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What's the Difference Yuan vs. Renminbi?

Chinese currency is a topic of significant interest in today's global economic landscape. It not only reflects the status of one of the world's largest economic powers but is also central to a contentious issue surrounding China – the perception of its mercantilist policies, particularly the alleged manipulation of its currency's value to gain an unfair advantage in international trade, especially against the U.S. dollar. In this article, we will delve into the intricacies of Chinese currency, explaining the distinctions between the Chinese Yuan (CNY) and the People's Renminbi (RMB) and shedding light on the associated issues.

Understanding the Basics

Chinese currency is unique in that it goes by two names, the Chinese Yuan (CNY) and the people's Renminbi (RMB). While these terms are often used interchangeably, they represent distinct aspects of China's monetary system.

  • Chinese Yuan (CNY): The term "Yuan" is Mandarin Chinese for "round" or "circular." Historically, it was used for Spanish silver dollars introduced by European merchants in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1889, China began minting its own silver yuan coins, and both the Qing Dynasty and the early Republican government circulated silver yuan coins and banknotes. Today, the character for "yuan" is also used in other Chinese-speaking regions, like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Macau. To differentiate the mainland currency from others, modern Chinese currency uses the abbreviation CNY. Forex brokers, for instance, quote prices with the ticker CNY.

  • Renminbi (RMB): Translated as "people's currency" in Mandarin, Renminbi was introduced by the Chinese Communist Party in December 1948, a year before it defeated the Kuomintang government. This new currency allowed the communist government to unify the Chinese economy, which was then divided among several regional currencies. It also served to distinguish the new administration from the previous government, which had faced hyperinflation due to its policies. In 1955, the RMB was revalued at a rate of 10,000 to one, replacing the old yuan. The RMB's value was tightly controlled during the command economy era, with a peg of 2.46 yuan to the U.S. dollar until 1971. As China opened its economy to the world, the yuan began trading on international markets.

Key Differences

Now that we've established the differences between CNY and RMB let's clarify how these terms are used in practice:

  • Renminbi is the Official Currency: Renminbi is the official currency of the People's Republic of China. It is often referred to as "people's currency" and represents the value of China's currency as a whole.

  • Yuan is the Unit: A Yuan is a unit of the currency. An analogy to understand this is the British pound sterling vs. the pound. Renminbi is akin to the British pound, while Yuan is similar to the individual unit of currency, much like a "pound" in British currency.

  • Additional Terminology: When shopping in China, prices might also be expressed in "kuai," which translates to "pieces," similar to how "bucks" are used in the U.S. to refer to dollars.

  • Currency Abbreviations: CNY is the official ISO 4217 abbreviation for the Chinese Yuan. However, RMB is also used as an unofficial abbreviation. Due to China's distinct onshore and offshore currency markets, the Chinese Yuan may have different prices in offshore markets, particularly in places like Hong Kong. To differentiate between these prices, the unofficial abbreviation CNH is sometimes used to refer to the offshore price of the Chinese Yuan.

Special Considerations

Over time, China has taken steps to internationalize its currency, leading to several debates and concerns:

  • Currency Controls: The Chinese government maintains strict currency controls to manage the value of the Chinese Yuan. The People's Bank of China (PBOC) sets a daily midpoint value against the U.S. dollar based on past trading sessions and global currency market movements. The yuan's exchange rate is allowed to trade within a 2% range of this midpoint. Critics argue that these controls may artificially devalue the yuan to make Chinese exports more competitive.

  • IMF Recognition: Despite these concerns, the Renminbi gained recognition on the international stage when it was included in the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) Special Drawing Rights (SDR) basket of currencies. This designation made it part of an international reserve asset created by the IMF.

  • Volatility and Controversy: The Chinese Yuan has faced periods of volatility, often linked to trade disputes with the United States. In 2019, the U.S. Treasury labeled China a "currency manipulator" due to concerns over currency devaluation, although this designation was later removed.

  • Ongoing Changes: As the global economy continues to evolve, China's currency policies and its role on the world stage are subject to ongoing scrutiny and adjustment.


China's dual-currency system, with the Renminbi (RMB) serving as the official currency and the Chinese Yuan (CNY) as the unit, is a unique aspect of its economic landscape. While often used interchangeably, these terms have distinct meanings, illustrating the Chinese government's control over domestic and international financial transactions. The internationalization of the Chinese Yuan and its inclusion in the IMF's SDR basket highlight China's growing influence in the global economy. However, ongoing debates about currency controls and trade disputes underscore the challenges and complexities surrounding China's currency policies on the world stage. As China's role in the global economy continues to evolve, so too will discussions and debates about its currency.

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