Chinese units of measurement

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A traditional Chinese scale

Chinese units of measurement (Chinese: 市制; pinyin: shìzhì; literally: "market system") are the customary and traditional units of measure used in China. In the People's Republic of China, the units were re-standardised during the late 20th century to make them approximate SI (metric) units. Many of the units were formerly based on the number 16 instead of 10. In Hong Kong, the British Imperial system was used together with Hong Kong units of measurement, which were traditional Chinese weights and measures, and now traditional Chinese units and Imperial units are used alongside the metric system, which was introduced by legislation in 1976 as the official standard system of weights and measures. Taiwanese units of measurement, which appeared under the colonial influences of the Dutch and the Japanese, for the most part may have similar names but are different from the Chinese units of measurement. Taiwan is now fully metricated.

The Chinese name for most SI units is based on that of the closest traditional unit. When it is necessary to emphasize which system is used, the words "market" (市 shì) for traditional units or "common/standard" (公 gōng) for SI units may be added in front of the name. SI is the official system of units, but traditional units are still ubiquitously used in everyday life.

Note: The names (厘) and fēn (分) for small units are the same for length, area, and mass; however, they refer to different kinds of measurements.

History[edit]

Bronze ruler from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to CE 220); excavated in Zichang County; Shaanxi History Museum, Xi'an

According to the Liji, the legendary Yellow Emperor created the first measurement units. The Xiao Erya and Kongzi jiayu state that length units were derived from the human body. According to the Records of the Grand Historian, these human body units caused inconsistency, and Yu the Great, another legendary figure, unified the length measurements. Rulers with decimal units have been unearthed from Shang Dynasty tombs.

In the Zhou Dynasty, the king conferred nobles with powers of the state and the measurement units began to be inconsistent from state to state. After the Warring States period, Qin Shi Huang unified China, and later standardized measurement units. In the Han Dynasty, these measurements were still being used, and were documented systematically in the Book of Han.

Astronomical instruments show little change of the length of chi in the following centuries, since the calendar needed to be consistent. It was not until the introduction of decimal units in the Ming Dynasty that the traditional system was revised.

Republican Era[edit]

On 7 January 1915, the Beiyang Government promulgated a measurement law to use not only metric system as the standard but also a set of Chinese-style measurement.[1] On 16 February 1929, the Nationalist Government adopted and promulgated The Weights and Measures Act[2] to adopt the metric system as the official standard and to limit the newer Chinese units of measurement (Chinese: 市用制; pinyin: shìyòngzhì; literally: "market-use system") to private sales and trade in Article 11, effective on 1 January 1930.[3]

People's Republic of China[edit]

The Government of the People's Republic of China continued using the market system along with metric system, as decreed by the State Council of the People's Republic of China on 25 June 1959, but 1 catty being 500 grams, would become divided into 10 (new) taels, instead of 16 (old) taels, to be converted from province to province, while exempting Chinese prescription drugs from the conversion to prevent errors.[4]

On 27 February 1984, the State Council of the People's Republic of China decreed the market system to remain acceptable till the end of 1990 and ordered the transition to the national legal measures by that time, but farmland measures would be exempt from this mandatory metrication until further investigation and study.[5]

Hong Kong[edit]

In 1976 the Hong Kong Metrication Ordinance allowed a gradual replacement of the system in favor of the International System of Units (SI) metric system.[6] The Weights and Measures Ordinance defines the metric, Imperial, and Chinese units.[7] As of 2012, all three systems are legal for trade and are in widespread use.

Macau[edit]

On 24 August 1992, Macau published Law No. 14/92/M to order that Chinese units of measurement similar to those used in Hong Kong, Imperial units, and United States customary units would be permissible for five years since the effective date of the Law, 1 January 1993, on the condition of indicating the corresponding SI values, then for three more years thereafter, Chinese, Imperial, and US units would be permissible as secondary to the SI.[8]

Ancient Chinese units[edit]

Length[edit]

Gilded Bronze Ruler - 1 chi = 231 mm. Western Han (206 BCE - CE 8). Hanzhong City

Traditional units of length include the chi (尺), bu (步), and li (里). The precise length of these units, and the ratios between these units, has varied over time. 1 bu has consisted of either 5 or 6 chi, while 1 li has consisted of 300 or 360 bu.

