Among the many kinds of Chinese dollars, one of the most mysterious is known to Chinese collectors as the "Big Beard Dollar." What is mysterious about it is that we don't know for certain where or when it was made, who ordered it, or even who it depicts. The coin, which is recorded by Kann as K672 (Lin & Ma 47; Chang CH237), is very similar to and clearly copied from the Sun Yat-sen and Li Yuan-hung dollars made in 1912 commemorating the establishment of the Republic. In the center is a facing portrait of a bearded man, within a double circle. A branch with leaves and one flower (certainly copied from the 1911 dragon dollar, Y31; K227, which was struck at Tientsin, Wuchang and Nanking) appears to the left and right. There are four Chinese characters at the top (Chung Hua Min Kuo) meaning "Republic of China" and five characters (K'ai Kuo Chi Nien Pi) at the bottom meaning "Coin Commemorating the Founding of the Country." The reverse has a wreath surrounding two Chinese characters (Yi Yuan) meaning "One Dollar", all within a double circle. The English inscription above reads: THE REPUBLIC OF CHINA, and below: ONE DOLLAR. Both sides have the same layout and wording as the Li Yuanhung dollars (Y320 & 321; K638 & 639) with and without the cap (which were struck at the Wuchang Mint), and the Sun Yat-sen dollar (Y319; K603; which was struck at the Nanking Mint), but the portrait is different and there are no stars dividing the English legend. It should be noted that the Li dollars made at Wuchang have the third character at the bottom of the obverse written in ordinary script, while the Sun dollars from Nanking have that character in seal script (the left part written with two triangles). The character "yuan" on the reverse is also written in different styles by the two mints. The Wuchang dollars have the top of the inside part of the character written as a box, while the Nanking dollars (including Y318; K600) have the top part written as a triangle.
Since the 1950's the "Big Beard" portrait has been identified as Ch'eng Te-ch'uan (usually but incorrectly written as Chin Teh-chuen), who was governor of Kiangsu Province during 1910-1911 under the Ch'ing dynasty government, and military governor of Kiangsu during 1911-1913 under the Republic, and the coin is said to have been struck at the Soochow (Suchou) Mint. This information has long been questioned. First there are no silver coins known from the Soochow Mint. Two mints were established at Soochow in 1904 and 1905 to produce copper coins, one inside the city and the other outside the city, but both closed in 1906. Second, no provincial governor had issued a coin with his own portrait until after Yuan Shih-kai died in 1916. The first to do so was T'ang Ch'i-yao in Yunnan Province in 1916. Later issues were planned by Chao Heng-ti in 1922 (Kann763i), Ch'u Yu-p'u in 1927 (K690); and Liu Wen-hui in 1932 (K795), but these were never issued for circulation. All the other Chinese portrait coins depict presidents, vicepresidents or generalissimos who controlled more than one province or claimed national power. Most of these are only patterns and some are actually medals.
Celebrating the Establishment of the Republic of China Yuan Shih-kai Postcard
That the Soochow Mint was capable of making silver dollars is shown by a long article in the North China Herald 20 June 1915 issue under the title: "New Kuang Hsu Dollars." According to this article the Soochow Mint was preparing to produce silver dollars bearing the name of the Manchu emperor Kuang Hsu (ruled 1875-1908), under a contract with a group of merchants. No description of the coin is given, but it would probably have been a restrike of a Kiangnan dragon dollar or perhaps a restrike of the 1908 general issue dollar (Y14; K216). The Shanghai Chamber of Commerce, the Shanghai Bankers Guild and the Bank of Kiangsu all claimed in the article to have no knowledge of the plan. Public opinion against the issue of an imperial coin in Republican times was so great that the 4 July 1914 issue notes that Governor Feng Kuo-chang cancelled the contract to produce the coin. After this no more is heard of the Soochow Mint, which was apparently closed for good. Its equipment, dies and sample coins were probably sent to the Nanking Mint.
The earliest reference to the "Big Beard" Soochow coins appears in the second edition (1927) of Eduard Kann's "The Currencies of China" page 175, where he describes a dollar with facing portrait of Yuan Shih-kai obverse and crossed flags on the reverse. The Chinese inscription on the obverse reads: "Portrait of the President" and on the reverse: "Commemorative of the Founding [of the Republic]." He concludes by saying "this coin is reputed to have been produced by the Soochow Mint and is rarely met with." The coin described by Kann belonged to noted collector A. M. Tracey Woodward, who refers to it in his work on Chinese ten cash coins. In the article covering Kiangsu Province (originally published in the China Journal for February 1931), Woodward presents a history of the two modern mints in Soochow, based in part on information from Dr. John A. Snell, a long time resident of Soochow and collector of modern Chinese coins. The Silver Dollar Mint, located inside the city, was supplied with some new equipment in 1911 but closed the following year. This is confirmed by information published in the North China Herald. Woodward says: "…. from personal knowledge, I may mention that two types of Yuan Shih-kai trial dollars were made at the mint which was located within the city walls …. A description of a unique specimen of these pieces from my collection is given by E. Kann in The Currencies of China Second Edition." Kann also mentioned the Soochow Yuan Shih-kai dollar in "History of Minting in China" (1938) but without description.
