Chinese Coins: When Fiction Is True

Posted on 4/14/2020

“Truth becomes fiction when fiction is true; real becomes unreal when the not-real is real.”

Who turned out the lights? Beijing’s sunshine quickly fades behind me inside a rocky passageway. The path brightens at a little grotto. A stream cascades from above, a dancing veil that splashes into a pool at my feet. Outside is a lake and in its middle, like a crane on spindly legs, a red-columned pavilion stands on stilts. Shaded beneath the wings of its eaves, visitors pass the hot part of the day while ducks paddle by. A wooden walkway connects to the shore. Farther on the lake narrows and lazily flows away under the arch of a footbridge

It’s May, it’s warm and I could stand in the waterfall’s cool mist for hours, but there’s no time. This is a gateway to another world. The water, stone and gardens around me in Daguanyuan Park – “the grand view garden” – are real. You can touch them, you can walk through them, yet it all is based on fiction, the not real turned real. The source is a two and a half centuries-old book Dream of the Red Mansion. It did not see print until 30 years after the author, Cao Xueqin (pronounced Cao as in sour and Shway-chin), died. Incredibly, China has been entranced by this tale ever since.

It is often listed as one of the four great books in Chinese literature. Dream of the Red Mansion has been translated into more than 100 languages and been scrutinized so intensively that even its study has a name, Redology. It is the great Chinese novel. Liang Qichao, a prominent historian and politician, commented a hundred years ago, "People who read Dream of the Red Mansion always feel a lingering attachment to it." Or, as one of my friends gushed, "I am so in love with this book."

"When the tree falls, the monkeys will scatter."

The decisive events that shaped Cao Xueqin’s life really started with his grandfather, Cao Yin. In 1644, the Qing Dynasty achieved full control of China. A decade later a boy, Xuanye, who would be the second to rule this empire, was born. His wet-nurse was Cao Xueqin’s great-grandmother, and her young son, Cao Yin, became the future emperor’s friend and playmate.

At the age of 7, Xuanye inherited the throne and became the Kangxi Emperor. He would hold power for the next 61 years. Cao Yin was a remarkable man in his own right — an expert horseman and a poet, among other talents — and his relationship with the emperor endured. In time, Cao Yin was appointed as the Commissioner of Imperial Textiles in Nanjing. In 1705, the emperor ordered a complete compilation of Ci poetry and put Cao Yin in charge of the project. During the Kangxi Emperor's reign, the Cao clan achieved both wealth and prestige. But Cao Yin understood that success was like an exquisite vase; someday it might shatter. He had a saying: "When the tree falls, the monkeys will scatter."

Cao Yin’s grandson, Cao Xueqin, was born around 1715 into a life of luxury. The family was attended by hundreds of servants. Later in life, he would vividly describe the social life of this strata of society, "It is about this time that the blossom begins to fall; and tradition has it that the flower-spirits, their work now completed, go away on this day and do not return until the following year... Soon every plant and tree was decorated... Moving about in the midst of it all, the girls in their brilliant summer dresses, beside which the most vivid hues of plant and plumage became faint with envy, added the final touch of brightness to a scene of indescribable gaiety and color."

This lifestyle of the Cao family came to a crashing end in 1727. The Kangxi Emperor passed away and was replaced by a son who became known as the Yongzheng Emperor. The new emperor did not favor the Cao family. Troops seized all their worldly possessions and the servants were detained for questioning. The now-penniless family fled Nanjing for Beijing. No doubt stunned by his fall from fortune, 13-year-old Xueqin had to learn to survive on the streets of the capital city.

The young man must have been a pretty fair artist, as he was able to sell his own paintings and calligraphy for money. (In 2017, some of those paintings may, perhaps, have been found.) A natural aptitude for letters allowed Cao Xueqin to earn respect in literary circles despite his rough circumstances. His previous education and familiarity with the manners and customs of the rich allowed him, for a time, to earn money as a tutor to the children of wealthy families. This source of income ended due to a scandal with a female servant.