Length in meters[9]
dynasty chi bu li
= 5 chi = 6 chi = 300 bu = 360 bu
Shang 0.1675 1.0050 301.50
0.1690 1.0140 304.20
Zhou 0.1990 1.1940 358.20
Eastern Zhou 0.2200 1.3200 396.00
0.2270 1.3620 408.60
0.2310 1.3860 415.80
Qin 0.2310 1.3860 415.80[10][11]
Han 0.2310 1.3860 415.80[12] 415.80[10][11]
600 CE 0.2550 1.5300 459.00
Tang 0.2465 1.2325 369.75 443.70
0.2955 1.4775 443.25 531.90
Song 0.2700 1.3500 405.00 486.00
Northern Song 0.3080 1.5400 462.00 554.40
Ming 0.3008–0.3190 1.5040–1.5950 451.20–478.50 541.44–574.20
Qing 0.3080–0.3352 1.5400–1.6760 462.00–503.89 554.40–603.46

Modern Chinese units[edit]

All "metric values" given in the tables are exact unless otherwise specified by the approximation sign '~'.

Certain units are also listed at List of Chinese classifiers → Measurement units.

Length[edit]

Chinese length units promulgated in 1915[edit]

Table of Chinese length units promulgated in 1915[1]
Pinyin Character Relative value Metric value Imperial value Notes
háo 1/10 000 32 µm
釐 (T) or 厘 (S) 1/1000 0.32 mm
fēn 1/100 3.2 mm
cùn 1/10 32 mm Chinese inch
chǐ 1 0.32 m Chinese foot
5 1.6 m Chinese pace
zhàng 10 3.2 m
yǐn 100 32 m
1800 576 m this li is not the small li above,
which has a different character and tone

Chinese length units effective in 1930[edit]

Table of Chinese length units effective in 1930[3]
Pinyin Character Relative value Metric value Imperial value Notes
háo 1/10 000 33 ⅓ µm
釐 (T) or 厘 (S) 1/1000 ⅓ mm
fēn 市分 1/100 3⅓ mm ~0.1312 in
cùn 市寸 1/10 3 ⅓ cm ~1.312 in Chinese inch
chǐ 市尺 1 33 ⅓ cm ~1.094 ft Chinese foot
zhàng 市丈 10 3 ⅓ m ~3.645 yd
yǐn 100 33 ⅓ m ~36.45 yd
市里 1500 500 m ~546.8 yd this li is not the small li above,
which has a different character and tone

Metric length units[edit]

The Chinese word for metre is 米 ; this can take the Chinese standard SI prefixes (for "kilo-", "centi-", etc.). A kilometre, however, may also be called 公里 gōnglǐ, i.e. a metric .

Hong Kong and Macau length units[edit]

Table of Chinese length units in Hong Kong[7] and Macau[8]
English Jyutping Character Portuguese Relative value Metric value Imperial value Notes
fan fan1 Condorim 1/100 3.71475 mm ~0.1463 in
tsun cyun3 Ponto 1/10 3.71475 cm ~1.463 in
chek cek3 Côvado 1 37.1475 cm ~1.219 ft Hong Kong and Macau foot

Area[edit]

Chinese area units promulgated in 1915[edit]

Table of Chinese area units promulgated in 1915[1]
Pinyin Character Relative value Metric value Imperial value Notes
háo 0.001 0.6144 m² ~0.7348 sq yd
釐 (T) or 厘 (S) 0.01 6.144 m² ~7.348 sq yd
fēn 0.1 61.44 m² ~73.48 sq yd 10 li
畝 (T) or 亩 (S) 1 614.4 m² ~734.82 sq yd 10 fen, or 60 zhang²
qǐng 頃 (T) or 顷 (S) 100 61440 m² ~73482 sq yd 100 mǔ
Table of Chinese square units effective in 1915[1]
Pinyin Character Relative value Metric value Imperial value Notes
fāng cùn 方寸 1100 10.24 cm² 100 fen²
fāng chǐ 方尺 1 0.1024 m² 100 cun²
fāng zhang 方丈 100 10.24 m² 100 chi²

