Chinese Coins: Coins and Cannons

Posted on 3/14/2017

Beijing has two purely numismatic museums. The venues and their prestigious sponsors reflect the great significance attached to coins in Chinese culture.

Silhouetted against the sky, one building stands out as our taxi slows to exit the freeway. I nod toward it and ask, “Is that where we are going?” “Yes,” my friend replies. The car turns, rolls across an overpass as ten lanes of Beijing vehicles rush by below, and drops us off along the edge of a busy traffic circle. On foot now, we gingerly thread our way toward the massive structure.

A high stone wall crowds the curb and leaves us little room to avoid the cars that zip by. Its sheer face of carefully fitted charcoal-gray blocks calls to mind Mordor. We make haste to the safety of a broad landing area. There a sign announces, “Panoramic View of Beijing Ancient Coins.” From here it is just a few more paces to the entrance. Inside, shielded from traffic noise, is a peaceful courtyard lined with Magnolia trees.

We are at the Deshengmen Gate. Once it was one of nine fortified entrances to the old city of Beijing. The nine gates were manned by crack troops, the toughest and best-trained in the emperor’s military. The gates controlled entry and egress to the capital city and were repeatedly the sites of pitched battles between Chinese defenders and Mongol bands from the north. Many gates are now completely gone, remembered only in the names of subway stations like Xuanwumen (pronounced Shwen-wu-men) and Fuchengmen.

Fittingly, there is a fascinating military museum on an upper floor of the Deshengmen Gate fortress. On a clear day, a climb to the topmost parapet rewards a visitor with an outstanding view of the city, as well as an appreciation for what a formidable post this was. A couple of antique cannons reinforce the impression. At ground level, though, the former garrison is now dedicated to coins, not warfare.

The Year of the Rooster in coins and medals. Behind them is the top level of the Deshengmen Gate,
once a Beijing military post and now a numismatic museum.

As the sign suggests most of the coins are ancient. Although, my interest is primarily modern Chinese coinage, the exhibits are excellently explained in English. They do a fine job of presenting the development of money in China and why numismatics is important to Chinese culture today. There is a good display of modern paper money, although the best collection in the world can be seen across town at the China Numismatic Museum.

Beijing has two purely numismatic museums. The Beijing Ancient Coins Museum at Deshengmen Gate is part of the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage. Across town the China Numismatic Museum operates under the auspices of The People’s Bank of China, the nation’s central bank. Additionally, the National Museum has a major permanent numismatic display and coins are often seen at other institutions like the Capital Museum.

The many numismatic venues and their prestigious sponsors reflect the great significance attached to coins in Chinese culture. As the Beijing Ancient Coins museum explains, one early factor in the development of this thinking was the inclusion of the emperor’s signature on coins.

Today, this tradition of cultural importance continues with the many coins issued for holidays, national and cultural themes. The largest modern cultural series of coins is the Lunar Year coins. It follows the Lunar calendar and its twelve animal symbols make up a twelve-year cycle. We are now in the Year of the Rooster and there are seventeen different Year of the Rooster coins available. In addition there are countless medals, including some that have a Panda on one face and a rooster on the other. One more is coming soon; a beautiful new bimetallic Show Panda with a lunar theme should be available at the next Singapore International Coin Fair (March 24-26, 2017).

The Chinese Lunar series includes the country’s largest gold coin, a 10 kilogram giant 100,000 Yuan with a mintage of just eighteen. Aside from that behemoth, there are gold and silver coins as small as 3 grams (roughly 1/10 oz.) of gold and 30 grams of silver. These coins are very popular gift items in China during the Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival. People often keep them for a lifetime because they represent family, tradition and a living culture. The development of that culture spans thousands of years. It has left us many magnificent monuments—and museums—that echo the past and enrich the present like the Deshengmen Gate.

Note: Last month I mentioned that a double Fu, or good luck, character is used on wedding coins and signs. It is the Chi, or happiness, character that is used in this context. Mea culpa.

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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