Chinese Coins: Dream of the Red Mansion

Posted on 5/12/2020

Chinese commemorative coins and medals depicting characters from Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Mansion.

“Firm as earth and lofty as heaven, passion from time immemorial knows no end;
Pity silly lads and plaintive maids hard put to it to requite debts of breeze and moonlight.;
“Well, well,” thought Baoyu, “I wonder what’s meant by ‘passion from time immemorial’ and ‘debts of breeze and moonlight.’ From now on I’d like to have a taste of these things.”;
Little did he know that by thinking in this way he had summoned an evil spirit into his inmost heart.”
— From Dream of the Red Mansion, by Cao Xueqin

It’s a funny thing about ideas. In Los Angeles, there are many people who try to write for Hollywood, but precious few succeed. Years ago, I knew a man who, each time our paths crossed, told me about his movie script project. As the years slipped by, I no longer took this seriously. One day, he announced that a studio had bought his story. The movie became popular and his fortune soared. You can never tell.

Cao Xueqin could not have seemed like a man who was about to write something important. Born around 1715 into luxury, he fell onto the hardest of times when his family became targets of a new emperor. He spent most of his teen years living in the streets of Beijing. His one decent job as a tutor ended over an affair with a servant.

And yet, for all his misfortune, he eventually found a refuge — a spartan cottage on the outskirts of the city. Arranged by a family friend, it was more distant from the central city than even the Summer Palace. “The reminders of my poverty are all around me,” he recorded. In this semi-seclusion, Cao Xueqin could ponder past and future, and it was here that an idea arose.

Some authors spin stories of exciting adventures. Others find gripping drama beneath the surface of a quiet day. Cao Xueqin’s idea was to weave a tapestry from the strands of Qing Dynasty daily life. He set out to describe everything from customs and social status to matters of the spirit — with detours to farcical events like a classroom brawl and occasional ribaldry.

With his own past as a source, the author conjured up a panorama so broad it reaches from social formalities to its characters’ deepest hopes and dreams. Not only the high and mighty, but a servant, a poor relation scrounging for a scrap, a plotting concubine or a Taoist priest traveling with a Buddhist monk all have their tales to share. The flight of each butterfly has its effect.

The writer dedicates all this to the women he knew, “In this busy, dusty world, having accomplished nothing ... it dawned on me that all of them surpassed me in behavior and understanding ... I must not let all the lovely girls I have known pass into oblivion without a memorial.”

There are so many interlocking pieces to the plot that barely any aspect of life is ignored. There is magic and the supernatural at work, too. For instance, when the main character Baoyu hovers near death due to an evil spell, a Taoist priest and Buddhist monk appear from nowhere, use his jade birth stone to save him and then leave without a trace.

The book title itself, Dream of the Red Mansion (which has been translated into English in various ways, including Dream of the Red Chamber), is the name for a dozen fairy songs. Jia Baoyu, a barely teenage boy who was born with a mystical piece of jade in his mouth, hears them in a dream. It passes over his head that these songs presage the fate of all those he cares about. His guide, the Goddess of Disenchantment laments, “Silly boy, you still don’t understand.”

Baoyu, who must represent Cao Xueqin himself in some ways, is the sensitive, mismatched son of a fiercely demanding father. The boy is gifted in the arts, but uninterested in the scholarship that his family and Qing Dynasty society prizes — like a bookworm whose dad is determined to raise a star athlete. Mostly, Baoyu prefers to socialize with girls. Neither father, nor son will ever be satisfied with each other.

His favorite companion is witty, beautiful, sensitive Lin Daiyu who balances brilliance with moodiness. The blossoming of her relationship with Baoyu, children who grew up side-by-side, is the axis the novel revolves around. Their story captures all the excruciating awkwardness of adolescence. Who does not know this pain? “’In fact, to start with their two hearts were one, but each of them was so hyper-sensitive that their longing to be close ended in estrangement.”

“Now Baoyu was telling himself, ‘Nothing else matters to me so long as you’re happy. Then I’d gladly die for you this very instant. Whether you know this or not, you can at least feel that in my heart you’re close to me and not distant.’”

“Daiyu meanwhile was thinking, ‘Just take good care of yourself. When you’re happy, I’m happy too. Why should you be upset because of me? You should know that if you’re upset, so am I. It means you won’t let me be close to you and want me to keep at a distance.’”

“So their mutual concern for each other resulted in their estrangement.”

In all, the book introduces more than 400 individuals whose lives and fortunes cross. Images of some of the more important personalities can be found on a series of coins that China released in 2000, 2002 and 2003. The gold and 1 oz. silver coins are of octagonal shape. The 5 oz. silver coins are shaped like fans. The 2000 set contains a 50 Yuan ½ oz. .999 gold coin that portrays Jia Baoyu. 8,000 of these were minted and 111 are graded PF 70 by NGC. There are also four 1 oz. .999 silver coins.

Numismatic representations of five out of the “Twelve Beauties of Jianling” from the novel Dream of the Red Mansion.
Clockwise from upper left: the silver 2003 10 Yuan coin of Jia Qiaojie spinning, the silver 2003 10 Yuan coin of Miaoyu having tea, the silver 2003 10 Yuan coin of Shi Xiangyun strolling in the garden and the 2003 10 Yuan silver coin of Qin Keqing adding makeup.
Center: the silver 2002 10 Yuan of Xue Baochai chasing a butterfly.
The background shows a path in the Grand View Garden (Daguanyuan) in Beijing that is based upon descriptions in the book.

