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Money Tree

Some scholars suggest that pottery lamps made for Han tombs inspired the creation of money trees. China, Pottery lamp, Eastern Han dynasty, 1st century, earthenware with green glaze, Gift of Wayne and Rosalee MacFarlane

Depictions of the phoenix were often included in Han tombs to represent royalty and the imperial court. China, Phoenix, Western Han dynasty, 2nd–1st century BCE, gilt bronze, Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton


key idea
Money Does Grow on Trees

Clearly, the person who coined the adage "money doesn't grow on trees" had never seen this ancient Chinese sculpture. Known as a money tree, this sculpture's name comes from the coin-like designs that hang from the tree branches. Supported by a glazed pottery base, the tree trunk and branches are made from bronze. A phoenix-like bird (feng shuang), a good omen, majestically stretches toward the sky atop six layers of branches—five nearly identical, and one unique. Period literature suggests that money trees were inspired by folktales about money growing on trees. The coins on this money tree resemble Han dynasty coins found in archaeological excavations.

Look closely at the money tree. Its base shows imaginary animals stacked as if to travel up the tree. Lively scenes of ancient Chinese ritual, including performers, acrobats, figures wearing long robes, and animals (both real and imagined) decorate the branches. A complex pattern of people, animals, and coins define the lower portion of each branch. What kinds of people, animals, and activities do you see in the branches?

A small monkey hangs by one hand from the lowest branch. It holds a coin half the size of its body. Why might the monkey swing from the lowest branch, holding a coin?

November 2012