Korea: Joseon Dynasty - The Sang Pyong Tong Bo 常平通寶/상평통보 Cash Coins - 2 Mun Focus - Varieties, Mintages, Introduction

Today's post is THE FIRST in the series of cast copper cash from the Korean Joseon Dynasty. Here, I present a series of different Sang Pyong Tong Bo, the iconic and general currency used for nearly 300 years. 
  • Introduction to the Sang Pyong Tong Bo coins (常平通寶).
    • Historical Origin. 
    • Purpose and Function. 
    • Predecessors and Successors.
    • Use within context. 
  • Variety Breakdown: Furnaces, Minting Areas, Regional Areas, Discernment. 
  • Additional Variety Breakdown: Character Analysis and Interpretation. (e.g Thousand Character Classic, Shapes like Crescent, Dot, Line, etc)
  • Specific coin remarks on the condition and details on my set of coins.
  • Specific information on variety, rarity, and denomination of my series set. 
  • Other additional or supplemental information, e.g catalogs, websites, scholarly sources, etc. 
The standard four Chinese or Hanja characters that are uniform for every coin cast regardless of denomination, location, etc.  
and in Korean

(Character Differences)

Historical Origin and Context

The Sang Pyong Tong Bo (SPTB) series of coins were introduced in the middle eras of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea (1392 - 1897). According to many general sources, it was introduced under the reign of King Injo (仁祖/인조), the sixteenth king of Joseon, who reigned from 1623 to 1649. The SPTB series, according to Wikipedia's article on the Korean Mun, was introduced in 1633. According to Ki-baik Lee's book, A New History of Korea, he states how the "expanded commercial activity [of Joseon wholesale commerce] necessitated [a] wide use of metal currency." This ultimately led to the "minting in 1678 of copper coins" known as the SPTB. Thus, we can assume that these series of coins would have a starting minting era of the 1600's. 

The SPTB would be used as long as the Joseon adoption of the Korean Mun (文 / 문) system was in place. This would ultimately last till the end of the Joseon Dynasty itself in 1897 and the gradual transition and currency reform to the Yang and Fun system. Nevertheless, the denomination of the SPTB is in Mun. More information on denomination will be in the "Rarity, Denomination, Variety" section of the post. 

In terms of the translation of the characters on the obverse, denoted in Hanja (Chinese characters), are as follows: 

Original: 常平通寶 (top, bottom, right, left) in Hanja or Chinese Characters 
Korean Transliteration: 상평통보 or "Sang Pyong Tong Bo" 

The English translation is as follows: 

  • 常平 or 상평 (Chang Ping or Sang Pyeong) --> "Ever Constant" or "Universal" or "Always Even"
  • 通寶 or 통보 (Tong Bao or Tong Bo) --> "Currency" or "Standard Currency" or "Money"

Therefore, the entire phrase, 常平通寶, means Always Even Currency

Purpose and Function

The SPTB coins were used for general circulation. 

According to Ki-baik Lee's A New History of Korea, the SPTB issuance in large quantities by the Joseon Dynasty's Central and Provincial mints allowed for a standardized and uniform national medium of exchange. He further goes into detail on the daily social and economic responses to the coin's issuance. He states that "At first, however, coins were employed not only as a medium of exchange but often were hoarded for their intrinsic value, becoming the means by which wealth was measured." Thus, the steady and widespread introduction of the SPTB allowed for certain social and economic cleavages to form within Joseon Society. This was because the noble and aristocratic Yangbans would hoard and alter the coin supply. Furthermore, Lee states how it was the merchants who "amassed wealth in cash rather than putting their money into land, and they increased their wealth by loaning out their hoards at high interest." This further facilitated the wealth and income divides within the Joseon Society. Eventually, Lee states how "coin famines" or "chonhwang" would arrise which would affect the entire Joseon economy negatively. 

In short, these coins, which includes the widely adopted and standardized SPTB, affected the Joseon Economy. The daily transactions of that time, which included "marketing transactions, payment of wages, ... payment of taxes" and "land rent" payment would be done with coins like the SPTB. Overall, the coins were used increasingly through the entire Joseon Dynasty till their replacement with milled or machine struck coins.  

Preceding and Succeeding Issues

Numismatically, the standard currency unit, was the Korean Mun, or 文 in Chinese/Hanja and  문 in Korean. 

