Writing about the Qin's ascent to power, John Keay in his popular history book China: A History mentions:

He [Shi Hunagdi] himself wore black, while his troops in black armour issued from black-flagged fortifications beneath black-emblazoned standards. … The number six posed no problem. The interlocking tally-sticks that signified an imperial commission were ordered to be six 'inches' wide; and the length of a 'pace' was calculated as exactly six 'feet' (it was a double pace, or two strides). Six 'feet' was also the prescribed width of official carriages. [emphasis author's, not mine]

--China: A History, John Keay, pg. 91 (third paragraph), 2008-2009 print edition.

Now, it seems that he has defined the "feet" in the literal sense of the word. But counting in double strides, it would then become "three strides" not "six feet". And he hasn't clarified what he means by "inches".

Around that time, according to wikipedia, the Chinese measurements were 尺, 步, and 里 --none of whose six counts come close to acceptable widths of tally-sticks or carriages.

The Question

Because the author specifies no sources for this speculation I reach out to Chinese history experts on this SE to get their opinion on the correctness of his claim and perhaps even clarifications on what he may have meant by "inches" and "feet".

P.S.:- To those who may wonder why "six" is important to this question --the colour black, the season winter, and the number six are associated with the Chinese element "Water". The Qin's associated element was "Water" as they had displaced the Eastern Zhou (周朝) whose element was fire.

Clarification: The author's writing style is such that he encloses modern equivalents of ancient Chinese terms in single quotes and omits the mention of the ancient Chinese term (presumably to maintain an easy reading and avoid unnecessary deviations from the main analysis). Thus --'counties', 'courts', and 'feet'.

  • I am reaching out to Mr. Keay himself. I will post an answer if he replies. – Apoorv Khurasia Dec 5 '12 at 16:28

During the Qin dynasty, the standard unit of measure was the chi, which is a shade over 9 inches, and the next step up, their equivalent of the yard, was the bu, which is just over four and a half feet - and exactly 6 chi. This was pretty standard for most of ancient and medieval China. The Quin settled some debate about the length of the li, their equivalent of the mile, as 300bu - just over a quarter mile. The chi was divied up into units of ten, tho, with each unit just under an inch.

  • 1 cun = ~.9 inch
  • 10 cun = 1 chi = ~9 inches
  • 6 chi = 1 bu = ~4.5ft
  • 1 li = 300 bu = ~1/4 mile
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  • Was the cun used around that age or was that a later addition? – Apoorv Khurasia Dec 4 '12 at 12:14
  • @Monster Truck - The cun was in use as early as 9 ad - they've found a bronze caliper inscribed with the date of it's manufacture. It also measures fen, which likewise subdivide the cun into ten smaller units of measure: books.google.com/… – RI Swamp Yankee Dec 4 '12 at 12:46
  • The Qin's were around 221 B.C. – Apoorv Khurasia Dec 4 '12 at 12:47
  • Mr. Keay and I conversed this weekend and together concluded that cun is the right answer. Will explain more in a separate answer as the way we concluded is important but I think you deserve the credit for the correct answer. – Apoorv Khurasia Dec 10 '12 at 11:52

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