By Ron Drzewucki – Modern Coin Wholesale ….
It’s said that every coin tells a story. Boy, do I have one straight out of Mysteries of the Unknown, and it involves warloard Zhou Xicheng and his car.
In 1928, the warlord of Kweichow province, Zhou Xicheng, minted a coin to commemorate the completion of the Kweichow Provincial Highway, the first road in the province.
Kweichow (modern-day Guizhou, 贵州) is a landlocked, mountainous region in southern China. Even today, with an international airport in Guìyáng (贵阳) and a fairly modernized infrastructure, the roads in the more rural and remote areas can be in poor condition or nonexistent (which, I understand, is pretty much the case all over China).
Now imagine the situation in the 1920s.
The Qing Dynasty from Manchuria had ruled China for almost three centuries. By the beginning of the 20th century, Western imperialism and ethnic unrest had generated massive political instability and outright rebellion. Over time, various warlords and political movements managed to wrest control of large portions of China from Beijing.
So in 1928, the current ruler of Kweichow province was Zhou Xicheng.
And like so many other dictators and petty tyrants in history, Zhou lived the high life while the people suffered. In a province without modern roads–in a country without modern roads–Zhou Xicheng owned a luxury automobile imported from the United States. It had been shipped to China, disassembled, carried on foot over the mountains to Kweichow, and reassembled.
Now that he had his car (the only car in the province), Zhou wanted to be able to drive it around. And like so many other dictators and petty tyrants in history, the machinery of state immediately went to work satisfying the warlord’s latest whim.
At least that’s what the most popular version of the story says; historical records indicate that the road was actually part of an international famine relief operation, managed by an American engineer.
Still, he had the car before the road existed, and the road (once it was built) didn’t really go anywhere, so if storytellers take poetic license that emphasizes the generalissimo’s hubris, then the moral is still the same.
After the road was completed, Zhou wanted to commemorate the event with a silver crown- or dollar-type coin. And, yet again, like so many other dictators and petty tyrants in history, Zhou wanted his picture on it.
Not just that – he wanted his car on it, too.
In a way, it’s understandable. We take cars and good roads for granted. Why wouldn’t you commemorate the introduction of one and the construction of the other?
But Zhou’s advisors didn’t see it that way.
They told him that if he put himself on the coin that he would die. Naturally, like so many other dictators and petty tyrants in history, he didn’t listen, but eventually Zhou relented and didn’t put his portrait on the coin.
The car, however, stayed.
At some point before the coins were minted, Zhou decided he wanted to be on the coin after all, but instead of his image he hid his name in the grass under the car. If you tilt the coin 90° to the right so that the car looks like it’s going to take off like a rocket, the seemingly random patterns in the grass suddenly resemble Chinese characters.
Anyway, fast forward a year. Zhou Xicheng has made a name for himself building roads in Kweichow province (a good name, too, so the road building program / famine relief must’ve been working).
The warlord is driving his car, leading his troops on a march along the province’s first road. Then either he speeds ahead or the troops can’t keep up because they’re on foot, but whatever the case Zhou ends up separated from his soldiers.
Which is a bad thing for a leader during a civil war.
Well, the inevitable happens. Zhou is ambushed by rebel troops loyal to another warlord in a different province. He abandons his car and attempts to flee, but it doesn’t matter. Like so many other dictators and petty tyrants in history, Zhou Xicheng met an inglorious end at the hands of assassins, left to die by the side of the road he helped build.
Was it the coin? Were his advisors right? Did the mere act of putting his name on it seal his fate?
Or were his advisors simply going by Confucian principles of effective leadership?
Did they sell him out to his enemies?
Who can say?
All I know is that the 1928 Kweichow silver “auto dollar” tells quite a story. Zhou’s automobile takes center stage on the obverse, with “grass” by the side of the road. It looks like a Packard touring car to me, which is likely since the U.S. import originally came from Canton, Ohio.
(In a marvelous coincidence, the Ohio city was named for Canton–now Guangzhou (广州)–in China.)
The reverse has a poppy flower in the middle (was opium an important source of revenue for the warlord?), with a cross formed by the Chinese characters for Kweichow (vertical, from top to bottom) and “silver coin” (horizontal, right to left I’m assuming). Around the top of the reverse are the words “Chinese Republic 17th Year” (1928 was the 17th year after the Republic was founded). Around the bottom is the inscription “One Yuan”, the yuan being the main unit of Chinese currency.
Apparently the coin was collectible as soon as it was produced, so there is a high survival rate for the issue. Almost all of them entered circulation, but a literal handful of uncirculated examples command quite the premium.
This coin was the first in world history to depict an automobile, and is arguably the most famous Chinese commemorative coin of the 20th century.
According to Krause’s Standard Catalog of World Coins: 1901-2000, 648,000 pieces were minted in Kweichow, a feat which has mystified numismatists for decades because no mint is known to have existed in the province at that time. Most probably the coins were produced using minting equipment stolen from neighboring Chungking during a raid by Zhou’s troops.
One wonders: did such a scenario invite deadly retribution?
中国, 中國, 市, 广州, 广州市, 贵州, 贵阳, 贵阳市, 重庆
Certified Chinese Dollars Currently Available on eBay