Korea (1888–1910: decline of the Empire; Gojoseon (고조선) dating on coins minted in 1959–1961)
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Brief historical review.
Decline of the joint Korean Empire. Coin denominations
Until 1888 Korea (one country at that time) had 52 local minting agencies which were authorized to produce coins. Each of these mints had been issuing coins of the same kind: round with a square hole in the middle (like those in Japan and China), there are thousands of varieties of these coins. It is essential to note that for centuries China and Japan had been exerting the greatest influence on the economy and politics of Korea. No coining machines had been in use until the year mentioned above. During the 1880s and 1890s, Korea experimented with several different types of machine-struck coins. Thus, the following coin denominations of that time are known: mun, won, fun, hwan; chon, nowadays spelled as «jeon» or «jun»; yang and warn. Finally a system of denominations was adopted which is still in use, i.e.: the won, which is subdivided into 100 jeon.
As specified in the headline of this article, the coining period described here coincides with the decline of the Korean Joseon Dynasty. The Joseon Dynasty (also written as Chosŏn, or Choson, or Chosun) was the last ruling dynasty in Korea. It existed from July 1392 until 1897 AD (505 years in total), and if we add in the reign of the puppet emperor Sunjong, that results in a total reign of 518 years. This dynasty is one of the longest royal dynasties in world history.
At the end of the 16th century Korea was invaded and occupied for 7 years by Japan, and later from 1637 until the late 19th century Korea had been a semi-independent tributary of the Chinese Empire of Qing. Japan was also disputing their right to Korea. This resulted in the First Sino-Japanese War that lasted from 1894–1895. Much of the fighting took place in Korea. China was defeated, and Japan replaced China as the predominant foreign influence in Korea. Korea officially gained its independence from China. So in March 1897 AD the Emperor Gojong declared himself to be the emperor of the new, independent Korean Empire in order to put himself on a level with the Emperor of China. This event is considered to be the end of the era and the Dynasty of Joseon. However, the new imperial government had no real power; hence Gojong was unable to control the situation within the country.
After the Sino-Japanese War and China’s defeat, the Japanese position in Korea was threatened by Russian influence from 1896 until 1904. Czarist-Russian Korea experimented with Korean coins when Alexiev of Russia, Korea's Financial Advisor, founded the First Asian Branch of the Russo-Korean Bank. In 1901 he authorized the issuing of a set of new Korean coins with a crowned Russian-style quasieagle, instead of the traditional Korean dragons. There were 3 well-known denominations: the silver half-won coin, copper 5 chon coin and a 1 chon coin made of bronze. Historical documents tell us of 4 additional coin denominations, but what happened to them is still unknown. These experimental coins are as follows (in the picture: 2 coloured images of both sides of the 5 chon and half-won coins, as well as the comparative dimensions of all three coins (black-and-white obverses shown)):
This series was all minted in 1901 AD (Gwangmu’s year 5) and have become a numismatic rarity. Only a small number of coins from this series are stored nowadays in Korean museums. Although all these coin specimens were issued during 1901 AD, they bore different year inscriptions. This is why one can find coins dated years 3, 5 and 6 of the Gwangmu era (1899, 1901 and 1902, respectively) among them. These coins are all very rare, hence they are worth USD 1,500—20,000, depending on the condition.
In 1902 the gold standard was introduced, and another monetary reform was carried out. This is when 1 won was equated with 100 chon. The gold 20, 10 and 5 won coins were minted, as well as the silver ½ won coin, 20 and 10 chon coins, copper-nickel 5 chon coin, and bronze coins: 1 chon and half chon. Instead of the dragons and eagles the fabulous phoenix (also referred to as the «secular bird») appeared on the chon coins. Inscriptions in English disappeared from gold coins. In other respects the design didn’t change dramatically.
British-Japanese opposition and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) put an end to the Russian coinage experiment. Thus, the Russian threat was eliminated, and on November 17 (in the old style on November 4), 1905 Japan established a direct protectorate over Korea.
So, the influence of Japan increased greatly as a result of the defeat of China and the Russian Empire in the above mentioned wars. Emperor Sunjong, Gojong’s son, was actually just a puppet of the Japanese Government. Later on Korea was annexed by Japan in accordance with the Japan–Korea Annexation Treaty of 1910 as a government generalcy in the Japanese Empire. This Treaty was signed on August 22, 1910 and was in effect for 35 years. Japanese suzerainty was maintained until 1945 — in view of the fact that Japan was defeated in World War II. The official cancellation of the Treaty finally took place in 1965 by negotiating a special agreement between Japan and South Korea.
Thus, during 1888–1910 there were 3 eras in Korea, but two rulers, as follows:
- Emperor Gojong (lifetime: 1852–1919) — the 26th emperor, or king, of the Korean Joseon dynasty; he is also the 1st emperor of the Great independent Korean Empire. In 1907 Gojong handed the Imperial Crown to his son, Sunjong.
- Emperor Sunjong (lifetime: 1874–1926) — the son of Gojong, the 27th Head of the Joseon Imperial House; he is referred to as the last emperor of the Korean Empire.
