Chinese Weights and Measures

Chinese porcelain and china

Chinese porcelain and china


Together with tea and silk, porcelain from China is its most famous export. Prized the world over, high quality porcelain commands high prices at auction. Like silk the secret of its manufacture was a closely guarded secret for centuries.

China has had its own system of standard weights and measures for thousands of years. For measures of distance up until the Early Zhou dynasty a complex mix was used similar to the imperial mishmash of inch; foot; yard; rod and chain. Famously the widely varying units of measurements used over China was standardized and decimalized under Emperor Qin Shihuangdi. Each unit of length was ten times bigger than the previous one with a couple of exceptions. Even time was divided in 10s so a day consisted of 100 s. The Emperor insisted that his imperial number 'six' was included in the system; so that the standard double pace bu unit of length had to be six chi. The non decimal units had 6 chǐ = 1 (Shang to Han dynasties) 5 chǐ = 1 (Han to Qing dynasties) with 300bu = 1 360 = 1 (Tang to Qing dynasties). Another unit of length of historical importance is the 'bolt' used for measuring cloth, in Chinese this is (old form ) : bolt = 4 zhàng (between 15 and 25 yards). A bolt of silk was a standard unit of currency for many centuries.

Fri 1st Jun

Water pollution - some progress

The rapid industrial development in the last 30 years has been very bad news for China's rivers. In a new survey 22.1% of all water samples were considered unfit for human contact. This is an overall improvement of a few percent over previous years but in some areas there has been no improvement. Competitive advantage is blamed for some of the pollution, if a company spends extra money to clean up its effluent then its competitors who are not so fussy will gain the advantage. China has always been subject to flood and drought and is concerned that the extra requirements for intensive agriculture and industry will lead to severe shortages.

An example of how work can be done to bring back high water quality is the popular tourist spot of West Lake, Hangzhou. Treatment plants have been added that filter out contaminants and relocating over 7,000 people.

Read full story...
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Chinese Distance conversion


The decimal progression of units of distance is:

1 háo (0.0000001 li) A tiny measure about a third of the diameter of a human hair
1 = 10 háo (0.000001 li)
1 fēn = 10 (0.00001 li)
1 cùn = 10 fēn (0.0001 li) The cun is sometimes called the Chinese inch
1 chǐ = 10 cùn (0.001 li) The chi is sometimes called the Chinese foot at 1.0936 feet
1 zhàng = 10 chǐ (0.01 li)
1 yǐn = 10 zhàng (0.1 li)
1 = 10 yǐn There are exactly 2 li to the kilometer, a mile is about 3li.

The ‘li’ is the measure used for long distances; at one time it was defined relative to the length of earth's circumference. Therefore in the Tang dynasty detailed observations were made to measure the earth's circumference accurately. Over the long period of Chinese history different regions developed various local standards for weights and measures; so, for example, a li in Guangzhou was not the same as that in Tianjin.

When the Republic of China was founded in 1912 the progressive government decided to end confusion by aligning the traditional system of weights and measures to the international S.I. system of units (meters, kilograms, liters and hectares). They did this by choosing the closest whole number of units in the S.I. system . The new standards were rigorously enforced over China so that local variations were removed. The conversion factors introduced were as follows:

Distance2 li= 1 kilometer
Area15 mu= 1 hectare
Volume1 sheng= 1 liter
Weight2 jin= 1 kilogram

Official publications use the S.I. units directly while at a local level, for example markets, the traditional units are still used. To avoid confusion the unit is prefixed with shì to indicate traditional, or gōng to indicate metric so gongli is a length of 1 kilometer while shili is the traditional li of 500 meters.

Some S.I. units have been given new Chinese names such as for meter (the character also means rice) and for gram.

Chinese Distance Converter

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Proverbial distance

cùn guāng yīn cùn jīn, cùn jīn nán mǎi cùn guāng yīn [yi cun guang yin yi cun jin, cun jin nan mai cun guang yin]
one inch time one inch gold, inch time difficult buy inch gold
An inch of time is an inch of gold, but an inch of time cannot be purchased by an inch of gold
Money spent can be earned again, but time lost is lost for good
Laǒ jì fú lì, zhì zài qiān lǐ [lao ji fu li, zhi zai qian li]
old thoroughbred hidden stable, aspiration exist 1000 miles
The old horse in the stable still yearns to gallop 1000 miles
High ambitions never fade
Old soldiers never die, they just fade away

Chinese Area conversion

1 háo (0.001 mu) Is 2/3 sq meter or about 7 square feet
1 = 10 háo (0.01 mu)
1 fēn = 10 (0.1 mu)
1 = 10 fēn The mu is the standard unit for land area. It was originally a strip 240 long by one in width. 15mu = 1 hectare; 6mu just over 1 acre. A hectare is defined as 100x100m whereas an acre is defined as 220 yards by 22 yards (or 1 furlong by 1 chain).
1 qǐng = 100 (100 mu). A qing was considered the standard land allotment to support an adult farmer and his immediate family.

Chinese Area Converter

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TCM , Yunnan
Traditional Chinese medicine stall in Yunnan province with old scales for weighing

Tiananmen Square

There have been two major incidents of unrest in Tiananmen Square. The first on 5th April 1976 in called the 'Tiananmen Square Incident' when mourners for Zhou Enlai were seen as signaling their disapproval of the Gang of Four. The second incident was April to June 1989 when a student led occupation of the square was brutally suppressed. The demonstration sought a slowdown of economic reform, crack-down on corruption, more tax on the rich as well as democracy.
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Chinese Weight conversion

1 qián = 10 fēn (0.01 jin)
1 liǎng = 10 qián (0.1 jin) A liang was the Chinese name for a ‘tael ’, the Malay word tael was often used by foreigners for weights of silver. Also known as the ‘Chinese ounce’. Originally 1 jin weighed 16 liang
1 jīn = 10 liǎng The jin is now defined as exactly 500g. Also known as ‘catty ’ or ‘Chinese pound’ = 1.1023lb. It used to be equivalent to 16 liang, so care needs to be taken when converting old measures.
1 dàn = 100 jīn (100 jin) Also known as the ‘picul ’ or Chinese hundredweight (another Malay word). It was the weight a man could carry on a shoulder pole. A picul was also the unit for collecting taxes and paying official salaries when officials were paid in rice. At that time it was equivalent to 120 catties not 100; it was also known as a ‘Chinese stone’

Also: 1 liǎng = 24 zhū The zhu was used for weights of coins.

Chinese Weight Converter

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Proverbial weight

Qiān jīn mǎi xiào [qian jin mai xiao]
thousand gold buy smile
A smile costing a thousand ounces of gold
A target that is very hard to attain. Spending lavishly to attract a young woman
Foot binding

Foot binding


After the Han dynasty the custom of foot binding of girls from a very early age kept them house bound. The tradition lasted from the Sui to the Qing dynasty and was at times inflicted on half of all girls. It was seen as a badge of wealth of a household because it implied that the family was rich enough to not need women to carry out physical work. In poor areas the feet of women were not bound so they had to share the work of husbands in manual labor. Slightly richer families would have girls' feet bound and live out their lives indoors, bringing up the family.

Chinese Volume conversion

1 = 10 sháo (0.1 sheng)
1 shēng = 10 Changed to be same as 1 liter or 0.22 gallons
1 dǒu = 10 shēng (10 sheng)
1 dàn = 10 dǒu (100 sheng)

Also: 1 = 5 dǒu

Chinese Volume Converter

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