55. Paizi – printed colophons and Chinese charms

David Helliwell of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, writes the excellent blog Serica – some notes on old Chinese books. In his latest post he included an illustration of a paizi 牌子 (literally, a “plaque”). It reminded me of pieces in the BM’s collection of Chinese charms. Was there a connection?


The paizi illustrated on Serica, blog post “Chinese leaves” (5 Nov 2018) (from 新鍥全補天下四民利用便觀五車拔錦 三十三卷 / (明)徐三友校 , 明萬曆丁酉[1597]建陽書林鄭世魁刊本)

I searched Serica for more examples of paizi and found another one:


The paizi illustrated on Serica, blog post “Our earliest Chinese acquisition” (29 Dec 2012), with the comment “There is a printed colophon (paizi 牌子) at the end of the book bearing the words 「福河陳心齋梓」, indicating that it was printed by Chen Xinzhai from Fuhe.”

So, while I was thinking of “plaque” as a physical object, the book world thought of paizi as a “printed colophon”? (Like a seal, and a seal impression?) Time to ask the expert.

David Helliwell replied immediately to my questions. It turns out that paizi refers to a colophon in this style, and that paizi are very common in commercial editions of Jianyang and Jinling (Nanjing), which were the books that came to Europe in the early 17th century. For several decades now, David and other experts have been compiling a catalogue of these books, available online here – and accessed through a beautiful home-page featuring a paizi!


Home page to “Chinese Books in Europe in the 17th Century”

I searched the list for 牌子 and found 18 instances – the catalogue is not illustrated, but the paizi are usually transcribed.

Turning to the pieces housed in the BM collection of charms, these are the pieces that most closely resemble the printed colophons:

(1) British Museum 1993,0639.176 (65 x 42 mm)

(2) British Museum 1993,0639.177 (59 x 38 mm)

(3) British Museum 1981,0326.12 (60 x 38 mm)

(4) British Museum 1989,0627.101 (59 x 36 mm)

As far as I know, no one has looked specifically at such pieces. Francois Thierry illustrates several examples in his catalogue Amulettes de Chine (2008, ISBN 978-2-7177-2402-8)

  • nos 39, 41, 84, 367, 369 are the closest (a lotus-leaf suspension loop above, or leaves below, a rectangular plaque)
  • no. 419 is a rectangular plaque, pierced for suspension
  • no 162 has a lotus-leaf suspension loop above a round disc above a square plaque
  • no 163 (similar to 162) has a coin-shape above a square plaque
  • nos 42, 49, 69, 138, 202, 247, 294, 329, 345, 358, 363, 366, 368, 487 (with a lotus-leaf suspension loop above a coin-shape)
  • nos 370, 417 have a stylized lotus-leaf(?) suspension loop above a coin-shape and leaves below
  • nos 108, 118 have a coin-shape at the centre, with lotus-leaf suspension loop above, and/or something below (mostly small pieces)

Alex Chengyu Fang 方称宇, devotes a chapter of his book 《中国花钱与传统文化》 Chinese Charms: Art, Religion and Folk Belief (2008, ISBN 978-7-100-05832-2) to “Hanging plaques and charms of unsual shapes” (挂牌与异形钱) (pp. 313-347). Most of the pieces he illustrates are from the Ming dynasty or earlier. Most are round, with just a couple that are rectangular (nos 319, 227). Some pieces are lingpai 令牌 , a kind of tablet/badge/pass/warrant (eg featuring a leopard, no. 224, and a dog, no. 225 – with a note that these pieces are not listed in Luo Zhenyu’s 罗振玉:《历代符牌图录》(A Compendium of Official Passes). I have previously seen a lingpai for the imperial leopard house, perhaps in Edinburgh, but I’d need to check.

A number of “pendant charms” (挂牌) are illlustrated on Gary Ashkenazy’s site Primaltrek. These seem to be the most common type of charm with the lotus-leaf suspension loop above a coin-shape.

More recent versions of lingpai 令牌 are available in various media:


A screenshot for a search for 令牌 on google images

I’m not sure where I’m going with all this, but maybe there’s a interesting link between the printed colophons paizi and the bronze/brass guapai?

Update, 8 Nov 2018

Many thanks to Alex Fang for the comments below. I had looked only at the paizi-shaped pieces, and had overlooked the coin-shaped charms (round with a square hole in the middle) that feature a paizi as part of design. He illustrates these (nos 148-183) in his book (see above for details). The chapter is titled “Charms with zodiacal signs”. On these charms the paizi is above the hole, and contains a 4-character inscription ( 本命星官 、本命元神、本命星神 ), and the zodiacal animal to the lower left of the hole.

There are a few examples of these in the BM collection, including some from the Tamba Collection (Kutsuki Masatsuna, 1750-1802). Here’s one of them, with 本命星官 in the paizi:

British Museum, 1884,0511.2453 Tamba Collection

Many thanks also to Andrew West (@BabelStone) , Devin Fitzgerald (@DevinFitzger) and others for engaging so expertly with this post on twitter yesterday.


53. The Millenium Medal, by Marian Fountain

I came across “The Millenium Medal” by Marian Fountain last week. I’ve known her name and some of her work for a long time, but had never seen this medal before. Intrigued by the way it references East Asian coins, I asked if she’d tell us more about it. I’m very grateful to Marian for writing this post, and for sharing these images with us, and also to Dr Alexander Chang for agreeing to share his response to the medal.