One shows Li Wan teaching her son. Another represents Jia Tanchun. She is Jia Baoyu’s younger half-sister, a child by his father’s concubine Zhao. Zhao herself hotly resents the privileges that Baoyu receives ahead of her own children. Tanchun is quite capable and talented, unlike her sister Yingchun who appears on the third silver coin.

The fourth coin features dainty Daiyu. 31,000 of each 1 oz. silvers were minted by PAMP in Switzerland to make use of the company’s color printing methods. Finally, the 5 oz. silver shows Baoyu and Daiyu reading a book together. 11,800 were struck. The designs on all these coins are the work of Chen Dandan.

“’No wonder they compare you to Lady Yang, you’re both ‘plump and sensitive to the heat.’ Baochai was so enraged by this remark that she could have flown into a temper, but she restrained herself.” Daiyu and Baoyu are only two corners of a love triangle. The third is Xue Baochai, who possesses the self-composure that Daiyu lacks. The family decides that she is the best match for marriage with Baoyu. Baochai’s image appears on an octagonal 1 oz. silver coin that is part of the 2002 Dream of the Red Mansion set. NGC has graded only 17 as PF 70. This coin was designed by Han Zhen Gang. He also designed the year’s fan-shaped 5 oz. coin that depicts a banquet.

The other 2002 coins were collectively created by Zhao Guojing, Wang Meifang and Bai Limei. The 1 oz. silver coins represent three major characters. One is Wang Xifeng, the beautiful, capable and hard-headed wife of Jia Lian who administrates the vast household. She is part of the family by both marriage and ancestry. Her forceful personality stands out in Chinese literature of this period. When her husband must travel she instructs a servant, “Mind you look after your master properly outside and don’t make him angry. Try to keep him from drinking too much, and don’t pander to him by finding him loose women—if you do, I’ll break your legs when you get back.”

The second figure on a 1 oz. silver coin is Jia Yuanchun, Baoyu’s older sister who is an imperial consort and lives apart from the family in the Forbidden City. The third is Jia Xichun, a gifted painter and devout Buddhist. She ultimately retires as a nun.

The 2002 gold 200 Yuan coin shows Shi Xiangyun, the open-hearted and fun-loving younger second cousin of Baochai. She enjoys drinking and joking around, but after her husband dies she goes into seclusion. 95 of this issue are NGC-graded PF 70s.

The 2002 coins were again struck by PAMP and the mintages are the same as in 2000: 8,000 for the 50 Yuan gold, 31,000 each of the 1 oz. silver and 11,800 for the 5 oz. silver.

In 2003, the final six Dream of the Red Mansion coins were released. Daiyu is the subject on the gold 200 Yuan coin. This coin and the 5 oz. silver are once again the design work of Han Zhen Gang. Likewise, Zhao Guojing, Wang Meifang and Bai Limei collaborated on the other designs.

Daiyu is one of the main characters, as well as one of the twelve beauties, in Dream of the Red Mansion.
She is depicted on this 2003 gold 200 Yuan coin winning a poetry competition.
Behind her is the Emerald pavilion in Daguanyuan park in Beijing.

The ill-fated Qin Keqing is the subject of a 1 oz. silver coin. This character takes her leave of Dream of the Red Mansion in startling fashion; after a serious illness she appears to Xifeng in a dream, no longer sick, but vibrant and well with this message, ““Whatever happens don’t forget the proverb, ‘Even the grandest feast must have an end.’ Take thought for the future before it is too late.”

“’What marvelous thing is going to happen?’ asked Xifeng.”

“Heaven’s secrets mustn’t be divulged. But because of the love between us let me give you some parting advice...

After the three months of the spring, all flowers will fade

And each will have to find his own way out.”

“Before Xifeng could ask more she was woken with a start by four blows on the chime-bar at the second gate.

And a servant announced, “Madam Jia Rong of the East Mansion has passed away.”

Four bells — four, the number for death. The extraordinary, opulent funeral for Xifeng that followed must have lingered in the imaginations of many Qing Dynasty readers.

The other three 2003 silver 1 oz. coins also portray women. Shi Xiangyun appears again; Jia Qiaojie, a child throughout the novel, has a coin; and the third features Miaoyu, a young, unsocial and haughty but also stunningly beautiful Buddhist nun who meets an uncertain fate.

The 5 oz. silver 50 Yuan fan depicts a birthday party for the Lady Dowager, who rules the family.

Just like the 2000 and 2002 coins, the 2003 “Dream of the Red Mansion” coins were struck by PAMP with identical mintages to the previous years: 8,000 for the 200 Yuan gold, 31,000 each of the 1 oz. 10 Yuan silver and 11,800 for the 5 oz. 50 Yuan silver. In NGC PF 70, there are 9 of the 200 Yuan gold and 6 of the 50 Yuan silver.

In the end, as Qin Keqing predicted, the fortunes of the noble house dim. Lin Daiyu dies of a broken heart as Jia Baoyu is tricked by his family into marrying Xue Baochai. Baoyu can never forget his lost love and ultimately vanishes from this world, just as Cao Xueqin did after writing this book.

Two centuries after Dream of the Red Mansion's publication, we are left with China’s greatest novel and a mystery (not to mention some outstanding coins and medals). How, despite everything, did Cao Xueqin produce this masterpiece?

“You can know a man’s face but not his heart,” Xifeng muses. Pushed to his limit, Cao Xueqin shows us his heart.

A teacher once told me that when a tree is dying, it will bloom magnificently one last time before it goes. Dream of the Red Mansion is the final bloom of genius that still glows today with passion from time immemorial.

Translations of Dream of the 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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