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Visually, the money tree was unique and distinct, compared to other Han Dynasty art pieces – clay models of mythical and real animals, lead-glazed earthenware canteens, reamer vessels, tile and brick decorations found in tombs, and various models of houses, stoves, mills, and farmyards. Its elaborate detail and delicacy was unlike not only the Han pieces in Gallery 15, but any art I had seen in Chinese history.
However, the money tree was not “love at first sight. ” As I researched and learned more about the tree, I became increasingly drawn to the piece.
The money tree represents the synergy of Taoism and Buddhism during the Eastern Han Dynasty- a guide to heaven, and the hope for good fortune In the afterlife. Money trees were placed In tombs found mostly In the Chuan province of China during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD).
The money tree Is made of bronze and can be delved Into two sections: the base and the branches of the tree. The ceramic and bronze base is covered with an amber lead glaze and contains three levels, which portray “lively scenes rarely found in Chinese art,” such as hunting (Rigger 11 . 10. 05).
Whole surviving money trees are rare, since the solid base of the tree endure longer than its delicate branches. The branches of the tree are thin, wintertime bronze pieces that are divided by six levels.
Each level has four branches facing opposite directions that are divided by ninety degrees. The branches thrive with magical creatures (such as winged immortals called Asian), disk shapes, birds, and coins that literally hang from the bottom of the branches (museum description). Each coin Is similar to those used during the Han Dynasty (a square cut out off circle) and Is Interconnected, forming what looks Like a chain.
At the top of the tree the Queen Mother of the West (Aqualung), an Important Taoist deity, Is dated on her throne supported by a dragon and tiger. Between the topmost branch and the Queen Mother of the West is a small figure of a seated Buddha surrounded by coins. The Han Dynasty lasted from 206 BCC to 220 AD and followed the short-lived Sin Dynasty from 221 to 206 BCC. China flourished domestically during the Han dynasty and expanded geographically, politically, and culturally to neighboring lands. Han art made frequent “references to spirits, portents, myths, the strange and powerful, the death-defying and the dazzling” (Byre 71).
Art pieces like the money tree show the attempt of Han emperors to contact the Immortal world of gods and the Importance of the fate of the dead (Byre 71). This desire for life after death and Immortality during the Han Dynasty Is portrayed through the Taoist deity – the Queen Mother of the West. Her paradise Is filled with deathless trees, lucky charms, and auspicious animals such as the dancing toad, the three-foot crow, the nine-tailed fox, the hare Tanat produces ten laxer AT Immortality, Ana magical Dallas, wanly are placate In ten upper edge of the branches (Byre 71, Bagley 54).
People of all social classes reshipped her and believed in her power to provide immortality. The History of the Han from 3 BCC explains, “People were running about in a state of alarm, holding stalks of hemp that they passed from one to another, saying they were delivering the wand the edict of the Queen Mother of the West… They also passed around texts reading ‘The Mother tells the people that those who wear this talisman will not die’ “(Byre 73). Taoism emphasizes themes similar to those of the Queen Mother of the West, such as immortality, longevity, and wealth. Towards the end of the Han
Dynasty, otherwise known as the Eastern Han, specialists of immorality, called famishing and their beneficiaries – Asian (Rigger 11 . 7. 05). Other Taoist features are also apparent on the decorations on the base of the money tree, figures with elongated heads called the Taoist Immortals (Chipper 6). The Immortals refer to “the cult of immortals or transcendent (in Chinese, Asian) in which believers practiced the arts of physical cultivation to make themselves into spiritual beings” (Rigger 1 1 . 14. 05). Another important figure present in the money tree is a seated Buddha placed low the Queen Mother of the West.
Mahayana Buddhism originated in India where Shamanic, the historical Buddha lived, and spread to China through the Silk Road (Byre 95). The hierarchical position of the Buddha on the money tree, below the Queen Mother of the West, but above the Queen’s attendants and earth, portrays the emergence of Buddhism, specifically Mahayana Buddhism, at a time when Taoism was considered the dominant religion. In fact, many Chinese first viewed Buddhism as a variation of Taoism, since early translators used Taoist terms to express Buddhist ideas.
For example, “the Mahayana concept of the fundamental emptiness of phenomena was identified with the Taoist notion of non-being” (Byre 96). Therefore the synergy of Buddhism and Taoism is represented by important religious figures, the seated Buddha and Gaming. Not only does the money tree symbolize a religious orgy, but also a guide to heaven from earth for the dead. The base of the tree represents the divine mountainous realm of the Queen Mother of the West, called Mount Kuhn. Geographically, Mount Kuhn is associated with the “West,” specifically in Chuan Bagley 318).
Meanwhile, the peak of the tree represents Coxswain’s paradise or heaven. Therefore the stem of the money tree represents a world-axis that links heaven and earth. The Buddha, positioned Just below the Queen Mother of the West, symbolizes a guide to the Queen’s paradise. Money trees were placed in tombs, so that the deceased within would enter the Queen’s paradise directly and easily in the afterlife. Once the deceased reaches the afterlife by following the path laid out through the money tree, the Chinese hoped that happiness and prosperity, attributes f the Queen Mother of the West, will continue in the afterlife.
In addition to the money tree representing the union between earth and heaven, it also represents the hope for the entombed to have good fortune in the afterlife. During the Han Dynasty, the money tree was called a shush or “coin pillar,” hence the interlaced coins on the lower edge of the branches (Bagley 54). The “thin plates of filigree openwork” of the branches suggests that the coins on the money tree were cast in flat two-piece molds similar to the technique once used to cast Han coins.
During ten Han Dynasty, cools were producer a cozen at a time In a moll winner each coin was Joined to each other by the pouring channels (Bagley 274). The interconnected chain of coins on the branches of the money tree symbolizes eternal and continuous wealth. Furthermore, as the entombed ascended from earth to heaven by following the path laid out on the money tree, the entombed would collect the coins on their way to heaven. Therefore, the path to the paradise of the Queen Mother of the West is filled with riches.
Through the study of the money tree we can conclude that it symbolically presents a map that directs the entombed to heaven. The Buddha acts as a guide to lead the deceased to the Queen Mother of the West, while the abundance of coins shows that the path to her paradise is littered with wealth. Furthermore, the appearance of both the Queen Mother of the West and the seated Buddha shows the intermingling of Taoism and Buddhism. As these interpretations of the money tree unfolded in my mind, I became increasingly passionate about the money tree.