Chinese Coins: The Writing on the Wall

Posted on 8/13/2019

The Chinese calligraphy art set reflects its culture and history.

“Hello! Hello!” the happy voices defy the gray clouds suspended above Kaifeng, China. Even as the first cold drops splatter, there is a rush of warmth. A class of young teens on a field trip has discovered something unexpected in this ancient capital city – a foreigner.

A little shy at first, as soon as I smile at them, the entire class crowds around. They clearly hope to practice their English lessons on me.

“Where are you from?”

“Do you like China?”

“Meiguo, the USA, and yes, I like China very much,” I reply.

This excites the children even more. They live hundreds of miles inland and far off the beaten track for most Western tourists. It must be a treat to meet someone who speaks with the English accent familiar from the movies. Not to mention, an unexpected break from their studies.

“Which city do you live in?” somebody calls out.

“Los Angeles.”

They pause to digest this and then ask, “Can we take a photo?”

Beneath the covered walkway of the Song Dynasty style museum, the kids flash smiles and peace signs while we crowd together. After many photos, the leader hurries the group along to continue their education. Immediately, another class sidles up for their Kodak moment.

This palace-like museum is not really old, but it’s built in antique style to promote the traditional Chinese art of “shufa,” or calligraphy. In China, shufa is not merely respected, it is revered. By the time of the Han Dynasty, nearly 2,000 years ago, it and poetry were considered the highest forms of expressiveness.

Our photo session complete, some of the children move over to inspect the writing on the wall – a wall-mounted calligraphy display. With some excitement, they take turns pointing at the inscription. The script is not as easy to read as a schoolbook. It’s been said that character depictions are as individual as the shapes of clouds pushed by the wind.

As shufa blossomed, vibrant, exquisitely controlled brushwork became prized. It was thought to capture the energy of the natural world. “Every stroke tells a story,” an artist once said to me. Shufa even came to be seen as a measure of people’s morals, education and temperament. The quality of a person’s calligraphy was so important that emperors of the Tang and Song Dynasties considered it when they appointed officials.

At least one official link still exists – to money. Between 2009 and 2017 China minted five brass calligraphy coins for circulation. Then, in May of 2018, China Gold Coin Inc. released a set of gold and silver coins that celebrate shufa’s rich legacy. In all the centuries, it may be the first precious metal coinage to make calligraphy itself the subject. The 2018 Chinese Calligraphy Art Commemorative Coins were produced at the Shenzhen Guobao Mint. The full set consists of one gold and four silver commemorative issues, all legal currency of the People's Republic of China.

Culture and history in China are so intertwined that to call on one is to summon the other. Naturally, the Calligraphy Art set straddles both. The obverse of all the coins features a common motif: the name of the nation together with an ancient script. The reverse faces display various periods and styles of shufa. The 2018 100 Yuan, 8-gram gold design shows oracle bones script, some of the oldest-known Chinese writing. These bones were used in ceremonies during China’s earliest recorded ruling kingdom, the Shang Dynasty. The writing on this coin is an order that tells people to farm together. Its mintage is 10,000.

The Shang Dynasty spanned nearly seven centuries until its fall in 1027 BC. During this period tripod cauldrons emerged as symbols of its power and authority. Strict regulations governed their availability and use. The 50 Yuan, 150-gram silver Calligraphy coin displays the corner of one such vessel. The inscription on it is from the Western Zhou era that followed the Shang Dynasty, “beginning the rule over vast territory.” All the Calligraphy coins are popular, but this 50 Yuan stands out. Perhaps it’s the low 5,000 mintage, or is it the page-like rectangular shape?

Three 30-gram round silver coins complete the 2018 Shufa set. Their mintage is 20,000 apiece. One shows a water vessel of the Western Zhou Dynasty that supplanted the Shang rule. Its optimistic message is “lasting forever.” A second coin portrays a stone drum from the Pre-Qin Dynasty, China’s first imperial period. This one translates as, “My carriage is beautifully decorated.” The third coin features writing from another wall; part of an inscription chiseled into Mount Tai during the Qin Dynasty.

The 2018 Calligraphy coins were a hit among numismatists and sold quickly. For 2019, another set was struck at the Shenzhen Guobao Mint. It is just as popular. The reverse faces of these coins highlight periods in China’s past. For instance, both the round 8-gram 100 Yuan gold (mintage 10,000) and the rectangular 50 Yuan gram silver (mintage 5,000) carry inscriptions from the Eastern Han Dynasty. The Eastern Han Dynasty lasted for nearly 200 years between 25 and 220 A.D. It is particularly remembered for a century of peace and innovation. Appropriately, “benefiting the people” are the gold coin’s key words taken from a stele of the time.

The 2019 round 30-gram silver Calligraphy coins (mintage 20,000 each) cover different eras. One displays text from bound books of laws recorded on bamboo paper called the Shuihudi Qin Bamboo Slips. It was discovered in a tomb from the brief Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BC). The words “uniting the people by favorable policies” is highlighted. A second coin features a Tang Dynasty quote, “perfect virtue and an important rule of conduct.” The third emphasizes the word “gentleman.” This is based upon the Qing Dynasty “Hexagram Qian from the I Qing.”

The 2019 Calligraphy Art coins from China. They are (clockwise) the 100 Yuan gold (reverse face),
the 50 Yuan silver (obverse face) and the three 10 Yuan silver coins (reverse faces).

Artists, scholars and people from every walk of life practice Chinese calligraphy, endlessly learning, teaching and honing their abilities. One time I stood in a Nanjing park. Near me, a senior shufa artist used a bucket of water and a jumbo-size brush to practice his skill on the pavement. In minutes, his efforts would fade and vanish, but permanence was not the point. A toddler watched him. When he noticed this, the shufa artist bent over to offer his brush to the youngster – and so, the spirit and knowledge of one generation in China, something beyond words, is passed on to another.

Calligraphy is everywhere: hung on museum walls, adorning homes and offices, drawn in water and carved in stone. And still, what is it? One student told me it is 5,000 years of Chinese history and culture captured in a brush stroke. “Shufa is wordless poetry, dance without action, picture without picture, music without sound.” Not to mention a coin series that reflects the enduring character of a nation. Happy collecting.

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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