By Dr. K.A. Rodgers


Anyone who thumbed through the catalogue of Spink's recent Hong Kong sale would have observed that pre-republic Chinese paper money is replete with dragons, particularly issues of the Imperial dynasties. There is an excellent reason for this. Dragons were fully paid-up members of the Chinese animal pantheon from the beginning. Their ancestor toed the starting line of the Great Race conducted by the August Personage of Jade to determine the order of animals in the Lunar Zodiac. By at least the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE) the celestial dragon had become the symbol of the Son of Heaven, the Emperor of China. The craftsman who labelled the Lenox Globe knew what he was doing. He was spot-on on the money.

Five hundred years ago, the coppersmith who fashioned the Lenox Globe held in New York's Public Library inscribed the eastern coast of Asia with, "HC SVNT DRACONES" or, in popular parlance, "Here Be Dragons." Soulless academics may dismiss these words as no more than a fanciful rendition of "Terra Incognita". Yet from predynastic times, perhaps for over 7,000 years, the dragon has been part of China, its people and their culture.

Eastern Lung Vs Western Dragon

The use of the English word "dragon" for the Chinese beastie is a misnomer. China's animal is the "lung" or "long", depending on your preferred transliteration. Whatever, the precise spelling, it was never the virgin-munching, fire-breathing drake, Draco occidentalis, that St George and other environmentally-insensitive do-gooders exterminated throughout Europe for fun and profit. China's lung was a noble and superior beast, Draco orientalis. It exercised potent and auspicious influences, especially over water, rainfall and floods. It was ever a symbol of power and good fortune.

The two earliest Emperors both had intimate relationships with lung. Yan Di was conceived via his mother's telepathic bonding with one lung while, at the end of his reign, Huang Di transformed into another to ascend to Heaven. From henceforth all subsequent emperors would claim a close personal connection with the family lung.

Lung come in many and varied types. The Huang Long, aka Yellow or Golden Lung, are those most closely associated with the emperor. Like all lung they were physically perfect, displaying nine resemblances: the head of a camel, the horns of a deer, the eyes of a hare, the ears of a bull, the neck of a snake, the belly of a frog, the scales of a carp, the claws of an eagle, and the paws of a tiger. All had 117 scales of which 81 are yang and 36 yin. Lung may lack wings but can fly. Importantly, mortal eyes can never behold an entire celestial/imperial lung; their bodies are always part-hidden by clouds.

Going Toe For Toe

The number of toes is fundamental to classifying lung. Emperors of the early Zhou Dynasty claimed the superior five-toed Huang Long as their symbol. Matters became formalized during the Yuan (1271-1368 CE) and Ming (1368-1644 CE) Dynasties. Not only was the five-toed lung decreed to be the sole preserve of the emperors but imperial nobles and some high ranking officials were allowed to display a four-toed lung, with the three-toed beast available to lower ranks - and deserving members of the public. It was a capital offence for anyone other than the emperor to use the golden, fivetoed Huang Long motif. Incorrect use of toe number was treason and punishable by execution of the offender's entire clan. Rulers of those East Asian nations considered Chinese tributaries were allowed a four-toed lung only.

Images of the imperial five-toed lung embellished artefacts made for an emperor or by imperial sanction, in much the same way the effigy of our monarch or her coat of arms is used on items made for the Royal Household or issued in the name of the Queen. And so it came to pass that when early Chinese paper money circulated by Imperial edict it bore a five-toed lung and would continue to do so until expunged with the coming of the Republic in the early 20th century.

Fei-ch'ien 101

China's earliest paper money was akin to bank drafts. Transporting masses of copper cash or silver sycee great distance across the empire was both inconvenient and hazardous. Merchants in the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) solved this difficulty by employing paper drafts to facilitate, among other dealings, the tea-trade between north and south China.

