Chi (unit)

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The chi is a traditional Chinese unit of length. Although it is often translated as the "Chinese foot", its length was originally derived from the length of the human forearm,[1] similar to the ancient cubit. It first appeared during China's Shang dynasty approximately 3000 years ago and has since been adopted by other East Asian cultures such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Its present value is standardized around a third of a meter, although the exact standards vary among the mainland of the People's Republic of China, its special administrative region of Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

In its ancient and modern forms, the chi is divided into 10 smaller units known as cun (the "Chinese inch") and 10 chi together form one zhang.

1 chi (China) =
SI units
0.3333 m 333.3 mm
US customary units (Imperial units)
1.094 ft 13.12 in
1 chek (Hong Kong) =
SI units
0.371475 m 371.475 mm
US customary units (Imperial units)
1.21875 ft 14.6250 in
1 chi (Taiwan) =
SI units
0.3030 m 303.0 mm
US customary units (Imperial units)
0.9942 ft 11.93 in

Modern values[edit]

In People's Republic of China chi has been defined since 1984 as exactly 1/3 of a meter, i.e., 3313 cm (approximately 1.094 ft). However, in the Hong Kong SAR the corresponding unit, pronounced chek in Cantonese, is defined as exactly 0.371475 m (exactly 1458 in).[2][3] The two units are sometimes referred to in English as "Chinese foot" and "Hong Kong foot".

In Taiwan, chi is the same as the Japanese shaku, i.e., 10/33 of a meter (30.303 cm).

Historical values[edit]

Wooden ruler of the western Han dynasty, unearthed at Jinguan Pass Site in Jinta County

The study of ancient rulers and other artifacts whose size in the contemporary chi was known allowed modern researchers to surmise that during the 2nd century BC to 3rd century AD the (Qin Dynasty to Han Dynasty to the Three Kingdoms period), the value of the chi varied between 23.1 to 24.3 cm.[4] Even earlier, during the Warring States era, the value of chi was essentially the same.[5]

It is thought that the ancient Chinese astronomers also used chi as an angular unit; modern analysis of historical records indicates that it may have been equal to one degree.[6]

In the 19th century, the value of chi, depending on the part of the country and the application, varied between 31 and 36 cm. According to an 1864 British report, in most of China the chi used by engineers in public works was equal to 12.71 English inches (32.28 cm), the surveyors' chi was 12.058 inches (30.62 cm), while the value generally used for measuring distances was 12.17 inches (30.91 cm). In Guangzhou, however, the chi used for local trade varied from 14.625 to 14.81 inches (37.15–37.62 cm) – i.e., very close to the modern chek. The value fixed by a Sino-British treaty for the purposes of customs duties in Hong Kong was 14.1 inches (35.81 cm).[7]

Usage in Chinese[edit]

A section of an old Hong Kong ruler, showing the last (10th) cun of a chi. One can see that the chi in that jurisdiction was exactly equal to 14 and 5/8 of an inch. A metric ruler is shown next to it for comparison

Due to its long history and its widespread usage, chi (along with cun) has also seen metaphorical usages in the Chinese language. For example, chi cun (Chinese: 尺寸), a word made up of the units chi and cun, refers to the dimensions of an object, while the idiom "dé cùn jìn chǐ" (simplified Chinese: 得寸进尺; traditional Chinese: 得寸進尺; literally: "gaining a cun and ask for a chi") means "extremely greedy".

In informal use, it is also sometimes used to refer to the US or Imperial foot.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shuowen Jiezi, "尺,十寸也,人手却十分动脉为寸口。十寸为尺,所以指斥规矩事也。" (Chinese)
  2. ^ Government of Hong Kong, Weights and Measures Ordinance of 1997
  3. ^ WEIGHTS AND MEASURES ORDER – SCHEDULE (Hong Kong Regulations)
  4. ^ Shen, Kangshen; Crossley, John N.; Lun, Anthony Wah-Cheung; Liu, Hui (1999). The nine chapters on the mathematical art: companion and commentary. Oxford University Press. p. 8. ISBN 0-19-853936-3. 
  5. ^ Ssu-Ma, Ch'ien (2008), The Grand Scribe's Records: The Memoirs of Han China, Part 1. Volume 8 of The Grand Scribe's Records, Indiana University Press, pp. xliv–xlv, ISBN 0-253-34028-4 
  6. ^ Liu, C. Y. (1987). "A Research on the Implication of Zhang-Chi in Ancient Chinese Astronomical Records". Acta Astronomica Sinica 28 (4): 402. Bibcode:1987AcASn..28..397L. 
  7. ^ Carrington, Robert C. (1864). Foreign measures and their English values. Potter. p. 22. 

External links[edit]