British Museum blog

A Viking ship on a Chinese note

banknoteHelen Wang, curator, British Museum

‘There are Viking ships on Chinese banknotes’ I said to Gareth Williams, curator of the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend, thinking that I could easily research them before the exhibition. After all, these notes were issued in the 1920s by the Sino-Scandinavian Bank, one of the many foreign and joint-venture banks in China at the time. But it has turned out to be more demanding than I expected, thrown up a number of interesting questions along the way, and what follows is by no means the full story.

5 yuan note issued by the Sino-Scandinavian Bank (CM 1979,1039.18)

5 yuan note issued by the Sino-Scandinavian Bank (CM 1979,1039.18). View a larger version

The Sino-Scandinavian Bank was given its charter by the Chinese government on 21 July 1921, and began operating on 7 January 1922. It was actually a Chinese-Norwegian joint venture, with the larger part of the funding coming from Chinese sources, and a smaller part from Norwegian investors. The Bank’s first notes are dated 1922, but the majority that have survived (about 30 different types) were probably issued after 1924. The bank appears to have gone bankrupt sometime in 1926 or 1927. Most of the information we know about the Sino-Scandinavian Bank comes from Bjørn R. Rønning’s unpublished master’s thesis ‘Sino-Scandinavian Bank (1921-ca.1927) En norsk bank i Kina?’ (Hovedoppgave i historie ved Universitetet i Oslo, våren 1979). Unfortunately, my Norwegian’s not up to reading it in its entirety in the original, and for the time being I’m indebted to Jan Eriks Frantsvåg’s English summary and images on his website.

Like most of the paper money issued by foreign and joint-venture banks in China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, this note aims to serve both Chinese and foreign users. At first glance, the Chinese and English sides look bilingual. But a closer look reveals lots of things that don’t quite add up.

Let’s start with the name of the bank. In Chinese this reads Hua Wei yinhang 華威銀行. This translates as the Sino-Norwegian Bank (or Chinese-Norwegian Bank). The first character hua 華 (magnificent) is often used when referring to China. The second character wei 威 (power) is from the Chinese term Nuowei 挪威 (i.e. Norway). The last two characters yinhang 銀行 are the usual term for ‘bank’. It’s interesting that the Chinese and English names aren’t an exact match. I wonder who decided the two names? The Chinese name is a more accurate reflection of the nationality of the investors. On the other hand, wei is much more meaningful (and auspicious) than any of the other characters in Sikandinaweiya 斯堪的納維亞, which is a bit of a mouthful in Chinese. But in English, the Sino-Scandinavian Bank sounds better than the Sino-Norwegian Bank, even if it is more ambitious in meaning.

The images are different too: a scene of Beihai Park in Beijing on the Chinese side, and the Viking ship on the English side. Beihai Park was once an imperial garden, but opened to the public in 1925 (according to the park’s website), three years after the date printed on the notes. The Viking ship was chosen to represent Norway/Scandinavia, an iconic symbol that works very well here (much better than a polar bear, which, according to Jan Eriks Frantsvåg, was one of the motifs originally planned for these notes.

The denomination is also interesting. The Chinese side has ‘five yuan in national currency’ printed in brown below the image, and the English side simply ‘five yuan’. The five black rosettes overstamped just below the denomination obscure the letters PEKING, and the black overstamps on the images inform us that there was a change in use to ‘Yungchi currency’ (in Chinese: ‘for circulation in Yungchi’). Yungchi (pinyin: Yongqi) literally means ‘Yong 7’ and refers to an administrative region encompassing Yongping and six other counties in Hebei province in north China. The name of Changli, one of those counties, is overstamped in black above the image, but only on the Chinese side. Yungchi and ‘Yungchi currency’ are not familiar terms, and it’s interesting to see such local references on a joint-venture banknote.

As we might expect, given the different cultural traditions, the English side has personal signatures in black, and the Chinese side has red seal impressions of authority. However, while it was standard practice to put seal impressions on notes issued by Chinese banks, it was not consistently the practice to do so on notes issued by joint-venture banks.

The signatories were J.W.N. Munthe and Fartsan T. Sung, who were very well connected with the Chinese military and government. Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe (1864-1935) was Norwegian. Born in Bergen in 1864, he moved to China in 1886 and spent the rest of his life there. He worked for the customs service, and eventually became a general in the Chinese army. He participated in the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Siege of Peking (Boxer Rebellion) in 1900. He also collected Chinese art and antiquities, many of which he donated to the Vestlandske Kunstindustriemuseum in Bergen.

