Chinese Coins: Stairway to Heavenly
Posted on 6/11/2019
The sign announces 2 Yuan, or about 30¢, for a bamboo walking stick. I stop to consider this. The seller’s stand is stationed partway up Mount Emei, or Emeishan. This peak in Sichuan Province is renowned for its beauty, its religious significance and…its monkeys. Not cute little monkeys, but vicious ones. These marauders are infamous for swiping travelers' food, cameras or anything that shines. Fortunately, they are reputed to be scared of bamboo sticks. I fork over my 2 Yuan and choose a stout pole.
There are four mountains sacred to Buddhism in China. Emeishan is the farthest west of the four and it is the one closest to India. Dramatic gorges slash its slopes, rivers tumble through its canyons and towering bamboos cling to its rock walls. Cached within Emeishan’s 3,099-meter (10,167-foot) embrace are 33 monasteries. Of these, Wannian Temple (Temple with Thousands of Years of History) is one of the best known.
The path to Wannian Temple begins near a bus terminal in a little village square. Past the entry gate, seemingly endless stairs ascend sharply through a forest. These go on for miles, all the way to the summit. Buddhist monks in maroon and saffron-colored robes and women in long maroon dresses are a common sight on this trail. Half an hour in and a little unsure of the route, I attach myself for the rest of the ascent to a group of five middle-aged Chinese women. Curious about where I am from, they confirm that this is the right road. They also treat me to some excellent tea on a chilly day.
A few thousand steps later – with nary a monkey in sight – I look up at the Temple’s fort-like walls. Perched on a sharply vertical promontory 1,020 meters above sea level, the place feels very remote, as for centuries it was. Today, a sign points to a USB charging station.
Buddhism arrived in China from India almost 2,000 years ago, in 67 AD. During the next several centuries, it spread across the land. This partly happened during the rule of the Western Jin Dynasty. By the year 300 AD, around the time that the Wannian Temple was built, this dynasty had splintered into feudal princedoms. Each commanded its own army supported by a population of serfs. Security was tenuous.
Finally, the Xiongnu, a people from the north, delivered the final blow. They sacked Luoyang, the Western Jin capital, in 311 AD and deposed the emperor.
As I huff and puff up the near vertical final approach to the Temple gate, thoughts of a European History class float through my mind. After the fall of Rome, Europe descended into an age of darkness. Against a hostile world, great fortress monasteries were built to protect knowledge, faith and body. I guessed that the Wannian Temple’s original builders might have chosen this spot for similar reasons.
Inside the walls, a large garden courtyard spreads out. Printed prayer cards hang from blossoming fruit trees and a flock of doves circles above. After the long walk, I sit on a bench and take in the scene. It feels heavenly. A wide walkway lined with meter-high elephant statues leads to a plaza. Beyond and above that is the “Beamless Hall,” the main building.
In the plaza, tour groups, monks and pilgrims mingle. Candles are lit and supplicants turn and bow in all four directions as they hold up a trio of incense sticks. After this, they set the sticks into a massive incense burner and ascend toward the gold idol of a Bodhisattva seated on an elephant.
A Bodhisattva, or potential Buddha, is someone who chooses to forego nirvana in order to bring salvation to humanity. Emei Mountain is dedicated to Puxian, or Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of Benevolence who saves the souls of the dead. He is associated with elephants. A story tells how Puxian calmed a raging pachyderm by stroking its forehead. It is believed that he always travels on an elephant that may have six tusks. The glittering idol of Puxian upon an elephant that’s inside the Beamless Hall dates from 980 A.D. Just outside, pilgrims stop to bow and pray to it before entering.
In 2014, the website for China Gold Coin Inc. announced, “The People’s Bank of China is to issue a set of gold and silver commemorative coins for Chinese Sacred Buddhist Mountain (Mount Emei) on March 21, 2014. The set consists of five proof coins, with three in gold and two in silver, all of which are the legal tender of the People’s Republic of China.”
The three gold coins all show images of Puxian: a 10,000 Yuan 1 kg (mintage: 200, diameter: 90 mm) with him atop an elephant; a 2,000 Yuan 5 oz. that portrays the statue at the summit of Emeishan; and a 100 Yuan quarter oz. (mintage: 40,000, diameter: 22 mm) that carries the image of another statue of Puxian.
Among these, the 2000 Yuan, 5 oz. coin (mintage: 2,000, diameter: 60mm) may be the best known. Puxian is mounted atop three elephants surrounded by a spectacular rainbow hologram. Around the time this coin was released, I ran into the technician who created this hologram. She explained that the technique could only be used on a larger coin, like a five oz., not anything smaller.
|The 2014 coins of the Sacred Mount Emei set: 20 Yuan silver with the Beamless Hall of the Wannian Temple,
2000 Yuan gold with the gold statue of Puxian on three elephants, 300 Yuan silver shows the summit of Emeishan,
and 10000 Yuan gold with Puxian on a six-tusked elephant. Background photos from the Wannian Temple.
Not shown: 100 Yuan gold coin with the head of a statue of Puxian.
There also are two 2014 silver coins dedicated to Mount Emei: a 300 Yuan 1 kg (mintage: 6,000, diameter: 100 mm) and a 20 Yuan 2 oz. (mintage: 60,000, diameter: 40 mm). The 300 Yuan features an image of the Emeishan’s summit with its statue and temple. The 20 Yuan shows a bird’s-eye view of the Beamless Hall in Wannian Temple.
Because there are four Chinese Sacred Buddhist Mountain issues (2012 Mount Wutai, 2013 Putuo Mountain, 2014 Mount Emei and 2015 Mount Jiuhua) it is natural for collectors to build sets. This has helped make the 20 Yuan Mount Emei coin popular.
It is, however, the least often graded of the four Sacred Buddhist Mountain coins. The NGC Census for the 20 Yuan silver coins is: Mount Wutai 3,514, Mount Putuo 3,320, Mount Jiuhua 1,845 and Mount Emei 1,238. None are terribly expensive; the Mount Wutai coin costs the most and the others are about equal to each other. The 20 Yuan Emeishan coin, with the fewest graded in the set, may turn out to be a sleeper.
Sleep, however, is far from my thoughts. The sun is low in the sky and Emeishan’s forest is deep in shade. The final bus of the day leaves the village at 6 p.m. One last pilgrim on the stairs looks up, startled to see me hurry past him. The monkeys were no-shows today, but the bamboo made itself useful as a walking stick. Just before the exit gate I carefully lean it on a rock by the side of the trail. Although it’s no longer in uncirculated condition, it should still be useful to some trekker the next day.
My memory, though, of beautiful Emeishan, the Wannian Temple and the kind people I met will always be a perfect 70. Just like the new coin in my collection.
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.