A reader from Germany contacted me recently about an enigmatic coin he bought on the flea market for 5 Euros. While not a coin collector, he loves curiosities and was profundly intrigued by this unusual Dragon Dollar

 

A lucky dollar!

A lucky dollar!

… a beautiful Almond Eyed Dragon from the Peiyang Arsenal mint, one of the rarest variety of an already scarce type. It was obviously handled with great care; the dragon had kept all its scales, his fierce eyes still as piercing as a hundred years ago, when it first went out of the Peiyang Arsenal.

Without the mounting marks at 4 and 8 o’clock, this coin would be worth at least 4,000 Euros!

The design of the early Peiyang dragons is interesting as it is very strictly conforming to the traditional nine anatomical attributes of the Chinese Dragon:

  • Deer horns
  • Camel head
  • Demon eyes
  • Bull ears
  • Snake neck
  • Sea-serpent (蜃) belly
  • Carp scales
  • Eagle claws
  • Tiger soles

Additionally, the Chinese dragon has a growth on his forehead, the Chĭ Mù (尺木), without which it is unable to ascend to the sky (龙无尺木,无以升天).

The depiction of the dragon on the coins issued in the 23rd year of Guāng Xù has been altered multiple times, with most changes related to the dragon’s eyes – probably due to the difficulty in finding a Demon to pose and capture its gaze…

The Evil-eyed Dragon (三角眼)

Evil-eyed Dragon Dollar

Evil-eyed Dragon Dollar

The dragon engraved on this first variety has evil, sightless “Triangle Eyes“, not unlike the 1896 test piece. It had most likely a high mintage, since it is only slightly scarcer than the most common variety for this year, the Beady Eyed Dragon, but it is hard to find in good condition nonetheless. Most of the surviving coins are worn out and damaged. There exists two additional variations of the “Evil Eyed Dragon”, both extremely rare:

The Hidden Cross (异形龙尾上十字)

The Hidden Cross (异形龙尾上十字)

The Hidden Rose (异形龙尾上花)

The Hidden Rose (异形龙尾上花)

The “Hidden Cross” and “Hidden Rose” die variations. In both varieties, a mysterious mark was added above the tip of the coiled tail.

The Almond-eyed Dragon (过渡眼三角眼)

Almond-eyed Dragon Dollar

Almond-eyed Dragon Dollar

This beautiful die variation can seem superficially very similar to the Evil Eyed Dragon, with only the addition of irides to the previously blind triangle eyes. However, by looking carefully, one can see clearly that this variety is not a mere modification of the original “Evil Eyed Dragon” but a whole revision of the initial pattern. The shape of the clouds surrounding the dragon is different, more intricate. The thigh of the dragon is now shorter. Five dots disposed in a cross pattern were also added to the pearl of wisdom. This type is only second in rarity to the mysterious Hidden Cross and Hidden Rose varieties.

The Beady-eyed Dragon (圆眼龙)

Beady-eyed Dragon Dollar

Beady-eyed Dragon Dollar


The Beady Eyed Dragon (which is the most common variant of the 1897 Peiyang dollar) has rounded eyes, contrary to the all the previous dies made that year. Like the Almond Eyed Dragon, it is a complete redesign, with the surrounding clouds and the shape of the eyes being modified. The change from a triangular to a rounded shape will persist in all the subsequent issues of the Peiyang mint.

The Dog-headed Dragon (狗头龙)

Dog-headed Dragon Dollar

Dog-headed Dragon Dollar


This very rare type is the last one minted in the 23rd year of Kwang Hsü. The dragon’s head has been completely redesigned, with short horns and a much bigger Chĭ Mù (尺木) on his forehead. The shape and style of the clouds has also been refined. This coin likely served as the prototype for the 24th year of Guāng Xù dollar, which keeps most of the new cloud details and the same Dragon face, although engraved in a crude fashion. The very striking difference in style makes me wonder if the Dog Headed Dragon dies could have been commissioned from another mint, but there is no conclusive evidence to support this theory.


All these dragon dollars are hard to find nowadays, due to the initial unpopularity of these coins: they were the first Chinese coinage denominated in Yuan (圆) and Jiao (角), while the whole country was still using the traditional monetary system based on weight. Their rejection caused most of them to be melted in order to mint new coins denominated in Mace and Candareens.

Congratulations to our German reader for making such a wonderful Snäppchen!

Yuan Shih Kai dollar with plain edge

Yuan Shih Kai dollar with plain edge

The plain edge of this “Fatman dollar” is not the result of circulation wear. Despite being called 光边 in Chinese, literally “bald edge”, it has not been shaved either. The usual reeding was simply never fully impressed onto the coin blank. If you look carefully indeed, you will notice a thin reeded part up to 6 o’clock. This Yuan Shih Kai dollar has actually suffered a random minting error called “broadstrike“.

