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Vietnam, private series circa 1716 "Yu Min hand", four reign titles

Started by bgriff99, September 06, 2015, 07:39:28 AM

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Unfortunately I don't have the rare group naming coin inscribed 'Yu Min (tung pao).'   That is not a reign title, but means "happy people."

They are all 23.5-24.0 mm, look like bronze, and are from originally carved mother cash.   Reverses are blank, with rims, except this Kang Hsi piece has the single Chinese character 'wen' above, which means "coin."

The reigns here are Yuan Feng (Northern Sung, although specifically copying Nagasaki trade cash of 1659-84) and three Ching era which would have been circulating when these were cast.   Shun Chi (1644-61), Kang Hsi (1662-1722), and the non-regnal Li Yung (1674-78) which means "general use".   It was issued by Wu San Kuei at the beginning of the San Fan Rebellion in the south, before he took a reign title.   Thus the earliest the Vietnamese copy can be is 1674.   

Character composition clearly copies Chinese cash of the period 1702-1726.   The size is that of Chinese small cash and Kwangtung cash which would have been circulating in the Yunnan- Northern Vietnam area.   I've hunted for and not found, in listings or my collection, any pieces inscribed Yung Cheng (1723-35) of this mint's workmanship.    So a reasonable bracket for the group is 1702-1724, with some having to be after 1715.

This time frame coincides with a mining boom in Yunnan which spread down into the northern mountains of Vietnam, mainly copper, but also silver and tin.     Edge scratch of one of these is almost white, another pale yellow.   They are probably of brass with very high zinc content (50% or more) and from newly mined copper.   I suspect they have little or no lead added, but may have significant tin.    These metals were smelted mostly where they were mined.   Zinc and copper were mined in different places, so the coins were probably made in more populous areas nearer the coast.   Zinc should have been a cheap import at the time, as it was exported from nearby Canton, with zero minting at Kwangchou, or anywhere except the capital and not so much even there.

The mining regions of Yunnan and Northern Vietnam became by 1750 denuded of forest and ecologically despoiled.   The first wave of Chinese miners to move down into Tonkin during this boom (late 1680's) would have found pretty nice circumstances, and that may be the origin of "happy people."   Furthermore, from 1705 to 1723 the Ching government tried to monopolize copper output, effectively suppressing its production.   That drove miners into Vietnamese territory where their output was welcomed and promoted by the Trinh (who still actually ruled Tonkin.)   They turned that copper into the Vinh Thinh issue (1706-19), of leaded bronze.   There had been no copper coins since 1662, and that used Japanese copper, at the time very cheap.

Thus these coins presage the Yung Cheng coinage of Yunnan's multiple mints, which was of larger coins, and by 1726 high output driving private coiners out of business.    In 1740 began the massive Vietnamese (Tonkin) issue for Canh Hung, and further increase in Chinese casting, all at a time when Japanese copper had stopped being exported at all.


Thank you, Bruce! I don't suppose we will see these offered in Europe any time soon, especially with the recent revived interest in coins in Vietnam, but they are witnesses to important economic developments. They show clearly that the limits of the power of the Chinese emperors were not any kind of borders. If I remember correctly, Chinese maps of this era did not even show borders and considered any ruler paying some kind of allegiance to the emperor as a Chinese subject. It brings to mind the Chinese expression "heaven and the emperor are far away", meaning something like: here, we do what WE want.

First, I wonder how to call them. While the miners would probably have called them "coins", I tend to favour "tokens". They are privately issued, refer to the wrong rulers and are probably not cast to a Vietnamese coin weight standard. Not that it matters much, but it is yet another example of how vague the border between coins and tokens actually is.

Second, I am surprised by the use of zinc, when there is a supply of tin nearby. However, there may be technical reasons for using zinc. As you note, it does mean that the coin production was supported by an active metal trade, that must have added to production cost.

An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.


Thanks for this post and interesting background story, allowing me to glance beyond my self-imposed numismatic boundaries once in a while !



I was reluctant to do an edge scratch on these.   Despite appearances they are high quality examples for their types.   Relief is shallow, and they do corrode a lot.   I was expecting nearly red copper, not a lot of zinc.    The whitish piece was soft.    So it cannot be all tin alloy, and if zinc then over 50%.   The yellow coin was very hard, compatible with 45% zinc, no lead.   The clarity of characters suggests some tin.   There is no blistering from lead, except the Hsien Feng.   The smooth copper enriched surfaces back up all those observations.   So they aren't what would be called miner's coins.

Zinc would be used in part because the Chinese coiners were accustomed to brass, and that was the composition of most of the coins they copied.   The zinc could also have been Vietnamese.   I point out the import possibility just to show the temporarily reduced demand prior to 1723.   High purity Chinese zinc from Kwangtung (Canton) was prized in Europe and perhaps bid up there too much for these issues.   Vietnamese zinc tended to be either contaminated (cadmium and arsenic?) or adulterated, probably with lead.   Brass made from it ought to have been bad for hammer or forge work, as Europe and India wanted it for, but still fine for castings.   What totally collapsed the price of zinc was the sudden opening of smelters in Britain, the Netherlands and Germany, circa 1746-48.   Note that was the time China decided to open mints in most provinces again, and the Nguyen state began its orgy of zinc cash casting.   It's all connected.

Engraving on these is quite idiosyncratic.   The Li Yung especially does not imitate the originals.   What this shows is that the series was being accepted on its own merit, not as counterfeits, but as recognizable self-consistent workmanship.   A scarcer Tai Ping copies a Nguyen (South Vietnam) non-dynastic coin which was red bronze and very common.   Barker attributes those to 1725-1738, while Chinese sources say close to 1558 (impossible and ridiculous).    Barker is on the right track, but here this obscure Yu Min coin pushes their beginning back a couple decades.   Which still fits perfectly with Barker's overall discussion.


See others from this group at Zeno, 151665, 151664, 153086, 154091.   The last one is spectacular, and not in Masayoshi with the reverse character.