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”.
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!
In Chinese culture, a bat is seen as an auspicious symbol, since 蝠 (Fú), bat in Chinese, is pronounced exactly like 福: good fortune. Five bats are thus the symbol of the Five Good Fortunes of traditional China: Love, Health, Longevity, Virtue and Wealth – and therefore an even more auspicious symbol! If you were somehow doubtful of this interpretation, which after all rely on a pun, the two Chinese characters surrounded by the cloud of bats (Ngũ bức) are actually 五福: the aforementioned Five Good Fortunes (Ngũ phúc).
Let’s not stop there, though. This kind of holed coins was sometimes called 眼钱 in China, literaly “coin with an eye[hole]“. This coin could therefore be rightly described as 蝠在眼钱: bats on a holed coin. This sounds exactly like a Chinese saying, 福在眼前, Fú zai yǎn qián: happiness lies before your eyes. The pun naturally works in Vietnamese as well: Phúc tại nhãn tiền!