When browsing the web for modern gold coins, you will likely encounter sellers who proclaim their offerings to have qualities such as "Mint", "Brilliant", or "Proof". These terms are often thrown around improperly and can lead to a bit of confusion. Here are some clarifications with regard to the Chinese Panda coin series.
A "Mint", "Mint-state", or "MS" coin is simply a coin that is uncirculated and preserved in the condition it was in when it left the mint. This is no assurance that the coin is shiny and clean. Mint State coins may have been stored in bags with other coins where they received "bag-mark" scratches from other coins. An issuing mint may or may not have good quality controls, and dies can become worn and damaged. The standard coin grading scale reserves the grades MS60-MS70 for these coins. MS60 can be beat-up looking and MS70 is essentially perfection.
"Brilliant Uncirculated" or "BU" is a standard issue coin that is in Mint State. This is usually the mass-produced version of a coin. This term is often used to distinguish a coin from "Proof" versions of the same coin that may have been issued.
"Proof" coins are specially produced coins that are usually made with highly polished dies and struck multiple times. Quality control is generally higher and the coins are typically sold with collectors in mind. Contrary to many offerings on the web, a proof coin is not just a clean shiny example of a BU coin!
The Chinese Panda coins are very attractive coins which often have a mirror finish contrasted with frosted elements, however, the majority of the Pandas are not proofs. In fact, the Pandas are so nice looking, that most of the genuine proof issues have a "P" mark on the obverse to identify it as the proof version.
Among the 1oz Gold Pandas, the following are the only proofs issued:
From 1986-1996 proof sets were issued. except for 1993 and 1994, these were 5-coin sets with a 1oz and fractionals 1/2, 1/4, 1/10, and 1/20 ounce. In 1993 and 1994, the largest coin in the set was a bimetallic gold-silver 50Y coin - no 1oz was issued.
1986-1992 the proof coins have the exact same design as the BU coin, except for the P mark on the Panda side of the proof versions. If there is no "P", its not a proof. In 1995 and 1996, the proof have a different design than the BU coins, making them easy to distiguish.
In addition to the 1oz and fractional proofs, there are jumbo size Pandas in 5oz, 12oz, and 1kg sizes that were issued as proofs in many years. I have not covered those here, but you can browse a good Chinese coin database at http://china-mint.info for more info.
So be advised that there are many mis-labelled, improperly advertised, and even incorrectly certified proof pandas. I have seen NGC certified PF proof Pandas from years in which proofs were not issued. PCGS has not made the same mistake to my knowledge.
The Panda proofs are especially attractive to collectors dues to their low mintages as well as their beauty. All of the proofs have mintages of 10,000 or less. With the 1996 being the rarest at only 1500 coins!