Ten-yuan note sets former engraver's place in history

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am

For 60 years, the identity of the worker on China's first set of post-liberation 10-yuan banknotes remained a mystery. Then, to the surprise of his family and community, former Shanghai engraver Yang Qi , 84, revealed how he modelled for and helped design the note. Mr Yang spoke to Lilian Zhang.

How did you get a job in a printing factory?

In 1937, when I was 12 years old, I dropped out of elementary school and fled to the foreign concession to escape the Japanese invasion. One of my relatives got me a job in a newspaper printing factory controlled by the Americans and the Kuomintang. A lot of people led immoral lives and gambled often, but there were still some underground communists in the factory. I took part in many anti-Japanese activities with them and in 1940 they suggested I join the New Fourth Army, a major wartime communist force.

So you worked and fought?

Yes, we had to play hide-and-seek with Japanese troops quite often. Our army first moved to Changshu , in Jiangsu province , and established a newspaper there. I learned typesetting at its printing factory. But the Japanese army burned down our factory and attacked us several times, so we had to move. We finally moved to Shandong province , and I worked in the Beihai banknote printing factory during the War of Liberation in 1946.

How did you get the chance to design the first set of banknotes?

In 1948, when the War of Liberation was nearly over, an official from the Beihai Bank approached my colleague Zhai Ying and me and asked us to design and print the first 10-yuan note. Beihai Bank eventually became the People's Bank of China, the central bank, by merging two other banks - Huabei Bank and Xibei Farmers' Bank in liberated areas. I was 23 years old and Zhai was a year older.

Then how did you become a model for the banknote?

We decided to use the images of a worker and a farmer on the banknote because Comrade Mao Zedong said the people's government should be an alliance of workers and farmers. It was a coincidence that I was a worker and Zhai was from a rural family, and since we very short of materials at that time, the official suggested we be the models.

So what was design process itself like?

It was tough, rigid and secret. We only thought about finishing the work as soon as possible and not any honour of being the men on the banknote. Cameras were not available at that time so we invited a painter to paint images of us in a remote village in Shandong province. Posing as a worker and a farmer, Zhai and I stood shoulder to shoulder, one of us carrying a hammer and the other a sickle in our left hands. We kept the pose for several hours a day and the painting was finally completed in nearly a week. Actually, we also had guns in our right hands, because the slogan widely spread in the liberated areas was 'carrying a gun in one hand and a hoe in another', which meant to produce and battle at the same time. But the picture of the gun was finally cut by our leaders. I also designed the pattern surrounding the portrait that symbolised good fortune and happiness. A few months later, both of us helped design and print the 50-yuan, 100-yuan and 200-yuan banknotes.

What was life like after that?

I came back to Shanghai after the war ended in 1949. I worked in the public security bureau instead of the printing factory, and before I retired was transferred to the bureau for the re-education of criminals. But my colleague Zhai died during the Cultural Revolution. Now, I take part in some activities in our community and do a lot of Chinese traditional paintings at home.

Why have you revealed your part in history now?

I first disclosed it in an internal memoir in the late 1980s when an academy of the New Fourth Army in Shanghai suggested I write something for them. But this part of history remained unknown to the public until our community recently set up an archive for residents with special experiences. If I didn't mention it, people would never know about the real history.

Did your family know about this?

None of my relatives, not even my wife, knew about it. Some of them even heard about it from media reports. They were surprised at first but then felt honoured about my experience.