China's First Western-Style Coin on Block|
August 25, 2011
This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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In early China, the monetary system developed in an entirely different way than the one in Europe. Until recently, the coins of the West – at least the ones that weren’t used as change – were small ingots of precious metal whose intrinsic value was directly linked to their nominal value. The Chinese copper coins and China’s famous paper money, by contrast, were fiat money, just like our present-day currency. That means that their value was based on a mutual agreement concerning the copper coins and on an imperial warranty concerning the paper money.
Apart from these two kinds of currency, silver ingots were also used, particularly for hoarding, and were produced by private craftsmen. The state only controlled the correct marking with fineness and weight. That was in its own interest since silver ingots, along with textiles and grain, served to settle taxes. The Chinese monetary system of early modern times, therefore, was much more similar to our own than contemporaneous Western coinages.
When the first Western coins reached China, they were treated like bullion. The local money-changer checked their fineness, provided them with a countermark and therewith guaranteed the quality of the coins. It is highly likely that they were melted down to ingots at the beginning, but that changed in time as more coins arrived in China. Instead of being melted down, they were used as small ingots in payment transactions. Especially popular were the Spanish 8-reale pieces because their average fineness of 935/1,000 was almost equivalent to the Chinese standard of 937/1,000. They were called “shizi qian,” coins with the mark “10,” for Chinese users read the cross depicted on them as the number 10 (shi). Countless countermarks on many a piece testify to the frequency of money-changers checking them during their circulation.
By the way, on Formosa, present-day Taiwan, these pieces circulated as early as the 17th century! Formosa was an island off the Chinese shore with a number of important ports where foreign ships anchored.
Hence, the Chinese traveling traders possessed a century-old tradition in dealing with Western money whereas the ruling Qing Dynasty was highly skeptical of this economic development. This was no surprise since the foreign visitors had brought China nothing good. British opium particularly worried the government. The English had hit on the “ingenious” idea to not exchange the treasured tea and the expensive luxury goods for silver anymore but for cheap opium they gained from Bengal, which was controlled by the East India Company. That turned the trade balance to China’s disadvantage and caused an economic realignment that was to turn one of the world’s technologically leading nations into a developing country.
The Chinese population had gotten used to the foreign silver coins, especially in the commercial centers. Now, however, they didn’t flow into the coffers like they used to do. On the contrary, silver was emptied out to acquire opium. All that was left was a vacuum of currency the central government refused to fill. Private enterprises filled in.
A piece belonging to this legacy will be offered Sept. 30 by Osnabrück auction house and coin dealer Künker as part of a big collection of Chinese coins. It is the first Western-style coin struck in China. It was produced during the Rebellion of Zhang in 1837 to pay the troops responsible for the suppression of the revolt. On Formosa, revolutions were rather normal. A common saying was, “Every three years an uprising, every five years a rebellion.”
On the coin’s obverse we see Shou Xing, God of Longevity. His distinctive feature is the outsized bald head. To the left there are four characters whose translation reads “Cast during the time of Daoguang.” Emperor Daoguang (Splendor of Reason) ruled from Oct. 3, 1820, until his death on Feb. 25, 1850. Four other characters in the field to the right are translated “7, 2 by the balances of the treasure chamber.” Likewise, four characters are to be found in the god’s chest that mean “silver cake of standard fineness.”
The reverse depicts a “ding,” a traditional bronze vessel with, in this case, three legs and two handles. Such vessels were in use in China as early as the 16th century B.C.E. Prior to that time, similar vessels had been made from clay. Just like the Greek tripods, a ding was used in China to cook and to store supplies.
Another use was of a ritual nature: the cultic meals for the ancestors were prepared in a ding. The ding soon became synonymous for power and command over a country. It became a symbol for state power so much so that in Chinese language “the desire for a ding” is used interchangeably for making a bid for power. The four characters on the reverse refer to the island of Formosa, the city of Kyahi in the southeast of Taiwan and the word, “treasury.”
What started in Taiwan became established in mainland China in the middle of the 19th century as well. Soon private entrepreneurs produced Western silver coins that deviated from the European models to a greater or lesser extent. Consequently, an English writer stated in 1844: “In the district of Shunteh, south of Canton, there is said to be a very large establishment, in which as many as a hundred workmen are frequently employed. [Author’s note: In China, workers were hired per day.] Dollars are there manufactured of all grades of value ... These false coiners are said to possess European stamps, procured at great expense, but sometimes they attempt imitations, in which the omission or disfiguring of some letters betrays the deception to a European eye. So common, however, are their dollars in circulation, that men from this district are most usually selected as shroffs [money-changers].”
Hence, in China silver coins following the Western model were produced long before the Chinese government, upon British recommendation, decided on establishing a mint in Canton (for which the required machines were ordered in English Birmingham, of course). It was in 1889 that the first official coins of the Chinese government were issued.
For more about this featured coin and the large collection of Chinese coins, order the free Künker sale catalog by calling +49 (0)541 96 20 20. It will also be posted online at www.künker.de.
More Coin Collecting Resources:
• 2012 Standard Catalog of World Coins 2001-Date
• Subscribe to our Coin Price Guide, buy Coin Books & Coin Folders and join the NumisMaster VIP Program
• Strike It Rich with Pocket Change, 2nd Edition
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