For A Novice of Chinese Coinage
A Complete Overview of The Chinese Coin Market and The History of Chinese Coins
Comparison between a genuine (top) and counterfeit (bottom) Silver Dollar Pattern, Year 17 (1928).
Courtesy of SBG
The Chinese coin market has undeniably experienced an explosive growth over the past decade. Coins that were once traded for nominal values are now fetching seven-figure prices from esteemed collectors and buyers. The crucial question to consider is whether this market is stable, and the answer is yes. China's vast population, currently reaching 1.4 billion, includes a substantial number of individuals associated with numismatics. Comparing the Chinese market to the US market, coins that are genuinely scarce and rare, with a considerable number of collectors, have driven up their prices. The demand for rare coins is pivotal in sustaining a thriving market, and the Chinese coin market has, in fact, stabilized and revealed its true value.
This remarkable market has not only attracted Chinese collectors but also established itself as a global phenomenon. Leading firms like Stacks Bowers and Heritage Auctions have played a dominant role in the Chinese market, establishing offices in Hong Kong and introducing traditional Chinese collectors to the online realm. Chinese coin buyers, similar to European Taler collectors, often show less concern for a coin's certification condition. They readily purchase coins in their raw form and keep them stored in paper envelopes. As the influence of "western" ideals seeped into the Chinese coin market, a new identity began to take shape. Dealers started exporting Chinese coins through Tariff services to other countries, contributing to price stabilization for coins such as the 'YSK' dollar and 'Junk' dollar due to increased supply. Additionally, Chinese collectors developed a preference for PCGS over NGC when it came to slabbing truly rare specimens. Moreover, Chinese buyers have shifted their focus from collecting to investing in these valuable rarities. It is worth noting that during the communist occupation of China, coins were strictly designated for monetary exchange, and their collection or trade was prohibited. This historical context might offer another explanation for the sudden surge in premiums in the current market.
The first Chinese coins were minted during the early days of coinage, around the Han dynasty in the 4th century BC. These coins were shaped like spades and came in various types, distinguished by the number of holes or the size of the flans. They were associated with states like Han, Zhao, Liang, Zhou, and Yan. Among them, the most popular series was the Dang Jin 斾比當伒, valued in a multiple or fraction of a Jin. Subsequently, 'round holed' and 'three holed' spades were minted as denominations of "one" and "half" of a pinyin 十二銖, during the end of the 3rd century BC.
Following this transitional period, a unique form of coinage known as knife money emerged. These coins, minted by Qi during the Zhou period in the 4th century BC, are not widely collected, as some do not consider them true coinage. They can be compared to ancient archaic Greece's dolphin cast coins or the AES Grave coins of the Roman Republic. Nevertheless, they were circulated extensively during the Ming dynasty.
Qi. Three Character Knife Money, 400-200 BC.
Courtesy of SBG
Another intriguing coin type from the Qin Dynasty, referred to as 'holed round money,' appeared during the 3rd Century BC. Valued within the Cash system, their exact worth remains uncertain. These coins, known as 'round coin' 圜錢 or 圜金 huánjīn, feature a variety of characters and symbols and are commonly associated with the famous emperor Qin Shi Huang Di, who united all of China. Qin Shi Huang Di may have drawn inspiration for these round coins from the style of round-cast coins used by western Greek and Roman societies centuries earlier.
During the Han and Xin dynasties, China experienced substantial economic and societal developments. The Han dynasty, in particular, thrived with immense wealth and prosperity. Coins from this era typically included their weight information and were produced by casting molten metal into trays with filleted borders, facilitating easy storage by threading them together and wearing them on the neck instead of keeping them in pockets.
Following the Song dynasty in the 10th century, many other dynasties emerged in China's history. Around 9 AD during the Xing dynasty, there was a revival of knife money, and the process of coin production underwent significant refinement, resulting in the minting of millions of coins. In the late medieval period, paper money was invented, serving as a form of promissory note for payment, allowing people to spend money without physically possessing it.
