hsu, chia yin

The ‘Color’ of Money: The Ruble, Competing Currencies, and Conceptions of Citizenship in Russian Manchuria, 1890s-1920s

Transformed by Russian colonial expansion in the late 1890s, the Chinese territory of Manchuria turned from a remote frontier into a locus of global metropolises in the making, where a complex money economy comprising of multiple currencies took root. This paper traces Russian and Chinese interactions at this frontier through the lens of Russian discussions on devising a currency for this region. Mirroring localized contestations and global rivalries, Russian proposals first advocated supporting a Chinese currency to "squeeze out" Mexican and "English" dollars, but settled on creating a rouble for Manchuria, to inscribe Manchuria as Russian. As depicted by Georg Simmel contemplating the European metropolis in the 1900s, money was "colourless," an instrument of equivalence without intrinsic quality, or "colour," that homogenized qualitative differences. In the colonial and multi-ethnic setting of Manchuria, however, money took the form of competing currencies that by the 1920s included various Russian roubles, the Soviet chervonets, a Japanese yen, and a variety of Chinese dollars. In this form, money in Manchuria was "coloured"—by the qualitative differences associated with supposed national character and perceptions of strengths and weaknesses that found expression in the way currency exchange rate became an everyday concern for the local population. This paper traces Russian and Chinese efforts to render their currencies "colourless," that is, uniform and devoid of qualities that would hinder the currencies' ideal function. It explores how these efforts pointed to attempts at erasing the diversity of the region through "signification" and "sovietisation." The paper further investigates to what extent these efforts also shaped Russian and Chinese conceptions of citizenship in the direction of disregarding the "colour"—the supposed intrinsic qualities marking their differences—of the diverse ethnicities of the region's population, in favour of a vision of functional equivalence, equality, and equal participation indicated by the principle of currency circulation.

Russian colonial rule in North Manchuria was often imposed by coercive, discriminatory means to create hierarchically differential status among the peoples who came under this rule. I suggest, however, that competition—as expressed through a monetary economy founded on multiple currencies, each representing an imperial power vying for dominance in the region—promoted interactions different from the coercive, discriminatory practices common under colonial rule.

Exploring this aspect of competition, I draw on Simmel's description of competition as compelling "the wooer … to go out to the wooed," to "winning over" the third parties over whom competitors fight through persuasion, to "divine" their "innermost wishes." Competing for the acceptance of a Russian-supported currency in the region, Russian bankers sought to win over those through whom money would circulate—from migrant labourers to businesses, to ordinary bank depositors, regardless of race, national identity, and other supposedly intrinsic qualities. The issuer of a currency could itself become the target of courtship fostered by competition. Competing for political influence and seeking to obtain Chinese sympathy for Russian presence in Manchuria, Russian state backed banks proclaimed their recognition of the Chinese dollars' equivalence to the English dollar, thereby also recognizing what might be called the "innermost wish" of the wooed— fulfilling the Chinese claim of equality to the English, expressed in terms of currency value.

The socializing effect of competition, as Simmel saw it, was that it "sharpens the businessman's sensitivity to the tendencies of the public." I translate this view to investigate the socializing effect of competing currencies in shaping conceptions of citizenship. Russian statements often referred to the acceptance or rejection of a currency by the local populations as the currency's capacity to obtain citizenship or become naturalized in the region. I connect this metaphor of monetary citizenship—built on a premise of equality and functional equivalence among "citizens," that is, currencies that circulated and entered into competition with other currencies—to political conceptions and social practices of citizenship. By the 1910s and 1920s, the conception of citizenship predicated on a homogeneous national identity increasingly gained ground both in Chinese-controlled Manchuria and the Soviet Far East, the regions that had been thought of as one in the Imperial Russian geographical imaginary. With regard to currency, by the mid-1920s, both the Chinese Manchurian government and the Soviet Russians sought to create a single-currency economy by eliminating currencies in common use that they did not issue. I argue that in contrast to these efforts to establish single-currency regimes, the period of imperial Russian domination in Manchuria proved to be a telling moment of an alternative possibility when, inculcated by the presence of multiple currencies and the necessity to woo, a conception of citizenship emerged that emphasized equivalence and convertibility (expressed in the exchange rate between currencies) in delineating the community of citizens, over that of referring to qualities that were assumed to be fixed and unchanging, such as national identity.

Thursday 25 October 15:15-16:45 Panels V, Panel 14 Politics of Cultural Identity (Hall 14)