By Liu Hong
Among the many modern Chinese copper medals with the design of the Great Wall, the Plum Flower Badaling Great Wall series designed by Mr. Luo Xingsha from Shanghai Mint stands out as the most influential. Its magnificent design and detailed engraving elevated it to the symbol of the Chinese nation, while its origin from Shanghai Mint endowed it with the official status. One of the medals has the wrong English spelling "IF WE FAIL TO REACH THE GREAT WALL WE ARE NO HEROS." This oversight has unexpectedly generated interest in the collection of the Plum Flower Great Wall. This error medal led to the so-called "legitimate version" of a different Great Wall design by Mr. Wang Zhengfeng of Shenyang Mint (the Beacon Tower Great Wall design, but Wang Zhengfeng should be from Shanghai Mint, too - translator). This different design paved the way for another Great Wall copper medal series.
However, there are still many uncertainties to be clarified about the background, purpose and timing of the initial release of the Plum Flower Great Wall copper medal. Due to these uncertainties, some collectors were raising questions such as "What did the medal commemorate? And why?" To answer such questions, one collector reasoned that the Plum Flower Great Wall was issued to commemorate the work to restore the Great Wall. It is true that to commemorate the restoration of the Great Wall, a number of copper medals were issued with Deng Xiaoping's inscription "Restore the Great Wall, with love for China" on them. But linking the Plum Flower Great Wall copper medal to the restoration of the Great Wall is hardly supported by any evidence, in contradiction to some basic facts. This author will, based on the physical copper medals in own my collection and on the information gathered, attempt to study and to further explore the background, purpose and timing of the release of the Plum Flower Great Wall, in an effort to uncover historical truth.
Data often quoted by collectors and dealers are all taken from the catalog Modern Chinese Large Copper Medals. The information from this catalog on the Plum Flower Great Wall medal includes:
Metal: brass, stained copper
Diameter: 60 mm
Obverse: beacon tower of the Great Wall at Badaling, decorated with plum flowers
Reverse: "If we fail to reach the Great Wall we are no heros" in Chinese and English
Year of release: 1985
Designer and engraver: Luo Xingsha
Minted by: Shanghai Mint
Descriptions of this "China's Great Wall commemorative medal" point out that "The letter 'E' is missing from the English text on the reverse, which was corrected in 1987 in a different design." To be more precise, the English word HEROES was mistakenly spelled as HEROS. This is why it is treated as an error medal.
First, the catalog does not mention the background and the purpose of this medal, which leads to the puzzle "what to commemorate and why."
Second, this catalog leaves the false impression that this "IF WE FAIL TO REACH THE GREAT WALL WE ARE NO HEROS" medal was the first copper medal to adopt the Plum Flower Great Wall design. This is contradictory to facts.
Third, this catalog confuses the release time and mintage of the stained copper version with those of the brass version, although the attached picture in the catalog was a brass version, with the year "1980" on the reverse. This key fact is totally ignored in the catalog, with no explanations whatsoever, leading to doubts whether this copper medal with "1980" ever survived. The claimed mintage of 8,000 in the catalog seems to be that of the stained copper version. Judging from observed market availability, the brass medal is at least one order of magnitude less than the stained copper version. The brass medal with 1980 is hardly even seen.
Before going into serious discussions on the background and purpose of the release of the Great Wall copper medal, we should understand that the minting of modern Chinese copper medals was closely related to the broad context of the emerging reform and opening-up of China from the end of the 1970's to the beginning of the 1980's. The initial purpose of modern Chinese precious metal coin releases was to earn foreign exchange. Likewise, the initial function of modern Chinese copper medals was similar to that of business cards, to be presented as gifts by organizations such as government agencies/departments, companies and universities to an ever increasing number of foreign guests and counterparts. Their status as gifts makes them fundamentally different in nature from the commercialized artwork of most present-day large copper medals. Based on the information from Mr. Yan Shaolin of Shanghai Mint, Mr. Yin Guoqin and Mr. Gu Yida provided vivid and detailed descriptions of the minting process of medals as gifts in those days in their discussion of the first large copper medal made in the PRC, designed and engraved by Luo Xingsha and Lu Shengzhang. Most remarkably, these articles both mentioned that after the Great Wall large copper medal was made in 1980, gifts to foreign guests at that time largely took the form of this medal, which was regarded as more majestic. This provides clear evidence that the Plum Flower Great Wall copper medal was released for the purpose of gift presentation. It also confirmed that the initial release time is consistent with the year that appeared on the physical brass medal.