Chinese area units effective in 1930[edit]

Table of Chinese area units effective in 1930[3]
Pinyin Character Relative value Metric value Imperial value Notes
háo 0.001 23 ~0.797 sq yd
釐 (T) or 厘 (S) 0.01 6 23 ~7.973 sq yds
fēn 市分 0.1 66 23 ~79.73 sq yds 10 li
畝 (T) or 亩 (S) 1 666 23 ~797.3 sq yds, or ~0.1647 acre 10 fen, or 60 zhang²
qǐng 頃 (T) or 顷 (S) 100 6 23 has ~16.47 acres 10 shí or 100 mǔ
Table of Chinese square units effective in 1930[3]
Pinyin Character Relative value Metric value Imperial value Notes
fāng cùn 方寸 1100 11 19 cm² ~1.722 sq ins 100 fen²
fāng chǐ 方尺 1 19 ~172.2 sq ins, or ~1.196 sq ft 100 cun²
fāng zhang 方丈 100 11 19 ~119.6 sq ft, or ~13.29 sq yds 100 chi²

Metric and other area units[edit]

Metric and other standard length units can be squared by the addition of the prefix 平方 píngfāng. For example, a square kilometre is 平方公里 píngfāng gōnglǐ.

Macau area units[edit]

Table of Chinese length units in Macau[8]
Jyutping Character Portuguese Relative value Metric value Imperial value Notes
cek3 Côvado 1/6000 0.1269 m²
pou3 1/240 3.1725 m²
zoeng6 Braça 1/60 12.69 m²
fan1 Condorim 1/10 76.14 m²
mau5 畝 (T) or 亩 (S) Maz 1 761.4 m²

Volume[edit]

These units are used to measure cereal grains, among other things. In imperial times, the physical standard for these was the jialiang.

Chinese volume units promulgated in 1915[edit]

Table of Chinese volume units effective in 1915[1]
Pinyin Character Relative value Metric value US dry value Imperial value Notes
sháo 1/100 10.354688 ml
1/10 103.54688 ml
shēng 1 1.0354688 L
dǒu 10 10.354688 L
50 51.77344 L
dàn 100 103.54688 L

Chinese volume units effective in 1930[edit]

Table of Chinese volume units effective in 1930[3]
Pinyin Character Relative value Metric value US dry value Imperial value Notes
cuō 1/1000 1 ml
sháo 1/100 10 ml ~0.6102 cu in
1/10 100 ml ~0.1816 pints ~6.102 cu in
shēng 市升 1 1 L ~1.816 pints ~61.02 cu in
dǒu 市斗 10 10 L ~18.16 pints, or ~2.27 gallons ~610.2 cu in, or ~0.3531 cu ft
dàn 市石 100 100 L ~22.7 gallons ~3.531 cu ft

Metric volume units[edit]

In the case of volume, the market and metric shēng coincide, being equal to one litre as shown in the table. The Chinese standard SI prefixes (for "milli-", "centi-", etc.) may be added to this word shēng.

Units of volume can also be obtained from any standard unit of length using the prefix 立方 lìfāng ("cubic"), as in 立方米 lìfāng mǐ for a cubic metre.

Macau volume units[edit]

Table of Chinese volume units in Macau[8]
Jyutping Character Portuguese Relative value Metric value Imperial value Notes
cyut3 1 1.031 L
gam1 dak6 甘特 10 10.31 L
sek6 100 103.1 L

Mass[edit]

These units are used to measure the mass of objects. They are also famous for measuring monetary objects such as gold and silver.

Chinese mass units promulgated in 1915[edit]

Table of Chinese mass units promulgated in 1915[1]
Pinyin Character Relative value Metric value Imperial value Notes
háo 1/10 000 3.7301 mg
1/1 000 37.301 mg cash
fēn 1/100 373.01 mg candareen
qián 1/10 3.7301 g mace
liǎng 1 37.301 g tael or Chinese ounce
jīn 16 596.816 g catty or Chinese pound

Mass units in the Republic of China since 1930[edit]

