Paper or Polymer, Money in China and Canada

Chinese paper money, please notice the size of these bills.

It’s now the Year of the Horse, 2014-early 2015. I’d planned to write a blog about my experiences of Chinese New Year (“Spring Festival”) while in China, but it’s a little late for that now. Instead, I’ll write a bit about money, that peculiar man-made thing that supposedly “makes the world go round.” Incidentally, people born in the Year of the Horse are supposed to have a great deal of money moving through their hands this year. That is, if you believe in Chinese horoscopes. Whatever your zodiac animal, may this New Year be a good one for you.

I recently discovered something about Chinese currency and wondered how I’d not clued in before. The bills are different sizes from small to big denominations; the smaller the piece of paper, the smaller the denomination. Specifically, 1 yuán, aka kuài  or rmb, is the narrowest and shortest bill. It’s worth about 16 or 17 cents CAD or USD. 2 yuán bills aren’t printed anymore. 5 yuán bills are a little wider and longer; 10, wider and longer still, and so on. Distinctly different-sized bills would, I think, make cash transactions much easier and safer. It seems to make good sense, but if you have a view to the contrary, please share it in the comments section below.

Stack of Chinese Money For a long time China was a cash and carry society and still is for some. Consider that China’s largest bill is a 100 yuan note, worth $16-$17 CAD or USD. For those still preferring to deal in cash, just how many bills would they need to make big purchases or to transact business deals? Can you imagine buying a car or a house using straight cash? That used to be the norm in China. From personal experience, I have a sense of the cash and carry way of living and the wads of money people might need to carry in order to do business. I know because of a robbery that happened right under my nose.

The Robbery

The year was 2005. The scene was a 4th floor hospital room in Nanchang, China where I was lying injured after a car accident. Of the three untrained people taking care of me, only my friend’s father was in the room at the time. He had just fed me some soup and lain me back down, when all of a sudden he went berserk, screaming and running from the room, arms flailing. I could hear feet pounding down the hallway and many loud voices. In no time police arrived. As I lay there watching, not able to even guess what had happened, people were dragged into the room.  In the midst of all the confusion, my friend (the man’s son) returned. Thank goodness he was bilingual. He told me I needed to “identify” who’d come into the room. He explained that while his dad was helping me, someone had sneaked in and stolen his briefcase. 20,000 rmb, a huge sum of money by most Chinese standards, was gone. While he’d been helping me, someone had robbed him and I hadn’t noticed.

Such is my experience of a Chinese person carrying a huge amount of cash to do business. The robbery wasn’t the only bizarre thing that happened in that hospital room. If you are curious to know more about this event and others, I tell the full story in my book Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon, a Memoir of China.

Red Envelopes

The car accident and the above event happened during Chinese New Year 2005. The Year of the Rooster was being ushered in and 100’s of millions of people in China and other places were bestowing gifts of attractive red envelopes upon their children. (Somewhat equivalent to Christmas presents in the West.) Depending on the prosperity of the family each envelope hóngbāo (红包), contained money, anything from a few coins to many hundred yuán.

Chinese red envelopes

红包, hóngbāo in Mandarin, literally means red package. They’re small red envelopes often adorned with good luck wishes pertaining to abundance.

A Chinese friend recently told me how some people use this Spring Festival custom to obtain “special favors.” While bribery in China is illegal, gift giving is not. For instance, an inspector could perhaps be “persuaded” to look the other way if presented with a gift for his child. The red envelope, however, would have to be quite a bit bigger than standard, given the “generosity” of the gift. What do regular folk think of this? All the Chinese people I know, both in China and elsewhere, find this practice lamentable, and I imagine this sentiment is widespread. In my experience, regular Chinese are honest, good-hearted people. For anyone saying otherwise, my response is: “Tell me one society that holds a monopoly on crooks.”

Use of Fingers to Indicate Numbers

When I was a newcomer shopping at outdoor markets in China, I understood next to nothing. I’d been taught to ask duōshǎo qián (多少钱), “How much does it cost?” and no matter what vendors said, I was to reply with “tài guìle” (太贵了), “too expensive.” To my dumbfounded looks, sellers resorted to hand signals to try to convey prices, which confused me even more. Why? Because of their different way to indicate numbers. They didn’t use the fingers of two hands to show numbers 6-10 like I did. Not wanting to appear too stupid, I sometimes walked away buying nothing. I needed to seek out a Chinese friend to give me a lesson. Talk about a vulnerable “little” thing for foreigners in China! A great site I came across while writing this blog shows the different hand signals and a close up view of new and old Chinese currency.

Paper or Polymer?

Non-coin Chinese currency is made out of paper. In Canada, paper money is being phased out. In the past 2 1/2 years or so, the Bank of Canada has issued brand new currency made out of polymer, a plastic-like substance (“plastic money”). Paper or polymer? I prefer the feel of paper over plastic but money is money, whatever it’s made from.

Canadian polymer bills alongside Chinese paper bills. The smaller coin, a "loonie," is worth $1. (It has a loon pictured on it.) When the larger $2 coin came out, people simply started calling it a "toonie." I unfortunately have no Chinese coins to show.

Canadian polymer bills alongside Chinese paper bills.

Canadian bills are uniform in size and designed with several sophisticated security features, including holograms and hidden numbers, to help prevent counterfeiting. As colorful as their Chinese counterparts, the Canadian currency, as you can see, includes blue 5’s, purple 10’s, green 20’s, pinky-orange 50’s and goldy-beige 100’s. Rumored to be almost indestructible, these bills have been subjected to washing machines, clothes dryers, microwave ovens and matches by people intent on finding out. I’m not one of them. (By the way, they are not indestructible.) Called “shiny and savvy,” the new currency’s many design features are shown and discussed in this National Post article from June, 2011: Canada’s New Money is Polymer in Your Pocket. Perhaps you’ll find it as interesting as I did.

In the above photo, I decided to show two Canadian coins. The smaller is the loonie, our $1 coin which replaced our paper dollar bill in 1987. The nickname is derived from the loon pictured on it. When the larger $2 coin came out in 1996, people tried a few nicknames. Toonie won out over “doubloonie.” Loonies and toonies remind me of “Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies” from days of yore.  😉  I unfortunately have no Chinese coins to show.

Much is made of financial prosperity. I agree that it is important, but is it the most important thing? I think not, as long as one has the basics to survive. Peace of mind, good health and love matter supremely. Also, living one’s heart-held dreams. Before saying goodbye then, I’d like to extend a special wish to you:

Xīn xiǎng shì chéng, 心想事成: May the dreams of your heart come true or Many blessings to you.


Zhídào xià yīcì (直到下一次),

Until next time,

From my heart to yours,
Ramona, aka 林明心


Chinese Pronunciation Guide/Glossary: The method used to assist non-Mandarin (“Western”) speakers with Mandarin Chinese words is called pīnyīn. I’ve used it above and in other blog postings too. I may dedicate a blog to this subject in the future. Until then, it’s occurred to me that there may be people interested in knowing how to say some words in Mandarin. 🙂 With this in mind, I will give a rough approximation of how to say the Chinese words I’ve used in this blog, in the same order as they appear. As important as tone markers are, we’ll mostly forget about them. (As I said, a rough approximation.) All pronunciation notes below must be prefaced with sounds something like, okay?

yuán (元)-  yoo’an  – China’s equivalent to dollar bills

kuài (块) kwy, rhymes with cry or why, nickname for the above

rmb – just say the letters r.m.b – short for the official name of the currency

hóngbāo (红包) – hong bow (rhymes with how or cow) – red package/envelope for Spring Festival money gifts to children

duō shǎo qián (多少钱) – d’whoa (d sound in front of what you say to a horse) show (1st syllable of shower) chee’en – How much does it cost?

tài guìle” (太贵了) – tie (rhymes with and has the same stress as hi, as in hi there) g’way (rhymes with sway) le (like the first syllable of legume) – too expensive

xīn xiǎng shì chéng (心想事成) – sheen shee’ong sh (the “be quiet” sound) chung – literally, heart thinking becomes successful

Zhídào xià yīcì (直到下一次) – d’ji (as in “did ya go out” <– say it for the sense of the sound) d’ow ! (as in stop “ow, that hurts!) shee’yah ee’ ci (as in “wee icicle) Oh my, this one was hard and maybe is indecipherable. It means “see you next time”

pīnyīn (拼音) –  pin yin – romanization of Mandarin Chinese sounds with tone markers

Please let me know below if you have found this guide/glossary at all interesting or helpful.


Pictured at top of the page: Chinese Paper Currency. Please notice the size of the bills.


By | 2017-05-28T18:37:23+00:00 February 15th, 2014|China & Chinese Culture, World Matters|18 Comments

About the Author:

Ramona McKean is creating a "Bridge of Light" (aka “a Bridge of the Heart”) to promote cross-cultural appreciation and awareness. An author and speaker, she lives in Victoria, BC, Canada.


  1. Lois Langweiler March 16, 2014 at 2:42 pm - Reply

    Is your book available on kindle? I’m so interested in reading it.

  2. Xin March 17, 2014 at 11:30 am - Reply

    Hi Ramona, what a wonderfully written blog article! You shared a lot of interesting facts about money, which refreshed me much memories about China. Yes, Chinese money bills are of different sizes based on their different denominations. It definitely has its benefits. But I also think there might be a downside to it. If you are a disorganized person, and you put bills of different denominations in your wallet randomly, you’ll likely to have a difficult time retrieving the right amount of money when paying for your groceries in a supermarket. A bill of small denomination may get stuck between two bills of larger denominations, and there is no way for you to locate it if you’re in a hurry with people lining up behind you waiting to check out their groceries. And nowadays, most Chinese people are getting more and more impatient — that’s what I heard! Hope it’s not true. -:)

    Also thank you for sharing information about the Canadian polymer bills. I knew nothing about them before. Very interesting! And you did a good job in listing a Chinese glossary with pronunciation. It should be very helpful to non-Chinese speaking people who want to visit or live in China.

    Ramona, it’s always fun to read your blog entries. Please keep up the good work, and I’m sure you’ll have much more to share with us. -:)

    Have a wonderful week,

    • Thank you, Xin! I bet more Chinese are using credit or debit cards now. Do you think so? Yes, I have more blogs cooking. Currently I am researching Dr. Norman Bethune for my next one. What an amazing man whose legacy benefits millions around the world today, even though he died so many years ago in China (1939).

  3. Jacqueline Gum March 3, 2015 at 2:00 pm - Reply

    Ramona, this was so interesting! I love hearing all that you learned living in the Chinese culture. When I used to travel more internationally, I always remember feeling like any foreign currency was funny money:) Like I wasn’t really spending money! That can get dangerous! Wonder how the Canadians feel about their plastic money?

    • Ramona March 3, 2015 at 2:12 pm - Reply

      I know what you mean about foreign currency, kind of like “play money.” And, yes, that can be dangerous! Polymer money and Canadians? I used to dislike it but now prefer it. Not that my preference is worth much, considering that money is money. I don’t know that we Canadians give it much thought, at least not anymore. There is still some of the paper currency making the rounds; eventually there’ll be none. That’s okay. 🙂

  4. Ken Dowell March 3, 2015 at 8:15 pm - Reply

    I once had a small staff in Hong Kong and was visiting during Chinese New Year. The supervisor let me know that I would be expected to give each of them an envelope with money and that it had to be in brand new bills. So I went to the local HSBC and got some new bills and some envelopes to hand them out. Never did figure out whether the new bill thing was custom or whether my employee was just fooling around with me.

    • Ramona March 3, 2015 at 10:24 pm - Reply

      New bills? I don’t know either. 😉

  5. Lenie March 4, 2015 at 4:16 am - Reply

    Ramona, I love the glossary at the end – when you see Chinese characters written someplace it’s hard to think of them as real words so the glossary gives a totally different perspective. As far as Canadian bills go, I never seem to hang onto them long enough to care what they’re made of :).

    • Ramona March 4, 2015 at 9:47 am - Reply

      If it weren’t for the pinyin (romanization of Chinese characters), I’d have a FAR more difficult time learning Chinese. Perhaps my glossary will be of use to Chinese learners. Lenie, same thing for me with money–doesn’t matter what they’re made of. 🙂

  6. Tim March 4, 2015 at 9:32 am - Reply

    It is hard to even fathom a cash and carry society these days. I mean, I do when I am traveling, but even then I still have my plastic on me for larger purchases and accommodation. It‘s amazing how the world has changed in the last decade or two. I am going to go and read the other post so I can find out more about the hospital robbery.

    • Ramona March 4, 2015 at 9:54 am - Reply

      China is becoming more plastic oriented these days. I guess there’s no escape, especially for such an on-the-move country. I actually say the most about the robbery in this blog post. In my book, I have plenty to say about other “weird” things in two Chinese hospitals!

  7. William Rusho March 6, 2015 at 10:16 am - Reply

    Thank you for such an informative blog. Creating a new form of money which will not wear out has always been a challenge, this is why the US continues to try to push dollar coins on us.
    You have mentioned about the highest currency in China, in the US, there is a push to remove the 100 bill, also possibly the 50.
    We used to have a 500 dollar bill, but it was phased out because of crime. When you have high valued currency it is easier to exchange these bills for illegal goods. Now, imagine the suitcase you would need to buy 1/2 million dollars in drugs, and all you have are $20’s.

    • Ramona March 6, 2015 at 11:27 am - Reply

      Ya, just imagine! A while back in Canada (maybe still), forgery of $5, $10 and $20 bills was rampant. Rationale? I suppose crooks figured merchants wouldn’t be so vigilant in checking. As regards coin currency, it lasts much longer than paper or polymer, so it’s cheaper in the long run for governments to produce. Thanks, William, for your comment with a new spin.

  8. Andy March 6, 2015 at 9:51 pm - Reply

    OK, I may be asking for it…
    Because this post is about money, and because it is currently ‘tax season’ in America (April 15 is just over a month away, folks), the thought popped in my mind: “Ramona should write a post on China and taxation.” Would you be willing to do that? I’m sure we would all find such a post very enlightening.

    I like the Chinese Pronunciation Guide/Glossary.

    • Ramona March 7, 2015 at 4:32 pm - Reply

      With tax season upon us here in Canada also, I’m sorry to say that your suggestion would be simply too taxing for the likes of arithmetic-challenged me. Plus, being overtaxed is not my cup of tea! Might you know what I mean? Yes, a post on China and taxation might be enlightening or, more likely, just plain bo-ring. But it was worth a try. Glad you liked the glossary. 🙂

  9. John September 16, 2015 at 8:04 pm - Reply

    I think I’d prefer to have all my bills be the same size. It would make for keeping them together and organized more easily in my wallet. That’s confusing about conveying numbers 6 through 10 on one hand. I could see why you wanted to walk away after having a vendor use those symbols with you.

    • Ramona September 16, 2015 at 8:59 pm - Reply

      During my last trip to China, I came to realize how much I prefer bills all the same size too. Easier to manage. Thanks for writing, John.

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