Shanghai by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1949

On the day the Japanese Army surrendered in September 1945, the wars in Asia were far from over. As Ronald Spector notes in a recent book, “A Continent Erupts,” the peoples under the territories until recent occupied by Japan had vastly different visions about their postcolonial future which led to savage and bitter conflicts.

Nowhere was this brutal conflict more pronounced than in China were 2.5 million combatants and 16 million civilians were to perish between 1945 and 1949. The World War in Asia had practically began in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and it has dragged on as the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek cut secret deals with the defeated Japanese commanders in 1945-46 to engage some Japanese troops against the Communists.  

The Nationalists nominally still controlled the cities, but the power was slowly slipping away from them. Economy, after seventeen years of war, was in a nosedive and in order to keep funding the war (now without major support from the Western Allies), the Nationalists began printing paper money in vast quantities. Technically, they were backed by gold, but amount of Chinese fabi in circulation grew from 189 billion to 4.5 trillion by 1946.

The government tried to intervene – firstly by introducing a new currency, gold yuan and then eventually by trying to return China to silver standard – but nothing would work. In a typical dictatorial fashion, the government mandated all Chinese holding gold, silver, or foreign currency were required to surrender such assets in return for “gold yuan,” under penalty of death. Chiang appointed his own son in charge of these measures who led a reign of terror, sending trucks from house to house to confiscate the assets.  In mid-1948, currency was trading at one million yuans to a US dollar. By February 1949, it was six million yuans to a dollar. Paper factories in Kwangtung found it more cost effective to pulp hundred yuan bills to making new paper.

By now, the end was drawing near. Starting in December 1948, the government had been shipping out the nation’s gold reserves to Taiwan, knowing that the Communists would soon over run the major cities. In December, 2 million taels of gold (~75 tons), nearly half of the government’s gold, carried out of the central bank in the traditional manner – by coolies, parceled up on bamboo poles – down the gangplank onto a freighter bound for Keelung in northern Taiwan.  

This action, observed by George Vine, a British journalist looking out of his fifth-floor office window one night, would prompt a nationwide bank run. That was the situation when Henri Cartier-Bresson arrived in Shanghai in January 1949. In late 1948, LIFE magazine realized that the Kuomintang was about to be defeated and wanted to have a photojournalist on the ground. They engaged Cartier-Bresson.

Outside four government banks on the old Bund, a vast crowd teemed. In order to prove that there was still gold in the vaults, the government started selling gold from the reserves at around half the price what the black marketers were charging. Each person was limited to forty grams of gold, and thousands had been waiting in line since eight pm the previous night, ignoring the eleven pm curfew. The police made only a token gesture toward maintaining order, resulting in ten deaths by suffocation or by being trampled, by five pm the following day.

The government gave up this scheme quickly.  Meanwhile, they were shipping off gold — another 14 tons of gold was being moved out of Bank of China’s vaults under the Bund just as Cartier-Bresson was documenting the chaos above. The gold and silver was escorted down to Taiwan by Mei Ching, a ship which would later defected to the Communists, highlighting the risks involved in such a transfer. By the time Shanghai fell to the Communists, almost 100 tons of gold reserves were safely in Taiwan already.

The photo above was the 37th (last) exposure on its particular roll, but not related to the previous shots made the same day. Notes Cartier-Bresson sent back to his agency also did not mention this photo, which suggested he was probably unsure or unaware that he had taken it at the time.

Without its title (“Distribution of Gold in the Last Days of the Kuomintang, Shanghai, China”), the photo could have been of anything–be it a breadline or a ticket-queue–anywhere from Tokyo to Timbuktu. In accordance with Cartier-Bresson’s tradition of capturing crowds rather than their objectives, the bank was visibly absent from the picture, which nonetheless is an impeccable amalgamation of known and unknown, focus and blur, light and darkness.

The photo showed a human ‘‘rope’’: Chinese peasants with their arms braided and intertwined, binding themselves at the stoop of a building. The crowd–at they usually are during anarchies–‘was not controlled by any authority, but by its own essence of panic and agitation in the face of huge events’ — wrote the Encyclopedia of Photography. 


Life Magazine, 17 Jan 1945


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