Search articles

The 'Fatman' Dollar Challenge


The Yuan Shih-kai dollar or "Fatman" dollar is one of most common Chinese silver dollars. It is also one of the longest-lived series with production beginning in 1914 and running at least to 1921, possibly longer. A survey by the Shanghai Bank estimated that of the 960 million silver dollars in circulation in China in 1924, 750 million were those of Yuan Shih-kai. Why then is collecting the series such a challenge?

General Yuan Shih-kai rose to power after the overthrow of the Qinq dynasty. Through a series of skillful political moves, he became President of the Republic of China in 1912, replacing Sun Yat-Sen. As his impatience with the National Assembly grew, he ordered the assassination of Song Jiaoren, leader of the Nationalist Party, in 1913.

In the next three years Yuan became increasingly dictatorial. In 1914 he dissolved the parliament and on January 1, 1916, he assumed the title of emperor. However, a series of revolts across China and a lack of domestic and international political support forced him to set aside the throne less than three months later. On June 6, 1916, he succumbed to uremia, although some say he died of a broken heart.

Although Yuan Shih-kai's reign was short-lived and scandalous, his rise to power over a period of many years was notable. He will be remembered for his creation of China's first modern military organization.

The Yuan Shih-kai silver dollar was first introduced in 1914. It has a silver purity of .89 and weighs 26.4 grams. The coins are nicknamed "Fatman" dollars which leads one to believe it is due to the stature of the leader. But by today's American standards, Yuan was merely a stout man. The literal Chinese translation is "big head," which is a more accurate description.

In the first year of production alone, 300,000 dollars were minted every day at the Central Mint in Tianjin. This does not take into account the mintages at the provincial mints. So, if a collector was interested in putting together the 11-coin major variety set, this might be fairly easy to accomplish. The most difficult coins in the set are the 1914 Yuan Shih-kai facing left edge engrailed (Y-329.1) and edge ornamented (Y-329.2) which could run upwards of $5,000 a coin in uncirculated condition.

The challenge comes when attempting to assemble a complete variety set of Fatman dollars. There is very little information in English and the Chinese historical records are sketchy. The provincial mints were given official sets of dies. As the dies wore out, they were re-engraved. This process resulted in large numbers of die varieties. The composite in the PCGS Set RegistrySM currently requires 46 varieties, but as PCGS recognizes more varieties, this number may go up. The total number of die varieties is unknown. This further adds to the collector's challenge.

Different mints reveal different characteristics. Among the most popular are the "O mintmark" and the triangular yuan. Some evidence suggests that Zhang Zuo Lin, who was the warlord of Manchuria from 1916-1928, ordered the Yuan Shih-kai dollars to be struck in 1921 and again in 1926. Because the Fatman dollars were so popular, it may have been a way to stabilize the currency during difficult times. Fatman copies may have been struck as late as the 1930s.

A great source for more information about the Fatman dollar die varieties is Eduard Kann's extensive reference work, "The Illustrated Catalog of Chinese Coins," first published in 1953. But even Kann's work may be incomplete. He estimated that there may be 200 to 400 varieties in existence! In addition, the website provides excellent information about the series. Collecting the Fatman dollar die varieties might be a collector's ultimate challenge, but beware, it could be a lifelong pursuit.

BJ Searls is a graduate of Pepperdine University with a Master’s in Business Administration. She has been involved in numismatics since 1973 and has worked for Collectors Universe since 1997. BJ is the Set Registry and Special Projects Director for PCGS, PSA and PSA/DNA. Email: [email protected].


Related Articles

Central Casting Peter Anthony
Shelter from the Storm, Written Down Peter Anthony
A Journey into World Coins Justin Meunier
It's a Small World Peter Anthony