Chinese Weights and Measures

The Yangtse

The Yangzi (Yangtse in old spelling) 长江 is the third longest river in the world (3,915 miles [3,915 miles]) after the Nile 4,132 miles [4,132 miles] and Amazon 3,977 miles [3,977 miles]. Unlike these other mighty rivers the whole of its length is entirely contained within China. Its source is in southern Qinghai and then it bends south and then north before heading east through the Yangzi gorges and then on out to the sea near Shanghai.
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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.

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 exactly 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 can be 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
Thu 4th May

Preserving Confucian Temples

In this article in China Daily the role of Confucian temples is examined. Should the remaining temples be run to draw in tourists or return to be places where Confucian doctrine is studied? Under Mao Zedong, most Confucian temples were torn down and the monks and officials dismissed. Confucius was held up as the epitome of all that was backward and out-dated. Gradually, since about 1990 Confucius has come back into prominence. The Chinese government supports the many Confucius Institutes springing up all over the world to promote Chinese culture and education. He is now seen as an ancient father figure representing the distinctive Chinese culture and philosophy.

A report on the status of the remaining 546 Confucian sites highlights the difficulties in maintaining them. The province of Hunan has the most Confucian academies including Yuelu that has been going for over a thousand years. With massive redevelopment of towns and cities all over China the temple sites are coming under increasing pressure from development.

There are Confucian sites outside China: Vietnam, Japan and Korea and many Asian tourists come to visit the Chinese temples. Of particular interest is the vast temple complex at Confucius' birthplace Qufu which is still inhabited by his descendents.

Qufu, temple, Confucius, Shandong
Lingxing Gate of Qufu Confucian Temple, Qufu, Shandong. January 2009.
Image by Sean Shih available under a Creative Commons license

Read full story...

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

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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