The Tael as a Unit of Measurement in China
Before the standardisation of the tael to 50 g by the People’s Republic of China in 1959 in order to better coordinate with the metric system, a tael, or liang 两, could traditionally refer to a variety of weights, depending on the region and context. Taels were used widely as a unit of measurement until the 20th Century, but are now seen in only very limited circumstances. Most commonly a silver tael, when used as a unit of weight for commodities, was approximately 1 1/3 of a troy ounce, or a little over 40 g. However, as far as Chinese currency is concerned, the most common tael measure in use by the government was the kupingliang 庫平两, or treasury grade tael, which was standardised to 1.21 troy ounces, or 37.5 g. The tael still served as the foundation for the Chinese silver currency system until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911. 1 tael equaled 10 mace, or 100 candareens. Inscriptions on Chinese taels often feature the characters 庫平两, or just 两. Guangxu taels were an emanation of Imperial China, although provincial usage of the tael continued in China, most notably in French Indo-China in Yunnan Province, right up until the end of World War II (although not an imperial dragon tael; the design is really quite different).
Imperial Taels most commonly in circulation at the time of the Qing were struck in silver during the reign of Guangxu (reigned 1875 – 1908). During their brief time in circulation they are thought to have been primarily used to pay the military. The intention was for the tael to become the standard unit of currency, in an attempt to unify China’s – then rather disparate – currency system. 1903 saw the authorisation of trial strikes for a standard 1 tael silver coin at the mint in Tianjin, although a 1903 pattern strike not intended for circulation was produced in Fengtian. The Fengtian 1903 tael pattern is an incredibly rare coin, with only one known genuine piece to have been authenticated, graded by the PCGS in April 2012. After the initial trials in 1903, further coins were struck in 1904, with the subsequent 1906, and more rarely 1907 coins being struck with the intention of becoming the standard unit of currency. This attempt to unify the national monetary system with these new tael coins was aborted, however, as the Qing dynasty was toppled not long after in 1911 (Guangxu’s reign also came to an end with his death in 1908). The new government established the yuan, or silver dollar, as the standard monetary unit. Various other Chinese taels have been struck, but these tended to be issued by provincial mints, rather than the centrally produced coins mentioned above.
Aside from the silver taels, a 1 tael gold pattern was struck in both 1906 and 1907, although never intended for circulation as a gold coin. It was struck perhaps with the idea of a silver version of this design in mind, although this never came to fruition. These gold patterns are also extremely rare.
With the production of Imperial Guangxu taels ending a very short time after their initial release, taels are considered particularly rare coins in the field of Chinese numismatics as their mintage figures are rather low. This accounts for their scarcity and accompanying price tag, especially for coins in good condition. For example, at a Baldwin’s auction in 2012, a 1904 silver tael graded Very Fine sold for $44,840; the same coin type graded Uncirculated sold for $165,200. In the same auction, a 1903 Hu Poo silver tael in Brilliant Uncirculated condition sold for $206,500. This should not be confused with the unique 1903 Fengtian silver tael, mentioned earlier, which is insured by the current owner for a staggering $5,000,000, a value that is not considered to be overinflated. While these prices realised at auction are for exceptional cases in fantastic condition, even one of the more common silver taels in relatively poor condition would still be expected to fetch a couple of thousand dollars.
1903 Tael Features
The reverse of 1903 taels typically features the iconic and familiar dragon, similar to the design often seen on silver dragon dollars struck during Guangxu’s reign, a popular coin type among collectors of Imperial Chinese currency. Struck on the reverse of the 1903 tael is the inscription in English reading “29th Year of Kuang Hsu”, and “Hu Poo” (Hubu – in pinyin), the name of the Ministry of Finance at the time. The obverse features a central block of four characters reading: “光緒元寶” (Guangxu Treasury), and the weight in characters reading right to left: “庫平一兩” (treasury grade one tael).
1904 Tael Features
The reverse typically depicts two facing dragons, forming a ring, inside which are the characters “壹兩” (one tael). Outside the ring of dragons, struck in English below is: “One Tael”, and struck in English above: “Hu-Peh Province”. The obverse features a central block of four characters reading: “大清錢幣” (Great Qing silver coin). Above is the inscription, reading right to left: “光緒三十年湖北省造” (30th Year of Guangxu made in Hubei Province). Below are the characters giving the coin’s weight, again right to left: “庫平一兩” (treasury grade one tael).