First Trip to China, II: Numismatists Gather in Changchun

Despite the tourism so cheerfully recounted last post, I was in fact in China in 2017 for academic purposes. The formal cause was a conference at North-East Normal University in Changchun, by name the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity. If I can be Aristotelian about this, then I suppose the material cause of this was that, one way or another, there are a reasonable number of Byzantine solidi and, maybe more interestingly, imitations of them, that have come to light in China, and this is one of the major research areas of Professor Lín Yīng of Sun-Yat Sen University, whom I had had the pleasure of moderating at a Leeds International Medieval Congress two years before.1 But she is not the only Byzantinist in China by quite some way; I suppose an ancient empire likes to know about its contemporaries… And a number of people with such interests hang out at North-East Normal, because it runs an Institute for Ancient Civilizations, which was the hosting organisation for this conference, under the particular auspices of its Vice-Director, Dr Sven Günther. In fact, North-East Normal also boasts a Medieval History Research Centre, and you’d think that they would be my obvious point of contact, but because, you see, the efficient cause was that Professor Lín knows me as a Byzantine numismatist, because when she met that’s what I was, professionally, and of course I have not completely left that identity behind.2 I guess if you come in through the door marked ‘Byzantinist’, you’re a Byzantinist, but if what that means is that (assuming we get to a stage where this is possible again) I get invited halfway across the world and shown round the local wonders, then I guess I can come up with a paper about Byzantine coins for you…

Gathering of delegates to the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity

Gathering of delegates, with yours truly awkwardly central

Now, ever since I hit the time buffers on this blog in 2017, I have been reporting conferences by listing the papers I went to and then sticking my other remarks below a cut for the interested reader to follow up if they wish. On this occasion, however, I want to write at least something about the actual experience of the conference first, because it had some important and impressive differences from the Western format to which I’m used. Firstly, I suppose, everything was paid for; I remember when that used to be possible in the UK, just, but it was a while back, certainly before this blog. One can get into arguments about where taxpayers’ money should be going, I guess, but it is salutary to realise that the answers aren’t necessarily fixed.3 However, the differences that really struck me could be grouped under two headings, those being tea and languages. And the greater of these, for me at least, might even be tea. For look: if you examine this photo…

Session at the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity

Session in progress

… you will observe that everyone, even the beardy foreigner in the pale jacket with his pen in his mouth close to the back of the middle of the picture, has a nice porcelain mug with a lid in front of them. When we entered the conference room those mugs had small piles of auspicious green leaves in them; before we started attendants went round and poured lately-boiled water onto those leaves and put the lids back on; and then, every hour or so thereafter, they came round again and topped them up, because of course for decent green tea you don’t need, or even want, boiling water, and it will sustain several infusions. Indeed, I understand that with some teas you just throw the first one out because what you’re really after is the subtleties that come out in the second one, but dear reader, I digress. During lunch new mugs were set out and we were set up again for the afternoon. When I compare this to the desperate scrabble between sessions for the inadequate coffee at most Western conferences, it is hard not to feel that we were guests of a more anciently civilised culture than our own, I tell you. The coffee breaks were still there, but the caffeine was now a vestigial part of them because what they were really for was to enable the conversations between papers that are actually the important part of the academic conference. So this all worked rather well.

And then languages. At this point I had no functional Chinese (and even now I can manage very little more than greetings and very basic questions about menus), and a good few of the speakers had no functional English. This is not to say that people here didn’t know languages: one professor gave a very rough greeting speech in English but was able to introduce one of the Western speakers in fluent Greek, I guess because that was what he had needed to learn for what he wanted to do in his career. In general, though, English was not the default second language, which was salutary and a bit challenging, and if that wasn’t enough, a couple of the papers were delivered in Mongolian, which is another thing again. So any two people did not have great odds of understanding each other. But, this didn’t matter too much, because the other thing that there were people doing was immediate, translated summarisation of each paper after it was given, Chinese into English, English into Chinese, Mongolian into both. Questions were also translated this way during discussion. This responsibility was distributed around so that no-one had to do more than two, it was timetabled into the sessions, and it meant that the language barrier, while still very present, could pretty easily be hurdled, or at least messages flung across it in mutually satisfactory fashion. I could go off into speculation about how this worked in previous eras when other people crossed into China – the importance of the intermediary became really obvious in this meeting – but I could probably again be accused of digression. After all, we were here to talk about coins. So what were people talking about? I will list them!