Throughout the Joseon Dynasty, there were several CAST coins that encapsulated the Mun system. Moreover, note that some were for General Circulation and some were more for Charms/Curio. 

They are, in chronological order:
(English Name - Hanja/Chinese - Hangul/Korean) - General Year

  1. Joseon Tong Bo - 朝鮮通寶 - 조선통보 - 1423–1425 (1st Iteration, Pattern Issues?), 1625–1633 (General Issue), 1881 (MILLED 1 Jeon and 10 Mun)
  2. Sang Pyong Tong Bo 
  3. Sip Chon Tong Bo - 十錢通寶 - 십전통보 - 1651 and 1793 (Introduction)

Contextual Usage - Series 
The Full Series
Note the 1 Mun, 2 Mun, 5 Mun, and 100 Mun
Nota Bene: I have a post up on the 100 Mun. Please check my Blog for that!

Variety Breakdown: Regional Mints and Casting Furnaces, etc. 

In my opinion, what makes collecting these SPTB coins is the sheer variety. This also makes the attributions and valuations also a doozie of a time. I do love it! 

The variety breakdown can be simplified into the following. Moreover, the attribution and thinking process can also be done by the following. 

These characteristics/attributes are on the reverse of any SPTB coin. This post will focus on the 2 Cash. 

  1. Denomination. Typically identify by size. 
    1. The larger in diameter, the greater the denomination. Furthermore, check for Chinese/Hanja characters. 二 is 2. 五 is 5. 百 is 100. 
  2. Minting Location (Regional/Provincial? Central? Where was it cast?) (Top Character)
  3. Furnace Number (Bottom Character) 
  4. Additional Characters (Bottom Character. Replaces the Furnace Number) 
    1. Is it a character from the Thousand Character Classic?
  5. Symbols/Shapes (Left or Right)

Discernment - Regional Mints and Furnaces

Identifying the Mints can be done by identifying the top Chinese character on the obverse.

The following chart is comprehensive and easy to use. It is directly from http://primaltrek.com/koreancoins.html. (Click to enlarge)

Additional Variety Breakdown: Character Analysis and Meaning

As noted previously, there are some slight variations in these SPTB coins.

  1. Is the bottom character on the reverse, not  a number, but a character from the Thousand Character Classic? 
  2. Are there anything on the left and right sides on the reverse? A shape or a symbol that can be a circle, crescent, line?

Here are the first 44 characters of the Thousand Character Classic. It is known as 千字文 in Chinese or 천자문 in Korean. In English, it is pronounced as cheonjamun or ch'ŏn ja mun.

                                                  天地玄黄 宇宙洪荒

日月盈昃 辰宿列張
寒来暑往 秋收冬藏
閏餘成歲 律吕調陽
雲騰致雨 露結為霜

My Coin and Remarks 

My set of seven coins are encompass a good variety of traits. They are also circulated and worn. Overall, these coins are made from cast copper. 

Coins (1-7):

Denomination, Estimated Year, Condition, Mint, Furnace Number (If Possible), Additional Notes

  1. 2 Mun, 1742-1752, F+, Kangwon Provincial Office 江?, Character seems to be 江, Furnace 2. 
  2. 2 Mun, 1695-1742, F+, Seoul Charity Office 賑, Furnace 2.
  3. 2 Mun, 1678-1891, F, Pyongan Provincial Office 平, Furance 2, This is where the present day North Korean capital is located! 
  4. 2 Mun, 1752, F, Special Army Unit 营, Furnace 2 (Right Character), Note the character, 水, on the bottom of the reverse. That is part of the Thousand Character Classic! 
  5. 2 Mun, 1678-1731, F-, Treasury Department 户 (Central), Furnace 2 
  6. 2 Mun, 1678-1731, F-, Treasury Department 户 (Central), Furnace 2 
  7. 2 Mun, 1742-1752, F+, General Military Office 捻, N/A, Note the character, 列, on the bottom of the reverse. That is part of the Thousand Character Classic! 

Additional Information and Helpful Resources

General Information on the Joseon Dynasty:
General Information on Korean Currency:
Specialized Primer and Overview of Korean Coins:

My other coins from the Korean Joseon, Empire, and Protectorate Eras: