The Lost (and Found) Treasure Ships of Zhang Xianzhong


Sometimes a legend of hidden treasure turns out to be true. For hundreds of years, tales of a lost hoard of gold and silver circulated in the Sichuan Province of China. It was said to have belonged to Zhang Xianzhong, leader of a peasants’ uprising during the final years of the Ming Dynasty.



Shaanxi province

Zhang was born in Shaanxi province; even as a young man, he had an imposing figure and became known as the “Yellow Tiger.” Though he served for a time in the Imperial army that was engaged in keeping rioting peasants under control, he soon defected to the rebel forces, and soon became the leader of his own band of raiders.




Sichuan province

Zhang’s entire career is a fascinating story of military success, defeat, and recovery. He surrendered several times, only to rebel and amass an army again. Finally, in 1644, Zhang marched 100,000 men toward Sichuan province. His men blasted a hole through the city walls of Chongqing; some reports claim that Zhang cut the hands off those who defended the city and massacred many inside. Zhang sent word out to the rest of the province that no one else would be harmed if they turned over their officials and surrendered without resistance.


Initially, Zhang ruled Sichuan well. Local Jesuit missionaries reported that he “began his rule with such liberality, justice and magnificence by which he captivated all hearts that many mandarins, famous both in civic as in military affairs whom fear was keeping concealed, left their hideouts and flew to his side.” But there was continued resistance to Zhang’s rule; Chongqing fell to Ming loyalists in 1645, and Zhang began a bloody war to stamp out all resistance in the province. Reports of deaths caused by Zhang’s orders vary, but there is no doubt that he had a massive impact on the population. The 1578 census for Sichuan recorded 3,102,073. Less than a hundred years later, only 16,096 adult males were recorded in the province.



Qing army officer

When Qing dynasty forces began to invade, Zhang decided to leave Sichuan, and took the vast treasure he had accumulated with him. In January 1647, while Zhang was fleeing toward Shaanxi, his forces met the Qing forces in Xichong; Zhang was killed during the battle. Some reports say that a trusted lieutenant betrayed him by identifying Zhang to an archer, who shot him as he left his tent.






Gold ingot

For hundreds of years after Zhang’s defeat, stories of his lost treasure abounded. Legends were told of 1,000 ships, loaded with gold and silver, lying at the bottom of the river. Chinese researchers recently confirmed that a newly-discovered wreck is, in fact, one of Zhang’s ships, containing more than 10,000 pieces of precious metal coins and ingots. Seven silver ingots were found during a construction project in 2005, and the site was declared a protected location in 2010, but exploration was halted while experts debated whether there was any merit to the stories of sunken ships. During the interim, treasure hunters began looting the site; while some were caught, there is no doubt that some historic items have been lost.




Recovered coins

In January of 2017, excavation of the site began, with pumps working to keep the area as dry as possible. The project is expected to continue into April, and officials are hoping to build a museum nearby to display and preserve the items. Peking University archaeologist Li Boquian said, “The items are extremely valuable to science, history and art. They are of great significance for research into the political, economic, military and social lives of the Ming Dynasty.”

Controversial or Collectible: This Coin’s Got A Story To Tell

Chopmarked coins



1877 trade dollar, San Francisco mint


Chopmarked coins can spark intense debate among serious collectors. Some consider them damaged coins, while others appreciate their record of history and trade. What’s the story with chop marks?






Portsmouth Square, San Francisco, 1851

Since the late 18th century, American businessmen were interested in trading with China. As the nation expanded, this interest increased. During the Gold Rush and the growth of business in San Francisco, many tradesmen sought the goods of the Far East: silk, tea, spices, and other hard-to-get items. But what currency could the merchants use that China would accept? Mexican silver pesos (the original “pieces of eight”) were already in circulation in Asia, and considered very reliable for trade. The United States government decided to follow suit in 1859, when it began began minting silver dollar coins (1859-S Seated Liberty). These coins were in high demand by San Francisco businessmen for use in overseas trade, since they could be used directly, instead of being exchanged for Mexican silver.


When these coins reached their destination, a merchant would examine each one to be sure it was full value; when he was satisfied that it was correct, he stamped his character into the coin. Any coin could have marks and characters added as it changed hands, sometimes completely obscuring the original design on the coin.


morgan dollar

1880 Morgan dollar

The trade dollar was minted in silver (.900 fineness) between 1873 to 1885 in Philadelphia, Carson City, and San Francisco. At 420 grains, trade dollars weight approximately 8 grains more than Morgan and Seated Liberty silver dollars of the same time period. The mint’s chief engraver, William Barber, designed the coin; the eagle on the reverse of the coin is very similar to the eagle on the contemporaneous peso. Being closest to the silver source and the trade destination of the dollars, San Francisco minted more of the trade dollars than the other mints combined. The trade dollar was demonetized in 1933.


To escape having to redeem each trade dollar years after the last issue, the United States excluded “mutilated” coins; this has led some collectors to consider the coins as damaged and worth less than intact trade dollars. However, many collectors appreciate the history of these coins, and even attempt to decipher the characters on a given coin to trace its journey from merchant to merchant.


Whether considered highly collectible or not, chopmarked coins tell a fascinating story!


Currently in stock: 1877 S Silver $1 Trade dollar, with chopmark!

The Fable Behind Willow Pattern Pottery

In simpler times, a romantic tale emerged. The story was set in China, but actually came from an English designer named Thomas Minton. The English often romanticized far-off, exotic places in the 18th and 19th century, so it only made sense that the tale would come around at that time.

Minton designed the now-iconic blue and white porcelain in 1790 and it has stayed in vogue ever since. The traditional willow pattern always features a willow tree and a bridge. The popular story behind willow pattern pieces was based on the design itself, rather than basing the design on an already existing story.


A traditional willow pattern plate. Photograph CC 3.0


The story goes like this (via Wikipedia):

“Once there was a wealthy Mandarin, who had a beautiful daughter (Koong-se). She had fallen in love with her father’s humble accounting assistant (Chang), angering her father. (It was inappropriate for them to marry due to their difference in social class.) He dismissed the young man and built a high fence around his house to keep the lovers apart. The Mandarin was planning for his daughter to marry a powerful Duke. The Duke arrived by boat to claim his bride, bearing a box of jewels as a gift. The wedding was to take place on the day the blossom fell from the willow tree.
On the eve of the daughter’s wedding to the Duke, the young accountant, disguised as a servant, slipped into the palace unnoticed. As the lovers escaped with the jewels, the alarm was raised. They ran over a bridge, chased by the Mandarin, whip in hand. They eventually escaped on the Duke’s ship to the safety of a secluded island, where they lived happily for years. But one day, the Duke learned of their refuge. Hungry for revenge, he sent soldiers, who captured the lovers and put them to death. The gods, moved by their plight, transformed the lovers into a pair of doves (possibly a later addition to the tale, since the birds do not appear on the earliest willow pattern plates).”

The style is so iconic that willow pattern pieces are often used in TV and film to imitate a classic 19th century setting. It’s truly a beautiful, traditional design that will doubtless stick around for a long, long time.

The Symbolism and Myth Behind the Koi Fish

The koi fish is renowned for its good luck and beauty. But what is less commonly known about this graceful fish?

We’ve covered symbolism before – flowers and jewelry, particularly in the Victorian era. But here’s one symbol that has lasted to this day.

Art by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, (1798 - 1861)

Art by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, (1798 – 1861)

In Japan and other Asian cultures, on top of gracing ponds with their beauty, koi fish have a lot of hidden meaning behind them. This particular fish is seen as the example of many celebrated qualities.

In the early 1900s, a koi craze swept the nation of Japan and subsequently spread to the rest of the world.

It’s worth mentioning that the Japanese use “koi” as a general term for all carp, but the rest of the world uses the word for one certain colored kind of Japanese carp.

The term “living jewels” has been applied to koi. Koi are known to symbolize friend and romantic love, as well as strength and courage.

One Japanese or Chinese legend tells the story of a koi climbing a waterfall on the Yellow River toward the Dragon’s Gate at the top of the falls. Many carp would try to swim through the water, but few would be brave enough to make the final stretch up the waterfall. If a carp was able to finish the journey through the Dragon’s Gate, it would be transformed into a powerful dragon.

Through this story, the koi has also become a figure for perseverance and bravery.

A Chinese porcelain piece from the Ming Dynasty featuring koi fish.

A Chinese porcelain piece from the Ming Dynasty featuring koi fish.

Most traditionally, the koi fish is seen as lucky.

Of course, koi fish tattoos are quite popular today for their symbolism. And there’s plenty of koi fish collectibles and art out there for those who want to celebrate this beautiful fish.

A Brief History of Tea Sets

Fun fact: tea is the most popular drink in the world.



The official history of tea begins in China around the Han Dynasty ( 206-220 B.C.) when tea leaves weren’t loose but were instead pressed into bricks. These bricks were crushed and mixed with spices then placed in bowls (instead of teapots) where hot water was poured over them. At the time tea was probably more medicinal than recreational.

According to historians, the first teapot came from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) Archeologists found the remnants of a Yixing, or “Purple Sand”, teapot from that era.The_Tea_Party

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) Chinese began steeping whole tea leaves, creating a lighter-colored tea. Teaware was designed to fit around this lighter colored aesthetic.