However, judging from physical medals that have made their appearance, the copper medal "IF WE FAIL TO REACH THE GREAT WALL WE ARE NO HEROS" was obviously not the only large copper medal with the Plum Flower Great Wall design released in 1980. It was not even the first medal released with this design.
Based on my research, the first Plum Flower Great Wall large copper medal was made as a gift on behalf of the People's Bank of China's delegation to the United States. This was the first time for the People's Bank of China (PBOC) to send a delegation to the US after the People's Republic of China was founded. The medal was made of brass, with golden stain, with a diameter of 60 mm, weighing 113.9 grams. The original box had green velvet interlaced with golden lines on the outside, and the inside lining was blue on the bottom, and white inside the cover. The white lining was imprinted with the golden characters "People's Bank of China" both in Chinese and in English. The obverse of the medal was the Plum Flower Great Wall design. The reverse carried the Chinese characters 中国人民银行 (People's Bank of China), in the same Lishu (official script) font as printed on the bank notes of Renminbi. The staining technology of the whole medal was identical to that used on the first copper medal of the PRC as described by Mr. Yin Guoqing and Mr. Gu Yida. It is golden and shiny even after more than 30 years. The PBOC delegation left Beijing for the US on April, 23, 1980, led by Li Baohua, then Governor of the PBOC, as the head, Qiao Beixin, then Vice Governor of the PBOC, as the deputy head, and Shang Ming, Director of the Planning Department of the PBOC, as the secretary general. This medal was meant as gifts for their American counterparts during the visit. Considering the fact that the golden stain technology was adopted at Shanghai Mint after Mr. Yan Yangsheng and his team visited the Japanese Osaka Mint in September, 1979, the minting time of this People's Bank of China large copper medal should fall between September, 1979 and April, 1980. This is a dedicated gift medal with a specific purpose and for a specific event. Its design and minting were obviously authorized and approved by parent organizations of Shanghai Mint.
Other government departments with frequent diplomatic activities at that time were also in need of this Great Wall medal as gifts, thanks to its majestic design which embodied the icon of the nation. After the Chinese and American governments established diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979, the Chinese Foreign Trade Minister Li Qiang and the American Ambassador to China Woodcock signed the Sino-US Trade Agreement on behalf of their respective governments on July 7 of the same year. This agreement went into effect on February 1, 1980. Based on the stipulation in the Trade Agreement for trade shows in each country, the Chinese Foreign Trade Ministry sponsored the Economic and Trade Show in San Francisco, Chicago and New York from September 2 to December 28, 1980.This was the first large show in the US after the PRC was founded. Bo Yibo, Vice Premier of China who was visiting the US at that time, hosted the opening ceremony in San Francisco. China's Ministry of Posts and Communications issued a set of two commemorative stamps for this major event on the opening day, and China Mint Company released a set of three commemorative brass medals for Sino-American Friendship. China International Trade Promotion Association, which acted as the actual organizer of the Economic and Trade Show, brought along a customized Plum Flower Great Wall large copper medal as gifts to guests and visitors to the show. This medal was made of brass, with a diameter of 60 mm, weighing 120.5 grams. The reverse of the medal had the Chinese characters 中国展览 (Chinese Exhibition) in the form of a Zhuan font used on seals. Underneath was the English text CHINESE EXHIBITION. The obverse was the Plum Flower Great Wall design. The original packaging was a velvet box with traditional Chinese patterns, with various materials and patterns used. The lining of the box was red on the bottom, and white inside the cover. The reverse design of this medal was very much in accordance with the design of the cover of the English promotion pamphlet released by the China International Trade Promotion Association in 1974. (See the picture below.) This was also the first time that the China International Trade Promotion Association had ever used a copper medal as gifts to guests and visitors to the show. Gifts before this event were mostly badges with Beijing scenery or panda designs. Judging from the minting technology of this medal, it was minted later than the PBOC Great Wall copper medal mentioned above, but before the opening of the trade show, i.e., between April and September of 1980. This Great Wall copper medal was also a dedicated gift medal with a specific purpose and for a specific event.