Fartsan T. Sung (pinyin: Song Faxiang宋發祥 (1883-?) was Chinese. Born in Fujian, he went to the USA in 1900, and studied science at Ohio Wesleyan College and Chicago. After returning to China in 1907, he held a number of important government positions before the 1920s. He was Technical Expert of the Ministry of Finance, Co-Director of the Ministry’s Assaying Office, Director of the Soochow (pinyin: Suzhou) Mine, Co-Director of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, Inspector General of Mints, Director-General of the Nanking (pinyin: Nanjing) Mint, private English secretary to President Feng Kuo-chang (pinyin: Feng Guozhang 馮國璋, 1859-1919) and political advisor to the President’s Office. He was a ‘councillor-at-large’ of the Ministry of Finance in 1920, and again from 1922-1924, during which time he was elected a Member of the Commission for the Consolidation of Domestic and Foreign Debts (1923). He co-founded the Sino-Scandinavian Bank in the spring of 1921 and became manager of its Peking office in 1924. From 1928 he was serving in Chinese consular offices overseas: in Southeast Asia between 1928 and 1937, and in Vienna between 1938 and 1940. I haven’t been able to trace him beyond this.

There are a lot of interesting things about this banknote that don’t quite add up at the moment, not least why we have the signatures of two extremely well-connected men on notes being used in a very local area. It’s curious that the Sino-Scandinavian Bank does not appear in the beautifully illustrated bilingual catalogue Currencies in Old Shanghai (老上海貨幣, Shanghai, 1998). And even more curious that the great expert on Chinese banking, Eduard Kann (1880-1962) did not include the Sino-Scandinavian Bank in his list of foreign and joint-venture banks in China. Kann started his career in a British bank in China in 1901, moved to the Russo-Asiatic Bank, the French Banque Industrielle de Chine and the Chinese-American Bank of Commerce before becoming an independent bullion-broker in Shanghai in the 1930s (the British Museum acquired his superb collection of almost 200 silver ingots in 1978), so we might expect him to have heard of it.

Perhaps there is more to this Chinese note with a Viking ship than meets the eye?

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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Vikings: hearts of darkness?

iron slave shackle, © National Museum of IrelandTom Williams, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum

The tidal current runs to and fro […] crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899).

Here, surely, we have a passionate and evocative description of the Vikings: bold adventurers stepping forward onto the world stage, ready to set a blaze on four continents and pave the way for the nations that would rise in their wake.

In fact, this passage, taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, describes the explorers, buccaneers, settlers and merchants – ‘the dark ‘interlopers’ of the eastern trade, and the commissioned ‘generals’ of the East India fleets” – who had set out from the Thames from the 16th to the 19th century, laying the foundations of the British Empire and changing the world forever.

But striking similarities between the Vikings and the British of the early modern and modern age underlie this coincidence of images: societies alienated in politics and religion from their closest neighbours and rivals, possession of a technological edge at sea, bravery, curiosity, a lust for gold and a willingness to use violence and brutality to whatever end. It was a comparison that the Victorians were not slow to identify, though they saw the comparison in a generally positive light.

…much of what is good and true in our laws and social customs, much of what is manly and vigorous in the British Constitution, and much of our intense love of freedom and fair play, is due to the pith, pluck and enterprise, and sense of justice that dwelt in the breasts of the rugged old sea-kings of Norway!

R M Ballantyne, Erling the Bold: A Tale of Norse Sea-Kings (1869)

But just as the legacy of Empire is constantly being re-evaluated, so too is the impact of the Vikings on the people with whom they came into contact, and the darker side of both has frequently been at the foreground of contemporary thought. The Vikings were happy to acquire goods by plunder and extortion when it was expedient, and to open up new markets for trade by the sword. Evidence from Viking military camps in Britain suggests that trade and manufacturing could go hand in hand with raiding and conquest: perhaps an early equivalent of ‘gun-boat diplomacy’. And just as the early wealth of the British Empire was founded on the horrors of the slave trade, so too were slaves a major trading commodity for Vikings. Written sources give a sense of some of the misery experienced by people subjected to early medieval human trafficking:

Stumbling the survivors
Scattered from the carnage,
Sorrowing they fled to safety,
Leaving the women captured.
Maidens were dragged in shackles
To your triumphant longships;
Women wept as bright chains
Cruelly bit their soft flesh.

Valgard of Voll, c. AD 1000–1100, quoted in ‘King Harald’s Saga’, Heimskringla (c.1230) by Snorri Sturlusson, 1179–1241; translation by M. Magnusson and H. Pálsson in King Harald’s Saga (Penguin Books, London, 1966, 2nd ed. 2005).

