Ming Temple Money Chest with Iron Decorations

14th/15th Century; Shanxi;
Elm, ironwork decorations

Buddhism was a deeply rooted culture in Shanxi, spreading to this northern part of China from India through trade over the Silk Road as far back as the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.). In the Ming period, Buddhism was wide-spread and its adherents revered money chests as they believed that by donating money to temples, they could have the monks and nuns intervene for them to eventually secure a path to enlightenment and a favorable rebirth.

This money chest is heavily fitted with iron decorations. The top is decorated with iron scrolling designs mounted with iron studs, with the sides bound with iron bands overlaid with cast-iron decorations of a scrolling design with a Buddhist symbol in the middle. The band in front above the lock-plate has the pierced Double Fish symbol of good fortune, abundance, and protection against evil. The two sides have a swastika, an age-old Buddhist symbol of the Seal of the Heart of the Buddha, and also meaning unlimited, eternal.

Across the top and running down each side of the chest are double iron bands decorated with iron studs. Each side of the chest has an iron pull hooked to an iron casting of modified “ruyi” design with a pierced coin design in the middle, signifying a wish for wealth and good fortune. The lock-plate in front is edged again with designs of the “ruyi”, signifying all wishes being granted. The inside of the chest is fitted on one side with a narrow shelf for holding donated coins and small offering items.

This chest is quite well-preserved, no doubt due to it having so much metal binding but also it was hidden in warehouses in geographically hard to access Shanxi, preventing it from infiltration of the many wars that robbed and destroyed treasures in other parts of China. They are rare today and hard to find even in museums.