It’s some time since I visited Beijing’s Ancient Coins Museum… even longer than that that I peered at the coin collection in Beijing’s Capital Museum. But on the basis of leaving the best till last, I have now come to the China Numismatic Museum – the one that anyone with a real interest in currency should head for, eschewing the others.
The China Numismatic Museum (中国钱币博物馆) can be found in Xijiao Minxiang, running off from the west of Tiananmen Square. Housed in two buildings, which were formerly the Commercial Guarantee Bank of China and the Central Bank of China (Peking Branch), it follows the evolution of money production in China over three floors.
There are, apparently, more than 300,000 items in the collection (not just 30, as beijingservice.com would have us believe!), including old coins of different dynasties, gold and silver coins, paper money, coins used by ethnic groups, foreign coins, coin models and currency issued by different political powers in revolutionary times (1937 – 1949). In fact anything that has anything to do with coinage is likely to be found here.
Apart from a central hall, which has an exhibit on the history of the People’s Bank of China, there are also four exhibition galleries, with unique displays such as one which reproduces the process of minting coins …
… and the printing of bank notes.
One nice touch is the provision of sliding magnifying viewers so that you can get close up to some of the rare coins on display.
This museum is not for the faint of heart. You have to be an avid numismatist to get the most from it. Once you have seen your umpteenth old bank note or bao coin, you might be forgiven for getting coin-fatigue.
Nothing is left out, and it is almost like being punched in the face with every single fact you might ever want to know about the currency of China from ancient times to the modern day.
On the second and third floors are two semi-permanent exhibitions covering two main themes: Currency in Ancient Times – the unification of the currency, ancient currency, gold and silver coins, introduction of banks and banknotes; and Modern Currency – now and into the future.
Prior to issuing coins, people in the reaches of the Yellow River and Yangtze River had already adopted seashells and bronze pieces as a medium of exchange. In order to make them more durable, their fragile bodies were coated in either copper or gold.
During the Spring & Autumn Period (770-476BC) the earliest Chinese coins appeared shaped like spades, and they have been mostly discovered in central China. Characters were usually cast on their surface, showing their weight or the names of places.
By the end of the Spring & Autumn Period, knife coins were developed, modelled from something called a Xiao, a bronze tool, used for cutting meat or wood. These coins were mainly found in the Qi, Zhao and Yan states and in northern areas.
By the late period of the Warring States, round coins, similar to a jade disc, were created. They have been mainly found in the middle and western areas of China, as the prevailing coin of the Win State.
And then came a critical moment in Chinese numismatics. Qinshihuang, China's first emperor, not only unified the country, but also ordered the unification of coins by using exclusively the Banliang coin of the Qin State. This round coin with a square hole in its centre became the model for almost all later coins.
The Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) saw a new coin called ‘Kaiyuan Tongbao’, which meant the ‘opening of a new era’; and the names of later currencies all carried the character Bao, meaning treasure.
In 1886 the Central Bank Governor, Zhang Zhidong purchased a complete set of minting machines from Britain. Three years later the new machine-made coins came into circulation. They were made of silver and were called ‘Guangxu Tongbao’, ‘Long Yang’, or ‘Dragon Dollar’.
Fourteen years later, Governor Li Hongzhang started making copper coins, and these were rapidly circulated throughout the country as a substitute for the older style standard coins.
As well as the vast array of coins of all shapes and sizes in this museum, there are also numerous bank notes. The first known banknote was developed in China during the Tang and Song dynasties, starting in the 7th century. Its roots were in merchant receipts of deposit during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), as merchants and wholesalers desired to avoid the heavy bulk of copper coinage in large commercial transactions. During the Yuan Dynasty, banknotes were adopted by the Mongol Empire. (In fact it wasn’t until 1661 that banknotes first appeared in Europe – in Sweden.)
The first savings bank in China – Sin Chun Bank of China – was founded in 1905 with its head office in Shanghai. Of course some of its banknotes are on display here too.
The currency system lasted through the Republic of Dr. Sun Yet-sen, with both silver dollars and paper money circulating.
During the occupation, the Japanese issued military notes in its controlled area of China…
In April 1942 Gold Unit notes, originally used for customs settlements, were circuated; but by 1948 the civil war had caused such strong inflation that the government was forced to launch monetary reform and the silver dollars came back into circulation once again. And then a silver dollar note took its place…
With the founding of the People’s Republic came the issuance of renminbi. The first series lasted until May 1955.
The second series of RMB was issued on March 1st 1955 and withdrawn 44 years later. The third series began on April 15 1962 and withdrawn on July 1st 2000.
The fourth series of RMB was issued from April 27 1987 and some of them are still circulating. Specifically the 1 and 5 jiao notes are commonplace.
And the fifth series which began in October 1999 and features Mao on each and every note, is still circulating, albeit that the 100RMB has recently had a face lift to try to stymie the forgers.
Of course, there are special sets of mint coins on display, too…
… as well as their dye stamps.
And there is a small collection of special issue coins, such as these from Inner Mongolia…
All in all, then, an excellent museum, with extensive (but not 100%) explanations in English. If you are an avid numismatist or notaphilist, you will not want to miss it.