Chinese coins - for beginners


If you have some Chinese coins or charms and don't know anything about them then read on. This short guide will help you learn how to identify your items and hopefully start you off on the great hobby of Chinese coin collecting. If you come across any terms or phrases you don't understand you may find their meaning in the glossary.

Here we will only talk about round coins. There are other shaped coins, notably spade shaped and knife shaped, but we will deal with these in a later update of this web site. This is not a history of Chinese coins, only a guide on how to identify them. We will add a brief history later.

I am writing this as I am learning about Chinese coins so nothing here is guaranteed to be entirely accurate. These are the problems I have come across in learning how to identify coins and my answers for solving them.

1) There are very few books available about Chines coins so you will probably have a great deal of trouble getting one. That's why this web site is here, too give you some information - for free.

2) All those Chinese characters (writing on the coins) look confusing. Don't let this worry you. There aren't actually all that many different characters used. Once you have identified a few of your coins you will start recognising the common characters. This just takes time and experience. We will have a list of characters and their meanings finished at a later date.
Obverse: the front face of the coin. Most coins will have four characters (see picture) on the obverse. Some older coins have two characters (see picture).
Reverse: the rear of the coin. Many coins have no characters on the reverse, referred to as "plain reverse" and is usually an indication of an older coin. Other coins may have two characters on the reverse (see picture) or in a few instances dots or crescents (see picture.) Larger coins represent a higher value coin and will often have four characters on the reverse (see picture).

3) Coin or Charm? If the item you are trying to identify has pictures of animals, people etc, or has more that four characters then it is probably a charm. You might find it in the Charms section of this web site.

4) The number one rule in reading a Chinese coin is to read the top character first, followed by the bottom character then the right and finally the left (T,B,R,L) (see picture). However, in a some cases coins are read in the Clockwise direction (T,R,B,L). These items can be identified if they have the bottom characters:
T'ung meaning "current"
Yuan meaning "new", "starting" or "opening"
Chung meaning "heavy"

Unfortunately there are even exceptions to this rule, notably with Annamese coins. If your coin has only two characters then read the coin from right to left (R,L) (see picture).

5) What do the characters mean?
Obverse: Two character coins usually say something about the value of the coin (see picture), though this is not always the case. In a four character coin the first two characters read are the emperors reign title, followed by the type of coin, often T'ung Pao "current coin" (see picture).
Reverse: If a coin has characters on the reverse then these will almost certainly say where the coin was made (see picture) .Larger coins will also indicate the value of the coin (see picture) by having four characters.

Home Page