Chinese Coins: A Day at the Opera

Posted on 3/13/2018

Chinese opera-themed gold and silver coins and medals are quite striking and feature various scenes and characters.

When most people think about Chinese opera, they think about the Peking Opera. That’s not a surprise; it’s the most famous and well-known kind. To catch a Peking Opera performance on the same Royal stage that emperors did, just hop Beijing subway line 4 out to the Summer Palace.

The Summer Palace itself reminds me of a stage set. In Qing Dynasty times, a court visitor would first stand before the magnificent entrance gate. From there he, or she, would look up at the towering halls and temples on Longevity Hill’s steep slope. If you want to feel small, stand on that spot.

It was on September 25, 1790 that performers from Anhui Province first brought what would be called Peking Opera to the capital. On his 80th birthday, they delighted the Qianlong Emperor with a novel mixture of speech, singing, dance and martial arts movements. Thereafter, any imperial celebration needed to include this new style of entertainment.

If you saw “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” then you have seen the influence of Chinese opera. It demands the highest level of craft from the performers (who until the 1870s were always men). Part of the famous film “Farewell My Concubine” explores the seven years of barely endurable training required for Peking Opera work and its place in a changed world.

In the late nineteenth century, the Empress Dowager Cixi became an avid operatic fan. It was for her that the exquisite three-story Great Stage in the Summer Palace was built. The Great Stage is considered the “Cradle of Peking Opera.” It is still in use today and attracts hordes of visitors, including an NGC consultant.

An electronic scoreboard at one entrance to the Summer Palace tracks the day’s attendance. On a warm, sunny Sunday the orange numbers cross the 50,000 mark. Where is everybody? Everywhere, including the Great Stage. My friends and I discover this when we arrive late for a public performance there.

The sounds float across the courtyard as we step over the doorsill into the Garden of Virtue and Harmony (Dehe Yuan). Bleacher-style seats face the stage, but these are overflowing. Even standing room is hard to find. At last we slip into an open spot off to the side and up the steps to the official (and closed) boxes. These boxes, or rooms, were originally reserved for the noble guests of the Empress.

The costumes and movements of the operas follow conventions that help guide the audience through the plot. The costumes and masks are especially striking — which is just what China Gold Coin Inc. (also called CGCI, or the China Mint) did. It struck sets of Peking Opera gold and silver coins from 1999 to 2002.

The sets each contain a round ½ oz. gold, a rectangular 5 oz. silver and four one oz. silver coins. The obverse (date) face portrays the Grand Stage in the Summer Palace. The reverses feature various scenes and characters. The 1999 50 Yuan gold coin is the most valuable coin in the set. Condition is usually not a problem; more than 90% of those graded achieved an NGC PF 69 or PF 70 level.

In 2008, a Peking Opera design coin was part of the third set of silver coins for the 2008 Olympics in China. Two years later, in 2010, a new series of colored Peking Opera mask sets was launched. This set has a ¼ oz. gold coin and two 1 oz. silver coins. Like the earlier Peking Opera series, this one lasted for three years. As is typical of more recent Chinese coins, the coins grade quite well. For instance, the gold 100 Yuan Bao Zheng mask of 2010 is more than 90% NGC PF 69 and PF 70. Getting a PF 70 is not a sure thing, though; PF 69s are nearly twice as plentiful as PF 70s.

Is that all there is to Chinese opera and numismatics? Not by a long shot. With all the attention Peking Opera gets, few foreigners realize that it is only one of many styles of Chinese Opera. Among them are Huangmei and Kunqu.

Huangmei is an operatic form rooted in folk music. Long ago, as women harvested tea in the fields, they would sing. During the late Qing Dynasty, their melodies were collected and merged with dance and traditional operas. The production was called the “Caicha,” or “Picking Tea Songs.” It grew to be quite popular.

Last year, the Shenzhen Guobao Mint produced a charming set of Huangmei Opera coins. It includes a 3 gram gold coin plus one 150 gram and two 15 gram silver coins. The color designs capture the original folksy charm of these operas. It’s worth noting that, like other colored coins, these were struck on bare metal and the color added in a separate process afterward.

A 2013 copper Chinese opera medal by Shenyang Mint artist Chang Huan.
In the background is the Great Stage in Beijing, “The Cradle of Peking Opera.”

There are also opera medals. One example is by the outstanding Shenyang Mint artist Chang Huan. It is called "Kunqu Opera." The obverse illustrates a moment from the "Peony Pavilion," a famous fiction work from the Ming Dynasty. This medal is not expensive, but it’s valuable for its beauty and artistic spirit. That is something to sing about!

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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