Chinese banknotes insulted the Japanese enemy and instilled hope in an occupied people
While many American historians cite the start of World War II as the invasion of Poland in 1939, scholars of Asian history often state that the war had, in fact, begun two years earlier, following the Japanese invasion of China. The culmination of six years of simmering hostilities between China and Japan—the origins of which arose from the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931—was the infamous Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 1937, which proved to be the spark that set off the powder keg of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45).
After eventually being forced into a stalemate, the Japanese would establish a puppet government known as the Provisional Government of North China. The financial arms of this puppet government were the Federal Reserve Bank of China and the Central Reserve Bank of China, both of which would produce a large variety of occupied currencies for use by the Chinese.
Unbeknownst to the Japanese, however, was the fact that a handful of these notes contained covert messages and hidden images in their designs.
Located in Peiping (Beijing), the Federal Reserve Bank of China (FRBC) operated as the financial headquarters of Northeast China. An interesting tidbit about this bank was that the original plates used for the first series of notes were actually prepared by a pair of American engravers, who had brought them to China in 1909 to advise the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Peking (Beijing) on western printing techniques.
Importantly, the FRBC employed Chinese engravers and printers at this mint. This meant that the occupied Chinese had direct access to all the notes being produced. These notes were designed with the aim of generating favor between the Chinese and their Japanese occupiers through the usage of imagery and symbols associated with Chinese culture. The inevitable result of this decision, of course, was that Chinese engravers were able to discreetly modify the plates, inserting subtle jabs at the Japanese on their very own occupied currencies!
The most famous of these modifications can be seen on the 1938 one dollar note. An impressive note to begin with, the obverse shows a robed Confucius at left, with a large Chinese dragon flying overhead. What is so interesting about this note can be found in the placement of Confucius’s hands. While his hands would normally be depicted clasped together in prayer, they are instead shown to be making an indecent gesture at the holder of the note.
This gesture, which was recognizably offensive for both sides, somehow managed to sneak past the Japanese and reach the populace at large, no doubt to the delight of the occupied Chinese.
1938 China 1 Dollar, Federal Reserve Bank of China (Pick #J54a), PMG-graded About Uncirculated 55. Featuring “Vulgar Wiseman” Confucius. All images Paper Money Guaranty (PMG)
The note caused a severe loss of face for the Japanese, greatly raising the spirits of the Chinese in the process. This act was not without consequences; in retaliation for this modification, the Japanese found the engravers responsible, arrested them, and had them executed. The damage had already been done, and while no other note would be as brazenly offensive as the so called “Vulgar Wiseman”, the Chinese nevertheless persevered, opting instead for far more subtle modifications in the future.
Following the establishment of the Reformed Government of the Republic of China in 1938, the Japanese created the Central Reserve Bank of China in Nanjing. The bank occupied the vacant slot left behind by the Central Bank of China after its whirlwind relocation further inland, just prior to the arrival of the Japanese in the city.
Learning a lesson from the Vulgar Wiseman debacle, the Japanese kept a closer eye on notes produced by the CRBC. As a result, the engravers had to take a different approach in order to send covert messages to the beleaguered populace. This would take the form of cutting hidden messages into engraving plates – an act that the engravers knew risked their lives should they be caught.
These messages varied, ranging from placing turtles in the borders of the 1940 10 Yuan note—turtles being deemed a loathsome creature by the Chinese—to discreetly inserting small letters at various points, which, when arranged correctly, would stand for a message.
The sneaking of animal imagery into notes was quite difficult, as the animal could not be so obvious as to give away the message, nor could it be so subtle that it went unnoticed by the populace.
Two such notes to make it past censors were the 1940 10 Yuan note and the 1942 100 Yuan note, both of which utilized the borders to hide their animals. As alluded to earlier, the 1940 10 Yuan note used the imagery of bisected turtles inside the borders to express their distaste for their loathsome oppressors. The 1942 100 Yuan note was slightly more subtle than its predecessor, opting instead to hide pairs of wolves’ heads along the borders. These heads are more difficult to spot at first glance, which is itself evidence of the skill of the engravers.
1942 China 100 Yuan, Central Reserve Bank of China (Pick #J14a), PMG-graded Choice Uncirculated 64 EPQ. Note bisected wolves’ heads along the border.
Wolves were viewed as the epitome of extreme greed in Chinese culture, with the animal often being associated with greedy or corrupt public officials. From an outside perspective, these animals may seem strange choices, but to the Chinese of the time, they relayed a very specific message of resistance against the Japanese puppet government.
The most discreet method of encoding messages was the hiding of tiny letters in the margins and designs of notes. A famous example of these hidden messages can be found on the 1940 50 cent note, which bore the letters C, G, W, R, and S at various points in the design.
When arranged together, they spelled out CGWRS, which stood for “Central Government Will Return Soon”. This message – sent several years after the retreat of the Central Government – was one of hope for the future, reminding the Chinese that normality would return to China once the Japanese were forced out.
1940 50 Cent note, Central Reserve Bank of China. From left to right: “G,” “R,” “C,” “W,” and “S.”
Providing messages of hope to the Chinese people was difficult, to say the least. With strict censorship of the media preventing widespread rebellion, propaganda notes like these were vital for not just insulting the enemy, but instilling much-needed hope to an occupied populace. Today, the notes are a unique piece of history, providing both collectors and historians alike a fascinating glimpse into both resistance and propaganda in 20th-century China.
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Friedman, Herbert A. “WWII ALLIED PROPAGANDA BANKNOTES”, Psywarrior. 23 Feb 2004.
Hatton, Samantha, and Kelly Lindberg. “Hidden Turtles and Rude Gestures in World War II-Era Chinese Banknotes”, National Museum of American History. 6 Dec 2016.
Sandrock, John E. “The Use of Bank Notes as an Instrument of Propaganda Part II”, The Currency Collector.
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