Scholarship and education

Reviving traditional culture through the pocketbook

Poet and patriot

It's hard to deny that contemporary Chinese money is pretty boring. While various denominations of the Renminbi may be more colorful than the declining US Dollar, who can get excited about a currency which features Chairman Mao on everything from the 1 yuan note to the 100?

It doesn't have to be this way: the previous series of RMB notes featured likenesses of ethnic minorities, and proposals bubble up from time to time to bring some variety back into the picture by honoring national forefathers like Sun Yat-sen or more recent leaders like Deng Xiaoping.

This week, in anticipation of the upcoming Duanwu Festival (aka the Dragon Boat Festival) on 8 June, a group of liberal scholars has proposed honoring classical poet Qu Yuan and other ancient heroes by putting them on the RMB. The petition argues that increasing people's exposure to history's inspirational figures outside of the context of mainstream politics and ideology is the key to reviving traditional culture.

Would those heroes mind being used in this way? Qu Yuan's name has been slapped on alcohol, zongzi, tea, and pig feed, so his reputation is not likely to be any more tarnished by appearing on crumpled, grimy bills.

Twelve Chinese academics sign Declaration on Duanwu Festival Culture

by Ling Cangzhou

As the first legal holiday for the Duanwu Festival (8 June) in over half a century approaches, we young Chinese scholars look back on the festival's origins, and it's hard to remain calm as we seek the truth behind a distorted history. We feel very deeply that traditional culture has been subverted by power, from the mainland's demented opposition to traditional culture in the middle of the previous century, to this century's use of traditional culture to reanimate the corpse of power worship. At a time when society is gradually expelling the virus of centralized power and is returning to tradition, the question of whether we are returning to the worthless tradition of power worship or the golden tradition of pursuit of freedom is one that every Chinese person ought to consider.

To this end, after long deliberation we have come to understand the following:

1. The various legends about the Duanwu Festival — Qu Yuan throwing himself into a river, Wu Zixu taking revenge, Cao E throwing herself into the river in protest — all revolve around the hatred that ancient Chinese people had for the gloom of tyranny and their longing for social justice. Some are even symbols of the ancients dying to protect their rights and personal dignity.

2. Qu Yuan's drowning has, for the past half-century, been explained as patriotism by a historical outlook and ideology monopolized by power. We do not deny that Qu Yuan had a patriotic side, but we believe that another side, his desire for freedom and his refusal to submit to tyranny, has been obscured and diluted. When the gloom and tyranny of Emperor Qin enshrouded China, Qu Yuan signed his passport to freedom with non-cooperation and death. Even more influriating, the power-monopolized outlook on history considers Qu Yuan's refusal to serve Emperor Qin, who belonged to basically the same ethnic group, as patriotism, but it does not consider Yue Fei's and Wen Tianxiang's refusal to submit to what historically were conquerors from different ethnic groups as such. Furthermore, it rudely and disdainfully revoked their title of "People's Heroes." This capricious double standard hurts the feelings of both liberals and the Han people, and in addition, rides roughshod over academic conscience and distorts the true face of history.

3. Chinese history is nothing like how it is described by the power-monopolized historical outlook, one moment dirt-black, the next incomparably wonderful, where utilitarian application determines which side of the pancake faces up. To revive Chinese culture, the first thing to do is to revive the courage with which the ancient Chinese people pursued freedom and restore the glorious traditions of our ancestors: the pursuit of freedom and a willingness to die rather than submit to tyranny. A revival that does not respect freedom and human rights is not one that we recognize.

We raise our voices in this appeal:

If you truly and sincerely want to revive Chinese culture, then please start with respecting the free will of our ancient sages and the true face of history.

So that the ancients' pursuit of freedom and love of justice and truth may continue to influence our generation of Chinese and our posterity, we urge the authorities to consider printing images of the wise — Qu Yuan, Li Bai, Yue Fei, and Wen Tianxiang — onto the Renminbi (some of us also suggested Confucius and Cao Xueqin). Whether on the One Hundred Yuan or the Ten Yuan note, their portraits will enrich the culture of our currency. The US Dollar and Japanese Yen are examples of world currencies that have used their design to show off the core values of a nation: the Dollar bears forefathers like Lincoln and Franklin, and the Yen features the heads of authors like Natsume Soseki. This shows how they truly respectculture.

We believe that if the likenesses of these ancient Chinese sages were printed on the Renminbi, not only would it be a true expression of the will of the people in the "people's currency," it would also be a highly significant positive step in improving cross-straits communication and elevating cultural understanding across the straits.


Drafted and issued by Ling Cangzhou (Author, academic, journalist in Beijing)


Ling Cangzhou
Tian Lu (Beijing, magazine editor)
Meng Linghua (Beijing, magazine editor)
Zhao Guojun (Beijing, legal scholar)
Zan Aizong (Zhejiang, independent writer)
Zhang Xingshui (Beijing, legal scholar)
Gu Qingsheng (Beijing, freelance writer)
Liu Zhengshan (Beijing, economist)
Liu Jing (Beijing, economist)
Chen Yongmiao (Beijing, legal scholar)
Ran Yunfei (Sichuan, editor and scholar)
Du Zhaoyong (Beijing, cultural scholar)

The petition seems less like a serious proposal than an opportunity to criticize the government for its ideological control over academic freedom. On his blog, Zan Aizong titled his repost of the petition, "Print Qu Yuan on the Renminbi and take Mao's portrait off," even though the text itself does not call for retiring the Mao note altogether.

An unlikely denomination

Perhaps a new denomination could be created, like this mockup that's been circulating online.

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There are currently 8 Comments for Reviving traditional culture through the pocketbook.

Comments on Reviving traditional culture through the pocketbook

I have to say I'm against putting historical/cultural figures into bank notes. That's not a way to enhance ppl's cultural/historical awareness, but only to get people tired of these people, as they see them everyday. Cultural/historical figures should be left for imagination. Putting them on bank notes kills imagination.

And I'm totally annoyed by these people who always claim themselves as "scholars", even though they have rarely, if ever, written any academic papers but newspaper/web essays.

I’ve read a couple of things about Chinese banknotes recently which might be peripherally interesting.

1. An interview in the SCMP with the worker on China’s first set of post-liberation 10-yuan banknotes, Yang Qi – also an engraver who worked on the design.

That interview is now in the archives so I can’t link it though I can email it to anyone who is dying to read it.

2. Then there is the Swiss designer Roger Pfund who was interviewed in May’s Urbane magazine. He is currently working on updating China’s currency and passports.

Page 36 here:

Great idea. A new denomination is long overdue as well, it's about time there was at least a 500 yuan note.

Support wz's comment.

They are definitely not serious scholars.It's really funny to read repeatly that title.

Rather than some silly modern interpretation of an ennobled Li Bai trodding on rolling clouds surely just a few lines from his most famous poems would do better justice to him and the culture. Same for Qu Yuan and other ancients for whom no likeness can be recovered nor needed; they live through their words and not their supposed likeness.

The point about power holders reshaping history in black and white is very important.

Quipping that they are not real scholars (with no back up to this unrelated claim) neither adds nor detracts anything from the points they raise.

Taking Mao off the money would be a huge step and have a large effect.

I like the way Danwei is so concerned with Chinese culture and yet offers nothing on it's website except mordern Western ideas/culture.(albeit with a Chinese flavour)

In my travels, I've never come across a people so in touch with there history/culture. Yes, distorted at times, but with an underlaying belief in it and a fearlessness (rare in west) of turning it on it's head to move forward.

I guess thats the privlige of an ancient culture, you know you can't stop it changing.

As for who's on the money?

I wish I knew.

Haha, a great joke. I bet every Chinese will laugh at the denomination 250. If you don't understand why, show it to any Chinese. Well, there is no quarter in Chinese currency system anyway.

I agree that this petition is not really serious. Should the government decided to use historic figures, it will be a national and may be international debate of who should be on and who should not. China is so large and diversified that people even can't easily agree what should be the national flower or national bird. Whoever makes the decision will be criticized forever.

[Removed duplicate URL. --JM]

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