Use of Silver Dollars in China during the Revolution (1948); A Missionary Account

Discussion in 'World Coins' started by Marsyas Mike, Feb 3, 2022.

  1. Marsyas Mike

    Marsyas Mike Well-Known Member

    The stories behind the coins we collect can be very interesting. Over the years I have occasionally poked around traveler's accounts, travel guides, history, archaeology, etc. in order to find out exactly the coins I've collected were actually used. Recently I found a book on the local library's discard shelf that provided some information on the use of silver dollars in Revolutionary-era China (Peking / Beijing) in 1948. This was written by a husband-wife missionary team, Ralph and Nancy Lapwood and published in the 1950s:

    "When the gold yuan had been introduced in August (1948) the Government had insisted that all silver, gold and American "greenbacks" must be turned in to the banks, with the threat of heavy penalties for failure to comply. May people had obeyed, but not all. By November public confidence in the gold yuan had declined so far that surreptitious deals were being done in silver or greenbacks, and at the end of the month inflation had become so serious that the old Chinese silver dollars became legal tender once more...

    The smallest acceptable unit of American currency was the dollar, while the Chinese silver dollar was worth G.$0.50. This meant that the Central Government currency was still needed for most ordinary transactions, and an extensive trade in silver and gold dollars sprang up. At every market and at every major crossroads in Peking one could find crowds of people, and among them a steady "chink-chink" of silver coins being clinked in the palm. Thousands of impoverished merchants were earning a meagre profit as money-changers.

    Buying and selling silver dollars was a difficult job. There wee at least six type recognized as valid - two minted in the recent period (1932-) and in Yuan Shih-K'ai's time, one in the reign of the last Manchu Emperor, one the true Mexican dollar, and one a British coin which seemed to have been minted for use in Tibet. The Manchu dollar and one of the recent ones were of poor quality, and fetched only two-thirds of the price of the others. In buying, one had to ring the coin for pitch, and also blow across the edge, when an entirely different note could be heard on holding the coin to the ear. One had also to be on the lookout for signs of tampering with the coin by filing or dissolving off some of the silver. Amid such desperate poverty, standards of public morality collapsed as each struggled for the livelihood of his own family" (pp. 39-40)

    Ralph and Nancy Lapwood, Through the Chinese Revolution, (Westport, Connecticut: Hyperion Press, Inc., 1973; reprint of London: Spalding & Levy, 1954 edition).

    Note that the "gold yuan" noted in the Lapwoods account was not a gold coin; it was paper money with a gold promise of some sort printed on it.

    Inspired by the Lapwoods, I put together a collection of the coins mentioned:

    Chinese silver dollars Jan 2022 (0).jpg

    Top Row: "... one in the reign of the last Manchu Emperor...:
    I included two coins here, the first one being an Imperial-era dollar from the province of Kwang-Tung; these "dragon dollars" were very common, and issued for a number of years, so I think it probable these were being clinked together in the Peking markets of 1948. The other one on the right was issued by the central Chinese authorities in 1911 (although I believe these were being minted for several years afterwards, after the first Chinese revolution); this would be a "last Manchu Emperor" type, I think.

    Second Row: "... two minted in the recent period (1932-) and in Yuan Shih-K'ai's time..." The one on the left is the "Yuan Shih-K'ai" dollar, called by collectors the "fat man dollar." These were first issued in 1914 but struck for many years (and probably from several mints) afterwards.

    The one on the right is a "recent" period type, a "junk dollar" with Sun Yat Sen on the obverse. Another one (not shown) is the "Memento dollar" because of its legend (in English) - I have one of those but I forgot to pull it out to photograph. The junk dollars were even re-minted by the US in 1934 under contract by the Nationalist Government; I am not sure how to tell the USA versions apart from those minted in China.

    The Junk, Fat Man and Memento dollars were minted in enormous numbers and are therefore very common. This does not mean they are cheap - in fact they are very expensive now, I presume because of collector interest in modern China. Back in the 1980s I used to buy these for $6-$10. Even the Imperial dragon dollars were cheap. I wish I'd bought a lot more of them!

    Third Row: "...and one a British coin which seemed to have been minted for use in Tibet..." The British Trade Dollar was minted from 1896-1930 and was intended for use in Asia, pretty much everywhere, not just Tibet. The Lapwoods were not numismatists and the appearance of the reverse of a British Trade Dollar does look rather Tibetian but I am not sure these were used much in Tibet; my understanding the Indian rupees (and local imitations) were the preferred silver currency there. It would seem the UK trade dollar was mostly circulating in China and Malaya; here is a translation, per numista:

    Chinese characters and Jawi script in ornamental flower.

    ساتو رڠڬية‎

    Chinese: One Dollar
    Jawi: One Ringgit

    The example here has many chopmarks, applied by Chinese merchants and banks after it was tested.