Song. One Cash. Qin Zong, 1126-27 AD.
Courtesy of SBG
During the era known as the North and South dynasties, China experienced a prolonged period of discord and turmoil, characterized by separate successions of dynasties in the northern and southern regions of the country. Coin inscriptions went beyond indicating nominal weights, incorporating additional information such as names or year titles while continuing the issuance of Wu Zhu coins. While some coins displayed exceptional calligraphy, the overall quality of the coinage was rather poor.
A significant development occurred in the year 465 when the general populace was granted permission to mint coins. However, the outcome was unsatisfactory, as the newly minted "goose eye" coins piled up to a height of less than three inches and the "Fringe Rim" coins were so substandard that they refused to sink in water and easily broke apart when held. These coins were heavily devalued, and it took as many as 10,000 of them to purchase a peck of rice. Emperor Ming attempted reforms from 465 onwards to improve the quality of coinage, but the results were only moderately successful.
The final notable period of holed cash coins spans from the Tang to the long-extended Qing Dynasty, which began in 1636 and ended with the Republic of China in 1912. During the Tang period, the coins known as Kai Yuan Tong Bao 開元通寶 or "the inaugural currency" emerged in the 4th year of the Wu De period under Emperor Gao Zu's rule in 621 AD. These coins, with a crude design and a diameter of 8 fen, weighed precisely 2.4 zhu, with a thousand coins amounting to 6 jin 4 liang. Crafted by the esteemed calligrapher Ouyang Xun, they featured the revolutionary phrase "tong bao," influencing future coins even under different regimes. Although later coins showed distinct craftsmanship from their Tang counterparts, the process of minting and copper extraction remained under strict central authority control, and private casting was punishable by death. Following the Tang dynasty, the Five Kingdoms and the Song dynasty also issued similar cash coins.
Tree of cast Cash coins. Demonstrating how they were manufactured.
Courtesy of SBG
Near the end of the Qing Dynasty, there was a transition to a western coinage system using silver and gold coins. Previously, imperial China adhered to a monometallic standard, relying mainly on bronze cash coins as its primary currency throughout history. However, the Ming dynasty witnessed a shift towards a bimetallic system due to increased international trade, leading to the significant involvement of silver in the country's monetary landscape during the 16th and 17th centuries AD. This alteration brought changes to China's currency dynamics.
Silver had been the preferred currency for China's overseas trade until the mid-1930s. Throughout the majority of the Qing dynasty, China depended on imports of silver from foreign countries since it was not a silver-producing nation. However, a significant turning point in the country's monetary history occurred in the 1890s when provincial Chinese mints began producing native silver coinages. This coincided with the establishment of a bimetallic system, coinciding with the founding of the New World in the Americas. China utilized silver coinage from other countries, verifying its purity through chop marks and counterstamps for international and local trade. Many of the 8 Reals from southern America were chopmarked in the Chinese trade system. As substantial amounts of silver from mines like Potosi in the Americas made their way to China, there arose a great need for coinage. For almost a century, there were no local silver coins minted. However, the situation changed in the 1890s, as Chinese mints began issuing silver coins for use within China rather than for overseas trade. This period is often referred to as the Imperial Age, during which most coins were minted by the Chinese provinces, all featuring similar bimetallic coinage.
Three chopmarked coins. Evidence of circulation in China. Anti-counterfeit measures.
Courtesy of SBG
During the Qing dynasty period in imperial China, silver circulated in two primary forms: silver Sycees and foreign silver dollars, primarily Spanish dollars from the Spanish Philippines. Silver was mainly used for interregional trade and large transactions, with its value determined by weight rather than denomination. The Tael served both as a unit of account and weight, its definition varying across regions and government bodies. Unlike copper, silver was not monopolized by the government, and its supply and demand were solely determined by the market. Due to low domestic silver production, China heavily relied on imports from Edo Japan and the Americas through international trade with foreign merchants.
