Translating Ancient Chinese Wisdom into Medicine for Today

Q&A Forum

Q&A Forum for Imperial Mentorship members

Translating Measurements Throughout Chinese History

A question by our member Katarzyna Gromek: “I was wondering how the unit of weight 两 liang changed from Later Han to Song Dynasty. The English translation of Ming Dynasty' Bencao Gangmu, defines it as 37.8 g but in your translation of Jin Gui Yao Lue: Essential Prescriptions of the Golden Cabinet, Translation & Commentaries, it was defined as less than half of the Ming value. So would be the modern metric equivalent for recipes from Tang or Southern Song Dynasties? I admit I mostly recreate beauty care and incense recipes but the units should be similar.”

Sabine’s answer: This is a tricky question and one that we may never be able to answer with complete accuracy because even the Chinese themselves defined their measurements differently from one dynasty to the next, and possibly even complicated by regional differences. And then there is the complication of whether you should use the modern equivalent that corresponded to the measurement at the time of the publication of the text you are working with, or whether the formula was copied from an earlier text and might therefore have used earlier measurements. In other words, did a Song dynasty author, for example, convert the measurements in a Han formula he cited to the proper Song dynasty standards (as most modern English versions do, converting Chinese into modern metric) or did he copy the formula literally? My sense is that formulas were generally memorized and copied literally, so you always have to take not just the date of the publication of your source text into consideration but also the probable date of the formula itself. Often, tracing a formula back to the original is impossible. Tracking down the original source of formulas is something I am really struggling with in my current work with translating a Song dynasty gynecology book. It’s often impossible.

But please don’t despair: Chinese measurements are relational, so it’s not as bad as it all sounds since you can still get the proportions right. But it is definitely one reason why only experienced trained medical professionals should be using formulas from ancient texts on their patients. And it’s also one reason why I recalled my translation of the gynecological volumes of Sun SImiao’s Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang, because my former publisher had, against my wishes and without informing me, converted all the measurements to modern metric units, which I was not okay with for exactly this reason.

Anyway, for a better answer, see my blog post I wrote on this topic a long time ago here.

Have I answered the question to your need? In addition, I offer you the following excerpt that I just came across, from a dissertation I am reading right now: “Literati Medicine of the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234)” by John Welden. Here is what he has to say about measurements:

The most commonly used measurements during the Jin were liang 兩 and qian 錢 (1 liang is equal to 10 qian). While an exact metric equivalent is difficult to establish with certainty since these measurements changed over time, for a general guide: 1 liang is about 30 grams and 1 qian is about 3 grams. As for other measurements: both 1 zi 字 (1⁄4 qian or ~0.75 grams) and 1 fen 分 (1/10 qian or ~0.3 grams) are less than 1 gram, while 1 zhu 銖 (~1 1⁄4 grams) is slightly more, with 24 zhu equal to 1 liang; 1 jin 斤 (~480 grams) is equal to 16 liang; 1 sheng 升 is a liquid volume measure equal to about 1 jin in weight; 1 sheng also equals 10 ge 合 (so 1 ge is ~48 grams); it is unclear what measure 1 chi 尺 represents as a medicinal dosage, as this usually refers to a unit of length equal to 10 cun 寸 (proportional inches), but from context it appears to be similar to 1 sheng or jin.

So, it really depends on the exact date of your text and whether it is an original recipe or formula by the author or a citation from an earlier source. My best recommendation is that you recreate your recipes with proportions in mind. Sorry I don’t have a better or easier answer!!!

Sabine WilmsComment