Renminbi vs. yuan

The style guide of The Economist magazine, after explaining the difference between the two terms, leaves no ambiguity about what its reporters should use: “Renminbi, which means the people’s currency, is the description of the yuan, as sterling is the description of the pound.  Use yuan.”  The Financial Times favors the use of renminbi over yuan by a six-to-one ratio.  But Financial Times reporters seem to believe its readers are sophisticated enough to be able to shift back and forth between the two terms without further explanation.

That is from new and useful Gaining Currency: The Rise of the Renminbi, by Eswar S. Prasad.

And here is the BBC:

“Renminbi” is the official name of the currency introduced by the Communist People’s Republic of China at the time of its foundation in 1949. It means “the people’s currency”.

“Yuan” is the name of a unit of the renminbi currency. Something may cost one yuan or 10 yuan. It would not be correct to say that it cost 10 renminbi.

I did not know this:

The word “yuan” goes back further than “renminbi”. It is the Chinese word for dollar – the silver coin, mostly minted in the Spanish empire, used by foreign merchants in China for some four centuries.

If you wish to pursue it further:

As it happens, Chinese people rarely talk about renminbi or yuan.

The word they use is “kuai”, which literally means “piece”, and is the word used historically for coins made of silver or copper.

And so on…


Well, "renminbi" is "sterling", "yuan" is "pound", and "kuai" is exactly "quid".

>I did not know this: The word “yuan” goes back further than “renminbi”. It is the Chinese word for dollar – the silver coin, mostly minted in the Spanish empire, used by foreign merchants in China for some four centuries.

It is completely obvious if you know Chinese even on just a rudimentary level


I, too, was about to chide Tyler for not knowing absolutely everything.

It's not a word for "dollar", it's a word for something of that shape, having material which makes it usable as money.

De facto, English word "dollar" maps only to Chinese word "yuan", though it's not always the same in reverse. "American dollar" = "meiyuan", "Canadian dollar" = "jiayuan", etc., but "Euro" = "ouyuan", depending on who's translating.

Renminbi is the set of currency issued by PBOC. In Chinese media (okay Cantonese), they say "renminbi went up against USD" or whatever, not "the yuan went up against USD". The latter would make no sense as it'd come out like "a dollar went up against a dollar".

I think the latter point is most important. I don't think I've ever seen "yuan" used in Chinese media. It's always renminbi or RMB. I may have seen "yuan" used in one article describing that crazy building they're constructing on the Pearl River delta, the one in the shape of a coin standing on its edge.

Do people in Canada ever say "the dollar went up against the dollar?" Or even "the dollar went up against the US dollar?" Or would most only use "loonie" in that case?

If the phrase is fine in Canadian English, then your analogy is confusing.

In Canada, at least, the "loonie" or the "dollar" goes up and down with the implicit understanding that it's relative to the USD as the dominant trading partner. Almost always, if USD is mentioned in that context, CAD is called "loonie", and/or USD is referred as "greenback".

loonie goes up or down, whether or not caused fundamentally by shifts in the US dollar.

Is there any relation to the Yuan Dynasty, or was that just a Mongolian word that was a homophone?

I think it's the same character today (post-simplification), but originally they were different. Mongol dynasty = 元, and currency = 圓.

The simplified form of 圓 is 圆, not 元. The latter is a different character going back to antiquity.

People use 元 for the currency yuan nowadays all the time, though. KR won and JP yen are both cognate, and end up as 韩元 and 日元 (although I think one also sees 韩圆 and 日圆).

When I was in Shanghai the local slang, instead of "kuai", seemed to be a word that sounded like "jiao".

As for the written word (in English), I never saw the word "yuan" while I was there. The BBC claims "It would not be correct to say that it cost 10 renminbi", but that's what I always saw in China, never "10 yuan".

Of course, any such writing was for the benefit of English-speaking tourists, so I don't know what the Chinese write for themselves.

Per Wikipedia 1 Yuan (or kuai)=10 Juai

Some people use them interchangeably.

It should be 1 kuai = 10 jiao = 100 fen.

Well, no one sees any "fen" on the streets any more. They are no longer in production. But between "kuai" and "jiao" and between "jiao" and "fen", I've heard both used interchangeably in many different places, especially the "jiao" and "fen".

1 yuan/kuai = 10 jiao = 100 fen. You can't buy anything for 1 fen though.

You didn't see 1 yuan written out anywhere for the same reason you don't see 1 dollar.

It's not a difficult symbol to learn to recognise. What i don't understand is why Chinese people and businesses sometimes use the ¥ symbol, originally for the Japanese yen though I've just learned that it is officially ok, not a mistake, according to wikipedia.

Many other characters are very similar to the yuan character, or, more specifically, use the same elements as the main constituents of the other character. I've wondered about this before, but I gather that the ¥ symbol has the advantage of reduced possible ambiguity.

In Japanese, the ¥ symbol is not standard. The unit of national currency is the 円, pronounced 'en.

The Japanese "yen" is a cognate of "yuan," which also means "circle," referring, I assume, to the shape of the coin. In Chinese only, it can also be written with a character meaning "origin" or "foundation," i.e. the basic unit of currency.

I assume that the Korean "won" is also a cognate, but I don't know any Korean, and it's harder to tell since they no longer use Chinese characters in writing.

Also, Taiwanese use the term "yuan" when you are paying with NT. If you are ordering from the staff in English, they may say "it's 100 NT" but if you order in Mandarin they would say "yi bai yuan" or less formally "yi bai kuai qian"...

In Hokkien/Taiwanese I understand that 箍 "kho͘" is also an option ("hoop," used in Japanese as in the hoops of a barrel).

In Chinese only, it can also be written with a character meaning “origin” or “foundation,” i.e. the basic unit of currency.

Yes, though that's a case of substituting an unrelated character with the same sound (in Mandarin-- it does not have the same sound in other Chinese spoken languages) but fewer strokes, so it's probably best not to read too much into the meaning as opposed to the character. It's not the official simplified form, just a substitute character The original character was 圓 simplified to 圆 in Simplified Chinese but to 円 in Japanese (one of the rare cases of the Japanese 新字体 having fewer strokes than the simplified Chinese). The simplified form still has too many strokes for something written so often, so 元 is used instead. Taiwan also uses 元 for a shorthand lots of places, while actually writing the non simplified 圓 on banknotes.

And yes, the Hanja form for won in Korean is also 圓.

and dollar comes from joachimsthal and thaler so china is in language terms already a part of the euro

Chinese is a language family, not a language. Thus the word for the currency depends on the Chinese language spoken in that locality. For example, the Cantonese use the word man1 (pronounced like the first syllable in "money", it's a homonym for mosquito in Cantonese and that character is often used to represent it).

Usually when people say "Chinese" they mean something very specific, namely Mandarin and these days no longer Cantonese (unless you don't know the difference or vaguely think it sounds like "Chinese" and call it as such).

"Chinese" is Mandarin, no matter that there are many other SINIC language.

It's a political question - the PRC makes a strong claim to Chinese as both an identity that they define and a language that they define as the standard (Mandarin). But here in Hong Kong, Chinese means something different, both in terms of identity and language, and so it's helpful to point out the PRC hegemony on Sinic terminology and concepts.

I just wonder about the need to give special names to common things. One of the consequences of the French Revolution was giving pompous or political names to streets. Suddenly, it was impossible to name a street "Mill st." or "Pond rd.", it had to be "X Heroes st." or "Revolution rd.". It seems the communists took this solemnity fad to the extreme. It couldn't be just the Chinese Yuan, it had to be the "currency of the people".

Just for comparison. Currency: U.S. Dollar, unit: dollar.....sometimes pragmatism and common sense are underrated.

Just for comparison. Currency: U.S. Dollar, unit: dollar…..sometimes pragmatism and common sense are underrated.

Ah yes, this would be our country where people use the unofficial term "penny" for the "cent," borrowing from the British, along with officially "nickel" for a five cent coin, where neither have the word "penny" or "nickel" on the coin itself. Of course the "dime" has "one dime" on it but no number, also confusing to foreigners.

Just for comparison. Currency: U.S. Dollar, unit: dollar…..sometimes pragmatism and common sense are underrated.

We can also assume that you never say "twenty bucks" for "twenty dollars?" (Much less "grand" or other terms.)

China manages use three syllables to refer to its money. "Currency of the people" is 7 syllables. While "American dollar" is 6 syllables. I think your mind is detecting pomposity the Chinese language can't cash.

They couldn't just use one syllable, "bi", because that would be am"bi"guous. Three syllables is not a bad compromise between clarity and speed of pronunciation.

Consider that the "ren min" were mostly poor peasants and the "bi" some basic currency units, I somewhat doubt the level of pomposity was generally very high. .

But it is exactly a kind of reverse snobbery, because everything elite was bad under the Reds, and signalling something as being of common or peasant origin was good. You know "The People's" this and that. I'm sure you already know all this, but you like your troll status.

Yes, I think that is the correct way to understand these things.

So, for example, the word established for "Nazi" according to the dictionary should be understood in this sense of reverse snobbery.

@John: penny, nickel or bucks are common names given by people, not the government. You assume right, there's no point in using bucks instead of dollars. I've been many times in the shoes of a foreigner that ignores slang and it doesn't feel good. I try to avoid using slang any language, it's kinder to other people. Even for people from other regions in your same country.

@ronald: check the definition of pompous, far from syllable count and close to vain and solemn. It's the word meaning, not the word itself.

Yes, but the dime literally has "one dime" printed on it and no number, written or otherwise. That is certainly the fault of the US Treasury, and I know foreigners personally who had trouble remembering.

It is not worse than calling this or that Imperial in the old days.

> The word “yuan” goes back further than “renminbi”. It is the Chinese word for dollar – the silver coin, mostly minted in the Spanish empire,

So really it is not the Chinese word for dollar it is the Chinese word for (Mexican) peso. In just the same sense that "dollar" is the US word for the same thing.

But until 1949 in PRC and well into the 50s on Taiwan it was actually the Mexican Peso, same coin. Not even reminted.

Yuan, 圓 or informally 元, is just a classical word for round or a round object or the circumference of something.

In a former life I was a Chinese History student, and my program was run by mostly Marxist economic historians.

Well into the early 1950s, the unit of account in China for Europeans was the Mexican Dollar, after 1911 it was also the form, and unit of account for the Chinese governments and warlord. Hence you often see prices quoted in "Dollars Mex" especially when dealing with statistics.

China from the Ming dynasty onward did not have any actual currency, business was conducted with ingots, sharp knives, and scales. You just shaved off the weight value of silver. Tael is just a weight measure usually varying by what it was measuring and local custom. But it was usually around 32g when not measuring silver.

Until about 1920 the Mexican silver dollar was 0.3856 troy ounce, or 40g, which was almost exactly the same weight a the ideal Tael, ~39g, of silver. Which makes sense since the silver tael was the amount of silver you got melting a Spanish Thaler down, almost all in ChinA were minted in Mexico. Of course the a Tael of silver was almost always about 36-37 g, and most Mexican Dollars were slightly clipped by the time they arrived in China.

Chinese silver was usually about 90% silver, which is the purity of the Soanish and later Mexican dollar which was very steady at .9028 until around 1917-1920 when it rapidly fell to 0.8000. Post 1919 Mexican dollars traded at a varying discount in the 20s-40s depending mostly on supply.

And some folks want to go back to that, precious metals based money...

One way of characterizing the difference is that yuan is the Chinese currency as a unit of account, whereas rmb is it as a medium of exchange.

"Kuai" is colloquial, "yuan" is formal and used in formal writing.

Ironically, the renminbi exists in large part because the yuan was a silver coin -- the US inadvertently helped create a depression in China by deflating their currency with a silver price designed to help silver miners, which fed the enthusiasm for a Communist takeover.

American monopolists trying to manipulate markets for profit? You must be from some foreign planet if you'd believe a story like that ...

I map it like this:

Renminbi ~ Federal Reserve Note / U.S. Dollar
Yuan 元 = $ remember Chinese is pictographs
Kuai = buck, greenback

The most annoying aspect is in abbreviation. Chinese use RMB, but outside often you see CNY.
For pronunciation, renminbi is easier for non-natives, and obviates the need to say Chinese yuan. Technically to a Chinese reader, if you say yuan you could be referencing euros, yen, dollars or any other currency that uses that word.

Renminbi is almost always used in Chinese financial media headlines.

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