Paper Money

Clash of Cultures

Published June 30, 2024 | 3 min read

By Benjamin Swagerty

One of modern China’s more interesting bank notes, to me anyway, is the 50-yuan note. I acquired an example some time ago. It is dated 2019 and has a striking design and features.

The front of this multicolored beauty bears the arms of the nation and a watermark and portrait of Mao Tse Tung, along with the years of his birth and death: 1893-1976. The Western digits 50 serve as an offset register. The color of the large 50 in the center shifts from green to blue, depending on the viewing angle. A security thread with a color-shifting feature turns from pink to green. Another security thread runs through the central 50 and, when held up to a light source, clearly shows the number 50.

Mao Tse Tung, founder of the People’s Republic of China, appears on the front of China’s 50- yuan note, and the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, is shown on the back. (Photos: Benjamin Swagerty)

The note has a horizontal serial number that changes from red to black as the number progresses, and a vertical serial number appears in blue. Tactile marks for the visually impaired can be found in the bottom-right corner. Near the watermark are the scattered Omron rings of the EURion constellation, an anticounterfeiting feature that helps imaging software identify bank notes and blocks users from printing copies.

Mao Tse Tung

Let’s take a closer look at the historical figure on the front of the note. Mao became China’s leader when his forces defeated the Nationalists in 1949. He created China’s first constitution and was behind the Great Leap Forward to modernize its economy. He launched the Anti Rightist-Campaign and the Cultural Revolution. His administration was responsible for the persecution of intellectuals and dissidents, as well as the murder of millions of Chinese citizens. It oversaw the widespread destruction of cultural artifacts, the fomentation of class struggles, and facilitated the rise of his cult of personality.

To be fair, Mao is revered at least as much as he is despised. History may be too fresh for full objectivity, and perhaps it is too soon for criticism as well.

Tibetan Fortress

The back of the note depicts a stunning view of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. This palace is a Dzong fortress, a style of architecture that is found mainly in Tibet and Bhutan and is widely illustrated on bank notes of Nepal. Dzong architecture can also be found, strangely enough, on the University of Texas campus in El Paso. 

The Potala Palace, named after the mythical Mount Potalaka, served as the Dalai Lama’s winter palace from 1649 to 1959. Thanks to the intervention of Zhou Enlai, a Chinese statesman and diplomat, the building evaded significant damage during the Cultural Revolution. It has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1994. On this particular note, the central part of the structure, also known as the “red palace,” is indicated by a contrasting brown color.

Chinese Culture

This is a truly beautiful note that captures the history of a region with an extremely strong culture. Collectors of notes and coins with a focus on world leaders, China, Tibet, palaces, castles, fortresses, and the Dalai Lama, as well as Texas, will want to have this note for their collection.

I have close to 190 bank-note and coin videos on my YouTube channel, Numismatic Notes with Benjamin. You are welcome to like and subscribe, and enjoy my content. Please feel free to contact me to cuss and discuss. Have a jewel of a day! 

A version of this article appears in the August 2024 issue of The Numismatist (