Chinese Coins: Pedal to the Metal

Posted on 5/14/2019

The Tour of Qinghai Lake, China’s oldest and best-known bicycling race, has its own coin.

Like sunlight on a rainbow trout, the peloton splashes across the screen. Cut to: bicycle racers as they hurtle straight toward the camera. Cut to: view of long bridge across a river. I sit down on a cushioned bench to watch. This film is the final part of the “Qinghai in the Belt and Road” exhibit at Beijing’s Capital Museum (until June 30, 2019).

Qinghai Province: an exotic, beautiful land with a colorful past and spectacular mountain scenery. It sits north of Sichuan Province on the Tibet, Chinaan plateau, which explains the thin air. Qinghai Lake is China’s largest. Today, it is part of a rapidly developing area as the Capital Museum displays show. “Qinghai in the Belt and Road” follows the province’s progress from prehistoric times up to the present.

In ancient times, Qinghai was strategically located along several trade routes. This included a branch of the Silk Road. At one time, a powerful empire called the Tuyuhun ruled from a city near Qinghai Lake. Life was based upon the horse, and among the things the ancients left us are the beautiful gold equestrian ornaments on display at the Capital Museum. A Chinese innovation that may even have originated in this region is the stirrup. This area was fought over by the Tibetan Empire, Mongols, the Tang Dynasty and others. During the Tang Dynasty, the area became part of China.

Qinghai is still important to global trade today. Rail lines connect it to Europe and Tibet. For example, in October of 2018, a new China-Europe freight train line was launched. As a part of the Belt and Road initiative, the last several years have seen major construction in Qinghai. This includes an expanded and enlarged airport in Xining, the provincial capital.

The Capital Museum film jumps from road racers to other aspects of the province, but it is the scenes of the Tour of Qinghai Lake Bike Race (环青海湖自行车赛) that hold my attention. The Tour of Qinghai Lake is China’s oldest and best-known bicycling race. Competitors gasp across the finish line of the sixth stage at 4,120 meters (13,517 feet) above sea level. It has been called "the highest-altitude bike race in the world," and it reaches higher elevations than any professional bike race in Europe. That is not the only challenge; there is a 124-kilometer (77-mile) stretch of desert to pedal across in the tenth stage. Riders from past races say that the high-altitude heat is like nothing they had ever experienced before.

This race stands out in one other way: It has its own coin. That was issued in 2017. Although it is the third coin that China has released for bicycle racing, it is the first for a specific race.

The earliest People’s Republic of China bike racing coin was minted in 1989 for the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing. It features a solitary streaking bicycle rider. A smaller bike rider in the background is actually a pedaling Panda! Maybe that’s because the artist, Luo Yonghui, also designed the Panda coin that same year. The obverse artist was Sun Qiling, creator of the original Temple of Heaven design found on Panda coins. The 10 Yuan cycling coin is one of eight minted for those Asian Games: four in 1989 and four more the following year. It tips the scales at 27 grams of 92.5% silver. While the mintage of 20,000 is not small, collectors must often buy the entire set to obtain a specific coin.

The second bicycle racing coin from China was released just a year later, in 1990. It is part of a three-coin set struck in anticipation of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain. It shows two riders and is designed by Sun Qiling. Like the Asian Games coin, it contains 27 grams of 92.5% silver and has a face value of 10 Yuan. The published mintage is 30,000.

A China 2017 10 Yuan silver “Tour of Qinghai Lake Bike Race” coin. In the background is one of the province’s many high peaks.

A seventeen-year pause follows until the next Chinese bike-themed coin arrives. The 2017 10 Yuan 30 gram .999 silver coin celebrates the Tour of Qinghai Lake Bicycle Race. The mintage is 60,000 and the distribution was split several ways. Half the coins, 30,000, were allocated to the Bank of Qinghai. It’s understood that these mostly went to competitors, coaches and other participants in the racing program. 3,000 were allocated for sale in Hong Kong, China. The Yongyin Bicycle company inserted the coins inside the front wheel of a model bicycle. This model was a gift to buyers of a full-size racing bike called “骑开得胜,” or “Victory in the First Battle.”

Song Lina is the artist for the Tour of Qinghai Lake Bike Race coin’s reverse while Tian Xiaobin did the engraving. The reverse face shows a hard-pumping bicycle racer out in front of the peloton. As befits a race along the Silk Road, the winners of this race have been from around the world. The first competition in 2002 was won by the USA’s Tom Danielson. Hossein Askari of Iran is a two-time winner (2010 and 2012), Sergiy Lagkuti of Ukraine took the 2016 first prize and South Americans have triumphed the last two years: Jonathan Monsalve of Venezuela in 2017 and Hernán Aguirre of Colombia won the 15th anniversary race in 2018.

The Qinghai Province movie ends. I get up and walk to the Capital Museum’s central hall. Light streams in through seven stories of glass walls. The hall is mostly an open, cavernous space. The exception is a full-size traditional, three-arched Chinese gate. It sharply contrasts with the modern architecture that surrounds it.

This museum is among the best in the world for exploring Chinese culture. There are permanent exhibits about Beijing’s history, as well as outstanding temporary ones. Not surprisingly, it’s a magnet for school tour groups.

I stand in the hall and search for a gap between the lines of students all dressed in their travel outfits – bright-hued, color-coded sweat suits. As they walk by, I silently wonder: “Is one of them a future cycling champion?” At the least, I trust that many of them are future numismatists. Cut to: future coin show.

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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