Here is a summary table with information about the reign of these emperors.
|Name of the era
|Years of rule
|Years of rule
|Motto of the
||King Gojong (Yi Hyong)
as emperor Kuang Mu
The dating system is similar to the one used in Japan: first come the era characters, followed by the ordinal year of rule (i.e. year of the era), and a character «Year» at the end.
There is also a special table of correspondence between the ordinal years of Korean eras and the years of the Gregorian calendar. Here it is:
* — the year count starts at the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty.
There are two variants for digit «1» in the converter. They are both used, but in different cases.
Character «一» is used to specify the denomination of the coin (一錢: 1 jeon); and in the position of units of the compound ordinal numerals in date notation (e.g., 開國五百一年: Era of Gaeguk, 501st year).
Character «元» is used to specify the first year of the emperor’s reign in the date notation (e.g., 隆熙元年: 1907, i.å. the first year of the Yunghui era).
More facts about the history of machine-struck coinage
Milled coinage equipment was purchased in Germany in 1883. The first machine-struck coins were minted by German engineers in the year 495 (四百九十五年) of the Gaeguk era, i.e. in 1886 AD. They were actually the patterns, prototype coins. There was a huge variety of denominations and monetary units at this time, since the Korean Mint was searching for an optimal combination of size, metal and denomination of the coins. There were in total 15 different types of milled coins, but the following 3 (three) were in circulation: the silver 1 won coin and the copper coins 10 and 5 mun.
The coins design was copied exactly from the Japanese yen coins, which had been introduced into circulation in Japan in 1870. On the obverse in the center there was the dragon, on the border near the edge one could see the year of the Gaeguk era (counting since the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty) written in Chinese characters, as well as the denomination of the coin in both Korean and English languages. On the reverse side (which also looked similar to the Japanese coin specimens) there was a coin denomination written in Chinese characters in the center, a couple of decorative sprigs with flowers near the edge, and the Korean emblem called Taegeuk on the top of the coin.
The Gregorian calendar was adopted by the new Korean Empire on 1 January 1895, but with years numbered from the foundation of the Joseon Dynasty in July 1392. Since 1897 the Korean era names were used for its years until Japan annexed Korea in 1910. Then Japanese era names were used to count the years of the Gregorian calendar used in Korea until Japanese occupation ended in 1945.
After the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910, the Bank of Korea in Seoul was renamed the Joseon-Bank. Until 1945, the Korean monetary system was under the control of the Japanese occupying authorities. Banknotes issued by the Joseon-Bank were in circulation along with the Korean yen (1 Korean yen is equal to 100 sen). Japanese yen also were in use. The Korean yen was on a par with the Japanese yen. The Declaration of independence of the Republic of Korea was signed on August 15, 1948; however, Japanese yen were still in use for a couple of years.
Gojoseon era and coin dating
From 1945 until 1961 in South Korea, Gregorian calendar years were counted from the foundation of the first Korean Empire in 2333 BC (regarded as year one), the date of the legendary founding of Korea by Dangun Wanggeom, who was said to be the grandson of heaven. This first state was called Gojoseon (which means Old (or Ancient) Joseon, since Go- is translated from the Korean language as «ancient»). Hence, the years 1945–1961 correspond to 4278–4294 since the foundation of Gojoseon (GF). The coins dated 4292 GF (1959 AD) and 4294 GF (1961 AD) are known to have been issued; they were minted by the Philadelphia Mint. This numbering was informally used with the Korean lunar calendar before 1945 but is only occasionally used today.
Rules of writing and reading the coin denominations.
Monetary units, subunits and their interrelationships
The following tables provide examples of printed characters used in the notation of dates and denominations on the coins of the Korean Empire.
||½, or one half
||won (also warn,
||used in notation of chon
on «¼ yang» coin
As far as the denomination of Korean coins is concerned, they were specified with hieroglyphic characters on the reverse side of the coin (opposite to the side where the year of minting is specified). As a rule, the Korean coin denomination is written and read top-down: denomination’s numeral on the top, and currency’s name at the bottom. For instance, «20 chon» is specified on the coins in the following way:
As it is not possible to make all the symbols appear in one vertical row, the symbols are written in two or more rows vertically. In this case the denomination is supposed to be read first in the righthand column top-down, then the next left column top-down (and so on). Denomination of «¼ yang» coin is a perfect example of this kind of notation:
As specified below, ¼ yang = 100 fun / 4 = 25 fun. However, it is written not «二十五分» as expected, but as follows: «二戔五分». Just as China now has its 1 jiao coin equal to 10 fens, the Korean «chon» coin at that time was equal to 10 fun. Therefore, the coin’s denomination literally means: «Double 10 fun, and 5 fun», i.e. 2 chon 5 fun.
Full description of Korean coin denominations and their subunits:
1 won = 100 chon.
1 won = 1000 mun (therefore, 1 chon = 10 mun).
1 yang (Korean monetary unit from 1892–1902) = 10 chon = 100 fun; therefore, ¼ yang = 25 fun.
1 hwan = 5 yang, and later on: 1 won = 5 yang (the won was introduced in 1902, replacing the yang at a rate of 1 won = 5 yang).
Some image samples and info about the emperors were taken from gxseries.com