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The Stars Below My Feet


The Chinese space program has inspired a constellation of collectible money from China, including a 100 Yuan banknote and a 10 Yuan bimetallic copper-nickel/brass circulating coin, the latter referencing the Chinese folktale in which two lovers are separated by a “silver river” otherwise known as the Milky Way. Click image to enlarge.

The boat bobs back and forth gaily as a small boy calls out, “Careful of the rocks!” to an imaginary sailor. Six-year-old Chen Chen squats, eyes level with the tub’s water line to make his little craft look grander. Suddenly the clatter of hoofs reaches his ears. Chen Chen reels the boat in with a string, grabs his toy and runs to the house gate. Outside a hunting party is passing on the road. Mounted on the lead horse is mighty Hou Yi (pronounced Ho-Yee), the greatest archer in the country.

Some years ago, Hou Yi saved this land from disaster. Back then, there was more than one sun in the sky and all of them were out of control. They scorched the earth and burnt the crops, so the people starved. Brave Hou Yi climbed the highest mountain and called out to the suns, but they ignored him. So, he took his bow and arrows and shot them down one-by-one until only one was left. It agreed to act properly.

For this heroic feat, it’s said that the Queen Mother of the West rewarded the bowman with an elixir of immortality. There was enough for two people. “Someday, Hou Yi and his beautiful wife, Chang’e, will drink it and go to live forever in the sky with the Moon and stars.” Chen Chen overheard the grown-ups say that.

The 1994 Children at Play 10 Yuan depicts children playing with toy boats in a tub. Image is courtesy of Peter Anthony. Click image to enlarge.

The boy rests his chin on a fence post. He stares after the men as they round a bend, and a row of pine trees blocks his view. “When I grow up, I want to be an archer like Hou Yi. Then I can do great deeds and help the people, too,” he says quietly. With this thought in his head, Chen Chen runs back to the tub to play some more. He pays no notice to a hooded figure who walks in the direction of Hou Yi’s home.

Once there, Pang Meng glances around. No one in sight! As one of Hou Yi’s students Pang knows this place well. Ever since the defeat of the suns, strong young men like Pang Meng have traveled from all around to study with Hou Yi. Unlike the other pupils, though, Pang Meng is not really devoted to his studies. Instead, he is obsessed with thoughts of immortality and the elixir. He has learned that Hou Yi’s wife Chang’e always carries it in a little bottle that hangs around her neck. As Pang stewed about the elixir a plan came to him. Today, he pretended to be ill to avoid going on the hunt.

Pang Meng slips through the gate and quickly slithers behind a tree to watch the yard. It is a bright, sunny spring morning, but the woods fall silent — a squirrel leaps away as a magpie eyes the intruder and flutters off.

Ah, there is lovely Chang’e, sending a young servant girl to the marketplace. Good! Another servant can be heard in the front of the building. Chang’e is now alone. The intruder quickly crosses the yard, enters through the back door and pulls back his hood.

As she arranges a bowl of peaches on a table, Chang’e is startled. She recoils and exclaims, “Mr. Pang Meng, what are you doing here?”

“Give me the potion, now, and be quick about it,” he hisses.

Cornered and frightened Chang’e knows there is no escape. She moves to keep the table between herself and the thief. Then, with one swift motion, she pulls on the string around her neck, lifts the container and empties its magical contents down her throat before the man can reach her.

“No!” Pang Meng cries as his hands grab only air.

Within moments, Chang’e has floated clear of the house and watches as it gets smaller and smaller in her view. She can barely hear the screams of the servant girl now but can make out a hooded man fleeing into the woods.

That night, when Hou Yi rides toward home he is met by frantic townspeople pointing at the sky. He looks up. Stunned, he sees his Chang’e looking down forlornly at him from the Moon.

A 2007 Silver 10 Yuan heralds the success of China's first Moon mission, Chang’e 1. Image is courtesy of Peter Anthony. Click image to enlarge.

Shooting for the Moon

“Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, blast off!” The words from Hainan Island, China, race around the world. First silence, then flames spew out, massive rocket engines roar and slowly, battling gravity’s pull, an 8,200-kilogram (18,100-pound) metal cylinder begins to rise. With each second it accelerates. A video camera beams back an image of the inferno venting from the rocket’s tail. Blue sky turns to black space as it climbs. At 30 minutes, the payload breaks away from the Long March launch rocket and the Beijing Aerospace Control Center control room breaks out in applause. The People’s Republic of China’s Moon mission, named Chang’e 5 in honor of the beloved Chinese folktale, is on its way. For the first time since 1976, mankind will go to the Moon, collect rock samples, and return home to Earth.

For China, the Chang’e 5 mission is another stride on a national journey that started in 1956. After both the USSR and USA launched spacecraft Chairman Mao Zedong announced, "We too will make satellites."

China took its first step toward a Moon landing on October 24, 2007 when the Chang’e 1 Moon probe lifted off from Sichuan Province. Once in orbit it unfurled solar power panels and shifted its course three times over the next few days. The satellite then headed Moonward.

During its mission the satellite needed to maintain communication with Earth, keep its solar panels oriented toward the Sun, and train its sensors at the Moon to conduct experiments. Chang’e 1 successfully made three-dimensional maps of the surface, detected the relative presence and distribution of chemical elements, and measured lunar soil depth.

A pair of 2007 medals commemorate Change 1's flight to the Moon. On the one side is the spacecraft while the other shows an image of Chang'e herself. Click image to enlarge.

Commemorating a Lunar Legacy

To mark this achievement China struck two “Success of the First Exploration of China’s Spacecraft to the Moon” commemorative coins: a 1/3 Oz. Gold 150 Yuan (20,000 minted) and a 1 Oz. Silver 10 Yuan (40,000 minted). The obverse features a solar system map designed by Yu Min. The reverse is the work of designer Li Jiye. It shows Chang’e 1 orbiting the Moon with the Earth far off in the background.

The satellite’s developer, China Aerospace Technology Institute, commissioned a pair of gold- and silver-colored 40-millimeter medals in 2007. On one side these depict the spacecraft above the Moon’s surface. On the other is Lady Chang’e and the Moon. A total of 5,000 sets were minted. Years later, the Shenyang Mint issued a 60-millimeter brass medal that pictured the Chang’e 1 satellite, the Moon, Saturn, and Chang’e herself. The design is by well-known coin artist Chang Huan.

On September 27, 2008, an arc of brilliant blue fills the top of television screens around the world. At the bottom a white shape slowly emerges from the Shenzhou 7 spacecraft, looks at the camera, and waves. It is Zhai Zhigang, the first taikonaut (astronaut) to walk in space. As Zhai floats in space, free of gravity, he transmits, “From here I send greetings to the Chinese people and to the world’s people.”

Two more taikonauts accompany Zhai on the flight: Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng. On the spacewalk, Liu follows him part way out of the hatch to assist. At one point, a sensor error triggers a fire alarm. Fire is one of the most feared dangers of spaceflight and at that very moment the Shenzhou 7 loses contact with Earth. The passing moments seem like an eternity, but when contact is reestablished all is well, and Liu can be heard advising Zhai, “Come on and let’s carry out this mission, anyway." As Zhai floats in space, Liu hands him a Chinese flag to wave. Later, from the capsule, Liu talks to his family who ask what space is like. He replies, “There are stars below my feet that twinkle. It’s so, so beautiful.”

The People’s Republic of China released a pair of 2008 coins honoring the spacewalk. Their obverse shows the solar system map designed by Min. The reverse, created by designer and engravers Song Yingchun and Jin Yaxuan, shows a tethered astronaut above the Earth. The mintages were 30,000 for the 1/3 Oz. Gold 150 Yuan and 60,000 for the 1 Oz. Silver 10 Yuan. These coins were all struck at the Shenyang Mint.

That same year the Shanghai Mint produced a gold-colored medal with a color image of the spacewalk on one side. Xinhua News also reported that the China Collectors Association released 1,000 sets of three gold-plated silver spacewalk medals with jade inlays.

This pair of 2008 coins, including a Silver 10 Yuan and Gold 150 Yuan, celebrate China's first spacewalk. Image is courtesy of Peter Anthony. Click image to enlarge.

Furthering a Dream

The next step to the Moon, the Chang’e 2, launched on October 1, 2010. Its primary task was to test the technology for an unmanned lunar soft landing. Beyond that, Chang’e 2 had a second mission. In 1772, the mathematician Joseph-Louis LaGrange calculated that there are points in space where all gravitational and orbital motion forces are in equilibrium. In such a spot, an object can remain suspended indefinitely. These zones are now called L points, and scientists have identified five of them in our solar system. After Chang'e 2 completes its survey work of the Moon, its next destination is point L2, some 930,000 miles from Earth.

The mathematical precision and navigational control needed to make this journey a success is excruciatingly exact. L2 was chosen because it lies in Earth’s shadow and the darkness there provides superb views of space. Seventy-seven days after exiting its Moon orbit, Chang'e 2 arrives safely at L2. “This is […] The first time a satellite leaves the Moon's orbit for such a journey,” observed Huang Hao, Chief Designer of Chang'e 2.