There is another "IF WE FAIL TO REACH THE GREAT WALL WE ARE NO HEROS" Great Wall copper medal with exactly the same obverse and reverse design, but without the year. The material was also brass, with a diameter of 60 mm, weighing 136.6 grams. It was packaged in a mahogany box, with the characters 上海造币厂精制 (meticulously manufactured by Shanghai Mint) on the cover. The velvet lining of the box was pink on the bottom and white inside the cover. The mintage of this undated Great Wall brass medal is larger than that of the dated Great Wall brass medal, but far smaller than that of the stained copper Great Wall medal released later on. With the "IF WE FAIL TO REACH THE GREAT WALL WE ARE NO HEROS" copper medal as a general-purpose gift, why were two varieties with the same design minted, one dated, and the other undated? According to the opinions and consensus among copper medal collectors, the dated copper medal was the first strike, with the smallest mintage. However, as a general-purpose gift, the year on the medal limited the time it could be used in. For example it would be inappropriate to present in 1982 a copper medal marked 1980 to guests. For this reason, later medals simply removed the year to save time and effort. When was this undated Plum Flower Great Wall brass medal first released? Such an undated Plum Flower Great Wall brass medal in my own collection was obtained from Mr. Ken Davis. He was once a senior manager of the Royal Canadian Mint, responsible for the commemorative coin business. As recalled by Mr. Davis, he left the Royal Canadian Mint for Sherritt International at the end of 1979, as he was ostracized by Yvon Gariepy, then the Mint Director, over disputes on English vs. French. One of the core businesses of Sherritt International was to provide sheet metal rolls and blanks to the minting industry. As Manager of International Marketing, Mr. Davis participated in hosting a mint delegation from China from the end of 1981 to the beginning of 1982, and arranged the itinerary for the delegation in Canada. Even in his old age, Mr. Davis still remembered clearly that he met the delegation in the Sherritt Gordon plant in Alberta. The delegation presented him with this Great Wall brass medal as a gift, to express their appreciation. Mr. Davis left Sherritt in 1982 for personal reasons, but kept in touch with his former colleagues in the company for many years. Judging from the detailed itinerary and timing provided by Mr. Davis, this delegation was the team of Zhu Dechun, Yan Yangsheng and Cai Mingxin, for investigating the feasibility of bullion gold coins. Mr. Zhu Dechun had positive comments on the outcome of this fact-finding visit to Canada and the US when he recalled the launch and growth of China's Panda series of gold coins. He mentioned that during the stay in Canada, they "looked into the nickel-bonded steel technology for circulating coin blanks, and reached intent for cooperation to introduce it to our country." The nickel-bonded steel technology was introduced to Shanghai Mint from Sherritt International following an agreement formally signed in 1985. Based on these historical facts, the initial minting and release time of the undated "IF WE FAIL TO REACH THE GREAT WALL WE ARE NO HEROS" Plum Flower Great Wall brass medal should not be later than the end of 1981.
From the logic point of view, this release time was also reasonable. Following the 1980 release of the dated "IF WE FAIL TO REACH THE GREAT WALL WE ARE NO HEROS" brass medal, there was immediate need to release general-purpose Great Wall gift medals. It would not work to wait till 1985 to release the undated medal. In terms of weight, the dated and undated copper medals are very close, well within the tolerance of manufacturing. They might have come from the same batch of blanks, which means that their release time was very close. However, the undated "IF WE FAIL TO REACH THE GREAT WALL WE ARE NO HEROS" brass medal might have continued its minting in the following years, till the stained copper version was released.
To summarize, I believe that the series of copper medals with the Plum Flower Great Wall design was initially released as gifts. The first four of them were all made of brass, transitioning from dedicated gift medals for a specific purpose in a specific event, to general-purpose gift medals with no designated receiver or event. All these four medals were released between the end of 1979 to the end of 1981, in the order of People's Bank of China Great Wall copper medal, Chinese Exhibition Great Wall copper medal, "IF WE FAIL TO REACH THE GREAT WALL WE ARE NO HEROS" Great Wall copper medal with 1980, and the year-less "IF WE FAIL TO REACH THE GREAT WALL WE ARE NO HEROS" copper medal. After these copper medals came the "IF WE FAIL TO REACH THE GREAT WALL WE ARE NO HEROS" silver medal and stained copper medal, as well as the series of copper medals for special collection with the Plum Flower Great Wall design.
(References omitted - translator)