Southern provincial governors maintained memorial offering courts in the northern Imperial capital. The southern merchants paid the money obtained from the sale of their goods to these courts who used it to pay taxes due from the Southern provinces to central government. The courts issued the merchants with a draft for the specific amount of their deposit which the merchants presented, upon their return home, to the provincial government who paid out the equivalent sum in coin. The drafts became known as fei-ch'ien [flying cash]allegedly because they tended to blow away, unlike coin. The Tang administration took to the idea and began issuing their own fei-ch'ien. The margins of these notes showed a lung romping amidst clouds declaring the imperial government as the origin of these issues. The design and vertical format of these Tang drafts established the norm for all subsequent Imperial fei-ch'ien until the late 19th century.

By the Sung dynasty (960-1279 CE) fei-ch'ien were in common use, particularly among merchants and financiers in Szechuan. The notes were readily accepted for the payment in debt and other financial obligations. They could be converted into hard cash or other goods,
especially silk. In so far as the drafts were transferable and convertible on demand, they were exchanged among merchants as currency although this was never their original intent.

At some point, perhaps about 1023 CE, the central government monopolized the system. They ordered all private notes withdrawn. Only government issues would be allowed to circulate. The new notes were backed by government-minted cash coin such that paper notes and coins were interchangeable. Fei-ch'ien had effectively become a fiat currency.

North China's Qin dynasty (1115-1234) followed Sung's practice. In 1154 a Bureau of Paper Currency was established in Kaifeng and made responsible all fei-ch'ien issues. Large denomination notes were denominated at one to ten strings of coins, each string consisting
of 1000 standard cash coins. Small denomination notes were equivalent to one to seven hundred cash. Importantly, the life of each issued note was limited to seven years. But as the West would learn many years hence, when the number of notes issued exceeded their cash backing, inflation became the order of the day with all its consequences.

In Xanadu did Kublai Khan …

Kublai Khan established his Yuan dynasty in 1271 and continued the paper currency practices of Tang, Sung and Qin. He backed his currency with silk but once again excessive printing led to inflation, with the depreciated face value of paper money soon losing any relationship to silk, let alone silver. In 1272 the Great Khan printed a new issue using copper plates, unlike the traditional wood blocks. One new note was exchanged for five old ones but another printing and conversion was required in 1309 that saw Yuan feich'ien depreciate by 1000 percent.


Paper money - and inflation - accompanied the Mongols westward with Chinese-style notes printed in Persia in 1291. But, despite their vicissitudes, Marco Polo was impressed when he encountered Yuan paper currency in the 13th century. He subsequently told Europe how it was made, used and valued: "You might say that [Kublai] has the secret of alchemy in perfection…the Khan causes every year to be made such a vast quantity of this money, which costs him nothing, that it must equal in amount all the treasure of the world."

… "All these pieces of paper are issued with as much solemnity and authority as if they were of pure gold or silver; and on every piece a variety of officials, whose duty it is, have to write their names, and to put their seals. And when all is duly prepared, the chief officer deputed by the Khan smears the Seal entrusted to him with vermilion, and impresses it on the paper, so that the form of the Seal remains printed upon it in red; the Money is then authentic. Anyone forging it would be punished with death."

However, the Europeans didn't take to the idea for another 300 years, perhaps because Marco added: "Population and trade had greatly increased, but the emissions of paper notes were suffered to largely outrun both" … "All the beneficial effects of a currency that is allowed to expand with a growth of population and trade were now turned into those evil effects that flow from a currency emitted in excess of such growth. These effects were not slow to develop themselves" … "The best families in the empire were ruined, a new set of men came into the control of public affairs, and the country became the scene of internecine warfare and confusion." Sound familiar?

From Ming to Qing

From the few surviving examples of pre-14th century paper money it is clear that the five-toed Imperial lung was a feature of the design of government issues from the beginning. It can be just discerned on the Yuan dynasty example sold by Spink in January. On Ming notes (1368 to 1644 CE) it is clear in the upper part of the border design.

As with today's politicians, the early Ming rulers learned little from their predecessors. They printed paper money without restriction or any time limit on its circulation. As happened in Kublai Khan's day they went so far as to restrict the use of silver to promote circulation of their fiat paper currency. By 1455 hyperinflation was rampart and the government finally admitted defeat and put an end to all paper issues. Of all the early imperial notes, Ming issues are the commonest today but are nonetheless scarce.

