Chinese Coins: Hitting the Right Note

Posted on 12/10/2019

Two of the BICE’s most popular items were gorgeous pins and pendants designed around a musical treble clef with a 10 Yuan 1-gram gold panda.

2019 was the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the Giant Panda. As this special year closes there is more happy news. “The launching ceremony for the 2020 Chinese Panda Gold and Silver Commemorative Coins was held at the Great Hall of the People on the morning of 30th October, 2019,” China Gold Coin Inc. announced.

And so a magical time of the year arrives for everyone who loves pandas and panda coins. China’s 2020 1 gram through 30 gram gold and 30 gram silver panda coins are now widely available. Many are safely secured in NGC holders with “First Releases” labels on them. In coming weeks the larger denomination gold and silver pandas will also be shipped from the mints.

The 2019 panda coin design features a mother and baby. The little bruin's story continues on the new 2020 coins. Now, a year-old, the panda cub placidly munches bamboo. This youngster makes its home in Sichuan province, part of the native range of wild Giant Pandas. A century and a half ago it was another Giant Panda from Sichuan that first grabbed the outside world's attention.

By the middle of the 1800s, the deteriorating authority of the Qing Dynasty could no longer keep western adventurers from China’s interior regions. Few, if any, of these foreigners would make more of the opportunity than a French priest, Père Armand David. As a young man he dreamed of going to China and had joined the priesthood, in part, to have the opportunity to be sent there. “I am passionately in love with the beauties of nature,” he exclaimed.

This passion to investigate the natural wonders of China was not easily quenched. Père David served for ten years before his wish to travel was granted. Over time, Père David’s finds introduced many native plants and creatures of China to the scientific community. This included the 1865 discovery that made him famous, a species of deer on the brink of extinction that later was named the, “Père David Deer.” That success opened the door for him to explore Mongolia — from where he sent Europe its first Gerbils.

Then came, “1869, like a precious relic preserved and exalted in glass and gold.” It was a year that took the Père into Sichuan Province in southwest China. He excitedly described what he found there, "...(it’s) like nowhere you’ve ever seen. You’ve seen mountains before, you’ve seen fog before, but never mountains like this, never fog like this, never a sea of bamboo that undulates to and fro, that causes the very land to swim before your eyes. This is a place that appears apart from this world...and in its high places—in the silent fog where no living creature stirs, up where you know that no one is watching, where you are lost to everything below and isolated to the point that you no longer are sure if you exist in this world, or if it exists within you—you have arrived in the panda ‘s world.”

" the silent fog where no living creature stirs, up where you know that no one is watching,
where you are lost to everything below and isolated to the point that you no longer are sure if you
exist in this world, or if it exists within you—you have arrived in the panda's world.” Père Armand David.
Foreground: 2020 1 kilogram gold 10000 Yuan Panda coin. Background, Sichuan Province, China.

The journey was not easy. On one occasion, David and his Chinese guide Jean Lee attempted to pass a steep, snowy slope by clinging to tree branches. As they struggled, an icy rainstorm engulfed the pair and they became completely lost. Only the chance arrival of a group of locals saved the day.

Lee is usually only a footnote in the panda story, but everything depended on him. Père David observed that, “…in a place where each valley has its own dialect, no one has maps and probably none exist, where a white man may never have been seen before and the West is unimaginable—you must entrust all to your guide.”

According to Père David’s notes his first encounter with the knowledge that pandas exist was happenstance; afterward, everything was deliberate. David and Lee had followed a local man high into the mountains in search of the Golden Monkey (another of the priest’s discoveries). It was cold and damp and eventually they came to a small village. There they sat with the menfolk and drank some spirits. The Père became tipsy and was taken into a hut to sleep. When he awoke he could hear Jean Lee’s voice outside. He looked around the hut’s interior and came face to face with a huge black and white pelt hung on the wall.

“I rose, if barely. The liquor had not yet worn off, but suddenly I was no longer drowsy. It was if I had been thrown across the floor like a die. Outside the men were busy drinking and playing dice. As I stepped into the light, they shouted their greetings and made room for me to sit. I refused. I tried to explain, to ask, in my feeble Chinese what was the story of this skin. Now everyone became interested in the pelt. They realized that I had never seen one before, that it was special. When I arrived several of the men had pinched my hand to make sure I was real. Now they pinched the black and white skin the same way. Finally, somebody called it a bamboo bear.”

It was at exactly this instant that the Giant Panda stepped into the modern world. Like a river that flows from its headwaters, every future panda event traces its origin to this moment. The “bamboo bear” was on its way to its status as a cherished treasure of the People’s Republic of China and a heartthrob for people everywhere. It was also, a century or so later, destined to be chosen by the China Mint as the subject for a popular coin series.

2020 musical panda pin with a 10 Yuan .999 gold panda
coin enclosed as part of the design.
Click image to enlarge.

And thirty-eight years after the first panda coins were released, the entire 2020 suite of panda coins was displayed at the Beijing International Coin Exposition (BICE, November 15-17, 2019). The largest, of course, were the 10,000 Yuan kilo gold and 300 Yuan kilo silver coins, but every size was there, perfect fits for someone’s collection — and more. Two of the Expo’s most popular items were gorgeous pins and pendants designed around a musical treble clef that has a 10 Yuan 1-gram gold panda embedded in it. Their shape is inspired by a song. Shanghai Gold Coin Investment offered both and sold out by the second day of BICE. For the rest of the show, everywhere I went, there were women wearing them. The jewelry design is by Tong Fang, who also designed the 2019 panda coins. It adds just the right flourish for a panda accessory: a note of love.

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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