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Appendix I. Standard Weights and Measures of Han Times

The standard weights and measures are given in HS 21A: 15b-20a as follows:

"The measures of length are the fen 分, the inch 寸, the foot 尺, the chang 丈, and the yin 引. They are used to measure length. They arose originally from the length of the huang-chung [a sonorous tube; cf. Mh III, 302, 314-316]. Using medium sized kernels of black millet 秬黍[which the Erh-ya III, p. 8a, defines as black millet], with the width of one [kernel of] millet measure ninety fen---[that is] the length of the huang-chung. 1 One [kernel of millet] is one fen; ten fen are an inch; ten inches are a foot; ten feet are a chang; ten chang are a yin---thus the five measures of length are clearly defined. . . .

"The measures of capacity are the yo 龠, the ko 合, the sheng 升, the tou 斗, and the hu 斛. They are used to measure amounts. They arose originally from the yo of the huang-chung. They are used to measure quantities and therein to define its volume. Using medium sized kernels of black millet, 1200 [kernels] fill its yo, using [clear] well water to level off the grains which stick out above the top of the measure. Double a yo makes a ko [a pun; the word for ko is used to mean `double']; ten ko make a sheng; ten sheng make a tou; ten tou make a hu. Then the five measures of capacity are excellent [standard instruments].

"The method of [construction of the standard measure is as follows]: Using bronze, [take] a square [which is] a foot [on each side] and circumscribe [a circle] outside of it, [on each] side making a [slight] additional space. Its top is the hu, its bottom is the tou, its left ear is the sheng, and its right ear is the ko and the yo. Its shape is like a bird-cup (chio). . . . Its weight is two chün, . . . double 11,520 [shu]. . . . The persons who hold the offices of the Great Granarian and of the Grand Minister of Agriculture have charge of them. . . .

"The weights used with a balance are the shu 銖, the tael 兩, the catty 斤, the chün 鈞, and the picul 石. They are used to weigh things; with a level [balance] as a standard, to know their weight. They arose originally from the weight in the huang-chung. One yo [the volumetric contents of the huang-chung] contains 1200 [kernels of] millet and weighs 12 shu. Double it is a tael [a pun, the word for `tael' also means `double']. Twenty-four shu make a tael; sixteen taels make a catty; thirty catties make a chün; four chün make a picul."

Fortunately we are not ignorant of the units contained in this table. There has been preserved in the imperial palace at Peking an imperial standard measure that is dated by its inscription in 9 A.D., during the reign of Wang Mang. It came to light in 1924. A hundred of these standard measures are said to have been made and distributed about the empire, of which only this one remains. This measure is plainly alluded to in the passage of the HS translated above. The inscription on the hu of this standard measure is translated here:

"The lawful admirable [standard] measure. The hu.
[The area of its base is obtained by taking] a square [which is] a foot
[on each side] and circumscribing [a circle] outside of it.
The additional space on [each] side is 0.095 inch.
The area [of the base] is 162 [square] inches.
Its depth is a foot.
Its volume is 1620 [cubic] inches.
Its capacity is ten sheng."
The other measures have similar inscriptions, except for the numerals.

This standard measure is a bronze right cylinder in shape, with a membrane across it one inch from one end, thus making of the two ends a hu and a tou measure respectively. On one side is attached a similar cylinder containing a sheng; on the other side is another cylinder, arranged like the large one, making a ko and a yo measure. A drawing of this measure is to be found in the Hsi-ch'ing Ku-chien 西清古監, ch. 34; an account of it is in Wang Kuo-wei, Kuan-t'ang Chi-lin 觀堂集林, no. 19. An account of the mathematics involved is to be found in the Yenching Journal of Chinese Studies, Dec. 1930, no. 8, p. 1493 ff. An excellent description, with photographs, is to be found in Ma Heng, The Fifteen Different Classes of Measures as Given in the Lü Li Chih of the Sui Dynasty History, translated by John C. Ferguson, Peiping, 1932.

Mr. H. Ma 馬衡 of the National Palace Museum, Peiping, has very kindly supplied me with measurements of this important standard measure. The hu, which is said to be 1 ancient foot deep, measures 0.2310 meters in depth. The other measures are in proportion. The volume of the hu is 19968.753 cc. with the others in proportion.

Mr. Ma Heng also very kindly sent me a copy of a paper by the late Dr. Fu Liu 劉復, in which Dr. Liu tells that he examined four weights dating from the time of Wang Mang, which were in the possession of the Peiping 古物保管委員會. These four weights are evidently of 3, 6, 9, and 60 catties respectively, and weighed 730.050 g., 1446.150 g., 2222.870 g., and 14775.000 g., respectively. The first two have no inscription; the third is marked "律九斤 Nine Legal Catties," and the fourth is marked "律二⼀ Two Legal [Chün]." The legal weight of a catty in Wang Mang times, as determined by these four weights, was 243.350 g., 241.025 g., 246.986 g., and 246.250 g., respectively, the average being 244.028 g. Dr. Liu thinks this weight is quite reliable; we may then take 244 g. as the weight of the ancient catty.

