An Indecisive Moment

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Gold Rush” and the Great Chinese Inflation

By Nike Cosmides

Henri Cartier-Bresson 1948
CHINA. Shanghai.

Henri Cartier-Bresson looked out the window of Life magazine’s Shanghai office on 23 December 1948 to see a growing crush of people in the street. These days it was business-as-usual for queues to form as people waited to buy gold at the banks on the Bund, but this was something more. Feeling that it “was not right and a little sadistic” to watch from a distance, the photographer forced his way into the street, where his pockets were groped through and his Leica sized up.[1] Cartier-Bresson had been commissioned to document the last days of Kuomintang. The world knew that something big and brutal was happening in China. Striking events were unfolding each day. So, when he used his last two exposures to capture this scene, he knew he was fulfilling that commission. But he did not know, until it was splattered across the European and American press, that he had created the most representative image of the Shanghai Gold Rush.

This ‘gold rush’––as Cartier-Bresson himself termed it the next day in his notes to Magnum––is little remarked on. However, its context, the hyperinflation suffered by China after the Second World War, is well known to economic historians. This inflation has a long pedigree, starting with the establishment of China’s first central bank by the Kuomintang Nationalist government after their ascendancy in Nanjing in 1927. The Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, established the Shanghai-based Central Bank of China. In 1935, the Central Bank made its banknotes legal tender; they took China off the silver standard and placed it on a fiat currency, with government control over the printing of money. After this came years of war: the Second Sino-Japanese War from 1937-45 and civil war between the Nationalist government and Communist forces under Mao Zedong from 1945-49. These years cost the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians. The Chinese economy, too, was a casualty of war.

The Chinese hyperinflation was caused primarily by the decision of the Kuomintang to print money to finance growing war expenditures.[2] The scale of monetary expansion was such that Kuomintang printing presses could not keep up; additional currency was printed in England and flown in.[3] There were 3.6 billion yuan in circulation in 1937. Ten years later this number was almost 61,000 billion. The number of yuan in circulation increased to nearly 400,000 billion before the government introduced a new currency, the gold yuan (GY), in August 1948. The new currency was intended as an anti-inflationary measure: 1 GY equalled 3 million old yuan. However, this band-aid approach left the root cause of the inflation unaddressed, and the new currency was soon being affected by devaluation just like the old. At the same time, financial decrees forbade the keeping of gold, silver or foreign currency at home. These were supposed to be exchanged for GY notes by the end of September, but this decision was countermanded in November. In December restrictions and rules were put on the purchase of gold, which made exchanging the new banknotes—which were suffering devaluation––more difficult. It was in this context that queues formed every day outside banks, as people tried to exchange GY for gold.

People were desperate to convert their rapidly depreciating banknotes as inflation made their currency seemingly less valuable by the minute. Disturbances occurred in Hangzhou on 21 December, causing the central bank there to close. Panic spread to Shanghai the next evening, with crowds defying the curfew. The queues Henri Cartier-Bresson witnessed along the Bund began to form at 5 a.m. the morning of the 23December, swelling until tens of thousands filled the area. Seven people died, trampled or suffocated, and 50 were injured.[4] In Cartier-Bresson’s photo “Gold Rush,” people look knotted together: half-shoving, half-bracing themselves amid the crush, contracted like “a human accordion.”[5] At the centre of the photograph a man looks toward the viewer with panicked eyes.

“Gold Rush” was published in the European and American press: Life magazine (17 January 1949), Le Soir illustré (3 February 1949), and the first issue of Paris Match (29 March 1949), among others. It was also included among the photos in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s influential 1952 book Images à la Sauvette. A simultaneous American version was published by Simon and Schuster under the title The Decisive Moment. The book’s American publishers pulled this phrase from the introduction. Cartier-Bresson himself took it from the Mémoires of Cardinal de Retz: “There is nothing in this world which does not have its decisive moment.” “Gold Rush” and Cardinal de Retz share a context: civil war. An agitator in the Fronde, the cardinal refers to a tactical moment in state revolution. ‘The decisive moment’ has been taken as a maxim of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s intuitive, candid style of photography. But I believe he intended to refer to a political moment. A moment when the direction of history is in the balance, or a crest where uncertain currents become tangible.

Cartier-Bresson started his career as a painter and ended it as an illustrator. He was both artist and journalist. His photographic work refuses to come down on either side of a debate between fine art photography and reportage. This refusal speaks to the power of realizing history through the image. In Hermann Hesse’s 1930 novel Narcissus and Goldmund, the cloistered monk Narcissus explains to his former pupil, the worldly-yet-innocent Goldmund, the difference between their respective mental orientations: “Your home is the earth, ours is the idea… You are an artist, I am a thinker.” Narcissus thinks in proofs and abstractions, Goldmund in images. Narcissus warns that artists who force themselves to become thinkers create untruth because they “cannot detach themselves from images.” But we do not respond to images according to some aesthetic logic that is removed from the human experience. We respond to certain images because they invoke knowledge we have—how things feel, what they mean—but do not explicitly bring to bear because language is not as subtle as thought. Visual expression, too, is information-based. I am not convinced there is any such thing as a decisive moment. The crowds on the Bund that day in 1948 occupied an intense centre of uncertainty, not an instant of clarification. Every moment is indecisive from our human aperture—all in a process of becoming, concerned with potentialities. Art contains no misinformation. The only falsity we can derive from art results from our mistaken inferences, and that is a source of error that logicians and scientists are equally prey to. Images like “Gold Rush” sharpen our understanding of history with their evocative, associative power.

[1] Information published by Magnum. Quoted in “Henri Cartier-Bresson: China 1948-1949, 1958. Michel Frizot and Ying-lung Su (eds.). London: Thames & Hudson (2019) 169.

[2] Munir Quddus, Jin-Tan Liu and John S. Butler, “Money, prices, and causality: The Chinese hyperinflation, 1946-1949, reexamined.” Journal of Macroeconomics 11, no. 3 (1989) 447.

[3] Arthur N. Young, China’s Wartime Finance and Inflation: 1937-1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1965) 159.

[4] Shun Pao newspaper, 16/22/24 December 1948.

[5] Magnum. Caption attached to story 40.

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