24th June 2017

  • Zhāng Qiáng, “Introduction”
  • Xú Jiālíng, “Welcome”
  • Claudia Sode, “Welcome”
  • Wàn Xiáng and Lín Yīng, “Trade Pattern of 1-4 c. CE Silk Road – A Preliminary Study Based on Kushan Coins”
  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Islamic Late Antiquity in Western Eurasia: Concepts, Transformation and Monetary Organisation”
  • Stefanos Kordosis, “Some Remarks on the Term ‘Fromo’ of a Late 7th-Early 8th c. Bactrian Coin Inscription ‘Fromo Kesaro’ (Caesar of Rome)”
  • Coffee

  • Sven Günther, “The Migration of Motifs as a Qualitative Approach to the Question of Connectivity in Late Antiquity”
  • Pagona Papadopoulou, “The Gold of the Emperor: Imitations of Byzantine Coins in Gold in the Mediterranean (5th-8th Centuries)”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Separated by the Past: Western Coinages from Pseudo-Imperial to Quasi-Independent, 5th to 7th c. AD”
  • Lunch

  • Aleksandr Naymark, “Roman and Byzantine Coins and their Reproduction in Western Central Asia”
  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Transition of the Monetary Situation of Khurasan and Transoxiana between the Islamic and T’ang Empire between 600 and 800 A.D.”
  • Coffee

  • Lĭ Qiáng, “The Dynamics of the Studies on the Byzantine Coins and their Imitations discovered in China, 2007-2017”
  • Guō Yúnyan, “On the Byzantine Coins Unearthed in China”
  • Dinner

25th June 2017

  • Ankhbayar Batsuui, “Regarding a Coin”
  • Erdenebold Lkhagvasuren, “West-East Relations and Nomads: A Study on Coins Discovered in Shordon Bumbagar, Bayannur, Sum Mongolia”
  • Odbaatar Tserendorj, “Sassanid Period Silver Coins Collection at National Museum of Mongolia”
  • Yngve Karlsson, “Main Features of Sasanian Silver Coins, with Examples from Mongolian National Museum”
  • Coffee

  • Rebecca Darley, “Byzantine Gold Coins in India in Late Antiquity”
  • Brigitte Borell, “Coins from Western Lands found in Southeast Asia”
  • Li Jinxiu, “Silver Coin and Silver Trading Circles: the Differing Destinies of Persian Silver Coins in Tang Times”4
  • Lunch

  • Shi Yang-Xin, “Collection of Ancient Coins from the Silk Road in Xi’an Tang West Market Museum”5
  • Wang Yongsheng, “Silk Road Coinage: its Definition and Research Value”
  • Coffee

  • Aleksandr Naymark, “Byzantine Influence on Sogdian Monetary Type”
  • Responses by Zhang Xushan, Stefan Heidemann, Aleksandr Naymark, Claudia Sode and Lín Yīng
  • Closing Ceremony and Farewell Drink

It’s harder than usual to write up this conference, because it was so frequently telling me things I had just not previously known. Lín’s article is a neat introduction to the problem that brought us together, but is focused quite reasonably on some particuar Silk Road tombs, and there was so much bigger a picture being put together here, by experts from zones and on zones thousands of miles apart and linked more by sharing an era than by anything else. So it seems best, rather than to comment on individual papers, to try to write some kind of synthesis of what, by the end, I thought I knew about what was going on with coinage eastwards of Byzantium and, for the most part, northwards of India, over the mostly-fifth to more-or-less-ninth centuries. Predictably, given the size of the zone and the number of actors in it, this turned out to be very confusing, but, to me at least, also really interesting, and it got added into my teaching very quickly once I came back.

So here goes. The basic phenomenon that we had gathered to look at was that there are, so far, about 40 actual Byzantine gold coins, mostly solidi, from Chinese contexts, often, where those contexts are known, high-status burials. There are also 150-odd imitations, either more or less accurate coins or single-sided foils that reproduce a more or less basic design. (Thus far, especially, the papers of Guō Yúnyan and Lĭ Qiáng, and so far, attentive readers may think, this looks a lot like the situation Rebecca Darley has outlined for India, except for the burial contexts in China and the limited but significant presence of late Roman copper coins in India.6) However, there are also so far nearly 900 Sasanian silver coins known from a variety of contexts, including hoards, which doesn’t seem to be how the Byzantine pieces turn up. (Here the Mongolian papers of Odbaatar Tserendorj and Lkhagvasuren Erdenebold, with some context from Yngve Karlsson, are the basis, but Stefan Heidemann also contributed bits of the picture.) Now, two things are weird about this: firstly, the reverse isn’t true, as Chinese coins do not turn up in Byzantium and they are barely known from Iran, making the traffic down the supposed Silk Road look rather one way when we have every reason to believe that many things were moving along its disjointed sections in both directions.7 Secondly, and here again parallels with Southern India I believe, the recipient zone here didn’t itself use precious-metal coins, having a well-run and consistent system of copper cash (actually a Chinese word) which was entirely fiduciary, i. e. with an exchange value set and guaranteed by the state. So these coins had no currency use where they were going, and of course the same was true in reverse: in Persia and Byzantium, Chinese cash would not only have looked thoroughly odd, but have had no real value.

