China's Currency Is Disappearing

China is quickly becoming a country that relies exclusively on digital transactions through apps like WeChat and AliPay. Many younger Chinese people forget what the coins and bills look like so let's take a look at one of the oldest currency systems in the world before it completely disappears.

People outside of China know the currency as the Chinese Yuan, represented by ¥ or CNY. Within China, the currency is called 人民币 (rénmínbì) which means the people's currency and is represented by the character 元 yuán or RMB in English. The largest bill is 100元 and the smallest is 1元, although certain parts of China use 1元 coin more often than bills (Shanghai, Shenzhen, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Liaoning).

1元 can be divided into 10 角 jiǎo and 100 分 fēn. Although prices are quoted to the 分 (0.01), these coins are no longer in circulation. If you pay with cash 现金 (xiànjīn), the price will be rounded to the 角 (0.1) and you can pay with a 1角 (silver) or 5角 (gold) coin.

In addition to 人民币 (rénmínbì) and 元 (yuán), you may also hear people refer to the currency as 块 (kuài). This is a casual term for 元, similar to "bucks" in the USA. The 0.1 coins are also often called 毛(máo) instead of 角 (jiǎo), an affectionate reference to Chairman Mao's face on the currency.


China has one of the oldest currency systems in the world. While it's changed many times throughout history, it was one of the earliest, established during the Neolithic era, 3000-4500 years ago. As with many ancient civilizations, the earliest form of money was shells 贝 (bèi). China started using coins 硬币 (yìngbì) in the 3rd century BC during unification under the Qin Dynasty, and first used paper money 纸币 (zhǐbì) in the 9th century. The original shape of the coins was round with a square hole in the middle so they could be stored on a string. Chinese coins maintained this shape until the start of the 20th century. Chinese currency has been well-preserved and can be seen in many museums around the country.

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Sarah Johnson

Sarah Johnson is an expat from New York City who moved to Shanghai with her husband in 2017 and is falling in love with the Chinese culture and people. She is studying Mandarin, teaching English, and has tens of thousands of questions about language, life, and culture.