Magnificent Early Ming Metal Decorated Temple Money Chest

Circa 14th/15th Century; Shanxi;
Iron, brass, Sophora and miscellaneous wood
H. 25.5”, L. 35”, D. 22”

Among the money chests made during early Ming period, temple money chests were the most revered and the most magnificent as Buddhism and Confucianism prevailed at the time and adherents would spare no expense donating to temples hoping the monks and nuns could intervene for them to attain enlightenment and a favorable rebirth.

This chest at one time was thickly lacquered in black but with passage of time most of it has peeled off, with none left on the top panel and the front showing only patches of it towards the bottom and the front of the stand it sits on.  The most shown are on the side panels.  The chest has a lid hinged at the back and has a simple rectangular brass lock-plate in front, closing the chest with a long brass tongue fastener.  The piece is heavily decorated with iron and bronze, which soon became known as brass.  Bronze is alloy of copper and tin.  A product containing a large amount of it, such as this chest, was often heavy and rather clumsy.  The metal was rapidly changed to carry alloy of copper and zinc instead, which became brass.  The top, front and sides of the chest are framed with broad bands of iron, securely attached to the woodwork with large amount of brass boss-head nails which contribute to the weight of this chest.  The iron bands have corroded to a rusty color.  The middle part of the top is plain whereas the front and side panels are elaborately decorated with archaic and Buddhist symbols, cast in iron and brass.

The front panel is decorated with metal casting of the butterfly and clouds motifs at the four corners, signifying joy and happiness.  In the middle of the panel is a Chinese “Shou” character cast in brass, within a metal medallion edged with tiny iron beads, surrounded on five sides with the bat motif signifying long life and good luck.  Each side panel is also elaborately decorated.  The two top corners have angular and swirling linking designs which can be interpreted as the “running dragon”, signifying continuous life.  Prominently fixed in the middle of the panel is an extra thick double-hook brass handle, strengthened further with a copper plate wrapping around the curved bottom part to create a beautiful u-shaped handle.  This handle is secured to tiered floret-shaped back-plates attached to the panel.  As the chest is so heavy with metal decorations, this handle attachment is reinforced with a brass band stretching from below each floriated back-plate down the sides of the panel to the bottom to wrap around the side of the base stand with boss-head nails.  This wide stand is fitted at corners with thick brass corner braces attached to the wood with big boss-head nails.  The inside of the chest is wide open.

The age of this money chest is attributed to early part of the Ming dynasty because that is when Buddhism was transmitted from India over the Silk Road through trade to Northern China and became such a revered religion its adherents would donate any amount of money to temples to have storage chests built to store their donations.  The material used for the construction of this chest also contributes to its age.  The main part of the chest is made of Sophora, or Huai as the Chinese call it.  This wood was the choice wood of literati of that early age for furniture-building as it is extremely dense, resistant to insects, deterioration, and warping.  Its over-use, however, caused the wood to be extinct by the end of the Ming period because the tree grew very slowly, only about an inch a year.  So, any furniture made of this wood is attributed to that early age.  This chest was found the way it is, without any restoration.