In an article on early Republican silver dollars, the Chinese Economic Bulletin Volume 10 #331 (25 June 1927) states: "The Soochow Mint also issued a kind of commemorative coin, bearing the effigy of President Yuan on one side and two flags of the Republic on the other. Only 40 coins were issued." The piece described by Kann and the Chinese Economic Bulletin is a medal rather than a coin. It is listed in Kann's "Illustrated Catalog of Chinese Coins" (1954) as B54 (under Fantasy Coins) and in the Lin & Ma catalog as #937. This piece is important because it has the same portrait as the "Big Beard" dollar.
The first reference to the "Big Beard" dollar is a bit obscure. Woodward stated in February 1931 that two trial dollars were made at Soochow, both of which were in his collection. We first see the coin in "Illustrations of Chinese Gold, Silver and Nickel Coins" by C. C. Tsiang (published in June 1939) as #395, where he says it was issued by Governor Ch'eng, possibly by the Soochow Mint, but doesn't say specifically whose portrait it has. The coin was illustrated again in Ch'uan Pi magazine #28 (January 1945) where the portrait is identified as Governor Ch'eng. Afterwards catalogs by Kalgan Shih (1949 and 1951), E. Kann (1954) and H. Chang (1991) all identify the portrait as Ch'eng. An unpublished 1947 catalog of Chinese dollars prepared by H. Chang and Dennis W. Sibert (manuscript in the author's library) identified the portrait as Ch'eng but noted that the portrait was sometimes said to be Yuan Shih-kai.
It was not until 1993 that an article by Ma Chuande, based on research by his father, Ma Dingxiang, showed that the portrait is actually Yuan Shih-kai. Ma's article appeared in English in World Coin News 21 June 1993 and in Chinese in Zhongguo Qianbi (China Numismatics) 1993 #3 and in Qianbi Bolan 1995 #3. Ma found two photographs of Governor Ch'eng taken around 1912 and the photos do not look like the man on the coin. Ma also found a photograph of Yuan Shih-kai taken in early 1912 or probably slightly earlier. This photo shows an unshaven Yuan, as does the portrait on the coin. Prior to 1912, Yuan was in retirement in his native Honan Province. Since he was not in active service he did not need to be clean shaven. The portrait, however, is poorly done, suggesting it was made at a minor mint, like Soochow, rather than a first rate mint like Nanking. No doubt this is why the coin was not produced in quantity.
Why was the coin produced in Soochow instead of the Tientsin Mint? Prior to February 1912 there were governments in Wuchang (headed by Li Yuan-hung) and Nanking (headed by Sun Yat-sen), both claiming to be the government of the Republic of China. Yuan was in Peking and Tientsin and did not have access to the Wuchang or Nanking mints. Coins with his portrait would have been made at the Tientsin Mint, but unfortunately the mint was destroyed and looted by soldiers in March 1912, and was not reopened until 1914. Governor Ch’eng at Soochow was a supporter of Yuan and this is probably why the coin was made there.
Kann lists four varieties of the Yuan Shih-kai Soochow Dollar, all of which were in his collection:
K672 silver with reeded edge, showing veins in the leaves of the plant.
K672a silver with plain edge, without veins in the leaves.
K672b silver (plain edge) with no reverse.
K672x brass (plain edge) reverse type unclear.
The Kann examples of this coin (K. 672a, 672b and 672x) have strange stretched out denticles at the edge (border) of the coin. Most of the coins which have turned up have normal denticles or else they have dots at the edge. My theory is that Kann's coins were made at the Soochow Mint on new machinery which had been purchased to make dollars. I think Soochow did not have the proper collars or used no collar when they struck a few trial pieces, which resulted in the stretched denticles. In the end, the mint did not produce dollars and the dies were sent to the Nanking Mint. I think a few pieces were struck there with the original dies, but with a proper collar and by experienced workers.
A preliminary comparison of photos in major auctions and coin catalogs shows five to ten different examples of K672; only one example of K672a; five or six examples of K672b; two examples of K672x; and a single example of a previously unknown variety in gilt copper. In addition there have been several fakes in auctions over the years. The fakes are easy to recognize and it seems strange that Kann did not list one in his section on fakes. The most obvious difference is where the wreath is tied at the bottom of the reverse. The genuine coins have two oblong rings where the wreath is tied. These are supposed to be loops of the ribbon but look more like metal clips. The fakes lack these rings. There are several other differences, especially in the Chinese characters on the reverse.
This example for Champion Macau auction on Dec. 6 2015 is from H.Chang - Dennis W. Sibert (Metone, Alabama) specimen from 1947. NGC AU58, the only one certified by NGC or PCGS. The finest known of known examples.
*2015 Top Auction Price for Chinese Vintage Coins Dec. 6, 2015 Champion Auction, lot 185, realized US $345,000, won by an American floor buyer.
Sibert and H. Chang were working on a catalog of Chinese dollars which was to be published in 1947, but Sibert was injured in a plane crash and had to sell his collection. The book was never published, but I have the manuscript and photos for the book.
CHINA-REPUBLIC ND(1912) Yuan Shih-kai One Dollar Brass Trial, NC Collection, K672x, NGC UNC Details.