History Through Coins: Chinese New Year

Posted on 1/21/2020

Learn more about the animals of the 12-year Chinese zodiac, which have been rendered beautifully on many modern coins.

In 2020, Chinese New Year is being celebrated January 25 in the world’s most-populous country and beyond. The date moves from year to year, but it falls somewhere between January 21 and February 20, typically coinciding with the second new moon after the winter solstice.

The Chinese calendar runs on a 12-year cycle, with one animal assigned to each year of the zodiac. January 25, 2020, marks the beginning of the Year of the Rat, which is the first animal in the zodiac. It is followed by the others in this order: ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Similar zodiacs are used in other Asian countries.

According to Chinese mythology, in order to determine the order of the animals in the zodiac, the ancient Jade Emperor decreed a great race, which included a river crossing. The legend says that the cunning rat convinced the strong ox to give it a ride across the river. As they neared the river's far side, the rat jumped off the ox and scrambled ahead to victory. In contrast, the dog (who had stopped to play) and the pig (who had stopped to eat and sleep) finished at the end.

Fiji 2020 Gilt Silver $10 Year of the Rat and Macau 2017 Silver 20 Patacas
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Beautiful coins celebrating the Chinese zodiac are minted by a number of countries in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and materials. In fact, some of the largest coins in the world have been struck in the zodiac format using 10 kilograms of gold!

Australia 2016 10 Kilogram Gold $30,000 and China 2019 10 Kilogram Gold 100,000 Yuan. NGC certified these massive coins from the C.S. Wong Collection.
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Hong Kong, China (then under British rule) produced a series of gold zodiac coins beginning with the dragon in 1976. The People’s Republic of China began minting lunar commemoratives in 1981 with the Year of the Rooster, featuring Silver 30 Yuan and Gold 250 Yuan versions. Since then, the variety and artistry of China’s lunar coins have increased dramatically.

With the 2020 Year of the Rat designs, China is wrapping up a 12-year cycle of two distinct commemorative designs that began with the 2009 Year of the Ox. One series shows a realistic depiction of the animal, juxtaposed with an energetic illustration of the animal’s head. The other series shows a colorized version of a traditional folk art design against an auspicious flowery background.

Read on to see some of China’s most recent coins for each zodiac animal, and learn more about the years and qualities that correspond with these animals.

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Sign: Rat
Years: 2020, 2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948
Qualities: Quick-witted and crafty
Coins shown: China Scallop Silver 10 Yuan and 2020 Colorized Gold 50 Yuan

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Sign: Ox
Years: 2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, 1949, 1937
Qualities: Determined and loyal
Coins shown: China 2009 Scallop Silver 10 Yuan and Colorized Gold 50 Yuan

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Sign: Tiger
Years: 2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950, 1938
Qualities: Confident and adventurous
Coins shown: China 2010 Scallop Silver 10 Yuan and Colorized Gold 50 Yuan

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Sign: Rabbit
Years: 2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939
Qualities: Responsible and kind
Coins shown: China 2011 Scallop Silver 10 Yuan and Colorized Gold 50 Yuan

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Sign: Dragon
Years: 2012, 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952, 1940
Qualities: Intelligent and passionate
Coins shown: China 2012 Scallop Silver 10 Yuan and Colorized Gold 50 Yuan

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Sign: Snake
Years: 2013, 2001, 1989, 1977, 1965, 1953, 1941
Qualities: Wise and enigmatic
Coins shown: China 2013 Scallop Silver 10 Yuan and Colorized Gold 50 Yuan

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Sign: Horse
Years: 2014, 2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954, 1942
Qualities: Energetic and honest
Coins shown: China 2014 Scallop Silver 10 Yuan and Colorized Gold 50 Yuan

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Sign: Goat
Years: 2015, 2003, 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955, 1943
Qualities: Sympathetic and charming
Coins shown: China 2015 Scallop Silver 10 Yuan and Colorized Gold 50 Yuan

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Sign: Monkey
Years: 2016, 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944
Qualities: Curious and popular
Coins shown: China 2016 Scallop Silver 10 Yuan and Colorized Gold 50 Yuan

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Sign: Rooster
Years: 2017, 2005, 1993, 1981, 1969, 1957, 1945
Qualities: Courageous and talented
Coins shown: China 2017 Scallop Silver 10 Yuan and Colorized Gold 50 Yuan

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Sign: Dog
Years: 2018, 2006, 1994, 1982, 1970, 1958, 1946
Qualities: Protective and prudent
Coins shown: China 2018 Scallop Silver 10 Yuan and Colorized Gold 50 Yuan

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Sign: Pig
Years: 2019, 2007, 1995, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947
Qualities: Thoughtful and diligent
Coins shown: China 2019 Scallop Silver 10 Yuan and Colorized Gold 50 Yuan

One of the rarest modern Chinese coins is the Completion of Lunar Cycle Gold 2000 Yuan, which was struck with 1 kilogram of gold and issued in 1992. The coin gathered together the designs of the first 12 Chinese lunar coins, dating back to the inaugural rooster in 1981.

China 1992 1 Kilogram Gold 2,000 Yuan Completion of Lunar Cycle, graded NGC PF 68 Ultra Cameo. Realized $360,000 in August 2018.
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You can explore population figures for lunar coins in the NGC Census and learn more about NGC’s lunar label options here. In addition, the gallery for the incredible Hercules Collection of Modern Chinese Coins contains images of more than 2,000 coins, including hundreds of lunar coins.


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