On March 1, 1932, a man by the name of Puyi became the Datong, or chief executive, of Manchukuo. It was just six days earlier that Puyi had accepted the offer with a drunken party to celebrate this event. This celebration included a wide variety of guests ranging from Japanese military generals to geishas. The latter were invited to come from Japan as entertainment. While the event was held in Puyi’s honor, the geishas who entertained the new Datong didn’t even know who he was. Puyi was once the child Emperor of China, last of the Qing Dynasty, abdicated, restored, then reversed after only 11 days. Now at the age of 26, he once again held a title but not rule. Puyi had accepted a deal to restore himself to power, and thus he became a puppet of Japan in their occupation and rule of the Chinese territories under the state of Manchukuo.
In 1931, Japan had invaded Manchuria, China, under the Manchurian Incident, where the Japanese staged an explosion of dynamite next to a railway owned by Japan’s South Manchuria Railway. This explosion was so weak that the train tracks remained intact but became the pretext for invasion and occupation of Chinese providences. With the Chinese government fractured due to internal problems, warlords, and political struggles, Japan encountered little resistance in conquering Manchuria. Yet, being occupied and ruled by Japan would not be tolerated by the Chinese people of Manchuria.
To reduce rebellion, Japan placed a Chinese figure as the head of the state, the once Qing Emperor, Puyi. He had been expelled from his home, the iconic Beijing palace complex known as the “Forbidden City,” in 1924. Seeking refuge, Puyi moved to the Japanese Concession of Tianjin. In 1931, Puyi sent a letter to the Japanese Minister of War expressing his desire to be restored as the Emperor of China. Seeing the opportunity with the newly acquired Japanese territories in China and when forming the State of Manchukuo, Japan offered Puyi the chance to rule – not Beijing and all of China, but Manchukuo, its new state. Installing Puyi as ruler would distance the Japanese from their rule of the state, and with a legitimate Chinese Emperor as the figurehead, it would give the appearance of greater legitimacy to the state. On March 8, 1932, Puyi was ceremonially driven into Changchun looking out to the people he believed he would rule. The Japanese propaganda wasn’t just the once-Emperor Puyi as ruler in his yellow Qing Imperial Dragon robes, but a full depiction of Manchukuo as a pan-Asian state with the “five races” of Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Manchus, and Mongols all coming together in harmony, under one ruler, one flag, and one currency for the outside world to be deceived.
New coinage under the state of Manchukuo was issued under the yuan. This monetary system valued one yuan as 10 Chiao, 100 Fen, or 1000 Li. Coins were issued for use in Manchukuo with the denominations of 5 Li, 1 Fen, 5 Fen, and 1 Chiao. The coins started being issued in 1933, the second year of Puyi Datong rule, and continued until 1934 when his Datong ended. The dating system followed that of Japanese coinage, with the year representing the year of rule, instead of any other date. The design of the 5 Li and 1 Fen coins is the same, with an obverse featuring the flag of Manchukuo with Chinese lettering 國洲滿大 (“Manchukuo”) and 年三同大 (“Year 3 of Datong”). The reverse features a flora wreath with either “5 Li” or “One Fen” inside, depending on the denomination. The 5 Li measures 21 millimeters in diameter and the 1 Fen measures 24 millimeters wide. The 5 Fen and 1 Chiao also share a common design featuring an obverse with a lotus flower surrounded by “Manchukuo” and “Year (2 or 3) of Datong.” The reverse features two facing dragons with a fireball or pearl above “5 Fen” or “One Chiao.” The 5 Fen measures 20 millimeters and the 1 Chiao coin comes in at 23 millimeters.
Manchukuo, under Japanese rule, was not the ideal situation that the propaganda made it out to be. Anyone not ethnically Japanese was treated essentially as a second-class citizen. Manchukuo had nine police and intelligence forces, and all had to pay for their own operations. Gangs sponsored by these Japanese forces would make many areas lawless and dangerous for civilians in the territory. Giving Puyi the title of Datong was a test by the Emperor of Japan. Always under Japanese watch, the Emperor Showa wanted to ensure that Puyi would be a loyal puppet before rewarding him with the title he desired, emperor. Under the auspice of loyalty to Emperor Showa as his “father,” Puyi was crowned Kangde (Emperor of Manchukuo), rather than his old title of “Great Qing Emperor.” On March 1, 1934, Puyi was crowned Kangde.
Despite being warned that Puyi was only a puppet being used by the Japanese, he accepted his title of Kangde and fulfilled his rule for the Japanese. Every law the Japanese people wanted to have passed was dropped off at the palace for Puyi to sign, which he always did. Puyi signed away vast tracts of farmland to Japanese colonists. Puyi went as far as to sign orders that certain types of thoughts could themselves be considered crimes. It would come out in war crimes trials in 1946 that the Chinese people had been used for medical experiments by the Japanese, all under the name of Kangde Puyi.
