I DON'T SUPPOSE many people equate Asia or the Orient with Christmas. That's understandable. After all, Buddha scores a wee bit higher on the popularity polls over there.
Still, I always wondered about the oriental connection of those "wise men" of "We Three Kings of Orient Are" fame. The ones in the nativity scene under my tree look as if they just drove in from Detroit, New York and Miami. (I know. I need to get a new set.)
That confusion aside, I've run across two items with their roots in the Orient that will be of interest to a hobbyist.
The first is a brilliant reproduction of a piece of paper currency from the Ming dynasty. This note dates from the late 14th century and is the world's earliest known form of paper money. Brought back from China by Marco Polo, its total intangibility and fragility seemed ludicrous.
The original Ming notes were printed from wood blocks on coarse paper obtained from the inner bark of mulberry trees. They were colored with vermilion seals to guarantee them for monetary use by the Ming Treasury. Printed on the border of the "One Kuan" note are dragons together with an illustration of 10 stacks of 100 copper coins equaling the 1,000 coins they represent.
Of the original Ming notes, only a few hundred still exist. But the copies being manufactured and sold by the American Numismatic Association (ANA) are magnificent reproductions, made with the same high-quality mulberry bark paper and printing techniques. Even the faded image is an excellent imitation.
But you can't mistake it for the real McCoy. On the reverse of the note is a printed history of the bill and its use in China along with the ANA's name and seal. The paper note (Stock No. PLU 73) sells for $31.95 and, measuring almost 9 by 14 inches, is ideal for framing. Or, if you prefer, the ANA sells them framed (Stock No. PLU 74) for $82.50.
The second treasure from the Orient also falls into the realm of currency, but in a delightfully peculiar and curious form. For those of you who, like the westerners of the 14th century, just don't trust this new-fangled paper money, a tangible trade item is the ticket. And, when dealing in the Far East, nothing is, or was, more quintessentially China than pure, high quality tea.
Hundreds of years ago, bricks of tea measuring about 8 by 10 by 1 inch became accepted, convenient and popular units of barter along the trade routes from China to Russia. Their value was far less likely to fluctuate than that of the currencies of the day. Rather, it varied with the quality of the tea and the distance and accessibility of the market in which it would be traded.
The front of the brick was ornately detailed with stars, plants and architectural symbols along with Chinese characters. The reverse was scored into squares that could be broken off and used as fractional units of currency. Of course, the brick could also be broken into much smaller pieces and used for drinking.
As in olden days, China Black Brick Tea, selected from high-quality black tea dust, is manufactured by pressing the tea in the fired die machine after being softened by steam and letting it naturally cool and dry.
The American Numismatic Association is selling a tea brick in modern form with the characteristics of those used for centuries. It has the same basic measurements and weighs 2.5 pounds. Including shipping it sells for $19.95 (Stock No. PLU 14).
To order one, send a check or money order (or your MasterCard, Visa or American Express credit card number, expiration date and signature) to: American Numismatic Association Museum Store, 818 North Cascade Ave., Colorado Springs, CO 80903-3279. Be sure to include your name, full address and daytime telephone number.
Both the Ming Dynasty Note and the Black Brick Tea are fascinating and make wonderful conversation pieces.