Slave collar. © National Museum of Ireland

Slave collar, St. John’s Lane, Dublin, E173:X119. © National Museum of Ireland

Viking slave shackles excavated in Dublin and Germany bear a startling similarity to those used in the transportation of Africans to the Americas and West Indies in the 18th and early 19th centuries by British slave-traders, such as these in the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool.

But at the same time, the rapacity and technological edge that made the Vikings so feared were also to effect lasting change on a continental scale. Settlements in Ireland, Russia and Ukraine played a pivotal role in the development of urban civilisation in those regions, and the influx of trade goods and silver from the east contributed in no small way to the economic development of European markets. New settlements and cultures grew out of Viking exploration, sometimes where none had existed before. The birth of an Icelandic nation was to give Europe its oldest living parliamentary system and lead to an extraordinary flowering of medieval literature in the shape of the Icelandic sagas.

The legacy of the British Empire remains highly controversial. But it is even more problematic trying to judge the Vikings by the standards of 21st-century morality. As with all stereotypes applied to large groups of people, labelling the Vikings as heroes or villains, raiders or traders, distorts history and oversimplifies complex phenomena. The Vikings were many things in equal measure, and their diversity of expression, activity and ethnicity is a defining aspect of what Vikings: life and legend seeks to explore.

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Tweet using #VikingExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Vikings in Russia

Eastern style axe-head © State Historical Museum, Moscow
Tom Williams, Project Curator: Vikings, British Museum

Scandinavians traditionally do rather well at the Winter Olympics – for perhaps obvious reasons – but their Viking ancestors would have been no stranger to some of the delights of Sochi. Skis were used and valued in the North. Earl Rognvald I of Orkney boasted that (among several other skills) he could ‘glide on skis’, and the god Ullr was also associated with skiing. In fact, he has been taken as a sort of unofficial patron of the winter ski community, whose members often wear medallions depicting the god – there would no doubt have been a good number of Ullr talismans among the skiers in Sochi.

And, while the bob-sleigh may have been unknown, sledges of various kinds are certainly known from Viking burials, including a particularly beautiful example that was found in the famous boat burial from Oseberg in Norway.

What is perhaps most surprising of all – at least to those brought up with a Western European education – is that the Vikings (possibly even skiing Vikings) were working their way up and down the river systems of Russia and Ukraine more than a thousand years ago, at the same time that their kinsmen were raiding the coastlines of England, Ireland and France. Objects now on loan to the British Museum for the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend indicate the extent of Scandinavian settlement from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and the far-flung contacts established by the eastern trading network, including glittering hoards of silver coins and jewellery from Gnezdovo and Lyuboyezha in Russia.

Eastern style axe-head © State Historical Museum, Moscow.

Eastern style axe-head © State Historical Museum, Moscow. This axe, with its backwards projecting knob, is typical of weapons from eastern Baltic lands. It was found in Russia’s Kazan region on the Volga river, but is decorated in a Scandinavian style with gold inlay that depicts a sword piercing a serpent from below – possibly a reference to the legend of Sigurd the dragon-slayer.

The last time the British Museum put on an exhibition about the Vikings was in 1980, and at that time the cold war meant there was little academic contact between east and west. It was simply impossible to secure loans from museums on the other side of the iron curtain, and many new discoveries were never reported in the west. This was compounded by the official Soviet policy on the origins of the Slavic-speaking countries of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus that minimised the role of Germanic-speaking Scandinavians in the development of urban life in those nations.

Times have changed, however, and the role of the Vikings – particularly those from Sweden – is increasingly recognised as an important one in the development of a new culture in Eastern Europe, a people known in the Byzantine Empire and Islamic world as the Rūs. Vast quantities of Islamic silver travelled up the rivers of Russian and Ukraine in exchange for amber, slaves and furs, leaving a trace in Viking-Age silver hoards found far from their eastern origins.

The Vale of York Hoard, acquired jointly by the British Museum and York Museums Trust in 2010, contains Slavic silverwork from Russia and Islamic coins from as far afield as Uzbekistan and Afghanistan

The Vale of York Hoard, acquired jointly by the British Museum and York Museums Trust in 2010, contains Slavic silverwork from Russia and Islamic coins from as far afield as Uzbekistan and Afghanistan

It wasn’t just objects that travelled the river routes. The exhibition will also display objects from the graves of men and women who died in Russia and Ukraine and who chose to identify with a Scandinavian heritage through the style of their clothing and the decoration on their weapons. Discoveries of amulets depicting small figures suggest that some even brought their gods with them to new lands.

Perhaps Sochi 2014 wasn’t the first time that Ullr had travelled to the Black Sea coast.

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend opens at the British Museum on 6 March 2014.
Supported by BP

Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The British Museum would like to thank the State Historical Museum, Moscow and the State Novgorod Museum for the generous loan of objects.

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