Sunday, 9 May 2010

半斤八两 Half catty eight taels

''半斤八两 Half catty eight taels''

In Mandarin reads as 'bun jin ba liang' or in Cantonese is 'boon gunn bak liong'

If you are familiar with Chinese have you heard of this expression before?

There is a very old hilarious Cantonese movie by the same name 半斤八两 (English title 'The Private Eyes') by the Hui brothers. Remember that? Here is the link to the movie if you like to watch it in Chinese, it's 96min.

'半斤八两 Half catty eight taels' is similar to the idiom 'Six of one, half dozen of the other' i.e. comparing two people or two things which have no difference to each other.

So what is catty and taels?

Catty and tael are very old Chinese weight measurements, similar to pound and ounce. Many old school Chinese stores like Chinese herbalists, goldsmiths or wet markets in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China still use these old measurements. Many South East Asian countries also use this old measurements till kilogram and gram are enforced. In Malay speaking countries, catty is written as 'kati' and tael is 'tahil'.

Further than catty 斤 and tael 两, the measurement is further graded down to 錢 (same writing as 'money' in Chinese reads as 'chan' in Mandarin or 'chin' in Cantonese) and 分 (read as 'fen' in both Mandarin and Cantonese). I don't know what 錢 and 分 are in English. These smaller measurements are mainly used to measure gold or silver, Chinese medicine or herbs or something very very light.

Ever seen any old fashion Chinese balances? (pictures are borrowed from the internet, thank you to the posters). They are called 秤砣 ('cheng tuo' both in Cantonese or Mandarin)

This one is commonly used in the wet markets for measuring catty and taels for vegetables, fish, meat etc....

These are smaller and more refined to measure 錢 (chan) or 分 (fen). Ever seen your Chinese herbalist measuring old twigs or herbs or your Chinese goldsmiths measuring your gold rings or earrings with this?

Since hundred of years ago till now, this is the measurement conversion chart.

一斤 (1 catty) = 十六兩 (16 taels) = 600g (This is how the expression 半斤八两 'Half catty eight taels' comes from)

一兩 (1 tael) = 十錢 (10 'chan') = 37.5g

一錢 (1 'chan') = 十分 (10 'fen') = 3.75g

一分 (1 'fen') = 0.375g

The above measurements have been used since a long time ago in China and many Chinese populated areas in the Far East.

In 1959, Mainland China decided to change these measurements while other areas in the Far East still use the old measurements till now. So if you are in China, this is the conversion they are using.

一斤 (1 catty) = 十兩 (10 taels) = 500g

一兩 (1 tael) = 十錢 (10 'chan') = 50g

一錢 (1 'chan') = 十分 (10 'fen') = 5g

一分 (1 'fen') = 0.5g

I find this information interesting and useful especially reading an old Chinese herbal book with formulae and herbal concoctions. Some of my very old Chinese cook books have recipes with catties and taels. I will pass this info to you , hope you find it useful too.


  1. Thanks for sharing those info. I always what to know about this measurement. Especially last year, when I was in china for vacation, I was so confused about what i buy is more expensive or not to why i pay in America.


  2. Oh, how useful this is! I was given an old Malaysian cookbook where they still talk about catties and I had no clue!

  3. Thanks...this is indeed Miri and Sibu herbalists use metric measuring standards....I like the nostalgia you have created in the posting.


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