Table of mass units in the Republic of China since 1930[3]
Pinyin Character Relative value Metric value Imperial value Notes
1/1000 000 312.5 µg
háo 1/160 000 3.125 mg
市釐 1/16 000 31.25 mg cash
fēn 市分 1/1600 312.5 mg candareen
qián 市錢 1/160 3.125 g mace
liǎng 市兩 1/16 31.25 g tael or Chinese ounce
jīn 市斤 1 500 g ~1.102 lb catty or Chinese pound
dàn 擔 / 担 100 50 kg ~110.2 lb picul or Chinese hundredweight

Mass units in the People's Republic of China since 1959[edit]

Table of mass units in the People's Republic of China since 1959[4]
Pinyin Character[13] Relative value Metric value Imperial value Notes
市厘 1/10 000 50 mg cash
fēn 市分 1/1000 500 mg ~0.2822 dr candareen
qián 市钱 1/100 5 g ~2.822 dr mace
liǎng 市两 1/10 50 g ~1.764 oz tael or Chinese ounce
jīn 市斤 1 500 g ~1.102 lb catty or Chinese pound
formerly 16 liang = 1 jin
dàn 市担 / 擔 100 50 kg ~110.2 lb picul or Chinese hundredweight

Metric mass units[edit]

The Chinese word for gram is 克 ; this can take the Chinese standard SI prefixes (for "milli-", "deca-", etc.). A kilogram, however, is commonly called 公斤 gōngjīn, i.e. a metric jīn.

Hong Kong and Macau mass units[edit]

Table of Chinese mass units in Hong Kong[7] and Macau[8]
English Jyutping Character Portuguese Relative value Metric value Imperial value Notes
lei4 Liz 1/1600 37.79931 mg ~0.2133 dr Not defined in Hong Kong. Macanese definition may not be correct when dividing catty.
candareen (fan) fan1 Condorim 1/1600 377.9936375 mg ~0.2133 dr Macanese definition of 377.9931 mg may not be correct when dividing catty.
mace (tsin) cin4 Maz 1/160 3.779936375 g ~2.1333 dr Macanese definition of 3.779931 g may not be correct when dividing catty.
tael (leung) loeng2 Tael 1/16 37.79936375 g ~1.3333 oz Macanese definition of 37.79931 g may not be correct when dividing catty.
catty (kan) gan1 Cate 1 604.78982 g ~1.3333 lb Hong Kong and Macau share the definition.
picul (tam) daam3 担 / 擔 Pico 100 60.478982 kg ~133.3333 lb Hong Kong and Macau share the definition.

Hong Kong Troy units[edit]

These are used for trading precious metals such as gold and silver.

Table of mass (Hong Kong troy) units[7]
English Character Relative value Metric value Imperial value Notes
troy candareen 金衡分 1/100 374.29 milligrams ~0.096 troy drams
troy mace 金衡錢 1/10 3.7429 grams ~0.96 troy drams
troy tael 金衡兩 1 37.429 grams ~1.2 troy ounces

Time[edit]

Table of time units
Pinyin Character Relative value Western value Notes
miǎo 1 second
old fēn 1/60 15 seconds No longer in common usage.
fēn 1 minute
zi 5 minutes Used mostly in dialogue, since saying 'minutes' implies more accuracy and usually one syllable longer.
60 old fēn 15 minutes Historically this had been defined as 1/96, 1/100, 1/108, or 1/120 of a day. The value here is the modern conventional value (1/96 day).
xiǎoshí 小時 (T) or 小时 (S) 4 kè 1 hour
shíchén 時辰 (T) or 时辰 (S) 8 kè 2 hours No longer in common use; retains religious, ceremonial and traditional usage, such as in the calculation of the Four Pillars of Destiny in Chinese astrology, Feng shui or Chinese fortune telling.
shí 時 (T) or 时 (S) 10 kè 2.5 hours No longer in common use; retains religious, ceremonial and traditional usage. (Mostly used in religious purposes.)
, or tiān 日, or 天 12 shíchén 24 hours

Since 1645 (except for 1665–1669), the above equivalents have been true. Except for several short periods of a few years each, before 1645 (before the Qing dynasty) the following were true:

1 rì (日) 
= 12 shíchén (時辰 (T) or 时辰 (S)) = 10 shí (時 (T) or 时 (S)) = 100 kè (刻).[14]
1 shíchén (時辰 (T) or 时辰 (S)) 
= 8 1/3 kè (刻) = 8 kè 20 fēn (分).
1 shí (时) 
= 10 kè (刻).

