What is Chinese Currency?

Jeremy Laukkonen

The history of Chinese currency dates to the neolithic era, while paper currency was first used there in the 9th century AD. The current currency issued by the People's Republic of China (PRC) is known as the renminbi and contains two common denominations. The largest denomination of Chinese currency is the yuan, while the jiao is equal to 10 yuan. A third denomination, the fen, is worth 100 yuan but may not be widely circulated. Common coinage includes one yuan, five jiao, and one jiao coins, while paper currency may be available in various denominations between one and 100 yuan.

Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Ancient Chinese currency may have utilized cowry, or marine snail, shells and existed as early as 6500 BC. In addition to shells, archaeologists have found copies of shells that were fashioned from materials like wood, bone, and copper. Bronze was later used as currency during the Zhou Dynasty. Some of the earliest metal coins ever discovered date to around 900 BC during this period.

A person burning a facsimile of ancient Chinese money for a deceased person.
A person burning a facsimile of ancient Chinese money for a deceased person.

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The PRC replaced the Republic of China as the government of mainland China in 1947, and introduced its own form of Chinese currency shortly thereafter. Renminbi, the name given to that currency, may be translated to English as people's currency. For a brief time after its introduction, it was possible to exchange 100,000 of the older gold yuan for one renminbi yuan. Then, in 1955, there was a re-evaluation of the renminbi where 10,000 old yuan became worth one new yuan.

The flag of Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China that does not use the renminbi.
The flag of Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China that does not use the renminbi.

The renminbi is the legal form of Chinese currency everywhere but Hong Kong and Macau, each of which issue their own currency. Both of these cities existed as European colonies until they were handed over to the PRC in the 1990s. As part of the transfer, each city was allowed a certain level of autonomy. Macau's currency is the Macanese pataca, while Hong Kong utilizes the Hong Kong dollar.

The flag of Macau, which does not use the renminbi, the official Chinese currency.
The flag of Macau, which does not use the renminbi, the official Chinese currency.

In addition to the renminbi, the PRC also issues certain other coinage. Chinese silver pandas, for instance, are a type of coin minted by the PRC. While these coins are considered legal tender within the PRC, the limited number minted each year also makes them a collector's item to some coin enthusiasts. The number of uncirculated coins may vary from year to year, from as few as 50,000 to as many as 600,000. As a form of legal tender, Chinese silver pandas may contain between 90 and 99.9% silver, depending on the year they were minted.

A map of China.
A map of China.

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