Cùn: The Chinese Inch (寸)

“Hold up, that ain’t my pant size.”

“I’m following the directions,” I muttered, standing tip-toe to drape my pink measuring tape around Mark’s shoulders. We were heading out to buy dress clothes for a friend’s upcoming wedding and needed to double check his suit measurements. While I went to look at Google’s instructions again, Mark grabbed a pair of his jeans to compare.

“See? Look. It doesn’t match up.” He held the tag to my face.

“But that’s what it says!”

“Let me see?” I handed over the measuring tape.

“Hmm…Where did you get this?”

“I don’t remember. It was on my desk.”

Mark peered at the little numbers. “Ah!” he exclaimed, rushing out of the room. What was going on?

“I knew it!” Mark laid my pink measuring tape on the floor and aligned it with his yellow heavy duty measuring tape from the Home Depot.

“It’s the Chinese Inch!”



While Mark excitedly detailed how he had read about it somewhere, I stared at the two tapes. It was true! My pink measuring tape was off. Where did I get it? It must have snuck its way into my stuff I had shipped here from China. Either way, I was stunned. How did I forget about the Chinese Inch?

You Know What They Say About Big Thumbs

Units for measurements around the globe developed from what was easily available, namely body parts. For instance, hands were used to measure the height of horses, human feet for distance, and even the average length a physicist’s beard grows in a second was once used to measure extremely short distances (around 5 nanometers). An inch in the West is generally based on the length of a thumb.

Standard Chinese Ruler PC:
Zhidao Baidu

The cùn (寸, pronounced tsoon), or the Chinese Inch as some call it, was standardized back in the twentieth century to equal .762 inches to fit with the metric system. China’s cùn is similar in its original use of thumbs for length, but it also once incorporated multiple fingers depending on who or what was being measured.

Despite this number being recognized as China’s current municipal unit of length, one may still find the old ways of measuring cùn utilized in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Traditional Chinese Medicine (中医)

Ming Tang Figure by Zhen Quan from the Tang Dynasty
PC: TouTiao

To give a superficial overview to a complicated belief system, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) stems from ancient practices to treat all sorts of ailments by balancing the body’s inner qi (气, pronounced chee). Qi is essentially always in flux inside a living body. Any disruption to the flow is thought to manifest painfully as a blemishes, aches, or illness. There are many ways one’s qi can become imbalanced. For example, showering at the wrong time, keeping phlegm in, or even wearing too little clothing is believed to throw your inner organs out of whack.

TCM techniques, such as acupuncture (针, zhēn cì), cupping (拔罐, báguàn) and moxibustion (艾灸, ài jiǔ), aim to restore the harmony of the body’s yin and yang. This balance of masculine/feminine energy is described as one of the most fundamental to human existence in the “Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor,” with its earliest mention around 111 CE in the “Book of Han.” A big concern around inner qi, that I find particularly enthralling, has to do with certain foods causing bodily disarray.

“Food returns to the body’s meridian.”

The Hot Water Cure
PC: Alan Hill

When I lived in China, my Chinese co-workers would often scold me for my penchant to drink cold sodas and iced boba teas. “Steph, remember to not drink these during your period. You can really hurt your stomach!” “Aiyaaa, you will get a cold! Do you not want your health to be strong? Here, I’ll make you hot water.”

It is no surprise then that most restaurants in China serve hot or lukewarm drinks unless you specifically ask for them cold. There were many instances where I would forget to ask and would sadly receive a warm soda or beer. Some hole-in-the-walls do not keep a fridge for cold drinks!

One plus about drinking hot water is that most buildings in China have a free hot water machine since drinking hot water is believed to be an overall curative. These machines were awesome in the winter!

Hot Water Machines: Meeting all your health needs!

When it was below freezing outside, I loved having the ability to make instant coffee tea at these machines. I would hold onto my hot thermos to warm my hands while waiting for the bus or metro, and I could refill it virtually anywhere!

On the flip side, eating or drinking foods with too much “fire” can bring about unwanted effects like anger, hypertension, or dizziness among many others. Fiery foods include very spicy, oily, or fried foods, especially junk food.

Glacial Gut Punch! PC: Baidu

Counteracting hot/cold foods requires those afflicted to seek special homeopathic teas or foods that will neutralize the symptoms. Some of it makes sense to me. It is probably good for people with diarrhea to eat yams, although I’m not sure about root vegetables supposedly curing dysentery or an abundance of saliva. Some state that leeks are thought to help the liver and blood flow and pigeon meat promotes healthy hair!

Another intriguing claim asserts potatoes are a remedy for reducing fat, moisturizing the intestines, beautifying and having anti-aging properties. Sounds like potatoes might be the elixir of life! With a history of over two thousand years, it is no wonder TCM offers an abundance of home remedies for virtually any issue.

