I can’t tell you how discombobulating it is to be in a country where not only do I not speak the language, but I can’t read anything. It is like being a crab with no shell, I feel very vulnerable. So it is wonderful when I find things I can understand, and I’ve found getting the hang of Chinese money really easy.
What seems to confuse visitors from abroad is the names. The currency is called RMB which stands for Ren Min Bi ie ‘the people’s money’. The units of currency are the yuan, the jiao and the fen. One yuan equals 10 jiao and one jiao equals 10 fen. There are approximately 10 yuan to the £ sterling, so one yuan is the equivalent of 10p, and a jiao is worth about a penny, the fen has a vanishingly small value. Although they exist, I have not yet seen a fen. . When people are speaking they often call a yuan a ‘kuai’ – a bit like we sometimes call a pound a quid, and a jiao is often called a mao when speaking. The fen seems to be totally ignored. I’m sure that in the poorer, rural areas of the country where incomes are very low the fen comes into its own. ” Look after the fen and the yuan/kuai will look after themselves” to coin a phrase! The modern symbol for the yuan is the same sign as for the Japanese yen – in fact I suspect the two words have the same derivation.
ATMs are everywhere, in bank foyers, in supermarkets, in shopping malls, in hotels, and thanks to the wonders of modern technology, once you insert your card, you are instantly given the choice of instructions in either English or Chinese – simples!
Whilst we’re on the subject of money, there is one thing refreshingly different about China – there is NO tipping. Not for services, not in restaurants, not in taxis. It was legally prohibited for many years, but even though it is no longer illegal, it seems to be against the cultural ethos, offensive even – it smacks of patronage and in an officially egalitarian society ( yeah right!) it is thought to be demeaning of both tipper and tippee.