Blog | December 2010

Checking the signs

by Daniel Audéoud


Do you know how to recognize a counterfeit banknote if you see one? Have you ever knowingly come across one? Or are there chances you could have had (or have right now) one without knowing it?
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Such questions we seldom ask ourselves, unless confronted with practices that do bring the issue to the fore.  As you may well have experienced, this can typically happen when being in places where money is not quite the customary commodity it is for instance here, at the heart of Europe. At any rate that was precisely the case for me when I got to Yunnan’s Dali, a provincial village-town at the southwestern tip of P.R. China. Out of the very many things that left me bemused as a first-timer in Asia, the way money is handled in rural – yet touristy – Dali precipitated reaction and questioning.

Whenever paying with one of the larger 50 or 100 yuan banknotes (ca. 5 to 10 euros), I witnessed how shopkeepers would  suspiciously check it, holding it against the light and feeling the crisp of the paper between two expert fingertips, before (hopefully) handing me the desired article and sending me off with change… Even more dramatically so at the food market, I could use a 20 yuan (ca. 2 euro) note and chances were that it would be checked all the same before I could get the coveted bunch of spring onions. Now considering that I came at the time straight out of Switzerland where I had grown accustomed to ATMs readily offering 100 franc (ca. 60 euros) notes by the dozen, and to people exchanging them without even as much as looking at them… that made for some intriguing contrast.

Traveling later in different parts of the country, I came to realize that such a contrast could not simply be established along clear cut lines: it cannot simply be held as a rural habit versus something that has all but disappeared in the metropolises of the East coast, neither a habit in poorer areas which exists no more in affluent ones, nor a habit of those who have less exposure to money dealings, as opposed to the carelessness of those who do handle large flows of cash. Though each of these classifications seemed at first conveniently suitable, too many experiences to the contrary simply made them untenable on their own. The question of why people – though all within the realm of market exchange – would handle money in varying practical ways alerted me to some beneath the surface considerations regarding money and monetary proceedings.

And this was not a purely theoretical question, but rather a practical one for me: Because I was immersed in a place where ‘it was all Chinese to me’ and had a great deal of difficulties getting some plain communication going, I heavily relied on money to help me facilitate communication. This is obviously not to account for the countless displays of delightful courtesy and heartwarming welcome on the part of perfect strangers, which durably endear this part of the world to my heart. No, don’t get me wrong, non-verbal communication went of course a long way towards making casual contact, as Robin Cohen notes in a previous entry on this blog. Yet when it came down to the basics of water, food, transportation or shelter, money was – whether I like it or not - the medium of choice. More often than not I experienced the fact that showing the magical ¥, or $, or signs would, when tagged in the right amount, get me what I needed much faster than trying to make use of my beloved Mandarin phrasebook. No matter how dirty or crumpled, as long as it was deemed legitimate a simple piece of colored paper would convince people that I was an individual worth accommodating. Money was the perfect communicating device for getting people’s attention and compelling them to help, not a small matter.

Yet the act of checking my banknotes ruptured the communication as I had learned to practice it:
I show you my good faith in the form of a banknote, you accept it by default based on some contingent faith that the next person will accept it from you all the same later, and our direct interaction is limited to customary pleasantries. When such unspoken pattern was disrupted, I was taken out of my comfort zone, and questions arose: why did I have this feeling of being taken back to the here and now, eye to eye, fingers to paper, and in opposition to which other realm? Why did I have to force myself not to take it personally when a banknote I handed was being checked? Why would people inspect the object itself with meticulous care when I on the other hand consider a banknote a mere token, a permutable sign? Are there different ways of understanding money, of using it and integrating it in the contents of life? What is specific about the ways of people in Dali, of which I have seen but mere hints?

If these are intuitive questions arising from casual observation, the task is now before me to explore them in a more systematic way. In Dali, Yunnan, money is flowing in ever larger amounts. A long-standing tradition of trade is being revisited, this time not so much a trade of tea for horses between the highlands of Tibet and the lowlands of south-East Asia, as a trade of hard cash for a tourist experience, the global trade coming to Dali’s doorstep. What new monetary habits and practices does it bring in its wake? How does the enactment of such practices contribute to defining what money actually is? What assumptions and beliefs does this imply with respect to the nature of money, the ideas of value and need, the experience of time? How do assumptions and beliefs about money translate back into assumptions about the other, and indeed about oneself? To what extent does money make us? Do people stop checking their banknotes?

Whether they do or they don’t, I for one am keen on checking those signs. Money can’t dance, says the singer. Yet money stands right here, midway of our encounters, partly defining I and its proverbial other.


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