    Fourth Row: "... one the true Mexican dollar...": On the left an eight reales dated 1888 (Zacatecas Mint) and on the right a peso dated 1898 (Mexico City Mint). These were used extensively in China from the 19th-20th century. The eight reales are often found chopmarked, as these example are (the 1888 has a small one in the rays to the right). The earlier 8 reales (1820s-1897) were more popular with the Chinese and sometimes they can be found extensively chopmarked, such as this one:

    Chops - Mexico 1887 Go 8 reales Mar 2020 (0).jpg

    The pesos, which were similar in design, were supposedly not accepted as readily as the eight reales, although they look very much alike - the Chinese public was very conservative when it comes to coin designs, as pretty much the whole world was until recently, when circulating coins lost all their precious metals. Finding the pesos with chop marks is somewhat difficult; this one has a large one on the reverse; the earlier 8 reales are commonly found chopped.

    Chinese silver dollars Mexico peso  Jan 2022 (0).jpg

    As with the junk dollar above, the US Mint minted Mexico City pesos dated 1898 in 1949, in an effort to prop up the Nationalist Government (not the Communist government described by the Lapwoods in Peking; the silver dollars were to be used to pay the military, who had grown suspicious of paper money. However the Nationalist government had to flee the mainland and moved to Taiwan, where they remain to this day). The one in the photos is an original 1898 strike (you can tell by the way the o in the Mo mintmark is flush with the top of the M; on the restrikes the o sticks up higher than the M; you can count edge beads too, but that requires better vision and more patience than I have!). Red arrows indicate the mint mark (obverse) and the chopmark (reverse).

    No USA silver dollar collection is complete until it has an 1898 peso struck stateside. There is an excellent and informative website on these restrikes, and the money situation in China during this era (including paper money) here:


    Most sources I have encountered over the years states that silver dollars went out of circulation in China around the time the war with Japan heated up in the early 1930s. Silver no doubt did get hoarded at that time, but when the paper money became so useless, but according to the Lapwoods, the silver came back out again in 1948, as the Lapwoods describe. Such eyewitness accounts are quite informative and worth seeking out, I think.

    Note that other trade dollars of the era, including the US Trade Dollar or French Indo-China piastres, were not encountered in the Beijing markets of 1948.

    Some of my examples are shown chopmarked; the Lapwoods do not mention this practice. They do mention that fake dollars were a problem: "...In buying, one had to ring the coin for pitch, and also blow across the edge, when an entirely different note could be heard on holding the coin to the ear." I'd heard of the "ring" method to detect fakes, but blowing across the edge is new to me!

    Share your silver dollars used in China, travelers' or missionaries' accounts of coins, and whether or not you detect fake coins by blowing across their edge!:woot:
    Muzyck, robinjojo, manny9655 and 9 others like this.
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  3. willieboyd2

    willieboyd2 First Class Poster

    Fascinating article!

    I have always been interested in foreigners in old China but have never heard of the Lapwoods' book until now.

    Another book which describes the silver dollar situation in China in 1948 is In China's Border Provinces - The Turbulent Career of Joseph Rock by Stephanie Sutton, published in 1974.

    Joseph Rock was born in Austria in 1884, moved to the United States in 1905, first to New York and then to Hawaii where he became a self-taught botanist.

    He then went to China in 1920 and spent most of his time there until 1949 collecting plants and sending them back to colleges and institutes in the United States.

    From Stephanie Sutton's book:

    By mid-April, 1947, it was costing him $12,000 Chinese simply to post a letter to the United States. "Life, on account of the economic situation, will soon be impossible here", he advised Elisseff, "with the present exchange for the U. S. dollar which is $11,640 Chinese. The other day gold was $3,600,000 the oz., today it is five million."

    By mid-August, when the exchange rate went up to 12 million Chinese dollars to $1 US, the Government finally tried some currency reform. All gold, silver, and foreign currency were supposed to be turned over to the government, and a new "gold yuan" paper currency was issued at the rate of four to every U.S. dollar. People, however, were understandably wary of paper money; in Likiang they did not give up their silver.

    On September 27, 1948, about a month after the new system had been initiated, Rock reported to Egbert Walker: "No amount of proclamations have been posted here which very few people can read as there are only a handful of Chinese here, and most of the Nakhi can neither speak nor write Chinese, so the walls are very patient and so is the paper. The people have shut up their shops rather than accept that money in payment".

    Six weeks later he supplied a further analysis to Merrill: "The new currency is causing chaos; it is going downhill fast. Unless you have local silver, you starve. Even the Government tax office refuses to accept the new notes and demands silver which the Government has declared illegal". People in Shanghai had been shot for handling silver; in Likiang the Government would not accept anything else.
    Last edited: Feb 3, 2022
  4. Mountain Man

    Mountain Man Supporter! Supporter

    Great information. Thank you for the post.
    An aunt and uncle on my mother's side of the family, were missionaries in China for many years. My mother was given many coins they had collected while there. I think I may still have a couple, somewhere.
  5. Marsyas Mike

    Marsyas Mike Well-Known Member

    Very, very interesting. This is exactly the kind of numismatic/economic history tidbits that are hidden in missionary, academic, botanical (in this case) or traveler accounts.

