Toward a Theory of Late Imperial Chinese Media: Paper-Money-Body-Internet
2: The Noisy Bill: Modern Money as Late Imperial Text
Friday, March 25, 2022
1:30pm – 3:00pm EST
Location: Conv. Center, Room 316A
University of Chicago, United States
In his theorization of money as media, Marshall McLuhan locates paper money as a crucial historical-conceptual midpoint between the inconvenient physicality of commodity money and the frictionless information transfer of electronic banking. With its standardized design and minimal text, paper money allows the eye to extract information faster and the hand to give and take in pace with the mind’s desire. Such a narrative largely maps onto the modern history of Chinese paper currency, which transitioned over the course of the late Qing and Republican periods from a hodgepodge of styles and shapes to a total conformity (and thus a promised interchangeability) with the paper currencies of Japan and the West.
But there was another kind of paper currency in circulation that prioritized not uniformity and coherence but complexity and noise. These were the legions of bills printed by private banking institutions like the interregional piaohao and the hyperlocal qianzhuang that were decorated with a richly dense collage of literary excerpts, figurative motifs, word puzzles, and marginal comments. By reading these bills alongside the late imperial texts from which they draw many of their visual and narrative referents, this paper explores how and why these banking institutions made use of the transgeneric and transmedial practices native to a form of late imperial publishing right at the moment of its disappearance from everyday life.