Fifth series Chinese banknotes © Moerschy / Public Domain / Pixabay
The Chinese Renminbi (RMB), also known by its basic unit, the Yuan, was first issued in 1948, with the foundation of the People’s Bank of China. Since then, there have been five series of banknotes issued by the People’s Republic of China. This article gives a brief overview of the older series, focusing on the bills, and then delves into the current series, giving a more in depth description of the scenery shown on the reverse of said bills and its cultural significance.
The first series was introduced during the Chinese Civil War, as a way to replace the Nationalist government currency and to unify the various different currencies used by the communist-held territories. The bills showed a variety of agricultural and industrial scenes and, although their issuance was quite chaotic and there were many versions of each bill due to the turbulent political context of their inception, they remained in circulation until 1955 (中国新闻网, 2015).
The second series bills, introduced in 1955, are a rare find, as many of them were recalled due to issues with counterfeit notes being printed in Russia and making their way into China as a result of border conflicts after the Sino-Soviet split. The second series of bills was also the first to feature scenery on some of its bills, as well as the only one to include a ¥3 bill and to include the name of the Chinese central bank in the Mongol, Tibetan and Uyghur languages. The Zhuang language would be added in later series, as its alphabet did not yet exist at this time. The third series of bills, issued since 1962, also included this, but represented agricultural and industrial scenes, with only one bill exclusively showing scenery (Liao & Wang, 2018). The fourth series was the first to include Chinese scenery on the reverse of most denominations. The obverse showed members of China’s various ethnic groups and workers of different fields, symbolizing the unity of all the peoples of China. These bills began to be introduced in 1987, and it was only in 2018 when the announcement of their recalling was made public (People’s Bank of China, 2018).
Today’s Chinese coins and banknotes are part of the fifth series of the currency, which was progressively introduced starting in 1999. Unlike previous series, the front of every bill shows a portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong by artist Liu Wenxi, founder of the Yellow Earth School of Painting. Bill colors were changed and a new ¥20 bill was introduced. Additional anti-counterfeit features were added in the second and third editions, the latter of which is still in the process of being emitted (CRI Online, 2019; People’s Bank of China, 2004). The obverse of the bills includes flowers in its design and in watermark form, whereas the reverse shows a series of locations that aim to showcase the natural beauty of China. What follows below is a brief review of the views selected for the fifth series of RMB bills and their cultural significance.
The ¥1 bill, the smallest of the fifth series, was first issued in 2019. On the back, it shows an image of the West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011, located in Hangzhou, which has inspired poets, painters, and various other artists throughout Chinese history. Over time, the artistic and literary works on this lake have generated a list of ‘Ten Scenes of West Lake’ (西湖十景, Xīhú shí jǐng), featuring ten spots around the lake selected during the Song Dynasty, which are now widely used as a guide for visitors to the lake (Duan, 2017). The scene on the reverse of the ¥1 bill is known as the three pools mirroring the moon (三潭印月, sāntányìnyuè). It shows three small stone towers in the lake, with space for lanterns and candles to be lit within them on autumn nights, so that their light is also reflected across the surface of the water (eChineseLearning, 2015).
Reverse of ¥1 bill: Three Pools Mirroring the Moon at West Lake.
Source: CRI Online, 2019
The fifth RMB series does not, as of today, include a ¥2 bill. Therefore, the next smallest is the ¥5 bill, which shows a view of the highest point of Shandong province, known as Mount Tai (泰山, tàishān). One of the most important ceremonial centers of China, it has been a place of worship for many millennia and is associated with sunrise, birth and renewal. It is considered the foremost of China’s five sacred mountains, with a total of 72 emperors recorded as having visited the site and its various shrines and temples. As such, it has been the subject of many songs, poems, and other art forms, including its representation on the back of the ¥5 bill. A UNESCO World Heritage since 1987, it is also the location of China’s first recorded earthquake (UNESCO, n.d.-a; eChineseLearning, 2015).
