The Panda’s Temple

Posted by Peter Anthony on 6/11/2013

The obverse of every single regular-issue Panda coin features the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

Everybody knows about how Panda coins change designs from year to year. The appealing bears in their many poses are what make this series so popular. How many people know, however, that the China Mint doesn’t even consider the Panda side to be the front of the coin? Officially the Panda is on the reverse.

If the Pandas are on the reverse, what is on the obverse, or front, of the coins? Every single regular issue Panda coin has both the date and a single subject on its obverse: a dome shaped building called the Temple of Heaven. Why is this Temple of Heaven in Beijing considered so important that it is always on the Panda’s obverse?

Back in the days of emperors and imperial courts the Temple of Heaven was literally the center of China’s universe. It was here that the Emperor conducted the annual rituals that determined whether the coming year would be a good or bad one for crops. The importance of these ceremonies cannot be exaggerated. A mistake by the Emperor could damage the country’s mood and call into question his fitness to rule.

This sacred event was held on the Winter Solstice, the night before the shortest day of the year. All across the country work stopped and the borders were closed. The entire Imperial Court would file out of the palace and proceed on foot to the Temple Complex. Any commoner who so much as glimpsed at the marchers was put to death.

The Temple Complex contains four temples, the most important of which is the Temple of Heaven. There the court slept through the rest of the year’s longest night. Today the Temple is open to all. Its round shape and spherical dome symbolize the heavens. The plot of land the Temple sits on is square which reflects the old belief that the Earth is flat.

The entire complex is surrounded by a high wall with only four entry points. I once made the mistake of turning left instead of right as I exited the metro stop outside this wall. Had I gone right there was an entrance just 20 meters away. Ignorant of this entryway I marched in the opposite direction for at least 45 minutes until I came to the next gate.

Happy to finally be inside the wall I bought a ticket to both the park and the Temple itself. On a sunny day the park is filled with people practicing everything from ballroom dancing to volleyball to Tai chi. Singers and music add to the festive atmosphere.

In the heart of the park lies the Temple of Heaven and its attendant buildings. Panda collectors know its image well. It is reached by climbing up a steep set of stairs that can be seen below the Temple on every coin. The Temple’s appearance on coins has changed over the years. The first version ran from 1982 to 1988 and features three sets of stairs, one in the center and two near the coin’s rim. 1989 introduced a Temple image in which the side aisles are almost eliminated. This continued through 1991. In 1992, a new version appeared with a design that cuts right into the aisles. This was used through 2002. Finally, in 2003 a fourth Temple version eliminates the aisles entirely.

Another change is that through 2000 the center of the steps is blank. From 2001 onward the stonework pattern that occupies the center of the stairway up to the Temple is added.

Temple of Heaven in Beijing
Click image to enlarge.

So while the Pandas get all of the attention there is much to be learned from the other side of the coin. Happy collecting.

Peter Anthony is an expert on Chinese modern coins with a particular focus on Panda coins. He as an analyst for the NGC Chinese Modern Coin Price Guide as well as a consultant on Chinese modern coins.