Monday, May 18, 2015

Medals Made from Hand-Engraved Dies at Shanghai Mint

1. Die Making Process

Before reducing machines (the most famous of which was the Javier reducing machine: were invented, die makers engraved directly on the die blank of the size of the coin, to produce a negative image of the coin to be struck. It was slow, and it required years of experience to master the skill. (Even today, according to Zeng Chenghu, a hand-engraver needs at least five years of training before being able to work independently.) Introduction of the reducing machine eliminated this manual die making process, as artists could design a positive image on a much larger clay model, to be reduced to the actual coin size using the machine. Manual work on the various dies and hubs is still needed at the mint for die polishing and repair work. But the art of hand-engraving on coin sized dies is largely lost.

2. Shanghai Mint’s Effort to Carry on the Hand-Engraving Tradition

Shanghai Mint has a long tradition of hand-engraving on steel dies. According to Zeng Chenghu, the designer and engraver of the Pagoda set, there have been five generations of hand-engravers, starting from 1933 ( Two schools of hand-engraving co-existed and intermingled at Shanghai Mint: the Western style using engraving knives and the Chinese style using engraving chisels. Dozens of artists were trained in hand-engraving. The most recent hand-engraving training class at Shanghai Mint was run in 2006. Unfortunately, coin-size medals from hand-engraved dies were only produced in the early 1980's. Recent medals made with hand-engraved dies are large copper ones.

Zeng Chenghu hand-engraving a medal die:

3. Steps to Make Hand-Engraved Dies

There are four steps in hand-engraving a steel die:

a. Transfer the design onto the die blank. The design needs to be transferred in a reserved image 1:1 onto the die blank, as the engraved device will be negative.
b. Preliminary engraving. The outlines of the image are compared against the design or the physical model. The highest point of the design is located, and a rough shape of the design is engraved, with differentiated layers.
c. Detailed engraving. Fine tuning of the engraved image is performed by working on the details of the design. Different layers are adjusted.
d. Overall check. When hand-engraving is complete, a complete checkup is performed on the die, to see whether the whole image is precise, whether the layers on the die are well defined and whether the overall effect is perfect. Further polishing may be needed.

Zeng Chenghu mentioned that normally hand-engraved dies are polished, to remove the sharp lines left by knives and/or chisels, so that the image will appear smooth. But at times, the artist would decide to leave part of the image or the entire image unpolished, for contrast or for special effect. In the following picture of the Songyue Temple medal, the tower itself is polished, while the hills and trees remain unpolished, showing sharp outlines: (Click to see a big picture)

The Goldfish medals have the fish bodies polished, but not their tails. Also note the sharp lines on the water weed:(Click to see a big picture)

The orchid leaves in the picture below are obviously unpolished, too: (Click to see a big picture)

The hand-engraved die will be hardened and used as the master die, from which working hubs are made, and then working dies are made from the working hubs. As hand-engraved dies eliminate the use of the reducing machine (or its modern equivalent of a high definition scanner and precision mill), details are better preserved. Here is a comparison of the two processes:

Regular die making: clay model -> plaster model -> galvano -> master hub -> master die -> working hub -> working die

Hand-engraved dies:  master die -> working hub -> working die

Hand-engraving on steel dies is an extremely slow process. It was reported that Bai Wenjun, a hand engraver at Shanghai Mint, took almost a year  (on and off) to hand-engrave the dies of the Plum, Orchid, Bamboo and Chrysanthemum medal set:

 Zeng Chenghu admitted that it took him more than a year (on and off) to hand engrave the 4 sides on his Pagoda set:

 In recent years, pneumatic tools have been introduced into the hand-engraving process for preliminary engraving.

4. An Incomplete List of the Early Hand-Engraved Medals from Shanghai Mint

The peak time for hand-engraving came when Shanghai Mint just started commemorative coin and medal production, from 1979 to the mid 1980’s. As hand-engraving is slow, it was never used to produce coin dies which had a short deadline. Instead, most hand engraved dies were used to strike brass medals (and silver medals of the same design, such as Goldfish, Pagodas and Li Qingzhao). Some of these brass medals were restruck in the 1990’s, such as Pagodas, Goldfish, Plum, Orchid, Bamboo and Chrysanthemum and the Auspicious Palace Lantern series, but some were never restruck in brass, such as Cao Xueqin, Li Qingzhao and Shrimps and Crabs. In addition, gilt and silver plated versions were produced in the 1990's, which have less details as the gold/silver coating tends to cover them up.

Below is an incomplete list of early medals made from hand-engraved dies by Shanghai Mint. I did my best to locate the photos from my own collection and from the web.

a. Auspicious Palace Lantern (1980): all the following brass medals share the same reverse of a palace lantern.

Reverse by Yi Shizhong

Palace Corner Tower, by Fang Maosen

 Phoenix, by Gong Yiting

 Dragon and Phoenix, by Ye Zhonghua

Double Dragon, by Zeng Chenghu

Elephant, by Ye Bolin

Lion, by Fang Maosen

Qilin, by Fang Maosen

Cranes, by Yi Shizhong

Note: those with the date "1980" are extremely hard to find. Medals without "1980" are restrikes, which are more readily available. This set also has a gilt version.

It is a mystery why so many hand-engravers contributed to the set. Probably it was a show of talent at the end of a hand-engraving training class?

b. Pagodas, by Zeng Chenghu

Note: the reverse is not hand-engraved, but etched. Brass original strikes are very few. Restrikes in the 1990's are more readily available. It has both gilt and silver plated restrikes.

c. Goldfish, by Yi Shizhong

Note: the reverse is not hand-engraved, but etched. Brass original strikes are very few. Restrikes were said to be made. It has both gilt and silver plated restrike versions.

d. Flowers and the Moon, by Yi Shizhong

 Note: This set has been reproduced in silver by Shanghai Mint recently in a difference size, by scanning and re-making of the dies, losing much of the original details and style.

e. Plum, Orchid, Bamboo and Chrysanthemum, by Bai Wenjun

 Note: There are restrikes of this set and a gilt version. The restrikes are pretty common.

f. Li Qingzhao, by Bai Wenjun

 Note: This medal was restruck in stained and plated copper versions.

g. Cao Xueqin, by Fang Maosen

Note: This medal was restruck in stained and plated copper versions.

h. Shrimps and Crabs, by Bai Wenjun

Note: This medal was restruck in gilt version.

i. Fortune and Marital Happiness, by Zeng Chenghu

j. Famous Ancient Towers, by Huang Jian

 It is an exception here as this set was made in the 1990's. It is strange that this set only has a gilt version.

The following picture shows the details on part of Lion (Click to see the original size):


  1. Wow, wow, wow, and wow Frank! Good stuff. Great info. Beautiful art work on those medals. Can I have a few of those medals? :-)

    1. Unfortunately I do not have them all, and for what I have, there are no duplicates to share :(

  2. In fact chisels are also used in Western hand-engraving. See some pictures here:

  3. I suspect the palace lanterns lion was not hand engraved, or that the design was not entirely done with hand engraving. The reason why is because it is so flat. It is difficult to control the depth of cut with a graving tool, so hand-engraved designs never look so flat. But, modern machine-engraving works much better if the depth of cut is as consistently flat as possible. Also, the fact that the lion is much rarer than the other designs, and the fact that the engraver isn't known, leads me to believe that whoever in the class that was supposed to do it did not complete it successfully, so the design was done by machine.

    As somewhat of an embarrassment for the mint, it makes sense that fewer of them would have been struck. They may have only been struck to produce a few "complete" sets, when it became clear that all 7 designs in the set would not be finished with hand engraving, as planned.

    1. I updated the info. The hand engraver was Fang Maosen.

  4. Nice to see you here, badon. Lion does have a distinct style. The reason I left a question mark for the engraver was that it needed confirmation. Some said it was engraved by Fang Maosen. Others gave different names. Someone in China is helping me find out.

    Your attention to the flat surface is to the point. I examined the flat surface of the character 福 (fortune) in the Plum, Orchid, Bamboo and Chrysanthemum set. Chisel/knife marks were visible. However, the surface on Lion is not flat. There are bumps which the original photo does not show. I just uploaded a picture showing the details at the end of the post for your reference. It is larger, but still does not do the bumps enough justice due to the lighting.

    The Palace Lantern set consists of 6 medals, with animals on the obverse. The Corner Tower actually does not belong to this set. I list it here because it is hand engraved, too. There is another medal with the lantern on the reverse, but the obverse is one of the sides from the Shanghai Scenery set. I did not list it here because Shanghai Scenery was not hand engraved.

  5. Your close-up photos of the lion are good enough. I can see the evidence of hand engraving that you described. Indeed, the style of the lion is very different from the other coins, and the fact it looks so perfect that I mistook it for being machine-cut is a testament to the high skill of the engraver. No one else produced a similar design that I know of - do you know if Fang Maosen ever did any other designs like the lion, or can you think of other coins from different artists with similar style?

    The 1982 palace lantern Great Wall was not mentioned here - do you know if it was hand engraved, and who the artist was? As I understand it, the elephant was the least popular coin in the palace lantern series, and it has now become the key coin in the series, including in the restrike sets. But, I wonder if the 1982 Great Wall is even more rare than the elephant? I have seen old posts from you, fwang2450, that say no one has proven to have completed a set of the palace lanterns. Having some strange members in the set like the 1982 Great Wall could lead to premature claims to have completed a set, when at least that coin is actually still missing from the person's collection. What is the Shanghai scenery palace lantern? Is it in the Coin Compendium?

    I am thinking about maybe collecting the palace lanterns series. The goldfish are my favorite, designed and engraved by Yi Shizhong, and the fact at least one side of all of the palace lanterns were engraved by him makes the palace lantern series appeal to me for that reason only, just because I'm such a big fan of his artwork.

    Also, I'm very curious about which of the recently minted large size coins were hand engraved. I may want to add them to my private collection too.

  6. Fang Maosen was Director of the Die Making Division at Shanghai Mint for a long time. He retired in 2009. He hand-engraved three sides in the palace lantern set: Qilin, Lion and the Corner Tower. He is said to have hand engraved the reverse of the Guilin Scenery brass set, but this needs to be confirmed.

    The Great Wall/palace lantern does not belong to this series, and is not hand engraved. It was made by Shenyang Mint.

    It is true that nobody has a complete set of the palace lantern set with 1980. The elephant and qilin are especially elusive. So far there is only one specimen of the elephant. It is hard to find even without 1980. A senior collector in China has been trying to collect the set without 1980. He still needs the elephant to complete it. The Shanghai Scenery/palace lantern combination is also very rare. I know of only two specimens. They have not been seen on the market. I will ask for photos.

    Yi Shizhong contributed Cranes to the palace lantern set. His Moon and Flower is a superb piece of art. The set is still available once in a while in China. You can ask ggoodluck to watch for you. He has a set himself, but he wouldn't sell.

    I generally do not collect large copper medals, and so do not have enough data for the hand engraved ones. I will do some research on them when I have time, and list them here.

    1. I look forward to learning about the large copper coins that are hand engraved, so thanks in advance for sharing that information!

  7. Since the 1982 lantern Great Wall has the same lantern design, it is obviously intended to match with the "standard" set of lanterns, and it would naturally appeal to collectors of those sets. So, it's not part of those sets, but I would absolutely consider it part of the same "series", despite coming from a different official mint. Do you disagree?

    This kind of reminds me of the outrage some collectors had when I categorized the World Historical Figures series next to the Chinese Historical Figures. It might end up becoming a matter of personal preference as to whether a collector of one set or series will also collect a similar set or series. Peter Anthony recently mentioned in his Pricepedia that the exploitation of the panda theme at the China mints has resulted in over 600 distinct coin types that depict pandas on them! Even the most advanced collectors would be tempted dismiss a large fraction of those as "not really pandas", or whatever else, just to avoid giving themselves the daunting task of collecting them all. That's perfectly understandable!

    About your statement that the 1982 lantern Great Wall is not hand engraved, I'm curious how you came to that conclusion. Although the Great Wall side does not look hand engraved, correct me if I'm wrong, but it still appears to be using Yi Shizhong's hand engraved lantern on the lantern side. That would qualify it as "hand engraved" since the original master hub or master die was an incuse, mirror-reversed, hand engraved work of art from Yi Shizhong's own hands, with no automated machine copying that I'm aware of. Was there in fact machine copying done? Even then, it might be a "distant" hand engraved work of art, but still hand engraved.

    At LBC, the subject of hand engraving of the silver and gold plated 1984 pagodas has come up:

    I think those still count as hand engraved too. What do you think? Were some of these coin designs run through a computer digitization process, or perhaps a counterfeiter's design-stealing method like a sinker EDM ("spark erosion") to copy the design without using the original hand engraved artwork? That might be a step too far that could justify us deciding it's not hand engraved, but instead just a copy.

  8. The use of the palace lantern is pretty common. On the coin Welcome Spring, you can see the palace lantern, too. Strictly speaking the palace lantern set consists of only 6 medals, with animals on the other side. The Corner Tower and the Shanghai Scenery/palace lantern medals are not recorded anywhere, probably fantasy medals made by the mint workers.

    The Shenyang Mint palace lantern was not from the hands of Yi Shizhong. Most likely it was not hand engraved either. The designs are very different in details, with the Shenyang Mint lantern more elaborate. Also, the Shenyang Mint medal is 50 mm, while the Shanghai Mint hand engraved lantern is 27 mm. If you have a 27 mm master die, you cannot make a 50 mm medal without going through some hubbing and enlargement process, the opposite of reducing. That will disqualify it from being hand engraved, as hand engraving is defined as 1:1 between the die and the medal/coin to be made.

    The plated medals from hand engraved dies still count as hand engraved. I discussed this specifically with Zeng Chenghu. He agreed, whiling pointing out the loss of details and cameo-mirror contrast on many of them.

  9. Excellent information, thank you. I received a similar explanation from ggoodluck2013 when he described that the 1982 design is completely unrelated to the hand engraved design by Yi Shizhong.

    I'm glad to hear that the plated version of the pagodas do count as hand engraved, in the opinion coming directly from the engraver, Zeng Chenghu. That will give more people the opportunity to own more affordable versions of the earliest hand engraved coins of the PRC.

  10. I need 18th century coin replicated to be used for jewelry. I only have picture of coin and require engraving of dies in order to produce hand struck coins. Who can help me with production of these dies? Thank you. Ed

  11. I have some Chinese coins I would like to ask you about. However I cannot figure out how to post a picture of them...

    1. You can post them here: