Two of the most well known variations of the Yuan Shikai silver Dollar are the O mint mark and the triangular yuan varieties. These are both variations of the 1914 or “Year Three” Yuan Shikai Dollars. However, despite their popularity, the origins of these curious differences found on silver dollar coins still remain uncertain. Popular folklore has had a stab at explaining it. It would be nice to accept the tale as truth due to its simplicity, but despite the fact that it has a certain element of credence, historical analysis has been able to pick a few holes in it. We are still not 100% sure how these different coin types emerged, but records and careful analysis have been able to give us a better idea of where they may have come from.
Legend has it that the O mint mark was added in 1951 at the Shenyang Mint to an original 1914 die. This die was then used to mint silver dollars only for use by the people who inhabited the provinces of southern China and other ethnic minorities who were yet to fully put their faith in the Renminbi – the newly introduced currency of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which had officially taken over the entire country by 1st October 1949 following the end of the Chinese Civil War.
Folklore also proposes that the triangular yuan variety was introduced to pay workers on infrastructure projects in Tibet in late 1949.
History, however, paints a different picture and raises some issues with these too-good-to-be-true theories. In 1949 the PRC, in the process of introducing its own currency, the Renminbi, had banned the people from precious metal ownership, requiring all coins to be traded in at banks for the new Renminbi. By 1951 (the supposed issue date for the O mint mark variety), the government was already in possession of enough silver dollars that minting new ones would have been a pointless exercise: they might as well have recirculated the older ones they already had. This is where the O mint mark theory falls apart somewhat.
Historical records now give us a more accurate idea of the truth. In the process of unifying China, history tells us that the PLA took control of Shenyang in November 1948. The currency of the province was in dire need of stabilisation, and to avoid shortages the Shenyang Mint was put to work, churning out new coins using the dies dating from 1914 (year three).
Triangular Yuan – highlighted in red
In the logs of the Shenyang Mint it was documented how the 1914 dies were altered on the reverse face by the correction of a character (resulting in the subsequent triangular yuan variation), and on the obverse face by repairing the epaulette of the profile image of Yuan Shikai. The triangular yuan variation is therefore characterised by these two major feature differences: a closed triangle in the top half of the “yuan” character on the reverse, and a crisp edge to the epaulette on the obverse. This therefore allows us to draw the conclusion that the triangular yuan variety dates from post-1948.
The same records at the Shenyang Mint make no mention of adding the O mint mark, and therefore we may also conclude that since this change is not mentioned, it was already present on the dies and so dates from pre-1948. But when exactly?
Eduard Kann (1880 – 1962), a coin collector and monetary expert, as well as a top adviser in pre-Mao Chinese governments, lived in China for 47 years during which time he did a huge amount of research into Chinese coins. He left China shortly before Mao took control in 1949, after which he published a book in 1953: Illustrated Catalog of Chinese Coins. Page 648 gives details of the O mint mark, but the book makes no mention of the triangular yuan variety, although this was added in a 1954 edition. Kann’s book therefore supports the evidence given by the records at the Shenyang Mint as Kann’s research was all done prior to the supposed mintage of the triangular yuan variety.
So now that the origins of the triangular yuan variety have been somewhat pinned down, what about the O mint mark?
O Mint Mark – highlighted in red
The Shenyang Mint also records how it struck Yuan Shikai Dollars on three occasions other than when production began in the province on this coin type in 1915. These three dates are 26th July 1919, 13th January 1921, and 15th June 1926, all under the orders of the warlord Zhang Zuolin (warlord of Manchuria 1916 – 1928) who renamed the mint the Fengtian Arsenal. While Yuan Shikai Dollars were struck on all three occasions, it is probable that the O mint mark was an addition on the latest of these occasions. The economic situation in Manchuria was declining, and under the constant stress of war with rival factions, large numbers of coins needed to be produced to stabilise the currency and to pay the army. The effective exchange rate of the local currency, the Fengtien Dollar, against foreign currencies such as the Japanese gold yen, was rapidly weakening. Minting such a vast quantity of coinage would have resulted in a greatly debased currency. So it is likely that the O mint mark was added in order to maintain a distinction between the original Yuan Shikai Dollars (which still held their value against the other currencies) and the newly minted debased dollars.
In conclusion, what we can say is that both types were struck at the Shenyang Mint with the purpose of stabilising the economy. It is likely that 1926 saw the introduction of the O mint mark when Zhang Zuolin needed to raise funds quickly for his military campaigns, but still wanted to maintain a distinction between the debased and original coins; and that 1948-9 was the date for the introduction of the triangular yuan variety, minted to stabilise and bring confidence to the provincial economy as the end of the Chinese Civil War approached.