By Lei Ting
(This article was written by Lei Ting, who is one of the organizers of the Chinese Classical Garden series of medals. Pictures of Yuanmingyuan and Lan Ting are attached below.)
Before the end of 2012, I ran across a PF69 Yuyuan silver medal on eBay. I was awed by the exquisite design and detailed engraving of the pavilion and hall on it. Its piedfort 2 oz size intrigued coin collectors like me with its weighty feeling in hands. I became strongly interested in the medal. However, searching through books and reference data yielded no information on its background. The only fact known was that it was released by Shanghai Mint. I went to Shanghai Mint with Mr. Cai Xiaoping several times to investigate. Answers were finally found in the thick, dust covered dossier in the Document Room of Shanghai Mint. It turned out that the Yuyuan medal was a piece designed and engraved during 2001-2002 by Mr. Yu Min, the winner of Best Crown Coin Award by Krause, when Shanghai Mint experimented with high relief small size coins and medals. A few patterns were made for collecting metrics and data. Afterwards, the patterns were destroyed, and the dies locked up with no further follow-up actions. Fast-forward to 2009. To celebrate the Shanghai Expo, the Mint recalled this piece of delicate artwork which is representative of China as well as local Shanghai characteristics. This led to the release of the Yuyuan medal, with a mintage of 2,010 pieces.
By the end of 2012, as the collector group of Yuyuan silver medal steadily grew and met to talk about it, we became more and more fascinated by this little gem. Quite a few coin collectors liked this series of Chinese Classical Gardens. We all expected it to continue, and so searched everywhere for news about its new release. The only feedback, which was not unlike hearsay, was that there was a plan to issue a second medal Shenyuan, but the plan was subsequently scratched. We all felt betrayed, which led to a crazy idea: we would all go and seek out our mint contacts, and see whether we could commission the Mint with more medals for the series.
As luck would have it, we discovered by accident a Lan Ting ink stone, said to have been engraved in mid Qing Dynasty. The poetic ambience of floating wine cups along a winding stream on the ink stone overwhelmed everyone. ("Floating wine cups along a winding stream" was an ancient festival, when scholars would sit on the bank of the stream, waiting for wine cups to pass. If the wine cup stopped in front of a scholar, he was obliged to compose a poem on the spot, or to drink the wine from the cup.) We decided to use the ink stone image as the design template and launched the project.
Oh all the twists and turns! First, the Classical Garden series was officially launched by Shanghai Mint. It was their own product. The system ruled out the possibility for individuals or organizations to take it over. It required a rigid system of expert review and approvals through the hierarchy. Despite our efforts made on multiple fronts, the cold reality was more than chilling. Our enthusiasm in the initial stage was again doused – we had even organized a Chinese Classical Garden silver medal development team (group), to work on research related to the Classical Garden series. We were not to give up, though. We decided to accomplish the impossible with our heart. Multiple trips were made to Shanghai Mint, to communicate with the designers, and to express to the leadership our fervent love for the series. After long and repeated communication which went on for almost half a year, our sincerity broke the ice. Maestro Yu Min willingly accepted the job to design and engrave the second medal in the series, Lan Ting. The leadership of Shanghai Mint also made an exception. Rules and regulations must be followed, but the distribution of the medal could be negotiated. This turned on the green light for the continued releases of the series.
Once minting started, disturbing news poured in. Because the surface of Lan Ting swells up like a bun, stress fell on the rim. But with the uneven surface, dies cracked easily during striking. Four sets of steel dies cracked for striking the first batch of 170 pieces. What was worse, around 110 of them were held by the QA team from being released, as they did not meet the Mint's standards. The striking issue got so bad that the operators were too scared to start the coin press. All the stakeholders converged on the scene: the Mint leadership team, the General Production Planner and the Director of the Die Division got together in the production facility in an effort to find a solution to the problem. This technical tough challenge weighed on everyone's mind in the sweltering summer.
The technical expertise of Shanghai Mint enriched over nearly 100 years, as well as the collective wisdom of the professionals, finally proved itself to our admiration. After 7 sets of cracked dies, the Lan Ting silver medal emerged perfectly with performing and multiple strikes in the fall of 2013, thanks to the efforts put in by everyone involved.
The planned mintage of Lan Ting was 2,000, but the actual mintage was 1,500.
I would like to mention specifically the antique finish Lan Ting. Controversy came up during the planning state in the Classical Garden QQ group, for several reasons. First, the Yuyuan medal did not have this finish. So it was inconsistent. Second, the blackish color would not look good. Someone even PSed a black picture of the Lan Ting medal and presented it to the group. It was very unsightly. At the suggestion of Professor Huang Ruiyong, we decided to mint only 200 pieces as a trial. It turned out to be the biggest hit when the medals were delivered. On the release day, bids were offered for the antique finish version at twice the release price. It was the undisputed star of all the Lan Ting medals. Now it has totally disappeared from the market, and became a favorite among many.
