China has once again taken centre-stage in global economics, after a shock devaluation of their currency ended with the suspension of Chinese markets for the second time this week. But when discussing this matter, which currency is correct – the yuan or the renminbi?

The currency of the world’s second largest economy goes by two names, which are often confused and used interchangeably. Technically, both are correct to use, but refer to slightly different things:

Renminbi‘ is the official name of the currency introduced by the Communist People’s Republic of China at the time of its foundation in 1949. It means “the people’s currency”.

Yuan‘ is the name of a unit of the renminbi currency. It is the Chinese word for dollar – the silver coin, mostly minted in the Spanish empire, used by foreign merchants in China for some four centuries. Just to confuse matters further, Yuan is also referred to as “kuài” in spoken Chinese.

Renminbi is the official name, with yuan being the main unit – for example, in Britain, Pound Sterling is the official name but the main unit is pounds. An item may cost £1 or £10 – but never 1 or 10 sterling.

So, in short, when you’re speaking about the currency as a whole — and not about a particular number of yuan — it’s correct to say renminbi. When speaking about a specific amount, it’s yuan.

Miranda Wadham on 07/01/2016
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