Obverse of a copper-alloy cash of the King of Heaven Li Jing (943–61) struck in China in 959–61, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

Obverse of a copper-alloy cash of the King of Heaven Li Jing (943–61) struck in China in 959–61, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued, photograph by your author. The reverse is blank, so I haven’t bothered including it.

Now you may well say, well, gold’s gold and silver’s silver, who’d object to being given treasure? And you’re not wrong, of course, except that if that was all these coins were worth, I wouldn’t expect us to have them, because they’d have been melted down. But they’re not, which suggests that they were worth something as coins, and therefore that they might actually be the commodity that moved the other way, not just payment for the one coming west. These are blurry categories which this evidence challenges, as Stefan pointed out in his closing remarks, but it helps to get perspective by using them, I think. It’s for this reason that Professor Lín raised the famous Grierson Objection, that just because a coin is in a place far away from its mint doesn’t mean it was traded; she thought a good few may have been diplomatic gifts, and she may be right although direct diplomatic contact east-west is very hard to prove in any depth.8 Others saw especially the Sasanian coins as having left Iran as tribute, to the Hepthalites perhaps, and then perhaps being paid on again to the Türkic Khaganate, and then going from there to China as tribute, and perhaps being distributed at court to the kind of major magnates who get big furnished burials, or, given that they are largely found in burials along the entry-route from the Western Regions, maybe never making it that far.9

 Gold solidus of Justin I and Justinian I, 527 CE, found in tomb of Tian Hong (d. 575) at Guyuan

Gold solidus of Justin I and Justinian I, 527 CE, found in tomb of Tian Hong (d. 575) at Guyuan, photograph by Luo Feng. Coin images in this post are not to scale, as I don’t have measurements with which to make them so.

But it isn’t quite that simple either, for at least two reasons. One is that Chinese chronicles apparently record that in the north-western-edge province of Gansu the locals did use gold and silver coin and ingots as currency, and presumably had a set rate at which those could be exchanged for imperial cash, not least because the Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang, of whom we have heard here before and will again soon, apparently bought himself 30,000 Sasanian drachms and 100 solidi in the area on his flight west (all data here from Lin Jinxiu’s paper). The other is imitation. Pretty much everywhere that saw these things, Indonesia (discussed by Brigitte Borell) perhaps excepted because it saw so few, made its own versions of them. That tells us that what made them worthwhile was not simply that they came from far away and were connected with tribute or whatever, or at least that if it was that exotic origin that made them special, you could make do with a local evocation of it. The number of Chinese fashion houses whose products we were seeing on the graduate students which were notionally in English, but functionally weren’t, and were obviously still cool, is probably what puts that possibility into my head, but there are plenty of Western parallels too; we think jeans look cool even if they’re not Levis, and so on.10 Furthermore, pretty much everywhere that did imitate Byzantine gold seems to have been doing it for slightly different reasons. In the West—for in this part of the conversation the really Western regions became relevant—we have coins there that seem to have been meant to run as currency still, even if they looked progressively more unlike their Roman and Byzantine antetypes. (Here Pagona Papadopoulou and I respectfully disagreed about the intentions of the issuing state, and I imagine both of us have now reacted to the other in the forthcoming article versions, so I should say no more here about what neither of us may any longer think, but it showed that nothing was necessarily fixed in our canons.) In India, Rebecca Darley has forcefully argued that these gold coins were not currency, but used in ritual depositions or as jewellery, perhaps convertible to bullion on need but worth keeping and displaying anyway, and many of the Chinese ones are also pierced as if for stitching to clothing or stringing on threads, and not in the way that cash are, as you see above.11 In India they don’t turn up in burials, however, and there are more of them.

