(This is a post I had fun writing last March. I still have trouble keeping these things straight.)
For years I had heard two terms for Chinese money -- renminbi and yuan -- and never understood the difference between the two. So today I looked it up.
Here's the short explanation:
The Chinese currency system is the renminbi. The US currency system is the US dollar.
The Chinese yuan is the equivalent of the US dollar.
Got it? I didn't think so.
Let's try again.
Here in the US, the government has been issuing dollars for hundreds of years. People exchange dollars for hamburgers at McDonald's. "Dollar" means a unit of currency.
In China, the government has been issuing yuan for hundreds of years. People exchange yuan for pork dumplings at Shanghai restaurants. "Yuan" means a unit of currency.
The term "renminbi" refers to the entire Chinese currency system. It means "the people's currency." The term was adopted in 1949 by the new Communist leadership, possibly as a sly trick to confuse Western capitalists.
If you were a currency trader, you could refer to the RMB (renminbi) or CNY (Chinese Yuan) in your transactions. In this setting, it appears that RMB is the preferred term.
But, if you were in China, you would not offer 25 renminbi for a trinket being hawked by a street vender. It might be all right to offer 25 renminbi yuan. That is, assuming the vendor spoke pretty good English and you had done a lot of hard bargaining beforehand.
But you still could have a problem, as an Asian-based BBC writer, Stephen Mulvey, tried to explain several years ago.
"As it happens," he wrote, "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. Also common is '10 kuai qian,' literally '10 pieces of money'."
The yuan/kuai, like the dollar, breaks down into smaller units. It takes 10 jiao (the equivalent of, say, dimes) to make one yuan. But most Chinese don't use the word jiao; their term is 'mao,' which is NOT a reference to Mao Zedong. Go figure.
It takes 10 fen (think pennies) to make one jiao/mao.
It also is important not to confuse the Chinese yuan with other currencies, like Taiwan's yuan, for instance. Or the 'mei yuan' or 'ri yuan,' the Chinese names for the US dollar and Japanese yen, respectively.
I'm going to stop now. My head is beginning to hurt.