First Emperor showed the way – 2000 years ago

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the splendid (Chinese) First Emperor exhibition at the British Museum. Apart from the terracotta warriors, what impressed me the most was the way that Qin Shihuangdi imposed standardisation on his vast empire – including, of course, weights and measures.

Qin Shihuangdi unified China by conquest in 221 BC. One of his first acts was to decree that only standard weights and measures were to be used throughout the empire. The bronze weight illustrated below is inscribed as follows: “In the 26th year [of his reign the king of Qin] united the princes of the [individual] states; the people enjoyed peace, and he was proclaimed emperor [huangdi]. He issued an edict that all weights are to be standardised. Where they are not uniform, or where there are any doubts, let them be standardised and classified.”


(Acknowledgements to the Trustees of the British Museum)

Also of interest is the measuring cup illustrated below. Its capacity is a “half dou”, which was the most popular size in use. Strangely enough, it is almost exactly equivalent to one litre. Obviously, this must be sheer coincidence, but it does give the lie to the British imperialists’ claim that the pint is “natural”, whereas the litre is not.


(Acknowledgements to the Trustees of the British Museum)

Here in Britain the first recorded attempt to standardise weights and measures can be found in Magna Carta (1215), but it was not until 1824 that imperial measures were standardised by the first Weights and Measures Act. Unfortunately, our current crop of politicians lack the perception or the political courage (or both) to acknowledge that a single system of weights and measures is a basic requirement of a modern society. Hence we have, to quote another Chinese leader*, “one country, two systems”.

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*the late Deng Xiaoping, referring to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

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