For those wanting a more clinical-feeling cure, a popular option is to pay a visit to a local TCM practitioner to have a qi blockage released through cùn pressure points.

The “Human Inch”

Cùn measurements in TCM do not have a fixed value. Unlike the official Chinese cùn for taking measurements, TCM’s cùn is more of a general term since these measurements depend on a person’s specific bodily proportions. This is shown in the picture below:

One human cùn is roughly the width of a thumb or the space between the middle knuckles of the middle finger. The width of the pointer and middle finger combined is one point five cùn, and three cùn is the combined width of the patient’s pinky, ring, middle, and pointer fingers. There are many, many acupuncture points along the body that use cùn, but I’ll focus on just one here:

The Zhongwan Point

The Zhongwan (中脘, zhōng wǎn, pronounced jong wahn), or middle point, is found about four cùn above a person’s belly button. Pressing this point helps the pyloric sphincter open up to bring food into the duodenum. It is commonly used to treat spleen and stomach problems, especially bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Additionally, the Zhongwan Point is touted to relieve a swollen face and heavy eye bags!

Stagnant qi is what you get for partying too hard PC: Baidu

One story I found interesting told of a man who, after stuffing his face with hot rice, chugged a cold beer. Immediately, the man’s stomach became blocked and swelled with stagnant qi. The only cure that worked was having his Zhongwan Point massaged. I wonder if this works faster than taking Pepto.

Hey, how do you write that?

For anyone interested in learning to write the Chinese character cùn (寸), students in China are taught to think of it as a three-fingered hand with an arm and elbow.

It takes three strokes to write cùn
PC: Zhidao Baidu

It takes three strokes to write this character. The first stroke is made horizontal left-to-right. This creates the two fingers: one on the right and left. The middle stroke, starting from the top and going down, ends with a little upward curve to the left. This move creates the middle finger and the forearm with a curved elbow. 

A bit abstract, but you get the gist
PC: Zhidao Baidu

The extra teeny stroke under the left finger emphasizes the Cunkou Point (寸口, Cùnkǒu, pronounced tsoon coh), the place where a TCM practitioner takes a person’s pulse. Since the Cùnkǒu Point is small, this stroke in the character cùn is also small.

Cùnkǒu Point
PC: Zhidao Baidu

Measure Once, Check Twice

I had a lot of fun looking into the Chinese Inch! Honestly, it is easy to spend hours reading about Traditional Chinese Medicine. There is just so much information that can lead you down a rabbit hole of all sorts of interesting (and questionable) cure-alls.

One last point I do want to mention is that I highly recommend double checking any measuring tape bought online because I found quite a few Amazon reviews where their measuring tapes that were made in China turned out to have Chinese, not US measurements, like mine does.

Speaking of my pink measuring tape, I am not sure if I will ever have an occasion to use it here in the US. I will probably keep it as a neat, random little memento for now.

Until next time,

Steph ❤

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360doc.cn (2018, March 3).Ten qi foods admired by ancient Chinese medicine. Retrieved December 3, 2021, from http://www.360doc.cn/mip/741733954.html

Wenku. (2015, October 18). Introduction to Chinese Medicine, Diet, and Nutrition. Retrieved November 25, 2021, from https://wenku.baidu.com/view/b7647be5168884868662d61f

Celebrity Say. (2019, February 20). Who is the Author of the Mingtang Figure. Retrieved December 5, 2021, from https://www.zmkm8.com/article-10232-1

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Maiyao Wen. (2020, March 19). What does the word inch mean. Retrieved Nov 25, 2021, from https://zhidao.baidu.com/question/751826962771997212.html

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Stack Exchange Inc. (2017, April 13). Criteria used to determine if a “Chinese inch” is an “inch”? Retrieved Nov 15, 2021, from https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/170304/criteria-used-to-determine-if-a-chinese-inch-is-an-inch

Tse, Michael. (2015, October 2). Master Tse’s Qigong Dao #16: Acupuncture Point Measurements. Retrieved November 25, 2021, from http://www.londonqigong.net/qigong-dao/master-tses-qigong-dao-16/

TouTiao Life and Health. (2018, February 2). Replenishing Qi points: Qihai, Qihaishu, Zhongwan, Zusanli, Sanyinjiao. Retrieved December 5, 2021, from https://www.toutiao.com/i6517582722070741512/?wid=1638751831547

Xi, Li. (2020, December 10). The human body has a peculiar point “Zhongwan Point” can be called a universal stomach medicine. Retrieved November 26, 2021, from https://www.epochtimes.com/gb/14/12/16/n4320016.htm

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