Scarce Wu Fen Ban Liang cash, c.182-175 BC, Western Han, China (Hartill 7.14)

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Two large Chinese characters Ban Liang ("Half an ounce"), renzi liang / Blank, no rims. 23mm, 1.91 grams. Gratzer/Fishman "The First Round Coins of China" #13.24. Hartill #7.14.

Scarcer type of Western Han Ban-Liang cash.

In 182 the Empress Lu Zhi ordered the casting of new lighter Ban Liangs. This new standard was placed between the elm-seed coins which were too light and the 8-zhu coins which were too heavy – it was obviously the hope that the new weight of the coins will be neither “too heavy” or “too light”. The name of these coins is reported to be Wu Fen Ban Liangs – “five parts Ban Liangs”, taken to mean that each coin weighed “1/5th of a Ban Liang (half liang)” or 1/10th of a liang of 24 zhu (2 zhu 4 lei or just under 2 grams). That gives us a rather inconvenient measure of 2.4 zhu (2 zhu 4 lei) per coin. It seems like a strange standard, but perhaps the logic behind it was that 10 coins would weigh exactly 1 liang of copper and a string of 1,000 coins would weigh exactly 100 liangs, making these coins light and yet convenient for large scale transactions. The introduction of the new coinage was probably accompanied by the continual ban of private coining, alluded to in the later records. However, this attempt to introduce reasonably convenient and standardized state-controlled coinage was short-lived, as the Wu Fen Ban Liangs were discontinued in 175 BC due to wide counterfeiting and debasement of the Wu Fen coins. The Book of Han mentioned the problems with the Wu Fen Ban Liangs while discussing the introduction of the 4-zhu coins [Hanshu 24b:3b]: “By the fifth year (175 BC) of the Emperor Wen because the (Wu Fen Ban Liang) cash in circulation had greatly increased in number, and were lighter (than their nominal weight)”.

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