In fact, in his entire life, Cao Xueqin never succeeded in finding a decent job. He did write a novel, though: Dream of the Red Mansion. It is said that Cao wrote this book in bits and pieces, trading views of the new pages for food and drink. Rumor has it that a group of close family and friends transcribed copies of the work; after Cao’s death in 1763, these became coveted keepsakes. Eighty chapters were penned by him. Later, it was claimed that he left notes for 40 more, and these were part of the first printed books in 1791. They are included in current editions.

Although Cao Xueqin was a painter, he left us no images of himself. Later artists filled this void with their own ideas of his appearance. Numismatic artists, too, have taken up the challenge of representing him. A "portrait" of the writer graces the obverse of a group of six "Dream of the Red Mansion" coins released in 2000. The octagonal 50 Yuan ½ oz. coin was designed at the Shanghai Mint by Zhu Chunde and Li Jefeng. NGC’s Census shows that 308 of these .999 fine gold pieces are graded. 108 are perfect PF 70s.

Commemorative coins and medals that represent Cao Xueqin, author of Dream of the Red Mansion.
From left to right: 2015 Gold 100 Yuan, 1991 Silver 5 Yuan, 1984 Brass Medal, 2000 Silver 10 Yuan.
In the background is Daguanyuan Park in Beijing that is modeled after the descriptions in the book.

The same portrait also appears on the obverse of a quartet of 10 Yuan octagonal .999 silver coins and a 50 Yuan fan-shaped .999 silver coin. The 10 Yuan examples weigh 1 oz. each and were sold as a boxed set. Very few grade PF 70. The 50 Yuan piece weighs 5 oz. Just 127 of these are NGC graded. 45 received a PF 69, the highest grade so far.

Because the reverse side, or face, of all the 2000 "Dream of the Red Mansion" coins is colored, they were struck in Switzerland by PAMP. Many other colored Chinese coins around this time are PAMP products, too. That includes the 1997, 1998 and 1999 colored proof silver Pandas. Although minted in another country, they are still legal tender of the People’s Republic China. 8,800 of the gold, 38,000 each of the 1 oz. silver and 11,800 of the 5 oz. silver "Dream of the Red Mansion" coins dated 2000 were struck. PAMP also minted sets for China that feature the same obverse portrait of Cao Xueqin (but different reverse designs) in 2002 and 2003.

In 2015, another commemorative was minted to honor the author of Dream of the Red Mansion: a round ¼ oz. 100 Yuan .999 gold coin. It marks the 300th anniversary of his birth. 10,000 were struck at the Shanghai Mint. Its artwork is by Bian Lei and the well-known Panda coin designer Yu Min. 141 perfect PF 70s out of 432 total graded lead the NGC Census.

A 1991 5 Yuan silver coin offers yet another representation of the author. It is one part of a boxed set of four outstanding Chinese historical figures. The authorized mintage is 30,000, but the Standard Catalog of Gold & Silver Coins of China places the actual mintage at closer to 20,000. The coin contains 22 grams of 90% silver. 521 are NGC graded and just 31 received a PF 70.

In addition to Cao Xueqin coins, there are medals. One interesting set contains three medals struck at the Shanghai Mint in 1984. All three have the same design, a head and shoulders portrait of the author and were struck from hand-engraved dies. The three types are silver-plated, gilt brass and antiqued brass. The mintage is unknown.

The hot sun has set the Beijing sky in motion and thunder clouds gather overhead. Soon there will be a storm that will drive all the visitors in Daguanyuan Park to shelter. There was no shelter for Cao Xueqin in his lifetime, but his own creative deluge immortalized his world. The Cao Xueqin coins, just like this park in Beijing, are an attempt to bottle a tiny bit of that magic, a little of the soul that Cao Xueqin poured into his writing. Next month, we will discover the numismatic gateway to the place where truth becomes fiction when fiction is true: “Dream of the Red Mansion.”

Translations of “The Dream of Red Mansion” by Gladys Yang.

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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