Historiography[edit]

As there were hundreds of unofficial measures in use, the bibliography is quite vast. Up to the 1980s or so, the book by Wu Chenglou (吳承洛), Zhongguo dulianghengshi (中國度量衡史), first printed in 1937 and republished/revised a few times since (1957, 1993), was often used as reference. It relies however mostly on literary accounts. Newer research has put more emphasis on archeological discoveries.[15] From this latter body of work, an abridged Chinese-English overview book appeared in 2005.[16] Alas, no comprehensive text appears to exist in English. A relatively recent and comprehensive bibliography, organized by period studied, has been compiled in 2012 by Cao, Theobald, Vogel, et al.;[17] for a shorter list see Wilkinson's Chinese history: a manual (2000).[15]

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f 大總統令法律第1號 (7 January 1915). 公布「權度法」. Government Gazette Volume No. 957, pages 85 to 94 (in Chinese). National Central Library Gazette Online. 
  2. ^ "The Weights and Measures Act: Legislative History". Ministry of Justice (Republic of China). 
  3. ^ a b c d e f "The Weights and Measures Act (1929)". Legislative Yuan. 
  4. ^ a b (Chinese) 1959 Gazette of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, No. 180, pages 311 to 312
  5. ^ Decree of the State Council Concerning the Use of Uniform Legal Measures in the Country
  6. ^ Yearbook HK. "Yearbook." Metrication. Retrieved on 26 April 2007.
  7. ^ a b c d Hong Kong legal definitions for metric, Imperial, and Chinese units and its traditional Chinese version
  8. ^ a b c d e Law No. 14/92/M ((Chinese) 第14/92/M號法律 (Portuguese) Lei n.º 14/92/M)
  9. ^ Schinz, 1996
  10. ^ a b Dubs (1938), pp. 276-280; (1955), p. 160, n. 7.
  11. ^ a b Hulsewé (1961), pp. 206–207.
  12. ^ Hill (2009), "About the Measurements", pp. xx-xxi.
  13. ^ (Chinese) 1959 Gazette of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, No. 180, page 316
  14. ^ Nachum Dershowitz, Edward M. Reingold, "Calendrical calculations", page 207
  15. ^ a b Endymion Wilkinson (2000). Chinese history: a manual (2 ed.). Harvard University Asia Center. pp. 244–245. ISBN 978-0-674-00249-4. 
  16. ^ Qiu Guangming (丘光明) with translation by Yanming Zhang (张延明), Zhongguo gudai jiliang shi tujian (中国古代计量史图鉴 — A concise history of ancient Chinese measures and weights), Hefei: Hefei gongyedaxue chubanshe (合肥工业大学出版社 — Hefei University Press), 2005, 190p., ISBN 7-81093-284-5; bilingual edition: Chinese-English
  17. ^ Cao Jin, Ulrich Theobald, Hans Ulrich Vogel, et al., Chinese, Japanese And Western Research In Chinese Historical Metrology: A Classified Bibliography (1925-2012), Institute for Chinese and Korean Studies, University of Tübingen, Germany, 2012

References[edit]

  • Hill, John E. (2009) Through the Jade Gate to Rome: A Study of the Silk Routes during the Later Han Dynasty, 1st to 2nd Centuries CE. John E. Hill. BookSurge, Charleston, South Carolina. ISBN 978-1-4392-2134-1.
  • Homer H. Dubs (1938): The History of the Former Han Dynasty by Pan Ku. Vol. One. Translator and editor: Homer H. Dubs. Baltimore. Waverly Press, Inc.
  • Homer H. Dubs (1955): The History of the Former Han Dynasty by Pan Ku. Vol. Three. Translator and editor: Homer H. Dubs. Ithaca, New York. Spoken Languages Services, Inc.
  • Hulsewé, (1961). "Han measures." A. F. P. Hulsewé, T'oung pao Archives, Vol. XLIX, Livre 3, pp. 206–207.
  • Chinese Measurement Converter - Online Chinese / Metric / Imperial Converter
  • Chinese/Metric/Imperial Measurement Converter