Dr. Liu had previously weighed the standard measure of Wang Mang, which the HS says (in the passage quoted above) weighs two chün. From that weight he calculated the catty as 226.667 g. I have also checked that weight by millet grains. Wang Hsien-ch'ien says that the millet in terms of which these measures and weights are given is p'ei 秠, which is said by the Erh-ya to have two kernels in one husk. But the Erh-ya seems to distinguish between p'ei and chü 秬 (the word used in the HS); seed experts moreover doubt the existence of any such millet as the supposed p'ei, for all known millets have only one seed in a spikelet. It may be a rare sport. Panicum miliaceum is of the right size to be the millet referred to; the black veronesh variety is a dark brown and could easily be denoted by the definition of chü in the Erh-ya, "black millet." Ten of its seeds set side by side measure 21.8 mm., which is only a little smaller than the Han inch. Stein (Serindia, I, 374) measured the inch of later Han times as 22.9 mm. Data found on a piece of silk of Han times (cf. Chavannes, Documents decouverts par Aurel Stein, p. 118) indicate that the Han inch was 22.7 mm.

Twenty average size seeds were weighed by an expert and the weight of a seed (average of three weighings) was found to be 0.00590 grams, so that the ancient tael weighed about 218 gr. or 14 g. According to the size, this weight should be a little under the standard Wang Mang weight. To check this weight, 111 ancient cash, all with the inscription, "Half tael," and dating from Ch'in and Han times, loaned by Dr. A. W. Hummel, were weighed. Four large cash averaged 96.1 gr. each. The two best medium sized cash averaged 95.7 gr. each. Thirteen medium sized cash averaged 74.8 gr. each. Nine small cash seemingly in good condition averaged 42.2 gr. each. Eighty-five ordinary small cash averaged 38.3 gr. each. Since the Han dynasty regularly issued light-weight cash and permitted private coinage, it is natural that there should have been large variations in the weight of cash. If we take the weight of the largest of these cash as being an actual half-tael, as its inscription says, the ancient tael weighed 192 gr., not far from the weight found from the miliaceum seeds. Something should be added to this weight because of the wear and tear on coins. Chavannes (Mh II, 103, n. 2) reports a statement in the Chin-shih-so (sect. Chin-sou, B) that the ancient catty weighed 6 taels of the present weight or 225 grams, which checks well with the weight we found.

To check the volumetric data, the volume of 9600 miliaceum seeds was measured and found to be 81 ml., so that the volume of a yo would be 10.1 cc., an amount slightly larger than that in the Wang Mang measure. Laufer (Chinese Pottery of the Han Dynasty, p. 293) however notes a pottery ewer inscribed "Contains one sheng; weighs 14 taels; 52 B.C. No. 5." He reports its capacity as 790 cc., which is much too large; its weight, about 18 ounces, is also too large; this measure must be rejected as representing a marked variant.

Stein ibid. II, 660, 669) found several foot-rules of Han times in the desert, which measured about 9 inches (Eng. meas.) in length. Wang Kuo-wei (Jour. N. C. Br. R. A. S., 59: 111 ff) reports a foot-measure of the Wang Mang period a little over 9 inches (Eng. meas.) in length; he checked its length by the `trousers cash,' four of which made a foot.

Using the above data from the Wang Mang standard measure and from the weights, the following table of Han standard measures is obtained:

1 fen = 2.31 mm. = 0.091 in. Eng. meas.
10 fen = 1 inch = 23.10 mm. = 0.909 in. Eng. meas.
10 inches = 1 foot = 231.0 mm. = 9.094 in. Eng. meas.
10 feet = 1 chang = 2.31 meters = 7 ft. 6.94 in. Eng. meas.
10 chang = 1 yin = 23.10 meters = 75 ft. 9.4 in. Eng. meas.

1 yo = 9.98437 cc. = 0.60927 cu. in.
2 yo = 1 ko = 19.9687 cc. = 1.2185 cu. in.
10 ko = 1 sheng = 199.687 cc. = 12.1856 cu. in. = 0.36 U. S. dry pint.
10 sheng = 1 tou = 1996.875 cc. = 121.8561 cu. in. = 1.81 U. S. dry quart.
10 tou = 1 hu = 19968.753 cc. = 1218.5608 cu. in. = 0.565 U. S. bushels = 19.9682 liters.

1 shu = 9.8 gr. = 0.64 g.
24 shu = 1 tael = 235.4 gr. = 15.25 g.
16 taels = 1 catty = 8.6 oz. avoir. = 244 g.
30 catties = 1 chün = 16 lb. 2.2 oz. avoir. = 7.32 kilograms.
4 chün = 1 picul = 64 lb. 8.8 oz. avoir. = 29.3 kilograms.

These measures are all smaller than present day measures. Wang Kuo-wei (cf. Jour. N. C. Br. R. A. S.) has described the causes and manner in which the foot measure was lengthened. Probably similar causes operated with other measures. Whereas in Han times 10 tou made a hu, later five tou made a hu. The very existence of a standard measure illustrates forcibly the degree of imperial organization at that time.


1. SC 25: 8a (Mh III, 314) says that the huang-chung is 8.1 Chinese inches long; but Liu Hsin (i cent. B.C.), Cheng Hsüan (127-200), the Sui Dynastic History, and other authorities all give the length of the huang-chung as 9 inches.

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IATHPublished by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia