What is China’s Currency Called? | Money Related Vocabulary in Chinese


Money.

It makes the world go around.

No matter where you live, we all need some of it… unless you live in the wilderness of Qinghai.

But when it comes to money, the Chinese tend to do things a little differently.

The official name of the Chinese currency is Renminbi 人民币 (rénmínbì) which is translated roughly to ‘the people’s money’. This is often abbreviated to RMB.

When I was living in China, I noticed that money was also referred to as ‘yuan’ (元 yuán) quite frequently too. In fact, I think I heard the word yuán more than I heard the word rénmínbì.

But why?

In todays post, we’ll be answering this question and more as we talk about all things related to money in Mandarin Chinese!

A History of Money in China

Money has been around in China longer than most other parts of the world, and it has a rather rich and interesting history.

According to the history books, currency in China can be traced as far back as the neolithic age up to 4500 years ago.

RMB or CNY

As stated above, The official Chinese currency is 人民币 (pronounced ‘rénmínbì‘) but this is by no means the only word they use for money in China.

元 (pronounced ‘yuán‘) is another word for money, and for all intents and purposes, yuan and renminbi are the same thing and they’re used interchangeably.

  • The RMB (人民币 – rénmínbì) is the currency of China.
  • The CNY (元 – yuán) is a Chinese word for a unit of currency or unit of account.
  • Qian (钱 – qián) is the direct translation of the word ‘money’.

But what is the difference between yuan and renminbi?

Think of it in terms of a country that uses gold as its currency.

In this scenario, if you were in a store buying vodka in the olden days, the store assistant wouldn’t say, “That’ll be 20 gold, please.” They would be more likely to say, “That’ll be 20 ounces of gold.”

… Well, they’d be more likely to ask, “What is vodka!?” but you get my point.

Ounce is the unit of currency here, just like the 元 (yuan) is in China.

In my home country of the UK, we have a similar thing going on with ‘pounds’ and ‘sterling’. Back in the day, we decided to use silver instead of gold as our currency. Although our currency today is still technically referred to as ‘sterling’, nobody would ever say something costs ’10 sterling’.

We can say something costs ’10 pounds sterling’ or ’10 pounds’.

块 – kuài

Despite both renminbi and yuan both being commonly used terms for money in China, they’re perhaps not the most commonly used words.

块 (pinyin: kuài) is a measure word in Mandarin Chinese, and actually means ‘piece’.

In China, you’re likely to hear this word used by vendors during most financial transactions.

For example, when buying cigarettes in a store, the shop assistant will say something like “十块钱“ (shí kuài qián) which roughly translates to “10 pieces of money”.

  • 十 (shí ) – 10.
  • 块 (kuài ) – measure word meaning ‘piece’
  • 钱 (qián) – money.

Referring to yuan as “kuai” is kind of similar to calling pounds “quid” in the UK, or dollars “bucks” in the US.

Chinese Money Denominations

Since the founding of the China People’s Bank in China in 1948, four series of bank notes have been released in China.

  • The first series of bank notes was released in 1948 and consisted of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 1000 yuan notes. 200, 500, 5000, 10,000 and 50,000 yuan notes came out between 1949 and 1950, but these notes were all officially withdrawn by 1955. 
  • The second series of bank notes was released in 1955 and featured denominations of China’s ethnic languages on the back including Uyghur, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Zhuang. ¥0.01, ¥0.02, ¥0.05, ¥0.1, ¥0.2, ¥0.5, ¥1, ¥2, ¥3, ¥5 and ¥10 notes were available.
  • In 1962, the third series of banknotes ran concurrently with the second series for the following two decades until they were phased out completely by the year 2000.
  • The fourth series of renminbi banknotes was introduced between 1987 and 1997 and were withdrawn from circulation on 1 May 2019. 
  • The fifth series of banknotes includes ¥1, ¥5, ¥10, ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100 notes. Any representation of ethnic groups has disappeared, and every note uses the portrait of Mao Zedong, and there’s nothing worrying about that…

The 5th edition of Chinese currency released in 1999. Here you can see the front and back sides of the 1 yuan, 5 yuan, 10 yuan, 20 yuan, 50 yuan, and 100 yuan bank notes.

One yuan can be further divided into 角 (jiao), 毛 (mao), and 分 (fen).

There are 10 角 (jiao) in a 元 (yuan), just like there are 10 dimes in a dollar.

There is also 100 分 (fen) in a yuan, just like there are 100 pence in one pound sterling.

Although coins and notes are available for jiao, you will see them less and less in China these days. The central bank has issued both coins and notes for jiao and fen, though notes for fen denominations are rare.

一元 or 壹圆

Check out a Chinese bank note and you won’t see an amount of money followed by “元“ printed on it.

This might seem odd to some people. After all, this is China, so why wouldn’t they be writing Chinese numbers on their bank notes?

Well, they actually are, but there is one reason why the Chinese banking authorities do things a little differently:

Fraud prevention.

Basically, in an effort to make printed numbers more challenging to copy, there is a special set of alternate numbers the banking system uses.

As you can see, instead of printing the regular numerals for 100 “一百元” on the 100 RMB notes, you’ll see “壹佰圆” instead. It’s the same pronunciation and the same meaning in the world of banking.

Take a look at the table below to see all of the fraud-resistant numbers used in China’s banking system.

NumberRegular NumbersComplex FormPinyin
1
5
10shí
20二十贰拾èrshí
50五十伍拾wǔshí
100一百壹佰yībǎi

Cash Culture in China

You may have heard that mobile payment usage is on the rise in China.

It’s safe to say that during my time in China, I have used my wallet with increasing rarity and I use my phone for almost every financial transaction.

Although every store still accepts cash here, we’re almost at the point where it’s kind of weird to use it (unless you’re of an older generation). There might even be the odd occasion in China when a small store won’t have the correct change if you’re paying with cash.

WeChat and Alipay are the two most popular mobile payment platforms in China

Although you can technically register international cards with the international version of Alipay and use the app to make purchases in China, this process often proves problematic and quite annoying.

If you plan to stay in China short-term, it’s best to stick to what you know and use ATMs to withdraw cash using your international card.

Most major banks accept international cards, and I always recommend using ATMs attached to large bank branches. In the unlikely event of your card being swallowed, it’ll be much easier to inform staff to get your card back. If your card is swallowed at a stand-alone ATM in the middle of nowhere, getting your card back will be much more of a headache.

Hong Baos

In Chinese culture, the giving of a ‘red envelope’ or 红包 (pronounced: hóngbāo) is common practice on special occasions such as holidays, graduations, weddings, and when a new baby arrives.

The colour red symbolises good luck in China and was traditionally used to ward off evil spirits.

How much money you put into a red envelope depends on how rich you are to begin with!

However, it’s traditional to put notes of an even number inside because odd numbers are usually associated with funerals. The only exception for this is at weddings, as odd numbers can’t be divided.

Many believe that notes shouldn’t be given in fours or four should not appear in the amount of money given, such as 40 or 400 RMB. This is because the pronunciation of the word four (四) is too similar to the word for death (死).

Also, if you’re giving a 红包, it’s customary to give fresh, clean banknotes.

Money Related Vocabulary and Phrases

Firstly, let’s have a quick review of all the different ways you can refer to money in Mandarin Chinese.

EnglishHanziPinyin
Renminbi (official currency of China)人民币rén mín bì
Yuan (unit of currency or account)yuán
Kuai (measure word for money)kuài
Jiao (1/10 denomination of 1 RMB)jiǎo
Fen (1/100 denomination of 1 RMB)fēn
Moneyqián

Global Currencies

Now we’ve learned how to refer to money in China, what about the other major currencies around the world?

Check out the table below to find your currency.

EnglishChinesePinyin
$ Australian dollar澳元ào yuán
R$ Brazilian Real巴西雷亚尔bāxī léi yà ěr
£ British Pound英镑yīng bàng
$ Canadian dollar加拿大元jiā ná dà yuán
CLP$ Chilean Peso智利比索zhìlì bǐsuǒ
COL$ Colombian Peso哥伦比亚比索gēlúnbǐyǎ bǐsuǒ
Kč Czech Koruna捷克克朗jiékè kèlǎng
€ Euro欧元ōu yuán
HK$ Hong Kong Dollar港元gǎng yuán
Ft Hungarian Forint福林fúlín
₹ Indian Rupee卢比lú bǐ
Rp Indonesian rupiah印尼盾yìnní dùn
₪ Israeli New Shekel以色列新谢克尔yǐsèliè xīn xiè kè ěr
¥ Japanese Yen日圆rì yuán
RM Malaysian Ringgit马来西亚林吉特mǎláixīyà lín jí tè
$ Mexican peso墨西哥比索mòxīgē bǐsuǒ
NZ$ New Zealand Dollar新西兰元xīn xī lán yuán
kr Norwegian Krone 挪威克朗nuówēi kèlǎng
₱ Philippine Peso菲律宾比索fēilǜbīn bǐsuǒ
zł Polish złoty破烂兹罗提bōlán zī luō tí
‎₽ Russian Ruble俄罗斯卢布é luó sī lú bù
SR Saudi riyal沙特里亚尔shātè lǐ yǎ ěr
S$ Singapore Dollar新加坡元xīnjiāpō yuán
₩ South Korean Won韩元hán yuán
kr Swedish Krone 瑞典克朗ruìdiǎn kèlǎng
CHF Swiss franc瑞士法郎ruì shì fǎ láng
฿ Thai Baht泰铢tài zhū
L. Turkish Lira里拉lǐ lā
$ US Dollar美元měi yuán
د.إ UAE Dirham阿联酋迪拉姆Āliánqiú dí lā mǔ
₫ Vietnamese Dong越南盾yuènán dùn

Shopping

One of the most fun things you can do in China once you’ve got some money in your hand is to go shopping! There are shopping opportunities galore in this country, and the experience can sometimes be a rather crazy one.

Learn some of the words below to be more prepared during a shopping trip in China.

bank card银行卡yín háng kǎ
bargain物美价廉wù měi jià lián
buymǎi
cash现金xiàn jīn
change零钱líng qián
cheap便宜pián yi
credit card信用卡xìn yòng qiǎ
expensiveguì
to haggle讨价还价tǎo jià huán jià
invoice发票fā piào
payment付款fù kuǎn
price价格jiàgé
receipt收据shōu jù
refund退款tuì kuǎn
sellmài
wallet钱包qián bāo

Banking

If you’re staying in China for a longer period of time, you’ll need to get yourself a bank account. Check out the table below for banking related vocabulary.

account账户zhànghù
debt债务zhài wù
to deposit存款cún kuǎn
to withdraw提取tí qǔ
to lend借给jiè gěi
to borrowjiè
loan贷款dài kuǎn
fine罚款fá kuǎn
salary工资/薪水gōng zī / xīn shuǐ
tax税,税款shuì, shuì kuǎn

Rent

contract合同hétong
landlord房东fáng dōng
rent租赁zū lìn
rent money租金zū jīn
sum金额jīn é
tenant房客fáng kè

Useful Money Related Phrases

How much is this?这个多少钱?zhège duōshǎo qián
Do you accept cash?我可以用现金支付吗?wǒ kěyǐ yòng xiànjīn zhīfù ma?
Can I have a refund?我可以退款吗?wǒ kěyǐ tuì kuǎn ma?

Further Reading

If you’re looking for more resource recommendations and tips for learning Mandarin, check out the articles below.

再见!

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