    I've barely skimmed the Lapwood book, and it has no index, but from what I've seen leafing through it, I think there will be other examples of monetary chaos c. 1948-1949. Hope nobody gets shot over a silver dollar!
  6. Dug13

    Dug13 Well-Known Member

    Thank you for the post! Great read!
    Marsyas Mike likes this.
  7. Marsyas Mike

    Marsyas Mike Well-Known Member

    I'd be very interested in seeing those coins! There was a lot of interesting stuff circulating in China back in the day.
    Cheech9712 likes this.
  8. Mr.Q

    Mr.Q Well-Known Member

    Finally, something good from China. Great informational story thanks for sharing.
    Cheech9712 and Marsyas Mike like this.
  9. Mountain Man

    Mountain Man Supporter! Supporter

    I'd find them but they are most likely in storage and because of all the snow, I'm not going to go looking. LOL
  10. willieboyd2

    willieboyd2 First Class Poster

    Some of the books about the old British mountaineering expeditions to the Himalayas mention the money problems that they had in India, China, and Tibet.

    The book Into the Silence - The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis, published in 2011, is about the three British mountaineering expeditions in 1921, 1922, and 1924 to Tibet whose purpose was to climb Mount Everest. All three expeditions failed to climb the mountain and the last one resulted in the deaths of two of the climbers, Mallory and Irvine.

    The British had to use Tibetan coins to pay the Sherpa porters carrying supplies and the Tibetan money types would be changed from time to time.

    This I felt was interesting:

    Some Tibetans opposed the expeditions for religious reasons and some wondered why the British were trying to do something so dangerous to themselves.

    In Tibetan, there is no word for a mountain summit; the very place the British so avidly sought, their highest goal, did not even exist in the language of their Sherpa porters.

    Among the "Tigers", men handpicked by Norton and Bruce [expedition leaders] for the most difficult work at the highest elevations, there were many who believed that the British were actually searching for treasure a golden statue of a cow, perhaps a yak, rumored to reside at the highest point, which they would pillage and melt down into coins.​

    Parthicus and Marsyas Mike like this.
  11. Cheech9712

    Cheech9712 Every thing is a guess

    Damn Find them and show them. Way to cap off the story.
    serafino likes this.
  12. Gallienus


    Very interesting article. It shows the role that the silver coins played in the local economies. Strange that these once very common coins would become so highly prized today.

    Chinese coins have certainly become all the rage these days.

    I wonder what happens to all these coins? I guess pawnshops and coin dealers get them? I lived in Brazil's major financial center for 3 years. Periodically I'd meet someone who would tell me:
    "Oh my dad, grandfather, etc collected old coins back 50 years ago. He had a really big collection and was really into it. After he died nobody was concerned about them and I think eventually they all disappeared somehow. From what I've heard old coin collections aren't worth much anyway..."
    Last edited: Feb 6, 2022
    Marsyas Mike likes this.
  13. willieboyd2

    willieboyd2 First Class Poster

    I was able to acquire a copy of the Lapwoods' book and read it.

    The material about the 1948-1949 trade in various silver dollars is only a few pages long.

    Most of the book praises the Chinese Communists for their efforts in eliminating official corruption and inflation and literally cleaning up the country.

    Lapwood mentions two post-1932 silver dollars, one of poor quality worth only two-thirds the price of the other silver dollar.

    I am not sure what these dollars are, probably the famous "Junk" dollars dated year 22 and 23.

    Marsyas Mike likes this.
  14. Marsyas Mike

    Marsyas Mike Well-Known Member

    I've still only skimmed the Lapwood's book - I just happened to luck into finding the bit about silver dollars. Good work!

    My guess would be the Junk dollars too. The Fat Man dollars were restruck pretty regularly too. Some of the Sinkiang, Yunnan and Szechuan dollars were low-grade, I think, and struck during the Republican period; I know nothing about these, however. And I don't know what range they circulated in.
  15. robinjojo

    robinjojo Well-Known Member

    Colonial Spanish 8 reales were exported from Mexico and Peru for over 250 years, with republican 8 reales and pesos continuing to circulate there and in other areas of Asia well into the 20th century, as noted in the OP.

    Here's a chop marked Mexico 8 reales, 1744, assayer MF, that saw wide circulation in China and possibly elsewhere, as demonstrated by the numerous chop marks and test cuts. It seems that a sliver of the coin was removed, possibly to create some small change?

    26.4 grams

    D-Camera Mexico, 8 Reales, 1744 MF, Philip V heavy chops-test cuts 26.4 grams 3-4-21.jpg
    Marsyas Mike likes this.
  16. scottishmoney

    scottishmoney Buh bye


    A literal $5 purchase about 30 years ago, back then chopmarked coins were basically scrap metal.
    longshot and Marsyas Mike like this.
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