All About the Chinese Yuan (Renminbi)

A Brief History

The Chinese yuan is just one form of Chinese currency in a long, colorful history of currency in China. In fact, China was one of the first civilizations to replace bartering with currency, with its currency dating back to perhaps even the 8th century B.C. By the 4th century B.C., this early currency was made from bronze that had been cast into molds to create relatively uniform coins for trade. These coins were highly advanced for their time, featuring Chinese designs and a hole in the middle for storing on string. By the 3rd century B.C., China had developed a standardized form of currency. The design of the Chinese coinage changed over the course of subsequent centuries, with each dynasty producing variations on the coins throughout the imperial period. Throughout the subsequent centuries, coins continued to be manufactured from mixed metals that were then cast into molds (rather than hammered or milled as was seen in the West).

At around 118 A.D., the Chinese developed what is believed by historians to be the first banknote used by any nation. It wasn’t printed on paper, however; it was crafted using a large one foot-by-one foot piece of leather, originating from white deerskin. China began experimenting with the use of paper currency at around 910 A.D., also making the Chinese some of the first to use paper currency. It is believed that in the 13th century the famed explorer Marco Polo himself marveled at the paper currency, describing it at length in his writings. Even with the convenience of paper currency, however, copper coins remained the primary form of currency until the yuan was introduced in 1889.

When the Chinese yuan was introduced as an official form of currency in China, it was equated at par with the Mexican peso, a silver coin that had made its way into South East Asia and been in circulation there since the 17th century. The yuan was then subdivided into 1000 cash, 100 cents or fen, and 10 jiao. Banknotes began to be issued in the 1890s by several local and private banks, along with banks established by the Imperial government. In 1903, the central government began issuing its own yuan coins in various metals of brass, copper, and silver.

As the communist forces took control of most of China in the mid 20th century, they introduced a new, banknote-only currency, denominated in yuan. Then in 1955, a new yuan was introduced at a rate of 10,000 old yuan = 1 new yuan. This new yuan is known as the renminbi yuan, and it remains the form of currency in China to this day.


Today’s yuan banknotes are manufactured in denominations of ¥1, ¥5, ¥10, ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100. The newest series features a portrait of Mao Zedong on the obverses of all banknotes, while older series banknotes have featured portraits of various Chinese leaders and workers. The banknotes feature various historic landmarks and landscapes on the reverses.


Chinese yuan coins come in denominations of 1 yuan; 5, 2 and 1 jiao; and 5, 2, and 1 fen. They are manufactured in various designs, with larger coins featuring a large number on the obverse and botanical imagery on the reverse. Smaller-value coins feature similar imagery on the reverse, with the obverse sides featuring smaller numbers paired with Chinese characters.