This 2014 Silver 10 Yuan commemorates the Chinese space program's monumental Moon landing. Image is courtesy of Peter Anthony. Click image to enlarge.

Chang'e 2 set the stage for China’s first Moon landing. On December 1, 2013, like an arrow from Hou Yi’s bow, Chang’e 3 lifts off from Xichang Satellite Launch Center. Its mission is to make the first soft landing on the Moon since 1976. Aboard is a Lunar Landing Vehicle (LLV) and a lunar rover named Yu Tu, or Jade Rabbit — the name in legend of Lady Chang’e’s pet.

On December 6, Chang’e 3 reaches lunar orbit. Eight days later the LLV safely lands on the Moon’s surface in an area called the Mare Imbrium (“Sea of Rains”). The six-wheeled, solar-powered Yu Tu rover rolls off its platform and begins to explore the lunar surface with a stereo camera and three scientific instruments. The Jade Rabbit was specified for 90 days of operation but continued to function for 31 months. Amazingly, seven years later the LLV is still going!

Mint Rolls Out Chang’e 3 Coinage

A set of two 2014 coins, “China Lunar Exploration Program’s First Successful Moon Landing,” honors Chang’e 3. It includes a 1/4 Oz. Gold 100 Yuan (10,000 minted) and a 1 Oz. Silver 10 Yuan (20,000 minted). Both coins portray the lunar lander and Jade Rabbit and were designed and struck at the Guobao Mint in Shenzhen. The design of the gold coin is by Qiu Yanxin, while the silver is the work of Zhong Chengxin and Deng Shanshan.

Forty years after China’s space program started, a 2015 100 Yuan banknote captures the spirit of an entire adventure. Its reverse shows a bird, the ancient symbol of flight. Directly above is the biplane constructed and flown by Feng Ru, China’s first aviator. Over that appears the first jet airliner produced in China. Next, the Tiangong 2 Space Station takes us into the heavens. At the very top is the Chang’e 1 satellite, China’s first step to redeem Hou Yi’s ancient wish to join Chang’e on the Moon. Together with the banknote, a 10 Yuan bimetallic space coin was also issued.

Those are the most recent space-themed commemoratives of the People’s Republic of China. But, just as scientists are eager to examine the Moon rock samples that Chang’e 5 brought to Earth, collectors eagerly await the next chapter of China’s space coin program.

A Fantasy of Flight

Yu Yu shifts her weight to the left, the hawk glances to the right. Suddenly it lunges and the line of chicks squeal as it pinwheels in the opposite direction. The big girl, the hawk, stops and pants a little as she assesses the other girls, the chicks. They cling to each other by their shirts. The object of the Hawk and Chicks game is for the hawk to tag a girl behind the leader, or mother hen. The mother hen blocks the way with her body.

This hawk is much taller than her playmates, but she is not as agile. She rushes at them again. Yu Yu ducks and twists away from the tag, but another girl is not so lucky. She is the new hawk.

Time flies as the shadow of the old bell tower lengthens. Playtime is over! The moms, on nearby benches, now call to the girls. Yu Yu, in a white shirt decorated with butterflies, trots over. She flips her pony tail over a red quilted jacket. “Zai Jian, see you soon,” she calls to her friends. Then Yu Yu and her mother set off for home.

The air is crisp, the late afternoon sunlight soft and muted. Autumn’s last leaves hang brown and shriveled as they shake and rattle in the breeze. Outside the park rush hour has begun, inside there is calm. The musicians and the card players are gone for the day. Yu Yu’s mother begins to asks about one of her teachers when they come to a row of brightly colored posters.

One shows a taikonaut in a white space suit with blue trim. In the background is Tiangong-1, China’s first space station. It functioned for two years as home base for a crew of three as they tested its rendezvous and docking capacities.

Yu Yu stares at the poster. “Ma Ma, look, it’s a woman!”

“Yes, dear, that is Liu Yang, the first Chinese woman in space. See what is written about her.”

“Major Liu Yang was born in 1978 in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, into a worker's family. She joined the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and was trained to pilot cargo planes. Based on her excellent skills and outstanding test scores she rose to the rank of major and in 2010 joined the taikonaut corps.”

“Major Liu Yang became the first Chinese woman to journey into space on June 16, 2012. She traveled aboard the Shenzhou 9 with two male colleagues to the Chinese space station Tiangong-1. ‘I think we should have the courage to innovate… We need to create an environment in space that is like the environment on Earth,’ said Major Liu.”

“Now come, it’s time to go home.”

“Ma Ma, someday I want to grow up to be a taikonaut like Major Liu to help the people.”

Yu Yu’s mother looks at her and smiles. Above their heads, as the light fades, the stars come out and twinkle.

Modern Commemoratives China