Reverse of ¥5 bill: Mount Tai © James St. John / CC BY 2.0 / Flickr
From the highest points of Shandong, we move to one of the lower points of Hubei province, along the middle reaches of the Yangtze River. This is the location shown on the back of the ¥10 bill: the beginning point of the Three Gorges (长江三峡, Chángjiāng sānxiá). The Qutang, Wu, and Xiling gorges span almost 200 miles (over 300 km). The first, and shortest of the three, Qutang Gorge, begins where the river passes between the Chijia and Baiyan mountains at a point known as the Kuimen Gate (夔門, Kuímén), which is the part of the gorge depicted on the ¥10 bill. The beauty of this point of the river has again been recorded in Chinese art and literature (China.org.cn, 2004). However, the gorges have also recently been the subject of some controversy, due to the 2006 construction of a dam in Xiling Gorge that has required the mass relocation of towns and villages and threatened various cultural sites, including altering the appearance of the gorge itself due to the rising water level (Hvistendal, 2008).
Reverse of ¥10 bill: Kuimen Gate, Three Gorges of the Yangtze River.
Source: CRI Online, 2019
Continuing with the theme of rocky formations created by water, the design of the ¥20 bill is based on Guilin, a region known for the karst landscape that surrounds it, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations in China. The karstic formations, located in Guanxi Province, are part of the origin of the popular Chinese saying 桂林山水甲天下 (Guìlín shānshuǐ jiǎ tiānxià, an approximate translation of which is “Guilin’s waters and mountains are the fairest in the world”) (GuilinChina.net, n.d.). The ¥20 bill shows a fisherman on a bamboo raft, once a common mode of river transportation, against a backdrop of these karstic formations.
Reverse of ¥20 bill: Mountains and lake in Guilin. Source: CRI Online, 2019
Moving back towards the East of China, the fortress on the back of the ¥50 bill is the Potala Palace, located in Lhasa, Tibet. Built over 1.300 years ago, this was the winter palace of the Dalai Lama for 13 centuries before being turned into a museum. It stands atop Marpori, one of the three main hills of Lhasa which, according to tradition, represent the Three Protectors of Tibet. Marpori is said to represent Avalokitasvara, who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas, who lives in the mythical Mount Potalaka, from which the palace’s name is derived (UNESCO, n.d.-b).
Reverse of ¥50 bill: Potala Palace. Source: CRI Online, 2019
Last but not least, the Great Hall of the People, located on the western side of Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, is represented on the back of the ¥100 bill. Opened in 1959 as one of the Ten Big Constructions erected to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the PRC, it is used for legislative and ceremonial sessions held by both the government of the PRC and the Communist Party of China, including the plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress and National CPC Congress meetings. It is divided into three sections, with the northern and central ones being mostly halls and auditoriums, among which are included one hall for each province, autonomous region and special administrative region in China. The southern section houses offices from the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of China. The Great Hall has also housed meetings with foreign dignitaries, state funerals and memorial services, and even some non-political conventions and concerts (National People’s Congress, n.d.).
Reverse of ¥100 bill: the Great Hall of the People © James St. John / CC BY 2.0 / Flickr
Even before the creation of the People’s Bank of China, Chinese bills have been a way of capturing different stages of the country’s evolution. Aside from serving as a way to celebrate some of the culturally and historically significant locations of great natural beauty within Chinese borders, they have also had political significance, as their design has often been aligned with the vision of the country that central authorities wished to spread. They have also served as vehicles for anti-government messages, as was the case in 2009, when members of the Falun Gong, a spiritual group banned in China, marked thousands of notes with messages defending their beliefs on the 10th anniversary of the ban and put the notes back into circulation as a way to avoid government censorship (Asianews.it, 2009). Thus, paying attention to the changing design of currencies can bring unique insight into the past of a nation, and perhaps even clues regarding what comes next. Perhaps the next series of RMB bills will include reference to its digital counterpart, a possible triumph over Covid, paramount leader Xi Jinping, or other relevant chapters from Chinese history that are still yet to come.
Blanca Marabini San Martín is an incoming Asian Studies PhD candidate at the Madrid Autonomous University (CEAO – UAM). She previously worked at the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (Ministry of Defense of Spain) and the Spanish Chinese Policy Observatory, and is currently part of the New Silk Roads Project of the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS, Leiden). She is also Editor in Chief and a member of the board of European Guanxi. Her research interests are centered around the climate and environmental dimension of China’s foreign policy. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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