Can You Tell Yuan (元) from Yuan (缘)?

By Qin Sun Stubis

ching bioYou may think you don’t know Chinese, but there is a good chance that you have come across one word lately while reading about the stock markets’ roller-coaster rides in China and around the world. It is the yuan (元), the basic unit of Chinese currency, equivalent to the dollar in our money.

These days, you don’t have to carry yuan in your pocket to own them. As a matter of fact, many of us have some form of yuan embedded in our 401K retirement account or mutual funds if we invest in international stocks.

Lately, the yuan has very much become the talk of the world business community and a weathervane for stock markets globally. In 2015, the Dow suffered a historic freefall of over 1000 points within minutes of the opening bell, all because China devalued its currency by a few pennies.

How did the Chinese yuan manage to reach across the Pacific to haunt our lives and drain our wallets? On that day, many watched helplessly in awe and wondered, seeing their stock portfolios decline and their life savings dwindle. They didn’t know how to digest this new order in the world economy. All of sudden, the yuan (元) became a very scary word in the lexicon of finance.

But if you ever want to talk about yuan (元), be careful not to confuse it with its archival, the homonym yuan (缘).

Though they incidentally share the same pronunciation, the yuan (缘) is not anything like yuan (元), and it cannot be bought with money.

The idea of (缘) evolved in China long before its currency system was put in place. In the traditional Chinese mind, it is yuan (缘), not yuan (元) that gives meaning to everything we do, enriching all lives, be they rich or poor.

What does yuan (缘) really mean? It is a very complex, philosophical word, hard to translate in a way that tells you its full meaning. In a way, it has a poetic quality, with many interpretations. As the Chinese saying goes, “With yuan (缘), you will meet though ten thousand li (miles) apart.” Yuan (缘) here involves determination, luck and destiny, a delicate thread of fate and will, leading you through a random, chaotic world toward your true destination.

When your business is successful, you must have the yuan (缘) for it; When your boyfriend leaves you, there must be no “yuan” (缘) between the two of you, or the “yuan” (缘) has ended. In the Chinese mind, there is always a reason why things happen one way or another, and “yuan” (缘) helps us to understand them.

On this Valentine’s Day, remember that while yuan “元” can buy you a rose, it’s yuan “缘” that has brought you and your loved one together.

You can always reach me at

This column was originally published in The Santa Monica Star.

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