Inching our way into the peculiarities of Asian systems of measurement

Measurement units in the translation industry

We might not pay a lot of attention to doing so, but we use vocabulary that relates to measurement very often in both our daily speech and official communication. We’re well acquainted with the differences in the measuring systems used in Europe, the UK and the USA — but rarely hear about those in the continent of Asia.

Our translators come across measurement unit vocabulary almost every day, and as professionalism requires, they have to be aware of all the quirks and peculiarities of Asian measurement systems in order to do their jobs properly.

Units of measurement in Asian countries

Almost all of the countries in Asia have adopted the metric system as their system of measurement ever since it became global, hence more practical. However, you might be surprised by how many of them still keep and actively use their traditional systems of measurement too!

A tsubo (坪) is a unit measuring an area of 3.3m² used in Japan. This is the square area covered by two tatami mats put side by side. It’s commonly used when discussing land pricing. Another commonly used traditional unit of measurement when describing room size is jo (畳), which is the size of one tatami mat. When speaking about clothing sizes, the Japanese don’t have a special system — but as a rule, their clothes tend to be on the smaller side when compared to most clothes in the US or the UK. Just some friendly advice to keep in mind if you go on a shopping spree while in Japan!

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In Korea, cheokgeun-beop (척근법; 尺斤法) is the traditional system of measurement. The base unit of Korean area measurement is the pyeong (평), equivalent to about 3.158 m². The base Korean unit when measuring weight is the gwan (관), usually considered as equivalent to 600 grams. Volume is measured by the Korean doi (되), which amounts to nearly 2 litres.

South Korea signed the Meter Treaty in 1959, and nominally adopted the metric system, but a 2006 study found that 88% of real estate companies and 71% of jewelers in 7 major markets were still using the pyeong and don — after which the government decided to simply criminalize any further commercial use of traditional units.

Measuring SystemChina has had its own system of standard weights and measures for thousands of years. For measurements of distance up until the Early Zhou dynasty, a complex mix was used, similar to the imperial mishmash of inch, foot, yard, rod and chain. In 1912, the progressive government decided to end this confusion by aligning the traditional system of weights and measures to the international S.I. system. The conversion factors introduced were as follows: 2 li (里) = 1 kilometer, 15 mu (亩) = 1 hectare, 1 sheng (升) = 1 liter and 2 jin (斤) = 1 kilogram.

Moving along, we reach Thailand, where the metric system was officially introduced by a law passed on the 17th of December 1923. However, old Thai units are still in common use, especially for measurements of land — which is often quoted using the traditional Thai system of wha (วา), ngaan (งาน) and rai (ไร่).

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1 rai equals to 1600m². In the provincial areas, old-timers will occasionally use the traditional Thai system of weights and measurements.

In Vietnam, some of the traditional unit names have been repurposed as metric units, such as thước for the meter, while other traditional names remain in the translations of imperial units, such as dặm Anh for an English mile.

Confused due to the wide variety?

We bet that you couldn’t remember all of the units we’ve listed above. The good news is, you don’t have to! Professional translators have eagle eyes and are specially trained and instructed on interpreting the entirety of this colorful mix of measuring systems. Asia’s tendency of keeping the tradition alive — even with measurement units — it’s unquestionably beautiful, but it also makes the job of a translator such that if they don’t do it completely right, they might as well have done it completely wrong.