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Measurements (단위)

Every election in the United States see politicians - though I am primarily referring to presidential candidates here - make campaign promises of what they want to change during their time in office. And after each election is finished I can't help but feel disappointed by the lack of discussion over one topic in particular: when will the United States finally join the rest of the world and adopt the metric system? (Actually, that's not completely true. Liberia and Myanmar haven't fully adopted the metric system either. Ouhh, what rebels we are!)

Atom and His Package hits the nail on the head with his song (Lord It's Hard to Be Happy When You're Not Using) The Metric System, though with a couple of profanities in there you may want to refrain from playing the song around impressionable minds.

However, despite the near-universal acceptance of the metric system as a way of handling measurement across the world there are still occasions where one will encounter other systems. Korea is one example of this, as it's still possible to come across evidence of the older terms from time to time. Amanda asked me about one of them - the 리 - in an earlier entry and a few others one might encounter are the 근, 돈, and 평.

2 geun (근) ≈ 1.2 kg

While browsing through information online I came across this article, which mentions that the Korean government passed a law in 1961 stating that "ordinary citizens as well as corporate and government offices should use measurements based on the metric system". A follow-up law enacted in 2007 means that anyone who uses the traditional measurements in a commercial setting could now face fines of up to 500,000 Won. So what are some of the units that have been replaced?

Korea's 리 comes from the Chinese lǐ (里) and is a unit used to measure distance. I recall first coming across the Chinese lǐ while reading Into the Teeth of the Tiger by Don Lopez, an account of a United States Army Air Force pilot serving in the Republic of China during World War II. The unit has held a few different values within China based on location and dynasty but seems to have retained one specific value within Korea, 392.72 meters. It makes an appearance in Aegukga (애국가), the national anthem of Korea, within the refrain --

무궁화 삼천리 화려강산
대한사람 대한으로 길이 보전하세

Three thousand Li
of splendid rivers and mountains,
filled with Roses of Sharon;
Great Korean people, stay true to the Great Korean way!

-- and Wikipedia claims the 3,000 ri used in the lyrics is "roughly 1,200 km, which is approximately the longitudal span of [the] Korean peninsula." Moving on from the ri, another traditional Korean unit that still sees some use is the geun (근), which is used to measure weight.

Samgyeopsal meat sold by the 근 in Uijeongbu's 재일 시장

The geun comes from the Chinese unit jīn (斤), which is also known as the 'catty' in English from the Chinese character's pronunciation in Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. The catty is used to measure mass - in particular the weight of food and groceries - and has different values across East Asia, with Korea assigning it a value of 600 grams. In contemporary China it is 500 grams, while the governments of Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong have formalized the unit's value as roughly 604g, with Hong Kong the most precise with its official measurement of 604.78982 grams.

Two further measurements are derived from the catty and might be encountered within Korea. One of these is the nyang (냥), which comes from the Chinese liǎng (兩) or tael (again, after the pronunciation of the Chinese character in Southeast Asia). This is one that you'll likely only encounter in history books in reference to measurements of gold and silver, though apparently it also sees some use when meting out 'Oriental' herbal medicine. The "Weights and Measures Act (CHAPTER 349) Third Schedule" of Singapore places the tael's value at 37.7994 grams, making it 116 of a catty.

The other measurement based on the catty (or geun in Korea) is the don (돈), used to measure jewelry and tied to a value of 3.75 grams. You can also think of it as being 110 냥. I do like the connection, since the 냥 (tael) was used to measure silver and the 돈 is now used to measure jewelry - which can contain silver or other precious metals in smaller quantities. You may have noticed that the measurement unit 돈 is the same as the Korean word for money, which is also the case in Chinese. Written as 錢 and pronounced qián in Mandarin (or 'mace' in Malay), it was also the basis for past currencies in Japan and Imperial Vietnam.

beyond measure by cambiodefractal on Flickr.

One final unit of measurement that can still be seen in Korea is the pyeong (평), which is used for area and volume. Based on the Chinese píng (坪), the pyeong is a unit most commonly seen in realty to describe the size of rooms and housing. One pyeong is equal to 3.3058 m2 or 35.586 square feet. From the Wikipedia article on the subject:

[...] a studio apartment will generally be around 10 to 15 pyeong, a house somewhere around 50 or more, and the smallest of rooms, consisting of only a bed and a bit of floor space for students, will be as little as 1.5 pyeong.

Anecdotally, the unit was derived from the amount of space an average sized man would take up lying on the floor with his arms and legs spread out.

While that second statement from Wikipedia is currently listed as 'citation needed' I did come across this site that makes the same claim - complete with human body diagram - and which also includes a unit conversion calculator that will let you input a measurement in either pyeong or m2 in order to get the value in the other measurement system. Very handy!

There are a few more measurement units in Korea - such as the seom (섬;石) that is used to measure bags of rice (1섬 = 80kg) - but those are probably much less commonly encountered than the ones mentioned above. I hope the information provided above serves as a good introduction to the subject of Korean units of measurement; I'd certainly love to see more photos showing usage of these types if anyone sees them while out and about.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 21st, 2011 04:23 am (UTC)
Amanda Here
Feb. 23rd, 2011 03:36 pm (UTC)
Re: Amanda Here

Amanda가 재미있는 주제에대해 물어서 고마워!
Feb. 21st, 2011 03:49 pm (UTC)
Maybe, this (http://articles.cnn.com/2011-02-04/travel/americans.travel.domestically_1_western-hemisphere-travel-initiative-passports-tourism-industries?_s=PM:TRAVEL) will help answer your question.

It seems that you, and I, are in a definite minority as Americans owning increasingly expensive passports. We already have our own extremely large back yard of 50 states and territories that we can visit without the added expense of a passport which is something that most people in smaller nations (like South Korea) can't even/ever fathom doing.

Oh, yeah, this much better song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69AvNm8zubo) would lose a lot of its power if the U.S. ever gives up on the mile.

John from Daejeon
Feb. 26th, 2011 04:36 pm (UTC)
The problem with the metric system is that it's not well adapted to particular human usage. There are often reasons why arbitrary standards eventually fragment into industry-specific and culturally-specific usages, as happened after the Roman empire. It's often a question of focal resolution. Whether feet/inches or centimeters for measuring human height, both are arbtirary in their way, but feet are more human-scale. There's a similar problem with celsius versus fahrenheit, as British now forced to split degrees into decimals are learning...

As with musical notation, exactitude is not always a virtue. Cooking in grams always seemed unwholesome in exactitude. Give me cups, spoons, and pinches. Before decimalization, most vernacular and imperial measures were in fractions, creating a far more easy system of ad hoc practical measurement. This is why the "market" measures are still so durable in China, even under the Commies. Decimals are great for scientists who like base 10, but deuce difficult for measuring flour on the fly...

It's nice to have the French republican system as a global standard for international usage. But some of us enjoy the vernacular systems (Chinese or British Imperial) for day to day needs. I will indeed happily keep measuring cloth in ells and inches, and medicine in bowls.

Anyway, something to consider from a former metric advocate, now prefering the organic systems.
Feb. 27th, 2011 06:57 pm (UTC)
I see your point in preferring localized measuring systems. To be honest I had only meant for my opening paragraphs to serve as a rough introduction to my discussion of Korean measurements units, though it seems like they have garnered more attention than the rest of the entry.

The only measurements I use on a regular basis involve distances, weights, and temperatures. As a result, I forgot how convenient measurements such as cups and spoons can be for dealing with units of volume and mass. However, the inconsistent method of converting to larger sizes has always bugged me. 12 inches = 1 foot, 3 feet = 1 yard, 22 yards = 1 chain, 10 chains = 1 furlong, 8 furlongs = 1 mile. Perhaps this is just the scientist in me yearning for a more sterile system that operates in a consistent manner regardless of unit type?

I'm glad you mentioned this, as my preference for the metric system appears to be contrary to my usual inclination toward more localized ways of doing things. It's definitely a subject that I'll need to think about more.
Apr. 24th, 2012 07:46 pm (UTC)
Hi samedi,
I love your informative post. How do you know so much about Korean? (Aside from living there.)

Do you know anything about the traditional clothing measurement called pok? I'm looking for a way to render it in English and would like to be able to explain how long a pok is, even roughly. The article I'm translating refers to the skirt of Joseon military or civilian dress for men (in this case, a cheollik) being up to 13 pok wide for yangban and no more than 12 pok for commoners.

Any clues? =)

Oct. 10th, 2012 06:56 am (UTC)
I hate math but we have them in everything we do.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )