Chinese Coins: The Call of Chinese Coins

The Chinese lunar coins were introduced in 1981 and were first minted in both silver and gold.

The Panda series began in 1982. This makes it the second-oldest series of modern Chinese coins. What is the oldest? The lunar calendar coins. The first pair of lunar calendar coins were issued in 1981, an eight gram gold coin and a fifteen gram silver coin.

To begin with, what is a lunar calendar and why is it important in Chinese culture? There are two kinds of calendars in common use today: solar and lunar. The modern solar (Gregorian) calendar is used worldwide for civil purposes. It is designed around the Spring and Autumn equinoxes when days are equally long all over the planet. It contains 12 months that have 28 to 31 days each. The Gregorian system is pretty accurate, good to within one day every 3,236 years.

The Chinese lunar calendar also has 12 months. A key difference with the solar year is that the first day of the New Moon – when no moon is visible in the sky – begins each month. The Chinese calendar adds a leap month every two to three years compared to a leap day every four years in the Gregorian system. As a result a specific date in the solar calendar can move around quite a bit when plotted on the lunar one, often shifting by several months. While it requires more complex calculations than the solar calendar, the lunar-based system is used to mark traditional holidays and events like births in China.

Another important distinction between solar and lunar years is that each Chinese lunar month is associated with an animal from the zodiac: rooster, dog, pig, rat, cow, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep and monkey. These years follow one another in an eternal 12-year cycle.

The China Mint began to celebrate the Lunar New Year in 1981. The Mint decided to use artwork by famous Chinese artists as the basis for each year’s coin design. There was a wealth of art to draw upon; since ancient times great Chinese artists have captured the spirit of the zodiac animals in paintings, sketches and sculpture.

The first year, 1981, was the Year of the Rooster. At daybreak each day the rooster rises to its duty and announces dawn to the world. It was much admired in ancient China for its loyalty to duty, its bravery and is considered a symbol of good luck. A painting by celebrated artist Xu Beihong (1895-1953) was chosen to grace the reverse side of the first lunar coins. The obverse side is decorated with an image of the famous White Dagoba of Beihai Park in Beijing. This park is part of the Imperial Garden and dates back 800 years.

Both the silver and gold lunar coins of 1981 were struck as Proofs and are highly sought after by collectors. They are scarce in high grades and nicer examples can command several thousand dollars apiece.

Collectors often choose to form complete 12-year sets with all the zodiac symbols. The dates for these sets are 1981-1992, 1993-2004 and 2005-present. Each set has different shapes and denominations available. From the initial pair of coins in 1981 there are now more than a dozen different lunar coins issued each year. Each captures an essential part of Chinese history and culture and is popular as New Year gifts among Chinese friends and families. The series can be rewarding to explore from many perspectives and is an exciting part of Chinese numismatics and culture.

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

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