Marian Fountain writes:

The Millennium Medal was created for New Year 2000 which I felt to be an exceptional celebration of time and a milestone in the Gregorian calendar. It was a special moment in time to reflect on the past and future.  Yes indeed, the medal denotes the Chinese cash coin, round with square hole. Its use for several millennia and its function as a luck charm or divination device for the Book of Changes, makes it an excellent symbol for universality and exchange in the future.

It is a luck symbol for the new millennium, and people wore it on 1/1/2000 as a prize for just ‘being there’. The collectiveness and ‘equal-opportunity’ quality of the event means that the person looking out the window (square = the earth) is one of many, who embrace the new day and the wide world (circle = the heavens).

A lunar cycle calendar on the reverse shows the rhythms which mark time, the moon being observed by all cultures since the beginning.

marian medal

A card initially accompanying the medals read: “to be worn and polished from hand to hand for the next 1000 years”. Details will be rubbed away, accentuating the quintessential symbol of earth and heaven.

Around 170 examples were purchased in the months surrounding the new year, several were presented as gifts, and 43 remain in the edition of 230.

To me, this medal includes a blend of influences and styles, which is something that happens naturally during exchange. The person at the window is the wearer’s ‘selfie’, or could also be anybody from  the last 2000 years. A Jesuit astronomer in China, or a scientist of the enlightenment, for example. In my mind the figure is at the centre of his universe, but can be transformed and filled with the light and intelligence of the whole, symbolised by the square and circle.  The notion of time with change and transformation is essential here.

Some of my earliest fascinations were the ancient jade cong or bi at the Auckland Museum. There is a quintessential symbolic quality about them that goes way beyond ornament. What’s more, their precise shapes formed from hard jade are witness to a sophisticated technology mastered.

Other related works inspired by Chinese cash coins and ancient jade cong and bi include:


Franco-British Lawyers Society medal, 9.5 cm diam, Paris 2002

pi medal

Pi medal, 11 cm, 1982


Cricket Casket, H 9.5 cm, 1982


Ricerca Reciproca, 7 cm diam. 1982


Winged Medal with Legs, 23 x 19 x 7 cm, 1992


Equilibre Instable, 14.5 cm, NZ 1989

Although the medal ‘Unstable Equilibrium’ is a loose interpretation of bi I’d like to share my exchange with a recent acquirer of the medal:

Fountain: The medal is about a relationship of two people from different cultures, one coming from far across the sea whose face is half hidden..

Dr Alexander Chang: Thank you for clarifying the meaning or “story” of your creation Unstable Equilibrium. I will now be able to tell people what it symbolises when they see it in my home.

I can also see how it might relate to my own situation. My father coming from China in 1920 to New Zealand and subjected to the draconian Poll Tax which singled out only Chinese. My mother was married but prohibited from joining my father but in 1939 when Japan invaded China she was allowed into New Zealand temporarily as a refugee. When the Second World War ended in 1945 she and any children borne were to be deported back to China. I was one of four children who after more than two years in limbo along with my mother were finally permitted to stay in New Zealand. I believe your creation could equally apply to my situation and as you say “food for thought”. Your piece will certainly be treasured, I am pleased I chose it.

See more of Marian Fountain’s work on www.marianfountain.com

51. Waves of Globalization – the XVIII World Economic History Congress

The XVIII World Economic History Conference took place in Boston last week. The theme was “Waves of Globalization” – the programme is available online here . I was going to pick out the papers relating to China, but there are so many and, as the theme is “globalization”, it would have taken too long. Instead, I’ve listed the panels below (highlighting  in bold any panels with the words China, Chinese, Asia, Japan, or silver in the title).  (more…)

50. The use of silver ingots in Ming dynasty tax payment

LI Xiaoping 李晓萍 , of the Zhejiang Provincial Museum 浙江省博物馆, has authored several books on silver currency, and edited Academic Conference Proceedings of Gold and Silver Currency and Social Life. (She publishes under two different names, which look the same in the romanised form – LI Xiaoping – but have different characters for Xiao:  李晓萍 and 李小萍)  (more…)

47. Chinese Money Matters – so why does it have such a low profile?

This was the title of the short presentation I gave at the Art, Materiality and Representation conference that took place in London, 1-3 June, organised by the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI), the BM’s Department for Africa, Oceania and the Americas, and the Dept of Anthropology at SOAS. My paper was one of 17 papers in the one-day session “Museums of Asian Arts outside Asia: Questioning Artefacts, Cultures and Identities” (see the list of speakers and titles at the end of this post). The day was superbly conceived, organised and presented by Iside Carbone of the RAI. (more…)

45. “Cultural Revolution style red packets”

Frances Wood (formerly Head of the Chinese section at the British Library, and author of Hand Grenade Practice in Beijing: My Part in the Cultural Revolution and many other books) recently donated a pack of “Cultural Revolution style red packets” to the British Museum. She purchased them in a Chinese supermarket in central London earlier this year.  (more…)

41. Chinese guides for identifying silver dollars and other coins, 19th century

There are two Chinese guides – merchant manuals or shroff’s guides – in the Department of Coins and Medals, at The British Museum (nos 4 and 8 below). Several similar guides are known, and I’m grateful to Richard von Glahn and Byron Hamann for sharing their expertise and knowledge on this subject. I’ll give a very brief introduction below, and then share ten of these guides. If you know of others, or of research on these guides, please leave a comment. (more…)