The situation of silver in Qing China bore similarities to medieval England, as both countries lacked significant silver production, and their coinage relied heavily on overseas and international trade. Unlike England's royal mints that converted silver bullion into coins, the Chinese Emperor permitted only silver bullion to circulate in various forms. Due to its high value, silver was primarily used for larger and long-distance transactions, including international trade, while daily and smaller transactions in rural areas predominantly involved copper-alloy cash coins. Silver held a special status as the main currency for tax payments and government expenses. Despite the Qing government's attempts to establish a fixed exchange rate between copper-alloy cash coins and silver bullion, enforcement was lacking. Consequently, the market exchange rate between silver and copper constantly fluctuated, varying across regions. The need for currency exchange fostered the emergence of money-changers in commercial centers and trade ports. This currency system during the Qing dynasty is referred to as a "parallel bimetallic system" since it involved two currency systems using different metals, with the exchange ratio remaining unfixed and varying over time and place.
The Spring dollar, or Dragon Dollar (as commonly referred to on the market) was the very first of its kind in China. It came with a base of 7 mace and 2 Candareens, and was minted in abundance in the Kwangtung province. The coins were undated at first, but soon developed a dating system based on the Chinese lunar calendar. This system was incorporated with 10 celestial cycles, and 12 earthly branches representing certain animals.
During the Republic there were still provinces issuing coinage. Most notably, the provinces of Szechuan and Kirin were issuing coinage well into the reign of YSK, with different weights and purity regulations. Perhaps the most obscure coins come from the Sinkiang province. Relatively ugly and crude coins, extremely rare, and minted in a variety of denominations including the Miscal and Mace. The provinces of Chinese coins will not be talked about very much in this article, as they come with a variety of complexities.
This first dating system was primarily used on the dragon series of Copper Cash coins and dragon Dollars and fractionals. The system was based on a 60 year cycle. The second system was more of a civic year instead of a calendar year. It represented the foundation of the Chinese Republic in 1911, so coins dated Year 9 would correspond to 1920. These first appeared on the Yuan Shi-Kai coinage, and the Tall-head coinage. These coins can be easily dated from the obverse, where the characters surmounting the portrait of YSK spell out the civic year and the national declaration. For example, coins dated 1914 in the ‘Fatman’ Dollar series, in denominations of one Yuan, will display 年三國民華中, the first few characters representing the year and the last few representing the Republic.
In the earliest days of the Republic, a series of MS, Specimen, and Pattern Dragon dollar coins were minted in ‘1911’. Many of these coins were minted in Tientsin under the ruler Hsuan-t'ung (Xuantong [Puyi]). There are dozens of die vareities for this series in both MS and Specimen examples. Perhaps the rarest of the varieties are the “long whiskered dragon” types, which feature a dragon with extended whiskers past the two obverse characters. These specially prepared coins were minted by L. Giorgi, an Italian mintmaster who made imitations of Chinese coinage throughout the Republic series.
Perhaps the best coin book for the immense varieties of Republic coins, is E. Kann’s syllogue named “Illustrated Catalog of Chinese Coins.”
Long whisker variety compared to the normal circulation strike
Courtesy of SBG
Tallhead coins are much scarcer as they were predominantly used towards the end of YSk’s reign. In 1914, the leader declared himself emperor of China, and was subsequently deposed. These coins, which come in both Specimen and MS strikes, are extremely rare as they were only issued in minimal amounts. Fractional denominations exist, but the design is bes known by the Yuan denomination, which features two reverse types: the flying dragon and the signet of the Republic.
