a response to Wang Qian’s oil on canvas Twenty Yuan

“Look there. It’s the scene from the back of the twenty yuan note.”

He actually said that as he rowed us downstream. I played my part perfectly, holding up two bills when we came ashore, having my picture made in front of the scene taken from the back of those bits of paper.

Not the other way round, of course.

No, the yuan is on the rise, and to be inscribed across twenty of them all at one shot is nothing to be ashamed of, not one bit. It’s not like appearing on the back of one jiao, those dogeared scraps used in place of coins in many parts of China. No sir. This is a whole yuan, not just a part of it. And more than that, it’s twenty of them, all squeezed onto one rectangle of paper. And this is the image borne there, the famous face of Guilin’s—the world’s—most notable karst formation. And that notoriety has been duly enshrined, right there on the back of those twenty yuan notes.

That’s not to say we’ve caved in to commercialism, you understand. No, we know the lay of the land, the worth of our natural resources. I mean, it’s not as if I could’ve just handed over the twenty yuan note with which I was photographed, or even the pair of them, to the boatman who took us downstream on a sojourn culminating at the 20-yuan site. No, it took at least five or six of them for that. Per person.

There’s no devaluing going on, no failure to treasure our land. After all, isn’t the very note valued at 20-yuan issued—and honored—by our national treasury?

But tell me, with what does your home stamp its currency?

Shelly Bryant divides her year between Shanghai and Singapore, working as a teacher, writer, researcher, and student of Chinese language and culture. She is the author of two volumes of poetry, Cyborg Chimera and Under the Ash, and a travel guide to the city of Suzhou entitled Suzhou Basics. Her third volume of poetry, Voices of the Elders, is due out in early 2012, and her travel memoir The End of the Line is slated for release in late 2011. Her current projects include writing an updated guide to the city of Shanghai for Urbanatomy and translating Sheng Keyi’s novel 《北妹》 (Northern Girls) for Penguin Books.

Shelly’s poetry has appeared in journals, magazines, and websites around the world, as well as in several art exhibitions, including dark ’til dawn, Things That Disappear, and Studio White • Exhibition 2011. You can visit her website at

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