Odd little Shanghai/Beijing difference:

In Shanghai, the smallest currency bill I routinely saw was the 5 kuai (RMB) note. It's the violet-colored, Mao-adorned one at left in the picture below. (Click on the photo to see it enlarged.) It's worth about 67 cents US. Anything smaller was a coin.


In Beijing I very rarely get coins and instead wind up with pockets full of amazingly penny-ante notes. The 1 kuai note (13.5 cents) is omnipresent. It's the greenish one with Mao on the right, above. What I still can't quite believe are the 1/2, 1/5th, and 1/10th kuai notes, the latter worth just over one cent, that I virtually never saw in Shanghai and frequently get in change at stores in Beijing, as I have in rural China. The 1 jiao note, one tenth of an RMB, is the brownish one at top, featuring ethnic peoples rather than Mao. Indeed this afternoon my wife and I used the very bills in this picture to pay all-paper-money exact change for purchases of 2.3 kuai (31 cents) and 3.5 kuai (47 cents) at a the local outdoor produce market. And we came home with a lot of onions, apples, and potatoes...

No master theory here, but the difference is striking. It may help explain why Shanghai thinks it is more moderne -- and why there are so many more coin-operated vending machines there. And I suppose the use of 1 jiao notes is no odder than the continued existence of the U.S. penny, which costs more to produce than it is worth.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.