This set of Chinese fantasy dollar is as famous as it is mysterious; in Chinese it is known as 光绪大婚纪念章, Guang Xu’s Grand Wedding commemorative medals. Mine came in the original box, along with a 1963 receipt and catalog from a Shanghai antique shop. These medals were definitely either intended as a wedding gift or commemoration: the dragon and phoenix, symbol of the union of the male and female principles, surrounded by the auspicious eight “double happiness” characters (八喜) are unmistakably characteristic. Every other fact about this set is however shrouded in mystery.
Both medals can be found in Colin R. Bruce’s Unusual World Coins standard catalog with references M119 (dragon) and M197 (phoenix). Most fantasy dollars are undated, but fortunately those are: 光绪乙酉年, or 1885. These medals are also exceptionaly well struck, with reeded edge and cartwheel luster usually typical of the products issued by a State mint.
In English-language catalogs, the coins are said to depict “Empress Yun Lu” and either Emperor Dao Guang or Guang Xu. The obverse of the dragon medal does indeed bear the effigy of a Qing dynasty nobility, and it is generally assumed to be an Emperor by both Chinese and English numismatists alike, but this portrait was eerily reminescent of a late Qing Era banknote to me (see below).
Comparing the note and the coin leads to a puzzling conclusion: the obverse of this fantasy coin is actually a faithful reproduction of the official portrait of Regent Prince Zai Feng ! Since this banknote was issued in 1911, the set of medals can not possibly have been made in 1885, but only after the fall of the Qing dynasty. This supports the rumor mentionned in Bruce’s catalog that the set was actually minted in Shanghai during the 1940′s.
The identity of the woman depicted on the obverse of the phoenix medal is even more mysterious. English catalogs call her “Empress Yun Lu”, despite the fact there was no Empress or Consort named Yun Lu during the late Qing dinasty.
The closest match may be Empress Long Yu, which was chosen by Empress Dowager Cixi as the wife of Guang Xu in 1888. This is a major inconsistency if those 1885 dated medals actually do commemorate the Grand Wedding of Emperor Guang Xu.
Meanwhile, most Chinese collectors assume this noble woman is actually Empress Cixi, which is not very consistent with that hypothesis either.
With so many inconsistencies, it is likely both narratives are wrong. I would like to propose a new hypothesis as to the nature of this mysterious set. The male figure depicted on these coins can be identified as Prince Zai Feng without ambiguity; assuming that the mint did not confuse his portrait with the one of Guang Xu, this is a very interesting clue. I first thought this set could have been made for Prince Zai Feng second marriage with Lady Dengiya in the 1920′s. However Lady Dengiya does not resemble the portrait on the obverse of the Phoenix medal. Issuing medals bearing his image for his own wedding also does not fit with the character of Prince Zai Feng, who did not like power and its pomp.
To further invalidate this thesis, the five-clawed dragon on the reverse — appanage of the Emperor — would also be unsuitable for a Prince.
There was however another person who could legitimately use the five-clawed dragon symbol, loved Court sumptuosity, could have access to a State mint and had a special relationship with both Prince Zai Feng and Empress Dowager Cixi: the Last Emperor, Pu Yi.
Kann erroneously assumed that the 1923 Dragon and Phoenix dollar commemorated the Grand Wedding of Emperor Pu Yi, due to the connotations of the Dragon and Phoenix theme. It was actually an early coat of arms of the Republic of China, which was quickly forsaken for its similarity with traditional Imperial imagery. Please note however that the dragon on the 1923 dollar below have only four claws. Could Kann have heard of commemorative coins issued for Pu Yi’s wedding and simply reached a hasty conclusion?
Prince Zai Feng was Emperor Pu Yi’s father, and it was Empress Dowager Cixi who chose Pu Yi as Emperor Xuan Tong in 1908. He would therefore have had excellent reasons to honour them both on commemoratives medals offered as gifts to the prestigious guests attending his lavish wedding on December 1st, 1922. This hypothesis would conveniently explain the purpose of this set, the use of the Imperial Dragon pattern, and the choice of the portraits depicted on the obverse. The only missing detail would then be the date inscribed on the coins, 1885. Maybe a kind and erudite reader could contribute their idea about the signification of this date?
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 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)
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 Almond-eyed Dragon (过渡眼三角眼)
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)
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)
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!
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“.
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.
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!