Imitation of a gold solidus of Justinian I

Imitation of a gold solidus of Justinian I, struck who knows where but most likely in India during the sixth century I suppose

Then there’s the huge, huge question of intermediaries, to which I already alluded above. The Silk Roads, landward or maritime, were not direct routes; they went through many stages and sometimes didn’t reach all the way at all. Guó Yúnyan pointed out that any Byzantine coin reaching China must have first gone through Persia, either under Sasanians or later under Islam but in any case something the Byzantine Empire would, to judge from its laws, rather have prevented. The few finds from Indonesia, meanwhile, suggest a traffic via India, which itself could have been direct or could also have come via Persia. At the western end of the routes, therefore, there was a big Iran-shaped blockage to direct access to the roads eastwards, and for a little while at the beginning of our period another east of them in the form of the Kushan Empire (discussed by Wàn Xiáng and Lín Yīng). At times, indeed, there was another one at the Eastern end in the form of the Türks (whom no=-one really discussed, alas) or of Mongolia (covered by Lkhagvasuren Erdenebold). But even between them are hundreds of miles of partly-settled travel, populated by groups we might term Bactrian (Kordosis), Hephthalite (Heidemann), and a good few other things, but especially Sogdians. Now, I had barely heard of Sogdians before this conference, but they had such an enthusiastic partisan in the form of Professor Naymark, with whom Rebecca Darley and I became fast friends over the course of the conference, that by the end of things everyone was ready to suggest ‘Sogdians?’ as the answer to almost any question of connectivity we couldn’t solve.12 So one has to think in terms not just of what the Chinese wanted with Byzantine gold coins, but what the Sogdians and other such intermediately-placed groups did to obtain them and why.

A probably-Sogdian imitation of a Byzantine solidus of Heraclius, struck at an unknown location after 627 or so

A probably-Sogdian imitation of a Byzantine solidus of Heraclius, struck at an unknown location after 627 or so, image from CoinTalk, linked through

To add yet more complication to that, pretty much all of these groups also struck imitations of these coins, often alongside their own. Here, it must be said, the Sogdians really did lead the field (or so, at least, we all believed after listening to Sacha Naymark): they sometimes had seven separate mints, with no overall control, again minting not just close imitations of the real currency units but much less close ones, except in the Sogdian cases even more so: types from gold coin turn up on copper, Persian types on gold, Persian and Byzantine together, and Sacha thought some types could only be explained by the die-cutter imitating gemstones rather than coins. It obviously didn’t matter too much to the Sogdians, these were all coins, except that there are still those close imitations, which must therefore have had a special purpose in interacting with the bigger neighbour states? Maybe? There are Mongolian imitations of cash, even though gold and silver are also found there, which suggest that such things were useful (told us Ankhbayar Batsuui), but then one can’t imagine the Chinese state taking Mongolian imitations of its coinage in payment for anything, so the users must have been local? Again, maybe? There seemed to be a whole world here to explore, and only a small number of finds with which to do it (and little hope of finding out about new ones, given the state of settlement and government in some of these areas).

So obviously the big take-away point here is that none of us could hope to get the full picture by ourselves. Only the scholars in the find-zones could really access or tell us about the coins that have actually been found so far east (and in some cases conserved and displayed, as Shi Yang-Xin showed us for the West Tang Silk Road Museum). On the other hand, it’s really hard to identify these things properly if you can’t, as I had been able to in 2015-16, just spend a lot of time actually handling and learning Byzantine coins. I and Pagona and Rebecca could just be surer about imitation and derivation because we knew the normal Byzantine coinage very well; but we had no idea about the East Asian usages. Likewise, I’m not sure any of us really had a grip on what the Sogdians were doing until we heard from Sacha, but even the greatest professor cannot know everything, as he and Stefan Heidemann cheerfully reminded each other every now and then. The Mongolian picture was obscure to everyone but the Mongolians but they needed our help (and successfully recruited Yngve Karlsson for a co-written paper, I believe) to know what what they had might mean elsewhere. This was just too big a zone for any individual to amass a clear picture of it, and yet what we were seeing was that it did have some unity that means it needs to be understood as a whole, even if a whole composed of quite disjointed and independent parts. As several of the closing remarks said, a conference like this was a necessary first step for anyone working on that zone to get much further with it, and we have to keep on talking to each other.