Two Variations of Yuan Shi-Kai’s Dollar
Courtesy of SBG
In the last few years of the Fatman dollar series, there were a few medals produced alongside coinage. Sometimes, these medals are referred to as 50 cent coins, and other times they are associated with a certain denomination. The Republic medals, one notable example featuring Nye Sze-Chung in a commemoration. They come in both bronze, silver and gold. During the rebellion against YSK, Tang Jiyao, the Governor-General of Yunnan Province, introduced various currency denominations. These included dollars, 50 cent, and 50 cash coins made of bronze all featuring his own portrait. Additionally, he minted gold coins bearing his likeness.
Tang Jiao was one of the earliest warlords to gain control over significant regions of the country as the central authority crumbled. Following the demise of YSK, the newly formed Republican government made concerted efforts to consolidate the nation's coinage system and bring about uniformity. In 1922, they decided to phase out the Yuan Shikai dollar and introduced a new design featuring a phoenix and dragon. However, this choice faced resistance from many Chinese who saw it as carrying imperial symbolism. Alongside regular circulation dollars, a series of commemorative issues were made, such as during Cao Kun's presidency, and the completion of the provincial highway in the Kweichow province, minting the extremely rare "Automobile dollar." Various warlords also issued their own dollar coins, featuring their portraits to honor important occasions. Duan Qirui and Zhang Zuoli commemorated the abolition of the presidency as they assumed the role of emperor.
Amidst these developments, the Republic found success in producing standardized coinage with the 20 and 10 cash coins from 1920 onwards. These coins bore the signet of the republic and showcased the crossed flags of the Republic and the striped flag of the army.
Kweichow. Auto Dollar, 1928.
Courtesy of SBG
As presidents ruled and died, and coinage was changed, president Sun Yatsin died in 1925 starting a new era of Chinese rarities. A series of patterns and extremely rare special dollars resembling those from 1912 were issued to commemorate the event. Some of these dollars were marked "MEMENTO," while others featured a facing portrait. Additionally, a similar design was used for a 20 cent coin. In the Fujian province there were various fractional denominations issued as well. Other coins, commemorating a 1927 event, are called MEMENTO dollars. These were a one year type and were minted in enormous quantities.
This lack of central authority led to a proliferation of local currencies, resulting in the issuance of Chinese pattern dollars. Most patterns were experimental coins with unique designs and compositions that were never officially released for circulation. They were used to test new designs, denominations, and metals before mass production decisions were made. Notably, some provinces issued their own pattern dollars to demonstrate their sovereignty and financial independence. Since the lack of uniformity in currency became widespread, the use of pattern dollars further complicated trade and commerce within the country.
Pavilion Dollar, 1927
Courtesy of SBG
Following the unification of China in 1929, the Nationalists released silver dollars bearing Sun Yat-sen's portrait on the obverse and a Chinese junk sailing right on the reverse. Before this, various patterns were commissioned from Japan, Italy, Austria, the USA, and Britain. These patterns are easily distinguishable from currency as the junk is shown sailing to the left. The trade dollar was set as the official form of currency, and this currency was introduced with a new design depicting birds flying over the junk and a rising sun on the right. The design was changed soon after, getting rid of the birds on the reverse. Alongside these patterns, come a series of restrike and contemporary counterfeits. Even during the production of these patterns, people knew the sheer rarity of them. There are many official and unofficial restrikes that still command strong premiums on the market today.
Shantung 20 Dollars Pattern, 1926
Courtesy of SBG
Republic Dollar Pattern, 1928
Courtesy of SBG
When the Soviet government took over China there were a variety of coins issued. Collecting rare coins was often frowned upon or outright forbidden. Collecting money became a taboo subject among the people of China, so a lot of the extreme rarities minted in the years before were either cast aside or placed in collections outside of China. The most notable rarity of the later half of the 20th century are the ‘Bamboo’ dollars dated 1949 minted in the Kweichow province. These extreme rarities command seven figure premiums, and seldom appear on the market.
Kweichow. Bamboo Dollar, 1949.
Courtesy of SBG
A Novice’s Perspective on Chinese Coins
Full Article by:
By. Colby J. Abele
Published by VCD Auctions