The United States Treasury Department announced on April 20 that President Andrew Jackson would be removed from the $20 dollar bill to be replaced by escaped slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The choice, after a year of activism by Women on 20s.org, knocks out two birds with one stone, by relegating a slavery-supporting populist to the back of the bill in favor of a black woman who helped hundreds of slaves run away to freedom.
One of the consequences of American activists’ successful Women on 20s campaign last year, which was ultimately successful in convincing the U.S. Treasury Department to replace controversial seventh president Andrew Jackson with escaped slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, is that it has given Americans pause to consider the meaning and purpose of the national symbols our government chooses to put on our currency.
At the most simplistic level, it has exercised reactionary conservatives like Donald Trump and Ben Carson to denounce a “politically correct” choice of replacing a white male president with a black woman. Reactionary liberals like Feminista Jones and Danielle Paquette have denounced what they see as the commodification of a black revolutionary on a symbol of capitalism. Ideological conservatives, however, have mostly celebrated Tubman as a god-believing, gun-wielding, freedom-fighting Lincoln-era Republican.
Currency is the national symbol that residents of a country have the closest connection to. They carry it with them everywhere they go, hold it in their hands, and spend most of their waking hours working to earn it. As such it has been the subject of research papers on the construction of national identity. Scholars and columnists have pointed to how the Confederate States of America featured slaves on its currency as a depiction of its national identity.
As John Majewski wrote in Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation,
Embodying the new nation’s sense of self, Confederate currency often depicted idealized visions of past heroes, contented slaves, and stately plantations. Confederate notes also featured representations of a modern slaveholding economy. The popular $100 note issued in Richmond in 1862 shows a larger-than-life locomotive that dwarfs the human figures standing beside it (Illustration 5, top). Modern, powerful, and dynamic, the locomotive aptly symbolized how Confederates imagined their economic future.
Since Americans have began thinking more and more about affording greater social prominence, not just legal rights, to minorities and historically oppressed groups, it is fitting that a president, Jackson, who is now infamous for his support for slavery and unconstitutional forced migration (the Trail of Tears) of American Indians from the Southern United States is being replaced by Tubman, an underground railroad conductor who helped lead hundreds of slaves to freedom and served as a spy for the Union army.
When the campaign to replace Jackson got started, I got thinking, too, about China and Chinese currency. It also have a depicts a controversial populist who was responsible for untold deaths on its currency—and one who, for that matter, very well might be offended at seeing his image “commodified” and used to purchase bourgesouie items of luxury from foreign companies. In fact, Mao Zedong is on every single note of the People’s Republic’s currency.
Mao was indeed the leading general and founder of the country, so it is understandable why China’s government would want its founder on its currency, but George Washington is only on the $1 bill. In fact, it wasn’t until 1999 that Mao took his place as the sole face of Chinese currency. The fourth series of the renminbi (“people’s currency”), introduced in 1987, features national minorities on the smaller notes and Mao, Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi and Zhu De together on the 100 yuan note. The third series, used during the height of Mao hysteria, was even more class conscious, featuring factories and factory workers. Having Mao on every note feels out-of-place in the modern-day China of socialism with Chinese characteristics, even more so in a country that lauds its supposed 5,000-year history as a nation.
Of course China would never take my suggestions, but here are my proposals for four more figures to add to the front of the notes:
If anyone should be associated with money in China, it’s Deng. A popular Communist saying is that, “If there were no Mao Zedong, there would be no New China.” But if there were no Deng, there would be no developed China. Deng survived multiple purges during the Culture Revolution but came back each time and presided over Reform & Opening up starting in 1978. He presided over the reopening of the Shanghai Stock Exchange, the opening of Special Economic Zones like Shenzhen, the loosening of regulations, the shutdown of many state-owned enterprises, and, for nationalists, the negotiations that resulted in the handover of Hong Kong. Deng is the reason Chinese people have so much more currency in their pocket and why Chinese currency eventually became included in the IMF’s basket of currency.
Sun Yat-sen is considered as the founding father of republican-era China and heralded by the People’s Republic as well as Taiwan’s Republic of China (which traces its history back to the fall of the Qing dynasty). Born in Guangdong in 1866 and educated in the U.S. and Hong Kong, Sun formed the Revive China Society, which was dedicated to overthrowing the corrupt Qing dynasty and turning China into a modern, technologically-advanced nation capable of standing with the Western powers. In 1911-12, the Chinese succeeded in overthrowing the Qing, and Sun became the Republic’s first president. He was also one of the founders and early leaders of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) before they split with the Communists.
As with the U.S. and other Western countries, China could use the currency to promote itself as a place of equality. Unlike the U.S., China has a much deeper history to probe. It could also use its currency to promote its much vaunted “5,000 years of history” as a civilization (at least a few thousand).
As such, Wu Zetian, the only empress of China, would be an inspiring pick. After working her way up through relationships and marriages from being one of Emperor Taizong of Tang’s concubines into the become the Empress, who asserted a great deal of power, and then eventually to being the only female Emperor when she established her own self-styled dynasty, the Zhou dynasty, in 684. Her reign was noted for a great expansion of Chinese territory into the Korean peninsula. Wu was popularized by the recent TV drama “Empress of China.”
Putting Khan on a note would give China the opportunity to both promote one of its minority ethnic groups and claim the most powerful Mongolian in history as its own. Since Kublai Khan made the mistake of founding the Yuan Dynasty and inserting his grandfather into the imperial records, China has controlled Inner Mongolia. The Republic of China still claims control of all of Mongolia. Museums in Inner Mongolia province proclaim that Emperor Taizu (Genghis Khan) was a great figure of Chinese history. If China put Khan on its notes, they would have the most bad ass notes outside of Mongolia.