Chinese government paper money made its big come-back with the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912 CE) starting in the mid-19th century. In 1853 government notes were introduced. The designs of the late-19th century examples sold by Spink in January bear comparison with those of the Ming years.

It may be significant if not symbolic that in the last decades of what would be China's last dynasty the Emperor's lung often has few, if any, clothes. Frequently, he - or she - stands devoid of his - or her - clouds fully revealed to the gaze of the multitude, as indeed was he - or she - on the imperial flag. Yet in those closing dynastic days the Imperial Huang Long would experience one last grand renaissance.


 In 1909 two US engravers arrived in China to advise the government's Bureau of Engraving and Printing about modern western note design and techniques. From this relationship emerged a series of four magnificent banknotes. All showed the portrait of Prince Chun at left, father of the then infant Last Emperor, Puyi. In the sky above romped the most magnificent creature to ever disport on any Chinese note - a veritable archetypal lung. All resemblances are clear to see. It is decently clothed in part by cloud. And the five Imperial toes are front and centre, poised to strike any interloper. A fabulous set of trials of all four notes was sold in Spink's January auction but Puyi would never see this superb design issued in his name on any Chinese note.


 In the absence of a paper currency issue from central government, provincial administrations, and the hundreds of private banks now proliferating across the Chinese landscape, began circulating their own notes. Long gone were any taboos against use of the lung. It was adopted as a popular vignette on many issues and included five-toed beasties, perhaps to imply the note bore some sort of official sanction. In many cases the lung was reduced to a slimmed down version, shorn of some resemblances and with minimal cloud cover.


One popular vignette shows a pair of lung seemingly squabbling over a flaming object that has been variously identified as a ruby or carbuncle (red garnet) or, even, the Pearl of Wisdom of Confucius. From the Han to Qing Dynasties the imperial coat of arms had displayed a pair of Imperial lungs accompanied by such an auspicious pearl of great price. Pre-revolutionary provincial and private banks had no hesitation in adopting this symbolism. On later banknote issues the pearl is sometimes replaced, rather pragmatically, by a coin. So much for tradition.

The Lung Goes To War

In 1937 the Japanese military rolled into town. In the course of expanding its control over vast areas of China it set up various, so-called, Puppet Banks. They issued enormous quantities of notes all of which needed designs. In the north the conquerors came across the 1909 BEP dragon plates and promptly adapted them for an initial issue of their Federal Reserve Bank of China. They replaced the portrait of Prince Chun at left with those of various worthies from China's historic past. The resulting issue is undoubtedly the most handsome note series produced in China during World War II.

The $1 issue is particularly notorious. Prince Chun has been replaced by Confucius who is making an obscene gesture. The Japanese did not seem to mind, beyond executing the Chinese engraver responsible, but used this same design on later adaptations. Perhaps they felt having an Imperial lung romping in the sky of what was, in effect, a Japanese issue made a clear statement to the conquered about the conquerors


Meanwhile, in occupied Manchuria in the north, the Japanese had installed Puyi as Kangde Emperor of their new puppet state of Manchuko. The puppet masters began spreading lung hither and yon about the margins of issues of the Bank of Manchuko. Many of these bug-eyes beasties are a delight although there is little rhyme or reason as to their toe numbers. This casual usage might reflect something of the contempt in which the Japanese held Puyi and his culture.

Collecting lung-bearing notes has long fascinated me. The many issues map much of the economic and political evolution of China over the last couple of thousand years. Just a brief outline is possible here but I sincerely recommend the study to anyone wanting a satisfying and delightful sideline to a main collecting theme.

And, of course, on 23 January of solar year 2012, the Lunar Year of the Dragon will dawn, or should that be Year of the Lung? Whatever beasties may feature on a host of annual lunar coins, it may be too much to hope that the New Year might also see the return of an auspicious lung on the odd Chinese banknote or two. And, in case any trivia buff was wondering, the lung took fifth place in the Great Race, after the rabbit but before the snake.

© K.A. Rodgers 2011