The Opium Wars weaken China considerably. The Qing dynasty 大清 (1644–1912) loses the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, which further erodes a fading legitimacy.

Young Emperor Guangxu 光緒帝 leads an 1898 reform movement but Empress Dowager Cixi and her conservative opponents crush his attempts at reform.

Struggling to hold the Qing dynasty together, Empress Dowager Cixi 慈禧太后 introduces a series of reforms, which include metrological reforms. Empress Dowager Cixi orders the Chinese ambassador to Paris to visit the BIPM (Bureau international des poids et mesuresInternational Bureau of Weights and Measures) to seek advice on conversion to the metric system and asks for two pairs of rulers and weights for the dynasty.

The Qing dynasty redraws its laws in 1908 reorganizing the national system of weights and measures. The dynasty retains the traditional Chinese weights and measures, but defines them in terms of the metric system, stipulating the ratios between the traditional Chinese metrological units and those of the metric system. These new standards arrive in China in 1909 during a time of popular outrage at the inability of the dynasty to thwart foreign powers from controlling policy matters like weights and measures.

The Wuchang uprising of 1911 leads to the Xinhai Revolution, bringing about the end of the Qing dynasty and the creation of the Republic of China in 1912, whose first provisional president is Sun Yat-sen 孫逸仙. The new government is also concerned about the disunity of Chinese weights and measures so they send their own representatives to the BIPM in 1912. The government creates the Bureau of Measurement to improve their national system of weights and measures. Moving the metric system into the hearts and minds of the Chinese people proves vastly more difficult than the Republicans had hoped. The problem is not resistance from the Chinese people. The main reason it takes so long to accomplish the transition to the metric system is the social upheaval of China, the continuous wars and revolutions. China and other Asian nations have their own equivalent of pyramidologists who claim that ancient Asian scientists had discovered the fundamentals of science well before contact with the West. Some even go so far as to declare that these principles had been discovered first in Asia and communicated to the barbarians in the West in the distant past.

Sun Yat-sen dies in 1925 and Chiang Kai-shek takes his place. Chiang Chung-cheng or 蔣中正 as he is known in Standard Chinese, begins ruling China with an iron fist and in 1927 establishes a new government seat in Nanjing. Just as his predecessors before him, the Chiang government places a high priority on unifying weights and measures. Chiang Kai-shek issues a law in 1929 that keeps the traditional Chinese measures in place for internal use, but adopts the metric system for official transactions. The Second Sino-Japanese War (7 Jul 1937–9 Sep 1945) displaces thousands of families, bringing further attempts at conversion to a halt.

Mao Zedong 毛泽东 after World War II leads the People’s Liberation Army and fights Chiang’s government and succeeds in driving them entirely out of mainland China at the end of 1949. The People’s Republic of China is of course still interested in unifying the national system of weights and measures and in fully converting to the metric system so embarks on an attempt whose initial phase is completed by 1959. Even though these years are filled with antipathy to Western matters of politics and lifestyle, China is nevertheless very interested in developing science and technology and cares not whether this comes from the West or any other place. By then the metric system is central to world science and technology, so its origin poses no problem to its introduction into China. Still, political turmoil lasting through the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s impedes full conversion, which has to await passage of the Act of Measurement in 1985.

Transition to the metric system is not easy, but once again, the Chinese are clever. The Chinese government tells the people that the new metric measures are just like the old Chinese measures according to the 1, 2, 3 system: 1 sheng of volume is a liter, 2 jins are a kilo, and 3 chis are a meter. This narrative leads commoners to believe that their ancestors were so smart to have had such accurate measures in ancient times; far smarter than the West! Of course it is not true. The leaders fudged the old system, but it made national metrication easier.

13 Jul 2015

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