Customary units are generally thought to be derived from the “English system” of measurements and used in British “influenced” countries; although, as discussed in “The Nationality of Pints & Pounds”, the origins of a lot of these units are actually Roman and sometimes French or Italian.
Obviously, every country used their own system of measure prior to metric adoption and the metric system in many cases was (and still is) met with quite a bit of resistance. For this post, I started looking at traditional units other than US customary/imperial still used today around the world. The range of this post was originally world-wide, but I soon found there were a lot of examples and would have taken far too long, so I have decided to focus on one area in this post and perhaps return to other areas another time. In this post, I will look at some examples of traditional units that are still in use today across eastern parts of Asia, such as China, Korea, Japan and Myanmar.
Often referred to as shìzhì, or “market system”, the traditional Chinese system of measurement is still commonly used across China, Chinese territories and other East Asian countries. As the name suggests, they are commonly used in market stalls.
The jīn is the Chinese equivalent of the pound, which has been rounded to exactly 500g since metrication. Outside of China, it is more commonly referred to as the catty (not to be confused with the word for hurtful comments…). It is commonly used today by market traders in the sale of meat, vegetables and other produce. In Japan, it is equal to 600g, where it is called the kin. This is the version of the catty that’s frequently used in Taiwan and Thailand. It is also a legal unit in Hong Kong (604.78982g), Malaysia (604.79g) and Singapore (604.8g). The Chinese call a kilogram gōngjīn, which means ‘metric jīn’.
The tael is the Chinese version of the ounce, it was originally one-sixteenth of a catty — ranging over time between about 1.1 – 1.3 oz. It eventually was decimalised as one-tenth of a catty (50g or 1 3⁄4 oz). The tael is still used today in the trading of precious metals, Chinese herbal medicines, in rice portions (using special tael-sized ladles) and in some other foodstuffs.
The cun is the Chinese version of the inch, ten of which make up the chi — the Chinese foot. The Chinese standardised the chi to exactly one-third of a metre, making the cun 3 1⁄3 cm. The cun is based on the width of a person’s thumb at the knuckle, and the width of four fingers side-by-side works out at 3 cun. This way of measuring is quite useful when charting acupuncture points on the human body, and as such, it is still used today in traditional Chinese medicine. In China, dé cùn jìn chǐ is a common expression for someone who is very greedy — it means gaining a cun and asking for a chi.
Returning to Japan, where their traditional units of measure are loosely based on those used in China. Today, some of these units survive in everyday life, including:
- The Gō, which is the Japanese word for cup. It is one-tenth of a shō, which is the traditional size of sake bottles in Japan (approx 3 1⁄8 pt or 1.8 L, a size still used today). This makes the gō about three-quarters of a US cup. It is still used as a measure for portions of rice and some types of fish. The masu is a square wooden box with a capacity of 1 gō, used for drinking sake at special occasions. It used to also be used in the portioning of rice for one person in a day.
- The sun is the Japanese version of the Chinese cun (inch), but is slightly smaller at just over 1 3⁄16 inches. It is used today alongside the bu (1⁄100 sun) in the sizing of tools such as chisels, spatels, saws, and hammers.
- The Jō is used for real estate floor space in Japan. It is based on the size of a tatami, the type of mat used in traditional Japanese-style flooring. In other words, a 50 jō room would fit 50 tatami mats. It is 18 sq shaku — the Japanese foot of 10 sun — which works out about 17 3⁄4 sq ft.
- Construction materials in Japan are still sometimes sold in traditional sizes (similar to Ireland & the UK), such as saburokuhan which are plywood sheets measuring 3 x 6 shaku. This happens to be exactly 1 jō, or the size of 1 tatami mat — which you could argue is quite a handy and familiar size to a Japanese construction worker!
- The Chō is often used by Japanese farmers when referring to land size, it is just under 2 1⁄2 acres.
- The koku is a unit of volume designed to hold the amount of rice one person would typically eat in one year. It is 10 sq shaku (the Japanese foot) or 61 imp gal / 73 US gal, and one koku contains about 330 lbs of rice. It is still used today in the lumber industry for quantifying shipments of timber.
Despite many strong attempts by the South Korean government to ban their traditional units over the last 30 years or so, some still remain in common usage. North Korea has been less strict on banning Korean units, and they do remain in common usage — including some commercial settings (although Kim Jong-un made an announcement in 2013 encouraging metric usage).
The pyeong is the most common traditional unit still in use in North & South Korea. It is a unit of area equal to one square kan — the Korean pace of 6 ja (Korean foot) — or 36 sq ja. This works out at just over 35 1⁄2 sq ft (the Korean ja is very nearly equal to the English foot). It is used for declaring real estate floor space, with an average house reckoned as about 25 py and a studio apartment as 8–12 py. In terms of land area, Koreans use units based on a particular amount of seed that land would take. For example, the majigi is equal to 100 py (or 150-300 py for ‘paddy’ fields) and is the amount of land needed to sow 1 mal of seeds; the mal is the Korean bushel (4 imp gal; 4.8 US gal). Or the smaller doejigi (10 py) for sowing one doe of seeds (the Korean peck — equivalent to the Japanese shō).
The don is still frequently used by jewellers — it is equal to 3.75 g or 0.132 oz. The catty (or ‘pound’, as mentioned above) is also still used.
The cup is called a hop in Korea and is equivalent in size to the Japanese gō (about 3⁄4 US cup).
Myanmar (also known as Burma) has not adopted the metric system for everyday use, much like in the US. Their traditional system is still commonly used, with a mix of imperial units for good measure (like miles on roadways)! I couldn’t find much information on their traditional units, save for a table listing them out. Simply listing out a long table seems a bit boring so I’ll highlight a few that are of a familiar size:
- The htwa is one span (the distance from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger) or exactly 9 inches.
- The lan is one fathom (the span of a man’s outstretched arms) or 6 feet exactly.
- The aseittha is the closest unit to the pound at almost 14.4 oz or 408 g.
- The sa le is exactly 1 1⁄8 imp pints.
- The tin is exactly 9 imp gallons, which is one firkin (as seen in a previous post Barrels of Firkin Hogsheads!)
It was quite interesting reading about the various units used across these areas. There are a lot of similarities with the units we are used to in these parts; it’s interesting to see that systems of measurement, developed independently of each other, often ended up with similar sized units. For example, the Chinese chi or Japanese shaku are both ‘foot’ based measures, the jīn or catty is similar in size to the pound and the Burmese lan is equivalent to the fathom.
It was also interesting to read a little about the origins of these units and how each country has their own traditions, history and culture built into their units of measure. Like the Japanese gō or masu, a portion of rice for one person for one day, with a koku being the amount for one person per year, or the jō, based on the size of the traditional Japanese tatami mat.
It’s a shame most of these units have been forced out of these cultures, it would have been better to keep them (or a modernised/metricated version of them) as a living connection to their roots and traditions.
Sources of Information
- About the Size of It — Warwick Cairns
- Weights and Measures in East Asian Studies
- Chinese units of measurement — Wikipedia
- Japanese units of measurement — Wikipedia
- Korean units of measurement — Wikipedia
- Myanmar units of measurement — Wikipedia
- Shaku (unit) — Wikipedia
- Cun (unit) — Wikipedia
- Chi (unit) — Wikipedia
- Masu (measurement) — Wikipedia
- Koku — Wikipedia
- Span (unit) — Wikipedia
- Pyeong — Wikipedia
- Ge (unit) — Wikipedia