The Ideological Antecedents of the First-Series Renminbi Worker-and-Peasant Banknote or What Mao Tse-tung May Have Owed to Dziga Vertov

Peter J. Schwartz


This paper traces the history of an iconic Socialist Realist image—that of the worker, peasant, soldier, or leader viewed from below whilst gazing heroically into the symbolic dawn of a Socialist future—from its origins in mid-1920s Soviet Russia through its use on three banknotes in Communist China’s first renminbi series of 1949 to its effective dissolution in the iconography of Deng-era currency. It argues that this iconic type—familiar not only from Stalinist but also from Italian Fascist and German National Socialist imagery—arose initially as a consequence of the legitimation crisis provoked in the USSR by Lenin’s death in January 1924, and that it may have originated in cinema before spreading from there to photography and poster art. An examination especially of the film work of Dziga Vertov shows that the icon encodes in its visual syntax techniques of political, technological, and media pedagogy meant both to form the “new Soviet man” and to orient populations within a chain of symbolic identifications supporting the charismatic authority of their leaders. It is suggested that Mao’s documented decision to use this image on renminbi instead of his own otherwise ubiquitous portrait reflects a perception of the propagandistic value of this visual syntax, and that both Mao’s posthumous reappearance on Chinese currency and the icon’s transformation on fourth-series renminbi from class pairs gazing upward to ethnic pairs gazing laterally reflects, among other things, the Deng-era shift from a hieratic semantics of charismatic legitimation to a more sober strategy of legitimation by political and economic rationalization.


Mao Tse-tung; Dziga Vertov; Alexander Dovzhenko; Socialist Realism; Lenin Cult; Mao Cult; Soviet Silent Cinema; Propaganda; iconography; Early Film;

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