What Is Chinese Measurements?

Chinese developed measurement systems and units for aspects such as length, weight, time, and clothes. The ancient measurements varied slightly depending on period and region. Various Chinese dynasties revised the units of measurement, and hence there are notable variations in the quantities represented by similar units at different periods. Although the amounts varied over time and across regions, most of the names for the units remained the same. The Chinese have maintained most of their traditional units of measurement. However, the units are standard for easy comparison with the metric system.

What Measures do Chinese Use?

The Chinese used a market system of measurement known as the shìzhì. Han people belonging to the East Asia ethnicity contributed significantly to the development of the shìzhì measurement system. The traditional units are standard such that it is easy to convert them to metric units. For instance, one Jin represents half a kilogram. China has continually adopted the metric system in its measurement. For example, distance is in kilometers.

Additionally, the measurement of time uses standard hours, minutes, and seconds. Although the Chinese may have different names for the units, most of them are equivalent to the metric system. For instance, sheng (升) indicates the capacity, and one sheng is equal to one liter.      

Ancient/traditional Chinese Measurements

The ancient Chinese measurements were significantly different from the measurements they now use. Local geographic features or body parts formed the bases for measurements. Due to the vastness of the Chinese region and varying cultures, the measurements would sometimes vary. Measurements also varied depending on dynasties and periods.

Time measurements

There are two ancient systems of time measurement.

  1. Han-er system

In this system, the Chinese time measurement began at modern-day 06:00 AM and ended at 8:00 PM. There were, therefore, 15 hours. Each hour in this system was equal in length to the modern-day hour. However, the last hour known as 定昏 (the rest time), consisted of ten hours.

The table below shows the ancient Chinese hours in a day

Name of timeIn ChineseModern Time
Dawn晨明6:00AM-7:00AM
Morning Light朏明7:00AM-8:00AM
Daybreak旦明8:00AM-9:00AM
Early Meal早食; 蚤食9:00AM-10:00AM
Feast Meal宴食10:00AM-11:00AM
Before Noon隅中11:00AM-12 Noon
Noon正中12 Noon-1:00PM
Short Shadow少还; 小還1:00PM-2:00PM
Evening2:00PM-3:00PM
Long Shadow大还; 大還3:00PM-4:00PM
High Setting高舂4:00PM-5:00PM
Lower Setting下舂5:00PM-6:00PM
Sunset县东; 縣車6:00PM-7:00PM
Twilight黄昏; 黃昏7:00PM-8:00PM
Rest Time定昏8:00PM-6:00AM
  1. Eastern Hang to Ming system

The systems had different standards of measuring time during the day and the night. During the day, the Shí-kè standard measured time, while the Jīng-diǎn standard measured time during the night. In ancient times one Shí was equivalent to two modern-day hours. However, the song Dynasty divided each Shí into two equal parts equivalent to one hour in the 24-hour system. Additionally, each day consisted of one hundred units called kè. Each kè was about 14 to 15 minutes. During the night, both Shí and kè indicated time.

Length Measurement

The ancient units for measuring length were li (里), bu (步), and chi (尺). Chi was the smallest unit for measuring distance. One bu was equal to five to six chi, and one li was equivalent to 300 to 360 bu. The units of measurement varied depending on the dynasty; for instance, during the Shang dynasty, 0.17 chi was equal to 1.00 bu, while in the Tang dynasty, ¼ chi was equal to 1.23 bu. It is important to note that length measurement varied significantly depending on the region; for instance, a li in the Tianjin region was different from that of the Guangzhou region. A standard li for all the areas is currently equal to half a kilometer.

Chinese Weight Unit

In the past, the Chinese used units such as Liang, jin, zhu, qián, fēn, and dàn, among others, as weight units. Liang was a translation of the word tael, which meant the weight of silver. Liang was the Chinese ounce. Jīn is equivalent to 0.5 kg in the metric units. Jin is equal to 16 lings and is also the Chinese pound. One Jin is equivalent to 1.2023 pounds in the metric unit. Weight estimations were also on units that an average human could carry on a pole placed on a man’s shoulder. For instance, 100 jin was the weight a man could carry on a shoulder pole and was known as picul.

Metric units such as Kilograms and grams are currently standard in China.

The table below shows the traditional units for measuring weight in C

Unit Chinese characterEquivalent Chinese character
qián10 fēn
liǎng10 qián
jīn 斤16 liǎng
dàn 担100 jīn

Presently, the Chinese primarily use jīn as a standard measurement unit, especially for products at the supermarket. One jīn is equivalent to half a kilogram. Therefore, 6 kilograms of rice in a supermarket would be 12 jīn (斤).

Chinese Measurements for Clothes

Cloths were measured using a unit known as a bolt. A bolt was a piece of cloth of standard dimensions that would compare when determining the size of a woven fabric during the sale. One bolt was equivalent to four zhàng. In metric units, one bolt was equal to 16 to 27 meters. Bolt is, however, rarely used due to its significant variation in measurements. Chinese cloth measurement uses metric units such as centimeters, inches, and meters.

On the other hand, the clothes measurement in China is in inches or centimeters. The sizes follow symbols such as S for small, M for medium, L for large, and XL for extra-large. In XL measurement, increasing the number of Xs means an increased size, while increasing the number of Xs in XS means reducing size. The Chinese sizes are usually one unit smaller than US clothes sizes. For instance, a person wearing an L size in the US should choose a cloth with XL when shopping in China.   

Conclusion

Units of measurement are significant in any society, primarily where trade exists. In ancient China, measurement units have been in existence for a long time. The units varied slightly, with region and time, and dynasties. Units for measurement of weight, distance, and time were most common in the units of ancient Chinese measurement. However, the metric units are more common than the traditional measures in China. Globalization has significantly contributed to the adoption of standard units of measurement.  

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