Friday, November 09, 2007

Flying Money

While trying to come up with a think piece that doesn't come down to, in essence, a recapitulation of the "Sweet Baby Jesus, what a rotten, slimy, repugnant, Constitution-shredding, spastic, grab-ass-tic piece of monkey shit Dick Cheney and his fellow Republicans are" theme, I ran across this fun little comment about teeny tiny denomination paper money in the China P.R. in James Fallow's blog.
In case you haven't followed his adventures in China it's worth a look in from time to time. He clearly has an "outside-in" look at the country and the culture and doesn't speak the language. Of course, that's not a problem here, where our cultured and clever Kelli brings her literate brand of travel writing to delight us with accounts of her travels and her take on the wait for adorable little Chinese orphans to adopt...

The Chinese have a great tradition of paper banknotes - the top illustration is "flying money" and a mint plate from the 13th Century A.D. But I have to say that the current PRC cash set-up carries this tradition perhaps further than it needs to go.
In our toing-and-froing across Shamian Dao I managed to pick up a pocketful of these damn things. They're the half (5 Jiao), one-fifth (2 Jiao) and one-tenth yuan (or "renminbi", to give the currency its official name. In essence, they're a paper fifty-cent piece, a sorta-quarter and a dime.
I note with interest that at one point back in the Fifties the PRC actially issued notes for the sub-silver coin level of currency, the "fen". The fen is the hundredth part of a yuan - in essence, a penny. I can't imagine what the fuck you'd do with a paper penny, but the word "tinder" comes to mind.
One thing I found interesting in Fallow's observation was his comment that the entrepreneurs of cool and swingin' Shanghai consider these paper "coins" uncool and strictly for the rubes, but that he is running into them more often in Beijing.
We certainly encountered them in Guangzhou, all except for the 20-fen note, which is supposedly rare perhaps for the same reason that you seldom encounter a $2 bill in this country (which is, that most business can be conducted in tenths or halves - fifths is just, frankly, clunky).
I am not at all good with money. I will freely tell you this; my lovely bride will shout it to the housetops - I am just plain rotten with money. I'm one of those "How can I be broke I still have checks left?" sorts of people. Our household works in the early samurai tradition: the husband simply hands his money to the wife, who then hands him a stipend. But in my wildest, most profligate moment, I have never thrown away folding money. Never.
Until now. We returned from China with wads of this fishwrap and I just stuffed them into a pocket until they became too irritating and then gave them to the Peeper to play with. When last seen they were being used as little construction site warning flags. I was reminded of the stories of the tiny paper saddleblankets that Sioux and Cheyenne children made from greenbacks taken from Custer's men.
Sometimes cultural differences make it impossible for an idea - at the Little Bighorn the idea was "paper money" - to cross the societal divide.
And sometimes - as in Guangzhou whilst adopting adorable little Chinese orphans - the damn stuff just is too much work to spend.


walternatives said...

Oh, hell. I wish I would have known you were going to toss such beautiful bills - I would loved to have had all of it, to make Art with. By the time I get to the PRC and collect my own, I won't have much time to Make Art when I return... Those little bills, to me, are lovely.

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