The oldest source for the coin method

20140928_100256During the last meeting of the Dutch Yijing group there was confusion about the assignment of the numbers 2 (yin) and 3 (yang) to the sides of Chinese coins. Old Chinese coins have four Chinese characters on one side and the other side is blank or has two Mongolian characters. When I looked for Chinese sources on this I found that there isn’t much agreement on the designation of the numbers, one of my books says that the side with Chinese characters is yang (see picture), and in this lecture Moxiang Liao 廖墨香 seems to follow the same designation, but there are websites that say otherwise. Curious about the origin of the coin method and wanting to know how the Chinese people in the early times did it I did some digging.

Bent Nielsen says in his book Yi jing Numerology and Cosmology:


Nielsen says that the earliest reference to the coin method is to be found in the commentary of Jia Gongyan 賈公彥 (who lived around 650) to the Yili 儀禮 (儀禮疏). Wanting to know how Jia referred to it I looked in my digital version of the Yili, which incorporates the commentary of Jia Gongyan. I found the following passage:

今則用錢。以三少為重錢, 重錢則九也。三多為交錢,交錢則六也。兩多一少為單錢,單錢則七也。兩少一多為拆錢,拆錢則八也。

In this passage Jia uses the words shao 少, ‘few’ and duo 多, ‘much’ to name the two sides of a coin, but it isn’t clear what is what: is shao the side with the four Chinese characters or is it the other way around? My dictionaries don’t say anything about this either. But when I looked for the word danqian 單錢, which appears in Jia’s passage, the  Hanyu Da Cidian 漢語大詞典 dictionary was helpful:

古代錢筮法術語。謂擲三錢 而成二面一背,象徵少陽之爻。
Technical term from a coin divination method from antiquity. When you throw three coins and you receive two mian 面 and one bei 背 it is called like this. This symbolises a young yang-line.

‘Two mian 面 and one bei 背’. What is mian and what is bei? In this case the dictionaries also assume that this is common knowledge. The Hanyu Da Cidian says that bei is the reverse side of a coin (錢幣反面的專稱), well, that doesn’t help much. Fortunately Jack Chiu helps me out with his book The Secret of Wen-Wang Gua. He says:

Chinese people used to call the side with Chinese characters the Face or Mian 面, and the other side the Back or Bei 背.
(p. 82)

Concluding: the side with four Chinese characters (mian 面) is called duo 多 (probably because this side has ‘many’ Chinese characters?), and the other side (bei 背) is called shao 少 (because this side has no or few Chinese characters). Knowing this we can translate the passage by Jia Gongyan as follows:

bgibabia今則用錢。以三少為重錢,重錢則九也。三多為交錢,交錢則六也。兩多一少為單錢,單錢則七也。兩少一多為拆錢,拆錢則八 也。
Today coins are used. With 3 shao (= the blank side or with two Mongolian characters) one has chongqian, this is 9. With 3 duo (= the side with four Chinese characters) one has jiaoqian, this is 6. Two duo and one shao is danqian, this is 7. Two shao and one duo is chaiqian, this is 8.

If Nielsen is right, and if my sources are correct, then this would be the oldest reference to the coin method.

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5 Responses to The oldest source for the coin method

  1. SJM says:

    Shao Weihua in that video makes the side with four characters 2, and the side with two characters 3, so he’s not following the idea that the side with the four Chinese characters is yang. He’s actually doing it the same as your translation.

    Interesting. I do it the opposite way but have always regarded it as arbitrary.

    • You are right, and there is an interesting contradiction in his explanation. These are the relevant pictures that I harvested from the video:

      As you can see from the first pictures he designates the 4-C side as yang, and the other side as yin. Yang is normally 3 and yin is normally 2. But in the last image he seems to have turned it around. What he actually says is that, because with two 4-C sides (two yin) and one 2-C side (one yang) it is shaoyang 少陽, ‘young yang‘. Below the left column of coins he says 全是陰面 – 老陽: ‘all yin sides – old yang‘. He doesn’t use numbers. Interesting. I have never seen this before.

  2. Ah, what I said is not true either. Misread it. Ignore the sentence ‘What he actually says is that, because with two 4-C sides (two yin) and one 2-C side (one yang) it is shaoyang 少陽, ‘young yang‘.

    What he seems to do is is switch old yang and old yin. Am I right? Gosh, this is confusing….

  3. SJM says:

    It is quite confusing. People are so confident, as well, that they write their hexagrams down correctly. I’m starting to think it doesn’t make any difference at all if you’ve always written your hexagrams down incorrectly… as for whether you’ve ever understood anything the Yijing has ever said, does it actually make any difference when it’s all fated?

  4. Chris Gait says:

    I don’t think there’s a squad of coin police out there watching this. As long as a person is consistent in their practices it should work fine. I think that’s true of a lot of things in a system like this that is a logical construct. It wouldn’t work with something that is empirical and physical, such as confusing north and south on a map. But if all of your maps are oriented south-upward, like old Chinese maps, then that is consistent and works fine. You just don’t want to integrate two systems with differing standards without conversion/merging.

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