Now since then, a few opportunities to carry on that conversation have arisen, and I’ll recount them as they arose. But we were also all invited to submit our papers for publication in IHAC’s house journal, the Journal of Ancient Civilizations, which doesn’t get west much but again, east of the Mediterranean might be a pretty reasonable way to get your name out there; I subsequently found it in Bilkent University Library by chance, for example. Now, editing that issue has proved a Herculean task and its date has slipped by two years now, but some articles are already emerging in Chinese, and the whole English volume, when it finally comes out, will firstly be the best place to start getting a hold on what we know of this area and secondly contain what I humbly think might be the best article-length introduction to what happens to money in the post-Roman West that there is, as well as being a fresh discussion of both imitation of coinage in that zone and the persistence of small change in it.12 Until then, this blog post will have to do, and I suppose you could see it as courteous to let me get through my own delays first; but when the journal comes out, you will hear about it here for sure!


1. So see Lin Ying, “Solidi in China and Monetary Culture along the Silk Road”, The Silk Road Vol. 3 (Saratoga 2005), pp. 16–20, online here, and for more detail Guo Yunyan, “A General Overview of Byzantine Coins & Their Imitations Found in China” in Eirene Vol. 41 (Praha 2005), pp. 87–116.

2. As witness Jonathan Jarrett, "Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata“, Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2017), pp. 514–535; idem, “Why Did the Byzantine Coinage Turn Concave? Old Suggestions and a New One”, in Maria Caccamo Caltabiano (ed.), Proceedings of the XV International Numismatic Congress, Taormina, 2015 (Roma 2017), PDF Addendum pp. 1–4, mean things but mine own.

3. One could also mount the longer-term argument from history that states and polities which are doing well have habitually funded scholarship so as to look as if they’re doing well and have high concerns and since 2008, the West has not been ‘doing well’ in those terms and has now stopped pretending in this fashion, while China is doing well and can thus afford to think scholarship worth supporting. That’s kind of market-driven as an analysis, though.

4. As with the last post, I have been trying to provide accents for the Pinyin Chinese names wherever I can, so that when next I run into any of these people I shall no longer butcher their names when I say them, but it’s not easy to find out tones with only the Internet to help and in this and some subsequent cases I have, alas, failed.

5. This was a rather bizarre session. Shi Yanxin was in fact the chair, not a speaker, but at session start, all three designated speakers were nowhere to be found, one, Wang Bin, having left his paper with a request that the chair read it for him. This was a surprise, because all had been present earlier in the day. Wang Yongsheng, notionally the first speaker, turned up a few minutes before Shi Yanxin finished reading the second paper first, and then took all the rest of the time reading his. Wang Yue, also supposedly speaking, never showed up again. Some important meeting was apparently to blame, but I’m not sure this was culturally normal even to the locals.

6. Rebecca Darley, “Self, Other and the Use and Appropriation of Late Roman Coins in South India and Sri Lanka (4th-7th Centuries A.D.)” in Himanshu Prabha Ray (ed.), Negotiating Cultural Identity: Landscapes in Early Medieval South Asian History, Archaeology and Religion in South Asia 1 (London 2015), pp. 60–84.

7. Obviously there’s a huge historiography on the Silk Road, Silk Routes or whatever you want to call the phenomenon, and getting huger, but a good place to start might be Nicola Di Cosmo, “A Note on the Formation of the ‘Silk Road’ as Long-Distance Exchange Network” in Mehmet Bulut (ed.), ReSILKROAD (Istanbul 2014), pp. 17–26, online here.

8. I refer, of course, to Philip Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: A Critique of the Evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123–140, though I think Lín came up with it by herself.

9. On the rôle specifically of Sasanian coins in this area, try Pei Chengguo, “The Silk Road and the Economy of Gaochang: Evidence on the Circulation of Silver Coins” in The Silk Road Vol. 15 (Saratoga 2017), pp 39–58.

10. The one that kept catching me while we were there was Mark Fairwhale, not a real name but a brand, which has generated such slogans as “Mr Fairwhale says Make Some Noise! Because you guys seem awful silence”. My point being not to mock, but just to observe: it obviously doesn’t matter on any major scale to the buyers or to Mark Fairwhale’s bank balance that the English isn’t right; it looks like what they want. Likewise, perhaps, with imitation solidi fourteen centuries before?

11. Darley, “Use and Appropriation of Late Roman Coins”.

12. Currently under the title of Jonathan Jarrett, “Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation” in Journal of Ancient Civilizations Vol. 34 (Changchun forthcoming), pp. 000-000.

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