China has probably the longest uninterrupted numismatic history. Its coinage can be traced back over 3,000 years ago to the first use of cowrie shells and spade monies in the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Ant nose money and knife monies followed and the first round coins appeared around 350 BC, at the tail-end of the Zhou.
From the increasing acceptance of the round ‘ban liang' and 'Wang Mang' cash coins 2,000 years ago China entered a period unique in numismatics; an almost 2,000- year uninterrupted period in which round cast coins, and not hammered ones like in the West, reigned supreme. Not until the final dynasty was overthrown in 1911 was the final cash coin cast.
However, in addition to the cast cash coins in use for daily transactions in China outsiders like the Japanese and Europeans slowly introduced silver into China in their business dealings. The first-known Western coins used in China were Spanish cobs minted in Mexico which have been uncovered in numerous hoards in the Fujian coastal areas of China. The coins bear dates of the mid to late 1600s. Several of these hoards include coins bearing chopmarks, an early security device to verify the silver quality of the coins.
A Spanish ‘Carolus’ 8 reales minted in 1807 in Mexico City. Colin Gullberg collection.
The ‘portrait’ or ‘bust’ dollar was the principal trade coin for much of the world for many decades and a complete date set is possible for the patient collector.
Marking or stamping coins to attest as to their quality and thus acceptance had been going on since Roman times in the West. The Chinese were no different. Trust was difficult to maintain between business people who, due to the great distances, may have experienced years of wait before meeting their Chinese counterparty for a second time (if ever). The large amounts of silver used in this trade required the need for to verify the quality of the silver and job of shroff was born. A shroff 's job was to weigh the silver coins, which were treated like bullion, and assess the fineness. On each coin he applied his personal mark or ‘chop’ which acted like a signature enabling the coins to be accepted and used in trade.
An ink chop on a Mexican 1879 AS 8 reales. Colin Gullberg collection.
Ink chops originated in Shanghai in the late 19th century and had the advantage of not damaging the coin.
The cob period ended in the 1720s and was followed by the machine-made milled coins which were being minted in increasingly large numbers for use in trade in the Orient. These coins were unlike any the Chinese had seen before; perfectly round, of standard weight and fineness bearing the portrait of the king. The gradually increasing importance of the 'China trade' meant that increasing numbers of these coins made their way into Canton [Kuang Chou] and are easily found with chopmarks attesting to their widespread use and acceptance. These coins had a significant influence on Chinese coins as China's first silver coin – the Taiwan Old Man dollar – was modelled on the Spanish Carolus dollar which was the dominant trade coin at the time.
What is truly significant is the huge numbers of these coins in use in China at the time, almost all bearing chopmarks, making these foreign coins de facto Chinese ones and an important part of the history of money in China. Regardless of where these coins were minted the fact that they made it to China, were chopped, and entered into the channels of commerce in China makes them Chinese coins.
The number of coins that bear chopmarks is truly staggering. The vast majority were, of course, from the main trading nations of Europe (Spain, England, the Netherlands, etc.) but odd-ball coins from as diverse places as Hawaii, Brazil, Scotland and even the Papal States. Somehow these found their way in the pockets of sailors or in chests of silver to China where they were chopped.
A unique Hawaiian 1883 dollar with a single "同" [tung] chop on the reverse. Rich Licato collection.
An exceptionally rare Papal States 1684 Rome Piaster with a swastika chopmark. Rich Licato collection.
It's a fascinating story and one that lasted for 300 years but, somewhat surprising, it's a story that few Chinese collectors seen to get excited about. In fact, the vast majority of chopmark collectors are Westerners, particularly Americans. I'm not entirely sure why this is. America minted a trade dollar for use in China for a brief six years (1873- 1878) but the story is really one of China and is central to China's economic and numismatic development so why aren't more Chinese interested in this very important part of their numismatic heritage? I think it's mainly because chopmarks are seen as 'damage' to the coin and not enhancing the historical 'story' of the coin. Little is known about the chops - who, when and where they were made – so the lack of information makes systematic collecting of chops almost impossible. The widespread introduction of thirdparty grading services, also known as 'slabs', is also a reason collectors shun these coins. Chopmarks lower the net grade of a coin and the chops must be included in the 'details' area of the slab – the area reserved for bad news. Nevertheless, chopmarks are a captivating area of Chinese numismatics. They involve trade, opium, war, the sea and all the romance that holding an artifact of history in your hand encompasses.
An 1887-S USA trade dollar. Colin Gullberg collection.
Given the large number of collectors in the USA this coin is undoubtedly the most seriously collected of all chopmarked coins.
For me, chopmarked coins are the most interesting field of Chinese numismatics. I edit a newsletter – the only one exclusively devoted to the subject – called Chopmark News. This newsletter is the quarterly publication of the Chopmark Collectors Club (CCC), a group of collectors, dealers and researchers who love these coins and are eager to learn more about them. If you are interested in learning more please contact me and I’ll email you a sample copy of Chopmark News. Currently we publish in English-only but a future goal is to introduce a bilingual English-Chinese edition.
I hope to be hearing from you.