The Portuguese missionary Father Jasper de Cruz was likely one of the first Europeans to encounter tea thanks to the open ocean routes to China. Previously, Europeans hadn’t known what to do with tea leaves; some thought they were for serving with salt and butter, like vegetables!

The Netherlands encountered a tea craze in the 1600s. Hefty tea prices meant that the drink was only for the wealthy. The tea sets at this time consisted of small teapots and tea cups.Tea02

The Dutch were likely the first to put milk in tea!

The next step in tea-dom was for Russia to have its own tea hype. Russians developed their own pot called the samovar, which served almost 50 cups of tea at a time. A home was only classy if it had a samovar.

By 1675 tea had become widely available in Europe. This was helped along by the trend of anything to do with the Orient. Asian items became the hot commodity, which of course included tea sets.

In 1627 the first silver teapot was made. Only in the 18th century were larger teapots made, thanks to the decreasing price of tea. People didn’t have to be miserly about their tea anymore.


A teapot with a similar profile and shape as this one (S&C ETC.) with a tall, elegant aesthetic.

And tea made its way to the New World, where American pottery was solely for function, not form; the Boston Tea Party brought down tea’s popularity, but only briefly.

Queen Victoria, who has influenced many a trend in history, loved tea and during her reign the modern six piece tea set came into being. The whole set includes the teapot, creamer, sugar bowl, tea kettle, coffee pot, and waste bowl.

Since then, the only main tea invention is the tea bag (purists would argue that loose leaf tea is better, but you can’t beat modern convenience).

Tea seems to command a sort of respect, doesn’t it? And nothing respects tea quite like owning your own tea set.

A History of Chinese Stamp Collecting

Nearly fifty years ago, many Chinese stamp collectors destroyed their albums for fear of being punished by the Communist regime after the hobby was banned by Chairman Mao. But despite the efforts to stamp out (sorry) the collecting, Mao did not succeed.

Out of the 60 millions stamp collectors in the world today, more than 20 million live in China.

Stamps were introduced to China in the 19th century, in ports controlled by Western powers. China’s own government made their own stamps starting in 1897. As time passed, stamps began to show the changing regimes in China, commemorating the Empress Dowager’s 60th birthday, then the early Republic, the Japanese occupation, and the Communist era.

Large dragons were the first stamps issued by the Chinese government in 1897.

Large dragons were the first stamps issued by the Chinese government in 1897.

During the Cultural Revolution of the sixties, people could be singled out and arrested for a number of crimes. Capitalism and traditional Chinese culture were to be eliminated, and this included collecting historical items such as stamps.

Many burned their stamp collections or smuggled them out of the country to protect themselves from arrest, as owning stamps was considered a bourgeois activity. Anyone who went against Communist values– including intellectuals, landlords, religious leaders, and members of the wrong political party — was a target.

The Whole Country is Red shows a red map of China behind people upholding Mao’s Little Red Book. It was pulled from circulation when a flaw was found in the map, but some stamps were still sold.

The Whole Country is Red shows a red map of China behind people upholding Mao’s Little Red Book. It was pulled from circulation when a flaw was found in the map, but some stamps were still sold.

During this time, a common form of punishment called a “struggle session” was used. The accused would be forced to publicly admit to their supposed crime. If he or she resisted, they were subjected to physical and verbal abuse until a confession was made. Millions of struggle sessions ended in public execution and often had audiences of thousands of people.

In 1978, reformers led by Deng Xiaping came to power, and the use of struggle sessions was prohibited.

Since then, the attitude towards such bourgeois hobbies as stamp collecting has drastically changed.

Starting in 2000, the Chinese government encouraged middle and high schools to start stamp-collecting clubs. While the average age of the American stamp collector is 50, the hobby attracts a slightly younger crowd in China. Kids are encouraged to start collections as a status symbol.

One of the Four Treasures includes 1968’s Great Victory of Cultural Revolution, featuring Mao and his ally (at the time) Lin Baio.

One of the Four Treasures includes 1968’s Great Victory of Cultural Revolution, featuring Mao and his ally (at the time) Lin Baio.

While it seems odd that there would be so much emphasis on stamps in particular, it turns out the richest Chinese buyers tend to favor such alternative investments. The wealthiest individuals put 17 percent of their wealth into stamps, art, jade, and similar goods, compared to 9 percent in America and 7 percent in the United Kingdom. In fact, stamps are one of the most valuable investments one can make, rising in value an average of 11 percent annually since the 1970s, which is more than can be said for gold, stocks, and bonds.

The revival of the hobby has collectors vying for the especially valuable stamps that date from the late 1960s, the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Four unreleased stamps from the time, now known as The Four Treasures, sell in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Chinese collectors are eager to reclaim the cultural history that was nearly erased.