Since 1999 most Chinese bank notes have borne the image of the country’s former leader Mao Zedong. But some older notes, still in circulation, carry portraits of some of China’s 56 officially-acknowledged minorities.
The old 10 yuan note (worth about $1.50) features a moustachioed Han (the dominant ethnic group) alongside a younger turbanned Mongol. The old five yuan note depicts a bearded Hui and a proud Tibetan woman in a traditional fur hat. The images on the notes were small, repetitive pieces of propaganda with a message of ethnic harmony and a brighter future.
But what is not always appreciated is that these images were sketched from real people, and, this year, in the 30th anniversary of the notes’ fourth edition being issued, the media has been trying to track them down.
The two girls on the two Jiao note (Rmb0.2) are now in their fifties. Huang Qiping, a representative of the Tujia community, holds a senior position in Hunan’s Agriculture Department. The ethnic Korean on one of the notes, Su Chunxi, works as a museum guide in the Yanbian autonomous prefecture. The Miao representative from the five jiao note, Wang De’an, died in 2006 having served as governor of another autonomous prefecture in Guizhou.
But the story which has captured the public imagination the most is that of Shi Naiyin, the Dong minority girl from Guizhou who appeared on the one renminbi note.
She was sketched at random in a market when she was 16 years-old and didn’t seem to grasp that her portrait would appear on one of the country’s most widely circulated bank notes (see above, she is the girl on the right). “I forgot I had been sketched,” the Chengdu-based Red Star News quoted her as saying. “It was only later when people started saying the money looked like me that I remembered.”
But it wasn’t till 2010 that a local official confirmed that Shi was the girl in question (the comb in her hair was unique to her area and she still has the heavy silver earrings shown in the picture).
Yet despite adorning the currency of the world’s second largest economy, the 56 year-old lives in poverty, with an income of less than Rmb3,000 a year.
Shi never went to school and she was married when she was 22 to a man her parents chose for her. She is illiterate and speaks the local dialect, not the nation’s lingua france, Putonghua. Today she raises cattle and ducks, and grows corn.
Since discovering her identity as the girl on the note, the local government has offered a little assistance, providing ducklings and fish for her farm. Yet others assume Shi must be wealthy and she regularly receives requests for money from strangers. Some people even post her their bank books so she can deposit cash into their accounts.
“We would help them if we could,” she says. But Shi refuses to accept she is poor herself. “We have enough to eat,” she says, “We just aren’t rich enough for culture.”
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