Pioneered by the French some two centuries ago, the metric system was intended to universalize measurement systems worldwide. Come the twenty-first century, we find that the metric system has spread far and wide across the globe and is now used popularly by roughly 95 percent of the earth's population. In fact, all but four nations of the world popularly use the metric system in all sectors of society. What this means is that if you come from the United States or Great Britain, it's time to search for your grammar school math books and brush up on your conversions.
But the lesson doesn't end there. China has moved to the forefront in mass production. Chinese factories produce textiles to be sold domestically as well as in New York, London, Tokyo, and Rome. As a result, as you browse Chinese markets, boutiques, and department stores, you'll be confronted with the great measurement quandary. The nature of this quandary is the fact that you will often find clothing marked with not only Chinese measurements in the stores, but U.S. and European measurements as well. If you were to go through the typical urban Chinese closet, you'd likely find several articles of clothing of comparable dimensions, but with several different size tags. As a result, if you're going to do some serious shopping, as most everyone who comes to China does, you'll need to familiarize yourself with U.S. and European measurements in addition to Chinese.
The Tall and the Short of It
Given the choice between meters and centimeters, the Chinese tend to use centimeters to measure height. What's more, if you consider yourself to be of average height or weight in the United States, it may surprise you how tall or big you may feel in certain regions of China. If a Chinese person asks you any of the following questions, you should assume that he or she is speaking in terms of centimeters and kilograms.
Ní yǒu duōgāo?
Ní yǒu duōzhòng?
Here are some example responses:
Be sure to express the numbers in Chinese in proper decimal places. You should say “I am one hundred seventy five centimeters tall and weigh fifty seven kilograms,” as opposed to “I am one seven five centimeters tall and weigh five seven kilograms.”
Chinese Women's Measurements
For women shopping in China, it is absolutely vital to know your measurements in centimeters. This fact cannot be stressed enough. You should know your xiǒngwéi (bust), yāowéi (waist), túnwéi (hips), nèicháng (inseam), and shēngāo (height). You should pay particular attention to your height and bust size in centimeters. Dresses, blouses and other such items of clothing are often measured in terms of height/bust ratio.
Women's Blouses and Dresses
Measurements for domestic products are by no means universal in China. Often, different factories go by their own particular size charts. Thus, it is truly vital that you know your metric measurements. Letter sizes such as S, M, and L are purely subjective. Always try things on before purchasing.
Women's trousers often run in U.S. measurements, so waist size is measured in yīngcùn or “inches.” A distinct number system is also employed on occasion.
Chinese Men's Measurements
Just as with women's clothing, the most important dimensions to consider for men's shirts are height and chest size. Men's clothes are somewhat similar to women's. As such, you'll see that men's clothes sizes simply run a few centimeters larger. One distinction you should be aware of is that men's shirts, like women's trousers, sometimes run in distinct number sizes.
When buying trousers, once again the sizes that seem to be considered are primarily your height and chest. Why would your chest be considered, you might ask? Well, clothing is often designed with the notion that waist size and chest size are not too divergent. In most Chinese online clothing stores, the average waist dimensions for men are often only two to three centimeters smaller than chest dimensions. As a result, you'll often find the same size labels on trousers that you'll find on shirts.
Socks and shoes are generally in a class all their own. Socks come in small, medium, and large generally, but the exact range in centimeters of those sizes is often a mystery. It's usually best to tell the sales person what your shoe size is and he'll help you find appropriate socks. As far as your shoes are concerned, this is where there is the least mystery in your shopping. The Chinese use the European shoe measurement system, and it's used fairly universally. Also, more often than not, if you indicate the U.S. shoe size, that will be recognized as well.
A Brief Overview of European Measurements
There are two major classes of clothing available for retail in China. They are zhōngguó fúzhuāng (Chinese textiles) and wàimào fúzhuāng (export textiles). Chinese textiles are those clothes that are labeled in Chinese measurements; the export textiles, however, are often labeled with mostly European, but also U.S. measurements. As a result, it's helpful to be familiar with some of the European non-metric measurements:
Western Women's Dresses
Traditional Chinese Measures
Like many nations, China had its own system of measurements that has been in use throughout its long history. China officially employs the metric system, but some of the traditional measurements also continue to be used. The most common of these measurements are included in the following list. Look over the vocabulary list and then listen to the track that follows and repeat it as you go.
Nín xiǎng mǎi shénme?
May I help you?
Taór hé píngguǒ duǒshao qián yì jīn?
How much per jin are peaches and apples
Píngguǒ wǔ kuài wǔ máo yì jīn, taór liù kuài yì jīn.
Apples are 5.5 yuan per jin and peaches are 6 yuan per jin.
Hǎo, wǒ yào mǎi yì jīn píngguǒ hé liǎng jīn taór.
Fine, I'll take one jin of apples and two jin of peaches.
Hái yào biéde ma?
Bú yào biéde.
No, nothing else.
Yígòng shíyī kuài wǔ máo.
That will be 11.5 yuan all together
Gěi nín qián.
Here you are.
Zhè shì èrshí kuài, zhǎo nín bā kuài wǔ máo.
From 20 yuan, that's 8.5 yuan change
Measure words are special words attached to numbers. The type of object you're counting determines the specific measure word you use. English has measure words, too. You really only see English measure words when counting animals; for example, a pack of wolves, a flock of sheep, a pride of lions, a school of fish, etc. The good news is that though there are indeed many measure words to learn, a great deal of them have fallen out of common usage. The following list includes some of the more commonly used ones. Even more good news is that the measure word gè is a fairly universal catchall measure word. Even if gè is not a normally accepted measure word for an item, you will be understood if you use it. Don't worry if you've forgotten the correct measure word—just express yourself.