Contemporary Banknotes of China (Part 1)

Banknotes have been in circulation throughout the land of China for the most number of years compared to any other nation or country existing on the surface of this planet. In fact, way before America or any European nation started realizing the wonders of banknotes as a form of currency, the Chinese have already been happily selling and buying with this form of valuable paper. The first form of paper money ever used in the history of mankind and creation comes from the Song Dynasty (宋朝, sòng cháo) of China, which lasted from 960 to 1279 AD.

Indeed, since the Song Dynasty, Chinese paper money has undergone changes and evolutions by leaps and bounds as a result of the pressure of time. Currently, the official currency of the People’s Republic of China is the renminbi (人民币, rénmínbì), of which the People’s Bank of China (中国人民银行, zhōngguó rénmín yínháng) is the sole authorized issuer of the said currency.

The People's Bank of China (中国人民银行)

The primary unit of the Chinese renminbi is the yuan (元 / 圆, yuán), in which one yuan is subdivided into 10 jiao (角, jiăo). One jiao is further subdivided into 10 fen (分, fēn). The symbol ¥ is frequently used to denote the renminbi, whereby ¥1 is one yuan.

As and when this article was written, there are five series of the renminbi that has been produced in China since the introduction of the currency in 1948. However, only the fourth and fifth series are currently legal tender in China. The fourth series was introduced from 1987 to 1997, whereas the fifth series was introduced since 1999.

In this two-part article, I will only be showing you the banknotes of the renminbi which are currently legal tender, together with brief descriptions about the pictures and inscriptions that you will see on these banknotes. The first part of this article will be based on the fourth series of the renminbi banknotes which were introduced from 1987 to 1997.

First and foremost, as you will notice, all banknotes of China have the phrase “People’s Bank of China” (Zhongguo Renmin Yinhang) inscribed in five languages, namely Mandarin Chinese, Mongol, Tibetan, Uighur and Zhuang. Mandarin Chinese, being the official language of China, is expectedly inscribed on the Chinese banknotes, but what about the other four languages? Despite the fact that China consists predominantly of the Han Chinese (汉族, hànzú), it also comprises of several minority ethnic groups, of which the Mongols (蒙古族, ménggŭzú), Tibetans (藏族, zàngzú), Uighurs (维吾尔族, wéiwú’ĕr zú) and Zhuang people (壮族, zhuàngzú) form sizeable numbers in the country.

Circled in red is Mandarin Chinese (MC), circled in white is Romanized Mandarin Chinese (RMC), boxed in white are inscriptions in minority languages

Inscriptions of minority languages on Chinese banknotes, namely in (from top to bottom) Mongol, Tibetan, Uighur and Zhuang

Now, let me give you a walkthrough of the fourth series of the renminbi banknotes, which are still legal tender at present.


This is the 1 jiao banknote, which is also equivalent to ¥0.10. The obverse (front) side of the note depicts two men from two minority groups respectively. The man on the left is a Taiwanese aborigine (台湾原住民, táiwān yuánzhù mín), whereas the man on the right is a Manchu (满族, mănzú).

The Taiwanese aborigines are thought to be the original inhabitants of the island of Taiwan, in which they have been living there for thousands of years before the major immigration of Han Chinese people into the island began in the 17th century. Most present-day Taiwanese aborigines profess either Catholic or Protestant Christianity. The Manchu people are mainly found in the region of Manchuria in northeastern China, which covers the provinces of Heilongjiang (黑龙江, hēilóngjiāng), Jilin (吉林, jílín) and Liaoning (辽宁, liáoníng).

The reverse (back) side of the note depicts the National Emblem of China.


This is the 2 jiao banknote, equivalent to ¥0.20. The obverse side shows two ladies from another two minority groups respectively. The lady on the left is from the Buyi ethnic group (布依族, bùyīzú), whereas the lady on the right is a Korean (朝鲜族, cháoxiānzú).

The Buyi people of China belong to a Chinese minority ethnic group found chiefly in the southern region of China, namely in the provinces of Guizhou (贵州, gùizhōu), Yunnan (云南, yúnnán) and Sichuan (四川, sìchuān). The Koreans in China, on the other hand, are found primarily in northeastern China, namely in the provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning as well. Of course, I don’t think I’d need to tell you that the Koreans in China are descended from migrants who have migrated into China from Korea throughout history. Hence, they would naturally be found chiefly in the northeastern region of China, which is the closest to Korea.

The reverse side of the banknote also depicts the National Emblem of China.


This is the 5 jiao banknote, its value corresponding to ¥0.50. The obverse side portrays a Miao girl on the left and a Zhuang girl on the right.

The Miao minority group (苗族, miáo zú) is found mainly in southern China, namely in the provinces of Guizhou, Hunan (湖南, húnán), Yunnan, Sichuan and Guangxi (广西, guăngxī).

The Zhuang people, on the other hand, form the largest minority group in China, second in numbers only to the majority Han Chinese. They are predominantly found in Guangxi, which is an autonomous region. Their numbers are so large compared to most of the other minorities that the Chinese central government can afford to upgrade their main home-province to the status of an autonomous region, in which Guangxi is officially known as the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (广西壮族自治区, guăngxī zhuàngzú zìzhìqū). An autonomous region functions somewhat like a province, in which each has its own local government. The only difference is that the local government of an autonomous region has more legislative and executive powers compared to that of an ordinary province.

Once again, the reverse side of the banknote has the National Emblem on it.



This is the 1 yuan banknote, also denoted as ¥1. The obverse side illustrates a female member of the Yao minority on the left and a female member of the Dong minority on the right.

The Yao minority group (瑶族, yáozú) is largely found in the mountainous terrain of southwestern and southern China, particularly in the provinces of Yunnan, Hunan, Guangxi and Guangdong (广东, guăngdōng). The Dong people (侗族, dòngzú) form another minority group in China, dwelling predominantly in the provinces of Guizhou, Hunan and Guangxi. They are more well-known for their unique skills in carpentry and architecture.

This time, the reverse side of the banknote no longer has the Chinese National Emblem on it, but rather the Great Wall of China (万里长城, wànlĭ chángchéng). The construction of this majestic landmark of the Middle Kingdom commenced during the reign of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇, qín shĭhuáng) (sometimes known as Shi Huangdi) of the Qin Dynasty. Emperor Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor of a unified China, reigning from 221 BC – 210 BC. Initially constructed for defense against the Qin enemies from the north, subsequent dynasties after the Qin also utilized the Great Wall for the same purpose, in which they repaired, extended or reconstructed portions of the Great Wall to further enhance its function.



This is the 2 yuan banknote, also indicated as ¥2. The obverse side portrays a female member of the Yi minority and a Uighur girl on the left and right respectively.

The Yi people (彝族, yízú) of China form a minority group which is mainly found in the mountainous terrain of southwestern and southern China, namely in the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi.

The Uighur people of China are mainly distributed in the autonomous region of Xinjiang (新疆, xīnjiāng) in northwestern China. They are easily distinguishable from most of the other ethnic groups in China due to their Turkic descent and Muslim identity. Being one of the largest ethnic groups and an ethnic group of distinguishable difference, Xinjiang is also declared an autonomous region by the Chinese central government, in which its official name is Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (新疆维吾尔自治区, xīnjiāng wéiwú’ĕr zìzhìqū).

The reverse side of the banknote depicts the Pillar of Southern Heaven (南天一柱, nántiān yīzhù), which is a large boulder situated in Tianya Haijiao (天涯海角, tiānyá hăijiăo) in the island province of Hainan (海南, hăinán). In Chinese mythology, this large boulder is believed to be a remnant of two angels of the Goddess of Heaven who were smashed by the infuriated God of Thunder. Tianya Haijiao, which literally means “the edges of the heavens and the corners of the sea”, is alluded to in many works of Chinese literature as a beautiful and romantic place, in which this spot is a must for many Chinese newlyweds to spend part of their honeymoon in.


This is the 5 yuan, or ¥5 banknote. The obverse side illustrates a Hui Chinese man on the left and a Tibetan woman on the right.

The Hui Chinese (回族, huízú) are similar in many ways to the Han Chinese in terms of culture, yet the two ethnic groups are also easily distinguishable from one another. Found mainly in northwestern China, particularly in the provinces (or autonomous regions) of Xinjiang, Gansu (甘肃, gānsù), Qinghai (青海, qīnghăi) and Ningxia (宁夏, níngxià), the Hui Chinese practice the religion of Islam. As such, though they look like, speak like and live like the Han Chinese in many ways, some aspects of their culture are still different, such as the wearing of headscarves for women and white caps for men, as well as the non-consumption of pork in line with Islamic teachings. As a result of these religious differences, the Chinese central government has also allocated Ningxia as an autonomous region, officially known as Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (宁夏回族自治区, níngxià huízú zìzhìqū).

The Tibetans, on the other hand, mostly live in the mountainous autonomous region of Tibet (西藏, xīzàng). They practice Tibetan Buddhism and are well-adapted to living in high altitudes due to the region itself being situated in an area of mountainous terrain, spanning over the Himalayas. As Tibet comprises mainly of native Tibetans and not Han Chinese, the Chinese central government has also assigned Tibet to be an autonomous region, bearing the official name of Tibet Autonomous Region (西藏自治区, xīzàng zìzhìqū).

The reverse side illustrates the Wu Gorge (巫峡, wūxiá) of the Yangtze River (扬子江, yángzǐ jiāng), which is also known as the Chang Jiang (长江, chángjiāng). The Wu Gorge is one of the renowned Three Gorges (三峡, sānxiá) of China. The Three Gorges boast one of China’s finest and most exquisite natural sceneries, besides being historically and culturally valuable to the Chinese. This picturesque natural tourist attraction runs for approximately 120 km along the Yangtze River in the province of Hubei (湖北, húbĕi). The Wu Gorge, which is the second gorge of the Three Gorges, runs for 45 km along the river and is the most serene among the three.



This is the 10 yuan, or ¥10 banknote. With reference to the obverse side, one can see an elderly Han Chinese man on the left and a young Mongolian on the right.

Well, I don’t think I need to elaborate further on the Han Chinese, which is the dominant ethnic group in modern-day China and the backbone of the ancient Chinese societies. Most of the time, when one refers to a typical Chinese, one is actually referring to a member of the Han Chinese ethnic group. The Mongolians, or Mongols, as the name suggests, are natives of Mongolia, but large numbers of them also dwell in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (内蒙古自治区, nèi mĕnggŭ zìzhìqū), which is an autonomous region within Chinese territory.

The reverse side displays a picture of Mount Everest, also known as Mount Qomolangma in Tibetan or Mount Shengmu (圣母峰, shèngmŭ fēng) in Mandarin Chinese. As most of you may already know, Mount Everest is the highest mountain on Earth, measuring about 8848 metres above sea level. It is part of the Himalaya mountain range and stands at the border between Nepal and Tibet Autonomous Region, China. The names “Qomolangma” and “Shengmu” refer to Holy Mother in Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese respectively.

This is the 50 yuan, or ¥50 banknote. Its obverse side displays, from left to right, an intellectual, a farm girl and an industrial male worker.

The reverse side portrays the Hukou Waterfall (壶口瀑布, hŭkŏu pùbù), which is the largest waterfall of the Yellow River or Huanghe (黄河, huánghé). It is located at the border between the provinces of Shanxi (山西, shānxī) and Shaanxi (陕西, shănxī). In Mandarin Chinese, the name of Hukou Waterfall actually means “flask mouth waterfall” due to the shape of the Yellow River at this part resembling that of a water flask.

Finally, this is the 100 yuan, or ¥100 banknote. The obverse side depicts four prominent leaders of modern China. From the left to right, Zhu De, Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong are depicted.

Mao Zedong (毛泽东, máo zédōng) is undoubtedly one of the most influential and controversial figure in modern Chinese history, being the first Chairman of the Communist Party of China, the first President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the leader of the PRC from its establishment in 1949 up to his death in 1976. Zhou Enlai (周恩来, zhōu ēnlái) was the first Premier of the PRC from 1949 up to his death in 1976. Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇, liú shàoqí) was the second President of the PRC from 1959 to 1968, whereas Zhu De (朱德, zhū dé) was the first Vice President of the PRC from 1954 to 1959, as well as an outstanding military commander in the Communist armed forces.

The reverse side shows a picture of the Jinggang Mountains (井冈山, jĭnggāng shān), which are located in the border between the provinces of Jiangxi (江西, jiāngxī) and Hunan. Literally meaning “well ridge mountains” in Mandarin Chinese, the Jinggang Mountains is famed for being the cradle of Chinese revolution. This is so due to the fact that the Jinggang Mountains was the place where the Chinese Red Army (红军, hóngjūn) was effectively founded in 1927 by Mao Zedong and Zhu De. In subsequent years, the Chinese Red Army eventually became the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (中国人民解放军, zhōngguó rénmín jiĕfàng jūn), which is currently the official military organization of the PRC. Besides bearing historical value, the Jinggang Mountains is also the home to an extensive variety of flora and fauna, some of which are rarely found and are near extinction.

This concludes the fourth series of the renminbi banknotes which are currently still legal tender in China. In the next part of this article, I will be covering on the fifth series of the renminbi banknotes.

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