Award-winning artist reveals other side of coin in design world

Award-winning artist Zhu Xihua leads a new generation of coin designers hoping to follow in the footsteps of his celebrated forebear, Yu Min, creator of the 1 yuan coin.
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Zhu Xihua has been a coin designer for 12 years, and only one of a few to have been nominated multiple times for the Coin of the Year Award, the “Oscar” of his trade. ­

SMALL change in your pocket rarely gets a second thought, but for Zhu Xihua, coins are art.

Zhu, 35, has been a coin designer for 12 years and is one of the few from China nominated multiple times for the Coin of the Year Award, the “Oscar” of his profession.

Last year, he was honored as a “Shanghai Standout” for his talent and diligent work as a coin designer at the Shanghai Mint Co. The award recognizes excellent workers in the city.

Training in arts, such as sketching and painting in his early life, helped Zhu attain his skills in bas-relief sculpturing on a small, round surface.

“It’s a great pleasure and challenge to fit art into a small, round surface and make it technically replicable,” he said.

Coins are not feature items of China’s everyday currency, so Zhu mostly works on designs for commemorative coins, medallions and medals.

For every project, he first sketches the design on paper and then models it with clay on a background plate, creating a relief. The size of the plate is much larger than the eventual coin or medal so that he can carve out minute details in the design, such as the hairs of an animal.

Then he pours diluted plaster onto the clay to make a cast of the clay model. After trimming the model, the cast is scanned by a computer to capture all the details of the design. The manufacturer then cuts the dies used to strike the coin or medal.

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“As a designer, I have to follow through the entire production process,” Zhu said. “More than designing, a coin designer has to know machines well.”

Technical advances in machinery in the past few decades have enabled coin designers to be more daring and artistic in their designs.

“Instead of leaving the white hair of a panda blank on a coin, for example, we can now use new sand-blasting techniques to create fluffy white hairs, making the panda more true-to-life,” Zhu said.

The best machines nowadays can carve out minute touches as thin as a human hair, he added.

Taking advantage of the new possibilities and applying new concepts, Zhu produced the winning design for commemorative coins marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army in 2017.

But like much design work, coin design can be very stressful.

Zhu said he often has to work late into the night and even into the wee hours of the morning to meet the deadline for the draft design of a coin.

He once spent five months on one design and six months on refitting a previous design onto a smaller surface.

Zhu has won over 100 tenders in his career, a top tally among his peers, but even he has to deal with the disappointment of failed attempts to win a bid.

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Zhu’s design piece, a bronze medal

“A coin designer has to be resilient because we often compete with thousands of others on a bid,” he said.

Zhu now leads a 10-member team at his company. They are mostly young people. Since coin design is not a discipline of study at Chinese universities and colleges, Zhu’s co-workers come from all kinds of art backgrounds, including industrial design, oil painting and sculpture.

The team gains inspiration from the fusion of different art perspectives in art, Zhu said. The younger ones are keen to learn.

“The satisfaction this job brings is incomparable because on the back of the coins stands the name ‘People’s Republic of China,’” he said.

Zhu said he will continue to hone his skills and follow in the footsteps of masters among his colleagues, like Yu Min and Luo Yonghui.

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Zhu’s design piece, a memorial coin for the year of the rooster 

In 1917, Yu was the first Asian to ever win the Lifetime Achievement Award in Coin Design at the Coin of the Year Awards. He is one of the most famous designers of popular panda-themed bullion coins and the designer of the 1-yuan coin with a peony on one side.

Luo designed China’s first set of bullion coins, issued in 1979 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

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