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 刻 kès. 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 尺 = 1 bù 步 (Shang to Han dynasties) 5 chǐ = 1 (Han to Qing dynasties) with 300bu = 1 lí 厘 360 bù= 1 lí 厘 (Tang to Qing dynasties). Another unit of length of historical importance is the 'bolt' used for measuring cloth, in Chinese this is 匹 (old form 疋) pǐ : bolt = 4 丈 zhàng (between 15 and 25 yards). A bolt of silk was a standard unit of currency for many centuries.

The decimal progression of units of distance is:

1 háo 毫 | (0.0000001 li) A tiny measure about a third of the diameter of a human hair | |

1 lí 厘 | = 10 háo 毫 | (0.000001 li) |

1 fēn 分 | = 10 lí 厘 | (0.00001 li) |

1 cùn 寸 | = 10 fēn 分 | (0.0001 li) The cun is sometimes called the Chinese inch |

1 chǐ 尺 | = 10 cùn 寸 | (0.001 li) The chi is sometimes called the Chinese foot at 1.0936 feet |

1 zhàng 丈 | = 10 chǐ 尺 | (0.01 li) |

1 yǐn 引 | = 10 zhàng 丈 | (0.1 li) |

1 lǐ 里 | = 10 yǐn 引 | 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:

Distance | 2 li | = 1 kilometer |

Area | 15 mu | = 1 hectare |

Volume | 1 sheng | = 1 liter |

Weight | 2 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 市 shì to indicate traditional, or 公 gōng to indicate metric so 公里 gongli is a length of 1 kilometer while 市里 shili is the traditional li of 500 meters.

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

一寸光阴一寸金,寸金难买寸光阴

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

老骥伏枥,志在千里

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

1 háo 毫 | (0.001 mu) Is 2/3 sq meter or about 7 square feet | |

1 lí 厘 | = 10 háo 毫 | (0.01 mu) |

1 fēn 分 | = 10 lí 厘 | (0.1 mu) |

1 mǔ 亩 | = 10 fēn 分 | The mu is the standard unit for land area. It was originally a strip 240 bù long by one bù 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 顷 | = 100 亩 mǔ | (100 mu). A qing was considered the standard land allotment to support an adult farmer and his immediate family. |

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

1 qián 钱 | = 10 fēn 分 | (0.01 jin) |

1 liǎng 两 | = 10 qián 钱 | (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 斤 | = 10 liǎng 两 | 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 担 | = 100 jīn 斤 | (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’ 石 |

Also: 1 liǎng 两 = 24 铢 zhū The zhu was used for weights of coins.

千金买笑

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

1 gě 合 | = 10 sháo 勺 | (0.1 sheng) |

1 shēng 升 | = 10 gě 合 | Changed to be same as 1 liter or 0.22 gallons |

1 dǒu 斗 | = 10 shēng 升 | (10 sheng) |

1 dàn 石 | = 10 dǒu 斗 | (100 sheng) |

Also: 1 hú 斛= 5 dǒu 斗

Source references used for this page: Book : China : A short cultural history, G.P. Fitzgerald, The Cresset Press, 1950
p. 318-320 Book : The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China, ed. Brian Hook, Cambridge University Press, 1991
pp. 377, 380 Book : The Shorter Science and Civilization in China, Needham and Ronan, Cambridge University Press, 1978
pp. 37, 129 weights and measures (albany) ➚
weights and measures (china) ➚
weights and measures (wikipedia) ➚

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