The Fat Man in a Nutshell: an Introduction to the Yuan Shikai Dollar

The Yuan Shikai Dollar or “Fat Man Dollar”, introduced by Yuan Shikai (16th September 1859 – 6th June 1916) in late 1914 following the beginning of his presidency of the Republic of China (ROC) in 1912, is somewhat of a mis-translation. In Chinese this coin type is known as “袁大头” or “Yuan Big Head” – Yuan referring to Yuan Shikai, rather than the Renminbi.

yuan shikai dollar

A silver coin with a fineness of 89% and typically weighing 26.4 g, it has a diameter of 39 mm. The obverse face features a profile image of Yuan Shikai. Pre-1919 coins have six characters, which when read right to left: “中華民國 (number) 年”, translate as “Republic of China (number) Year”, where the number indicates the number of years since the founding of the ROC. Coins minted in 1919 and after have seven characters: the original six followed by “造”, meaning “made”. The most common varieties of the Yuan Shikai Dollar are year three, nine, and ten, with year three being the most frequently encountered.

Yuan Shikai was a revolutionary and key figure in the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912). Like so many revolutionaries, of which there are many throughout Chinese history, people more kindly remember him for his rise to power rather than his subsequent unstable, short, and tyrannical rule. Yuan was a crucial player in the Wuchang Uprising on 10th October 1911 which set in motion the events which brought about the fall of the Qing. He was voted into office in 1912 as provisional president of the ROC, succeeding Sun Yat-sen (1866 – 1925) who had only held office for three months, having resigned under intense political pressure. Yuan Shikai, during his short rule, attempted to reinstate the Chinese monarchy with himself as Emperor. He succeeded to a certain extent, but the monarchy only lasted a little over three months due to an incredible level of national opposition, and Yuan Shikai, having abandoned the monarchy in March died from uraemia later that year in June.

The Central Mint in Tianjin was the primary location for the mintage of these coins, although official dies were outsourced to various mints in the provinces. Production began in late 1914 with reportedly 300,000 pieces minted every day during the first 9 months at the Tianjin Mint alone. Therefore as a series it is by no means a rare coin: the Shanghai Bank estimates that of the 960 million silver dollars that went into circulation, approximately 75% of them were Yuan Shikai Dollars.

Production ran from 1914 to at least 1921, although there are reports that these dollars may have been minted as late as the 1950s. It was incredibly well received mainly due to the political climate, and the fact that it represented a standardised and stable currency in a time of such political upheaval. It replaced the Dragon Dollar, the fineness of which was often not consistent.

Despite the ubiquity of the Yuan Shikai Dollar, collecting one of each variety is an ambitious undertaking, and even when accomplished the collector may not be aware that they have indeed succeeded. Although there are 11 major varieties, there are very many minor variations, the exact number of which is unknown, but estimates may be as high as 400. Of the major coin types, popular varieties include the “O-mint mark” type and the “Triangular Yuan” type. The O-mint mark type bears, as the name would indicate, an “O” mark on the reverse face. The Triangular Yuan type is characterised by a variation in the appearance of the Yuan character on the reverse face, which would normally contain a three-stroke character element looking like a broken triangle, but in the Triangular Yuan variation this element of the character forms a closed triangle.

The number of varieties is due in part to the practice of re-engraving worn out dies to mint new coins rather than making new dies. Production ran for so long on the Yuan Shikai Dollar that the original dies eventually deteriorated. These variations tend to be from the provincial mints who made their own dies from the worn out originals issued to them by the centre of production in Tianjin. As said, the exact number of variations is unknown, and information regarding these different types of the Yuan Shikai Dollar is particularly thin on the ground – probably due to the political instability and uncertainty at the time. Officials no doubt had more on their minds at a time of such revolution than keeping accurate records of every coin type produced. The historical significance of this coin, the air of the unknown and intrigue that surrounds the hundreds of variations that exist, the high mintage figures, and the shear number of forgeries out there all contribute to making the “Fat Man Dollar” both a highly accessible, yet incredibly challenging undertaking for numismatists.