3. Summer Palace
By the end of 2013, the third medal in the series was being planned, for the Summer Palace, the top garden of the four Famous Gardens. (The others are Liuyuan and the Garden of Humble Administrator in Suzhou, and the Imperial Summer Resort in Chengde – translator.) Dazhou, a QQ group member, brought up an idea: recreation based on the painting of "Festival Summer Palace" by Mr. Zhang Yuqing from the 1970s. This proposal was turned down by the designers because of copyright consideration. However, it led their thoughts to a new direction. They followed Mr. Zhang's footsteps to the Summer Palace for onsite observations. Repeated musing and sketches were tempted from his perspective. Finally a bold presentation of the panorama condensed the overwhelming landscape on the surface of a 40 mm medal. It is unprecedented as such.
The design of the other side also took a dramatic turn. At first we all agreed to using a lacquer plate with gold-painted design of the Xiequyuan in the Summer Palace, which was bought from Japan at a high price by a group member Zhao Yong, as the inspiration for redesign and engraving. Consensus was reached after repeated discussions and even heated arguments between the QQ group members and the designers, while referring to the double-sided deep dish design of a silver coin from Perth Mint of Australia. This led to the introduction of the first double-sided deep dish medal in China. (As an aside, when the design of the Summer Palace medal was under way, the China Gold Coins Incorporation under the People's Bank of China was calling for bids on the 2014 China's Buddhist Sanctuary – Ermei 2 oz silver coin. Shanghai Mint took the idea of a deep dish design from our Summer Palace medal, and presented a single side deep dish coin design, which came out on top in the fierce competition with Shenyang Mint and Shenzhen Guobao Mint because it appealed to the many experts on the review committee. Afterwards, Shanghai Mint staff expressed thanks to our design and development team. We were especially pleased to be able to contribute to coin making technologies of our country with our collective wisdom.)
When the design of the Summer Palace commemorative medal was submitted to Shanghai Mint, approved and even engraved, a dramatic turn took place. The QQ group members found a better and more representative landscape of the Summer Palace, the Long Corridor. The original design was replaced, and the new design had to be submitted for approval. But the hard work of the designers on the original design was not to be wasted, and the system of the national mint had to be followed. After repeated discussions with the Mint, they agreed at the beginning of 2014 to provide the original design Xiequyuan as an extra bonus to the QQ group members, to our pleasant surprise, along with the Summer Palace – Long Corridor. The Summer Palace medal now has two varieties. The reverse is the panorama view of the Summer Palace. The obverse is 1. Long Corridor; 2. Xiequyuan. (The Xiequyuan variety came into existence just by accident. Maybe it should be excluded from the series, because this process cannot be replicated. Of course its price is sky high, too.)
Time flies. Yuanmingyuan, the "garden of all gardens", quickly moved onto the radar screen of the development team. It had a glorious past. Therefore it became the top priority of the Classical Garden series. But today all that was left of the garden are just ruins. How can the past glory be represented? This thought weighed on our mind as well as on the mind of the three most outstanding designers of Shanghai Mint. After collective brainstorming, it was finally decided to draw inspirations from the painting Forty Scenes of Yuanmingyuan by the imperial painters of Emperor Qianlong – Tang Dai, Shen Yuan and Leng Mei, as well as the copperplate European Palace in Yuanmingyuan by Giuseppe Castiglione. Combined with designs drawn from onsite observations by the designers, a grandiose medal was finally accomplished with Chinese style landscape and the Hall of National Peace on the obverse, and the ruins of the Water Wonder on the reverse.
As the obverse of this medal is extremely detailed, Mrs. Zhang Chunyue, director of the design and engraving team at Shanghai Mint, took up the engraving work herself. The reverse was shaped by the knives of Mrs. Dong Huizhen, a top coin designer/engraver. The clay models took as long as 4 months to complete. After the clay models were replicated to plaster models, it would take one to two weeks of detailing before they could be placed on the reducer to be reduced to master hubs. At that critical moment, Mrs. Zhang was diagnosed with some serious illness. Before she was hospitalized, she asked Mrs. Dong time and again to perfect the models for her. The Yuanmingyuan medal was not only designed with their heart and soul, but also a summary and reflection of Mrs. Zhang Chunye's many years of work.
After many twists and turns, the Yuanmingyuan medal, with the highest relief never seen on Chinese small size coins and medals, was finally released at the end of 2014. The ultra high relief on the ruins side had posed enormous difficulty for its production. The production management team and the coin press room staff organized trial productions which lasted 2 months. After trying out planchet performing, multiple (3-4 times) strikes, lathing twice to round the edge, double annealing, multiple cracked sets of working dies, multiple times of manual work, edging lettering and rhodium plating to prevent oxidation, the production was finally completed with success. Afterwards, the production team at Shanghai Mint confided that the work order was carried out regardless of cost or manpower, for the purpose of testing different new technologies and meeting the challenges. The difficulty and cost of producing this medal was absolutely beyond imagination.
5. Imperial Summer Resort (to be continued)