Chopmarked coins, unlike most coins that tell us nothing of where they've been, can speak volumes. All of those marks tell us where the coin has been and what it was used for, and are strongly tied to events of the day. Chopmarks differ from countermarks (or counterstamps) in that a countermark was a monogram added by a government making the coin acceptable for use in that country. One of the most well known countermarked examples is the oval bust of George III on various Spanish Colonial coins of the late 18th century (shown at the left).
Chopmarks are basically countermarks used by Chinese bankers and merchants stamped on coins as a defense against debased counterfeit coins. Chopmarks also signified that a coin's composition had been verified and that it was acceptable for use in trade. Chopmarks can take a variety of forms as shown in the table below.
To understand why the Chinese felt it necessary to "chop" all silver (and a few gold and even fewer copper) coins, it is helpful to understand what was going on in China economically at that time. Prior to 1842 Canton was the only Chinese port open to foreign trade so it stands to reason that the practice of chopping coins probably began in Canton. References in the "Chronicles of the East Indian Trading Company" indicate that chopmarked coins were in use in 1776. Over time local Chinese officials developed a consortium of merchants known in the west as the Cohong system, to conduct foreign trade. During the 1600's and 1700's foreign traders wanted commodities such as tea, silk, porcelain and lacquer ware, but the only commodity China wanted in return was silver. Ships from England, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, France, Germany, Denmark and America carried to China tons of silver - most of it produced in the mines of Spanish America.
Tao Kuang, Emperor of China from 1820 to 1840, issued an Imperial Edict, ordering that the only form of payment Chinese merchants could lawfully accept for the goods they sold to foreigners was silver coins. This attempt to stop barter caused the English to seek a commodity that Chinese merchants wanted badly enough to risk Imperial wrath to pay for it with silver. Otherwise China would soon have all the world's silver and the East India Company would run out of profits from China trade. That commodity was opium. England had opium, grown in India, and could sell all they could deliver to the Chinese who were willing to pay in silver coins. The Imperial government blamed the English for the terrible increase in opium addiction in China, which ultimately led to war.
Thus came the Opium War, Part 1 was fought between 1838 and 1842, and Part 2 ran from 1850 to 1860. This also triggered the Tai-Ping rebellion, 1850-1865, which was suppressed by the government and went underground to resurface as the Boxer Rebellion. This too was suppressed by the government, but not finished. It turned into two things, the Revolution of 1911, which overthrew the Ching Dynasty; and the Triads, which became secret criminal organizations similar to the Mafia.
China produced very few dollar sized silver coins before 1890 using instead the circulating silver dollar coinage of other countries. The most widely traded coins of the time were the Spain's and Mexico's 8 Reales coins, but other countries not wanting these to become the world-trading standard started producing their own dollar-sized silver trade coins.
One thing thing to keep in mind: the Chinese people accepted the coins above by weight, as "7 Mace and 2 Candareens" of standard silver, but not as a "dollar" which did not become legal tender until 1889. But, with all of the types of dollars and variations of silver content, it was becoming difficult to determine which coins to accept and which to avoid.
Compounding the problem was the influx of counterfeit coins. Researchers have uncovered records describing the production of counterfeit coins for the Chinese market. One was by a Mr. Pablo Bordeauz, "Made in Birmingham in 1792, Counterfeit Spanish Pieces of Eight, Countermarked in China", where he documented manufacturing methods of copper coins plated with silver and specified a production scale amounting to 25,000 pounds of counterfeit coins weekly during 1792.
Another report is that the British established a mint in Canton at the end of the eighteenth century in order to strike forged pieces of eight dated 1778 and that by 1790 several million forged coins were circulating in China. It turns out that the East India Company made a big mistake, and that was to leave the mint in the hands of the natives. They were producing forged Mexico Carolus Dollars, but Chinese workers anxious to make money for themselves too, began increasing the copper content of the alloy and keeping the silver. Coins put into circulation were .600 fine instead of the correct .902.7. The flamboyant mint of the East India Company went bankrupt and closed its doors.
Between the coins not of Chinese origin and the large number of forgeries, some form of silver content guarantee was needed. To solve this problem, the native bank or moneychanger added their "chop" to each dollar that passed through their hands. This "chop" was normally a single symbol or letter or sometimes a secret symbol known only to that particular money changer that:
1. showed the coin was given out by them,
"Chop" is said to be a word imported by the English from India where the word was "Chappa" or "Choppa", meaning seal or official stamp.
Deciphering the meaning of these little "chops" can be an exercise in frustration. First, they are over 100 years old and many of the characters are no longer comparable to modern-day characters. Therefore it is difficult to translate them into a modern English-Chinese dictionary and necessitates locating someone who can read the old characters. Secondly, research has shown that many of the "chops" turned into personal marks of identity like a monogram, some even using an assemblage of characters similar to a cattle brand. Chinese characters are made up of meanings, which may describe the person's physical appearance, title or other unique feature. This "chop" change may have been caused when local businessmen took up the practice of chopmarking.
Unfortunately, the practice of counterfeiting coins, even those bearing chopmarks, continues in China today so great care should be exercised when selecting coins for your collection. For some collectors chopmarked coins will always be damaged goods, but for others they represent a moment in history. And, just like in other facets of this hobby, you should always collect what you like, not what someone else tells you too.
Chopmarks by F.M. Rose, 1978.
Chopmark Collectors Club Newsletter, "Chopmark News", July 1990 through 2008: