Vietnamese Thien Tu and Kai Yuan Style

Thiên Tư Nguyên Bảo  天資元寶   Thư pháp, viết theo phong cách, Trung Quốc Kai Yuan

Writing styles used on early Vietnamese coins often had meaning and purpose. Some of  this purpose can be understood from  looking at Chinese coins that may have influenced Vietnamese coins of the time. The most widely circulated Chinese coin in early times was the Tang Dynasty Kai Yuan Tong Pao, whose style can be seen in several Vietnamese coins from the early Dinh dynasty to the late Tran dynasty.  A coin from the Ly dynasty, Thien Tu Nguyen Bao, is key to understanding how and why the Vietnamese used the Kai Yuan style, and what it symbolized. It appears that the Kai Yuan style also relates to the use of reverse characters on Vietnamese coins!

Thien Tu Nguyen Bao

Thien Tu Nguyen Bao was issued by Emperor Ly Cao Tong in the reign of Thien Tu (1186 - 1201) during the the Ly Dynasty (1010 - 1225). The coin has two calligraphic styles although few coins are known. The first coin below is written in the Chinese Kai Yuan style. The second is more of a Ly dynasty style. The first coin also has the reverse character Nhat, for the number 1.

Style #1 Reverse 'Nhat' Style #2

Kai Yuan Style in Vietnamese Coins

The first coins from the early Dinh and Anterior Le dynasties had rather irregular calligraphy but many like examples B and C used a Bao copied from the Chinese Kai Yuan coin (A). Thien Tu type I (D) uses a Kai Yuan style Bao, has a left hook Nguyen like the Kai Yuan , and the Thien is also of early Chinese style. Several coins from the later Tran dynasty also use the Kai Yuan Style, (E F G H K).

These Kai Yuan style coins include all early Vietnamese coins with characters on the reverse. This is not accidental and must have been a rule. Coins with the character Nhat meaning "one" and Nguyen meaning "beginning" were probably issued in the first year of the reign. The Thieu Phong with reverse "15" marks the 15th and last year of the reign. A reverse moon would have similar meaning. This rule probably derives from the meaning of Kai Yuan, Kai means portal or entrance and Yuan mean new or beginning. The Tang dynasty Kai Yuan is one of the most important Chinese coins ever issued and often used reverse moons and reverse mint mark characters.




The Nguyen Character

A comparison of the character Nguyen shows both a pure Vietnamese style and styles related to the Kai Yuan coin.

Kai Yuan

明 道  Minh Đạo #1
天 資  Thiên Tư

明 道  Minh Đạo #2
天 感  Thiên Cảm
天 資  Thiên Tư
紹 豐  Thiệu Phong
大 治  Đại Trị


The entire coin is covered with natural green Malachite and blue Azurite. Azurite naturally forms in areas with less oxygen and often appears in the field, particularly in the center of the field. A closeup of the character Tu shows both coins use the same style and no manipulation..

Thien Tu #1
Thien Tu #2
Thien Tu #2  Reverse


Toda's early work on Vietnamese coins, http://art-hanoi.com/toda, was pioneering in the west but it is now 130 years old and some of its information is now known to be inaccurate. Many diminutive coins that Toda assigned to early emperors are now known to be later private mint coins. Other coins are reported with the four characters in a different order from known examples. Toda's images are all hand drawings and many use a single general purpose style that could not be on all the different coins.

However, Toda does report a Thien Tu coin for the Ly dynasty, however it is Thien Tu Thong Bao, which is doubtful as all Ly dynasty coins use the characters Nguyen Bao.

Several of Toda images of the Ly dynasty, http://art-hanoi.com/toda/12.html, use the same general purpose writing style and some have the characters in the wrong order or use the character Thong in place of Nguyen, such as Thien Cam Thong Bao, which should read Thien Cam Ngyuen Bao.

Many of Toda's images of rarer coins use the same general purpose writing style. I have read somewhere that some of Toda's drawings were made by his wife, although I don't know if this is true. I do know that many of the rubbings in my book were made by my wife.

R. Allan Barker
The Historical Cash Coins of Vietnam, http://vietnam.sudokuone.com

The Asian Numismatic Museum is dedicated to the study of the ancient coins and other historical antiques of Asia