By Jay Turner for PCGS ……
The story of numismatics in China is a protracted and complex subject with a depth of millennia.
For the machine-struck coinage of China, however, the history is much shorter. Yet it is still complex and can’t be properly told without imparting a basic understanding of global trade and commerce within China.
Since the Ming dynasty, silver had flowed into the country in the forms of Spanish Colonial coinage, which became the basic trade unit across the globe due to the consistent standard of weight and purity. With the independence of the Spanish Colonies across the Americas, a new and vast array of coins and designs started to flow into China. This became even more complex with several countries making their own trade coinage to import and spend in China. For China, a need and desire for a domestically produced and controlled system of coinage became essential.
The first modern mint was authorized in 1887 in the province of Kwangtung (Guangdong). The Kwangtung Mint was built with expertise from the British Heaton and Sons mint (Birmingham Mint) at a cost of $1 million USD. When the mint opened in 1889, it was a fully modern facility–the largest in the world–with eventually 90 coining presses able to operate at once. This mint would begin producing domestic Chinese coinage to replace foreign circulating coins. Soon, numerous other mints would be established across different Chinese provinces producing their own coinage, but that is a story for another day.
For the Chinese monetary system, the Spanish Colonial dollar had been the most desired circulating coin because of the established value of 0.73 kuping taels. By the 1850s the Carolus Portrait dollar supply had dried up and other foreign silver, which was brought by traders, was often discounted for exchange. The Chinese system that used taels (liang), mace (chien), and candareen (fen) were used as the weight and denominations of the first machine-struck coins by the Kwangtung Mint. The system was one tael equaled 10 mace, one mace was equal to 10 candareens, and one candareen was equal to 10 cash.
The first coins from 1889 were made by dies produced at the Heaton Mint in England. The design showcases a design of “光寶元緒” or Emperor Guangxu in Chinese and Manchu characters. The province “KWANGTUNG PROVINCE” and the denomination were inscribed in English. The reverse side features a dragon design with the Chinese characters 造省東廣 or “KWANGTUNG PROVINCE” and the denomination below the dragon also inscribed in Chinese. To ensure the acceptance of such coins, the weight was that of seven mace and three candareens for the dollar, three mace and 6.5 Candareens for 50 cents, one mace and 4-3/5 candareens for 20 cents, 7-3/10 candareens for 10 cents, and 3.65 candareens for five cents. The complication behind this arrangement was that these coins were heavier than the circulation counterparts of Mexican coinage. The public seeing the arbitrage quickly removed these coins from circulation and melted them for their higher silver value.
The mint, quickly realizing their mistake, reissued the coins with a reduction in weight, moving the dollar to seven mace two candareens, the 50-cent piece to three mace six candareens, 20 cents to one mace and 4.4 candareens, the 10 cent to 7.2 candareens, and the five cent to 3.6 candareens. While this rectified the problem of weight, the issue with design was one that now caused a problem. The design, which put the English lettering on the obverse and the Chinese characters on the reverse, was unwelcomed by the powers in Peking (Beijing). These coins, now with the corrected denomination, were also removed from circulation – now by the government – and melted for the next issues that began in 1890.
Both of the issues were made in Specimen or special presentation finishes by the Heaton Mint and as circulation issues in the mint in Kwangtung. Today, all issues of the 1889 Kwangtung Mint silver coins are rare and highly desired. As such, they have become a frequent target of counterfeiters. A problem-free example of a dollar or 50-cent coin certified by PCGS can easily exceed $100,000 USD. An example of a PCGS VG Details scratched 10 cents with the 7.2 Candareens denomination recently brought over $3,200 in an auction. These prices show the scarcity and demand for such coins today.
The Kwangtung Mint coinage went on to successfully add domestic coinage to circulation and replacing the foreign currency influence and dominance. Yet, the first silver coin issues of the Kwangtung Mint show that of a coinage developing for China made by China.
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