Under the new title of Kangde, the coinage was updated to 年元德康 (“First Year of Kangde”) and the new dating system was started over, with Year 1 representing 1934, the first year of Puyi’s title of Kangde. The 5 Li, 1 Fen, 5 Fen, and 1 Chiao coinage continued under the same design until Year 6 (1939).
The Manchukuo under Puyi was run for the entire benefit of the Japanese and, as such, Japanese colonists came to take over the land once owned by Chinese and Korean families. Chinese people were enslaved to work in factories and mines for the benefit of the Japanese. While all of this was happening to the people living in Manchukuo, Puyi lobbied internationally for countries to recognize Manchukuo as an independent country aside. The most prominent nation to recognize Manchukuo was Germany under the rule of Adolf Hitler, who joined El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Italy, and Spain as the only countries besides its actual ruler, Japan, to recognize Manchukuo as an independent state.
By 1938, Puyi was elevated to the status of a god by the Japanese, hoping that the people of Manchukuo would be willing for totalitarian mobilization under these pretexts, just as citizens of Japan would under their emperor. However, the Chinese people of Manchukuo hated Puyi. As a prisoner in his palace up against the hate and disdain of the people, Puyi was known to have fits of madness. He had servants beaten and food withheld from workers so they would be as miserable as he was.
With Japan declaring war on the United States and Britain, Puyi joined in as well with Manchukuo calling for war on Japan’s enemies. However, the state remained unrecognized and was largely ignored in favor of other targets in Asia and the Pacific. By 1944, it became clear Japan was losing the war and in August of 1945, the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan followed by the Red Army’s march into Manchukuo. On August 14, 1945, a radio address from Showa Emperor announcing Japan’s surrender played in Manchukuo. The next day, on August 15, 1945, Puyi declared his last decree that Manchukuo was once again part of China and abdicated as emperor once again. During his attempt to flee, Puyi was captured by Soviet soldiers who didn’t even know who he was at the time of his capture. With the Russian occupation of Manchukuo, Puyi was sent to Siberia as a prisoner of the Soviet state. The state of Manchukuo and its coinage were officially over.
The effect of war on the Japanese also affected the coinage. Production of the 5 Li ended in Year 6 (1939). Other denominations transitioned to various metals, materials, and designs as the bronze and copper-nickel used for the coinage was needed by Japan for the war effort instead of for producing the coinage of Manchukuo.
(1940) KT7 Fen Y-9, China-Manchukuo, PCGS MS64. Population 11. Two higher. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView. Click image to enlarge.
The new fen starting in Year 6 (1939) was now made from aluminum instead of the original copper and featured the Imperial Seal surrounded by the Chinese text. The wreath had become a grain wreath forming a complete circle around the text denomination. This design and the coin’s weight of one gram continued until Year 10 (1943), when it was changed once again to the weight of 0.55 grams and featured just a “1” with the Chinese text on the obverse and a reverse bearing two sets of clouds divided by the denomination in text. The composition changed again in Year 12 (1945) to a reddish-brown fiber material (magnesite).
The 5 Fen coin changed from copper-nickel to aluminum in Year 7 (1940) and featured a new design with a “5” surrounded by the Chinese text on the obverse and a grain wreath with “5 Fen” in Chinese below the Imperial Seal on the reverse. This continued to Year 10 (1943), when it transitioned again to a lighter 0.75-gram weight versus the previous the 1.2 grams and matched the design of the Year 10 (1943) 1 Fen – with the exception of a “5” instead of “1” in the center. In Year 11 (1944), the 5 Fen composition transitioned to a reddish-brown fiber (magnesite) and the production ended in Year 12 (1945).
Chiao coins changed to a new design in Year 7 (1940) featuring two horseheads back to back, facing opposite sides with a set of wings below them. The reverse features the Imperial Seal above an encircled “One Chiao” with rays to the sides and clouds below. The design was once again changed in Year 7 (1940) to go with the new composition, now aluminum instead of copper-nickel. The coin also began featuring a “10” inside a “fundo” (translates to ‘a weight’) on the obverse. The reverse with a grained wreath around “1 Chiao” in Chinese with the Imperial Seal above. This coin lasted until Year 10 (1943), when it was lightened from 1.7 grams to 1 gram and the design made to match that of the other denominations of Year 10, save for the large “10” in the center. Year 10 (1943) was the last year for the Chiao Manchukuo coin.
In 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party took control of China, the Soviet Union returned the occupied territory of Manchukuo to China, where it was reabsorbed into the country. At the request of Mao Zedong, Puyi was returned to China. He lived out the rest of his life not as emperor but as a Chinese civilian, going from prisoner, to street sweeper, to eventual author before his death in 1966. When it was all over, what remained are the artifacts to tell the story. The coinage of Manchukuo stands as historical relics of a country that went unrecognized by most of the world, with a puppet emperor controlled by Japan and a people who lost their land and basic human rights. The coinage of Manchukuo is the last coinage of the Emperor of China, a Chinese coinage, a Japanese coinage, a coinage of a state that doesn’t exist anymore, and a story of perseverance of its people.