70 battles.
Following each victory, he would order his men to slaughter
the defeated soldiers. Historical records credit him
with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of enemy
General Bai Qi was forced to commit suicide by the King of
Qin in the year 257 BC.
San qi (散
骑) in ancient Chinese has the meaning of shi cong (侍从) which
The inscription therefore refers to the attendants or
followers of General Bai Qi who would advise or counsel him.
The reverse side of the coin depicts a galloping horse.
The coin has a diameter of 27.5 mm and a weight of 9 grams.
This horse coin depicts Qu Huang (渠黄), meaning "Great Yellow",
which was one of the eight great horses mentioned above of
King Mu of the Western Zhou Dynasty.
This particular specimen is 35 mm in diameter and weighs
another horse coin honoring one of King Mu's famous horses.
The obverse side of the coin, at the far left, displays a
The two character inscription, with one Chinese character
above and one character below the square hole, reads lu er (绿耳).
The heavy green patina on the coin is appropriate because lu er translates as
The reverse side of the coin is blank.
The coin has a diameter of 28 mm and weighs 7.4 grams.
The inscription on the obverse side of this horse coin
reads piao niao
(骠袅) which translates as "fast and slender".
The reverse side is blank.
The coin is 27 mm in diameter and weighs 6 grams.
This "double obverse" horse coin has the inscription wu zhui (乌骓) which
means a "black spotted horse".
The diameter of the coin is 30mm and the weight is 9
The obverse of this coin reads tang jiang qian li (唐将千里) which literally
means "Tang General 1,000 li
The coin is 27mm in diameter and weighs 5.5 grams.
The inscription on the obverse side of this horse coin is
read top to bottom and right to left as zhen guan shi ji (贞观十骥)
which means "ten thoroughbreds of Zhen Guan". Zhen Guan refers to the
era during which Emperor Taizong (Li Shimin) of
the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) ruled.
The Chinese characters on the reverse side are jue bo (诀波) which was
the name of one of these horses. Jue Bo would roughly
translate as "bursting as a wave".
The coin is 30mm in diameter and weighs 9.7 grams.
This horse coin commemorates Quanmaogua (拳
毛騧) which was the famous war horse that Li
世民), who later became Emperor
Taizong (唐太宗 626-649 AD) of the Tang
dynasty, rode in the battle defeating Liu Heita
黑闼) in 622 AD.
died on the battlefield after being hit by 9 arrows,
6 in the chest and 3 in the back.
The inscription, which is read in a clockwise manner
beginning with the character at the top, is quan mao gua
The literal translation is "fist hair piebald horse".
Actually, the name is believed to be a transliteration of
Turkic into Chinese. Turkic
is a language from Central Asia where the horse may have
"Fist hair" (拳毛)
refers to circular hair. "Piebald" (騧) translates as a yellow horse (马) with a black mouth.
Scholars now believe
that the name Quanmaogua was probably meant to describe a
horse that had curly yellow hair.
During the time of the Sui and Tang dynasties, people
would have considered a horse with these characteristics
to be rather ugly (丑). General Li Shimin,
however, had the ability
to identify a horse that had the qualities needed to help
him succeed in battle even though the animal may have
been physically unattractive.
According to the Penn Museum, the name
Quanmaogua indicates a "saffron-yellow
horse with a wavy coat of hair".
Quanmaogua is one of the six horses
immortalized in stone reliefs at the Zhao
陵), Emperor Taizong's mausoleum, located at Xi'an (西
安). These white marble stone reliefs are known as the
Steeds of the Zhao Mausoleum (唐
昭陵六骏石刻) and are 2.5 meters tall and 3 meters wide.
Four of the six stone reliefs are in China and displayed at
Forest (Beilin Museum 碑
林) in Xi'an. The stone
relief of Quanmaogua, as well as the one for Saluzi
("Autumn Dew" 飒
露紫), were stolen in 1914 and sold by C.T. Loo
(Ching Tsai Loo 卢
芹斋) in 1918 to the Penn
Museum at the University of Pennsylvania (宾夕法尼亚大学)
where they are on display.
The coin is 31mm in diameter and weighs 9.5 grams.
The Chinese characters qian li (千里) on this
horse coin mean "1,000 li
". The li (里)
was a measure of distance in ancient China which
varied over history. One li was equal to roughly 300 - 400 meters.
The term qian li
or "1,000 li"
refers to the ancient accomplishment of Zhaofu who was the
carriage driver of King Mu of the Western Zhou Dynasty.
Zhaofu was able to cover a distance of 1,000 li in a single day in
order to return King Mu from a hunting trip in time to put
down a rebellion in the capital.
The coin is 28mm in diameter and weighs 6.4 grams.
This old horse coin shows considerable wear.
The inscription is similar to the above coin and reads qian li zhi ma (千里之马)
which translates as "1,000 li horse".
The coin has a diameter of 27mm and a weight of 5.2 grams.
The inscription on the obverse side of this
old Chinese horse coin is long
ju (龙驹) which translates as "Dragon's Colt".
The reverse side depicts a "dragon colt" horse.
Dragon colt usually refers to a horse that is white and
The term long
ju (龙驹) can be traced back to the ancient Chinese
text the "Rites of Zhou" (zhou
li 周礼) which dates to the second century BC and is
considered one of the classics of Confucianism.
This ancient ritual text describes a "dragon colt" as a
horse which is "more than eight chi (尺) tall" measured from the front hoof
to the shoulder. One chi, during the time of the Zhou, was
about 16.5 centimeters.
The coin has a diameter of 23 mm and a weight of 3.4 grams.
Horse coins typically
honor only famous horses but a few of these coins display a
rider on the horse in order to commemorate famous battles
from ancient Chinese history.
The horse coin at the left has the inscription yan jiang yue yi (燕將樂毅)
which translates as General Yue Yi of the State of Yan.
(Sometimes the name is translated as General Le Yi.)
The reverse side of the coin shows General Yue Yi carrying a
weapon while on horseback.
General Yue Yi played a major role in one of the most famous
battles of ancient China.
This coin and the "Battle of Jimo" which it commemorates is
discussed in detail at "Battle
of Jimo" Horse Coin.
horse coin commemorates one of the most famous generals in
The inscription reads wu jiang sun wu (吴将孙武) which
translates as "Sun Wu (孙武) the General (将) of the State
of Wu (吴)".
Sun Wu is better known nowadays as Sun Tzu or Sunzi.
(544-496 BC) is the famous general and military strategist
who wrote the book "The
Art of War" (孙
子兵法) during the Spring
and Autumn period (春
秋时代 770-476/403 BC).
The reverse side of the horse coin portrays Sun Tzu carrying
a sword over his shoulder while riding his horse.
This horse coin was sold at China
Guardian Auction in 2013.
Rare horse coins from the Song and Yuan dynasties
displaying horses in battle armor are discussed at Horse
in Armour Horse Coins.
A rare horse coin depicting a blood-sweating "heavenly
horse" is discussed at "Sweating
Blood Horse" Coin.
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