Broadstrike: Yuan Shih Kai dollar (reverse)

Broadstrike: Yuan Shih Kai dollar (reverse)


Modern coins are machine struck. A blank is automatically placed above the lower die (or anvil die), fixed to the bed of the machine. The collar die is then brought up so as to encircle the blank, as the upper die (hammer die) is brought down with tremendous pressure. This cause the soft metal to flow like a viscous solid: prevented from escaping on the sides by the collar, it effectively gets imprinted by filling the engraving of the dies. If the collar was crenated, the edge of the coin will thus be reeded. This mechanical process was repeated about one hundred times per minute by the coining presses available at the time, and failures would inevitably happen sometimes. Broadstrike is caused by a particular problem: the collar die which is supposed to raise and surround the blank may get stuck due to some accumulation of debris or grease. If that happens, the metal unconstrained by the collar expands and increases in diameter during the strike. This results in a coin with all its design elements present, but an expanded shape: a broadstrike.


In the case of this “Fatman dollar“, we can deduce from the very thin reeding that the collar was partially engaged. The side with no reeding, completely unrestrained by the collar die, expanded the most. This type of coins is referred to as uncentered broadstrikes. This kind of error provides informations about the minting process. The traces left by the collar being on the reverse part of the edge means that the Yuan Shi Kai portrait was engraved on the hammer die.


Broadstrike: Yuan Shih Kai dollar (obverse)

Broadstrike: Yuan Shih Kai dollar (obverse)


Such misshapen coins are the result of random errors, but are accounted for by the mint. They are systematically destroyed when found during counting and packing the coins for dispatch. Very few of these coins indeed manage to slip through the combined vigilance of counting machines and human assayers to end up circulating. Even then, due to their suspicious appearance, they often are the first to get melted down for their precious metal content. It is therefore very rare for these unloved coins to reach the hand of a caring collector!

Minh Mạng thông bảo - 7 tiền (1834)

Minh Mạng thông bảo - 7 tiền (1834)

This large silver coin could be a riddle even for Chinese readers. The reverse is similar to traditional Chinese coins – the name of the ruling Emperor, here “明命” (Míng Mìng in mandarin) and the characters 通寶 (coin of the realm). The obverse depicting the classical imperial flying dragon motif is also reminiscent of Chinese coinage, but its style and execution is unusual. Finally there is a date: 十五, 15th year of this Emperor era… It all looks all so very familiar, but there never was a “Ming Ming” emperor in China. Indeed, this coin is actually an early Vietnamese coin, issued in 1834, the 15th year of the rule of Emperor Minh Mạng!

Modern Vietnamese language is written using the latin alphabet, sprinkled with a lot of interesting diacritics, but this was not always the case. During their long history, Vietnam and China weaved a complex relationship together. For one millenium Vietnam was actually a Chinese vassal state, and this left a profound imprint on Vietnamese culture. China brought the Confucian society structure and Chinese characters to Vietnam, where they continued to evolve independently way after Chinese influence in the region had waned. This shared cultural background is the reason why this coin looks so familiar to the Chinese coin collector, in an uncanny way.

This “Minh Mạng thông bảo” coin has a face value of 7 tiền. The “tiền” unit is roughly similar to the Chinese 钱 (qián) unit we are accustomed to, and this silver coin weighs unsurprisingly about 27 grams. Its diameter is also comparable to Chinese dragon dollars at 40mm, but it actually predates them from half a century! The first Western-style dollar coins of the Asian continent were indeed actually made in Vietnam in 1832. Emperor Minh Mạng, despite the disdain he showed for European culture, had some interest for their technology and weaponry, which he sometimes imported in the otherwise very conservative Vietnamese society. These dollar coins are probably the result of one such experiment.

Vietnamese dollars were not struck – the Palace lacking a modern mint – but cast like traditional cash coins. The fine details and sharpness of their surfaces despite being made with such a crude process is a testament to the care and mastery with which they were produced. Due to the casting process a lot of varieties exist, but these coins are rare, moreover in good condition and with sharp details. The coin pictured above is the most common variety for the year 1834, the stylized flames around the fireball in the dragon’s claws having two “forks”. A scarcer variety for the same year only has one of such “forks”.

Minh Mạng Thông Bảo - 7 tiền single fork variety

Minh Mạng Thông Bảo - 7 tiền single fork variety

These dragon dollars were nicknamed Phi Long, the Vietnamese reading for the Chinese characters 飞龙 (Fēi lóng). While they are very scarce and beautiful, these coins are still cheaper than Chinese coins of similar rarity: a 1834 7 tiền coin in AU grade is worth about $2500 USD at the time of this writing. The price of Vietnamese coins has risen sharply in recent years though, following the growth of the Chinese numismatic market. The shared cultural themes between the two countries makes old Vietnam coins attractive to Vietnamese and Chinese collectors alike. For example, the design of the rare 5 tiền coin shown below, made during the rule of Emperor Tự Đức, is actually a great visual pun with an auspicious meaning!

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