Money trees offer a fascinating glimpse into regional and metropolitan Chinese Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.‒220 C.E.) beliefs. Most of these rare sculptures were probably made in Sichuan province and other parts of western China. The replicas of coins that hang from their limbs symbolize wishes for good fortune in the afterlife. A money tree was placed in a tomb so the occupant’s soul might have wealth while residing in the paradise of the Queen Mother of the West, Xiwang Mu.
A Queen Mother figure was placed near the top of this money tree. She sits on a throne supported by a dragon and a tiger. Further down the tree is a seated Buddha. Early Buddha images are found in some objects associated with Xiwang Mu perhaps because Buddhism was considered a religion of the Western direction, where the Queen Mother resided. A number of winged immortals (Xianxian), the residents of the Queen Mother’s paradise, can also be seen on this tree.
The casting of the many individual pieces that make up this ensemble is remarkable. Each piece is very thin and bears the same decoration on both sides; X-ray analysis shows that the patterns line up exactly. This was made possible by precise control of the lost-wax casting process. Take a close look at the glazed pottery base, where you will see lively scenes of a type rarely found in Chinese art.
One folktale from China tells of a farmer who has a tree with two legs and two arms. This tree works every day to bring him endless money, food, and clothing. The farmer’s greedy brother and stepmother become jealous and steal the tree. When the tree fails to produce money, the farmer reveals that the two legs and arms were actually his own, and that his hard work was what earned him wealth. The farmer’s brother woke up to reality, and from then on worked hard, creating another money tree.