In China, (1000 bce? – mid-17ᵗʰ century), a unit of land area. This was the usual sense until the early Qing Dynasty, when the word fell out of use as a land measure.
In the early Zhou, agricultural land was arranged according to the “well-field” system: a three by three square consisting of 9 equal smaller squares. The produce of the central square was the Emperor’s. Each of the other 8 squares was an individual farm family’s and consisted of 100 strips 1 bu by 100 bu, forming a 100 bu by 100 bu square (a mu 畝). Thus the side of the large square was 300 bu = 1 li, so the area of the whole square was 1 square li. As was common everywhere in pre-modern times, however, the same word was used for the area and the linear measure.
In China, an itinerant measure, varying over time. In English it is often referred to as a “Chinese mile.” Like many such measures it was originally involved with the length of the human pace.
Before the Qin Dynasty, as a unit of distance the li = 300 bu 步 (a pace, two steps). each of 8 chi. In the Shang Dynasty, for example, the chi was about 16 centimeters, making the li 384 meters. In the Qin, the bu was 6 chi, each 23.1 centimeters, making the li about 415.8 meters.
In the Song Dynasty the li was officially made 360 bu, each bu = 5 chi, making the li = 1800 chi. This equivalence continued to the present day. (The sole exception is the Yuan Dynasty, in which the li = 240 bu.)
In the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the official chi was 32 centimeters, making the li 576 meters (1889.7 feet). According to some sources, the Board of Works in the Qing dynasty adopted a value of 1889.82 feet for the li.
In the Republic, as part of metrication, the chi became 33¹⁄₃ centimeters, making the li 600 meters (1968.5 feet). Metrication did not take hold and some say the Republic retained the 1889.2 feet value from the Qing.
Yet another conception was that the li was 1/10 of the distance a man could walk in one shichen (double-hour) on a plain.¹ However, using the length of the li as defined in bu in the Qin leads to such a person walking at a rate of 1.3 miles per hour, which is improbably slow. More probable is Morse’s definition in note 2, which leads to a rate of 2.6 miles per hour. See definition 3.
In today's China, this unit is usually encountered as the shìlǐ 市里, = 0.5 kilometer.
1. Endymion Wilkinson.
Chinese History. A Manual. Revised and Enlarged.
Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series, 52.
Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Asia Center, 2000.
In the 19ᵗʰ? – 20ᵗʰ centuries, the li was also used as a rough unit of travel time over a specified route. Please see notes 1 and 2 in the Sources, below.
Thus the li, as a measure of travel, differs considerably in different parts of the Empire, and often degenerates into a rough measure of the time occupied in traversing some particular portion of a road, and not infrequently the traveller finds the distance between two towns differently counted as the road ascends or descends.
T. R. Jernigan.
China in Law and Commerce.
New York: Macmillan, 1905.
In practice it is one-hundredth of the distance a laden porter will cover in a day of ten hours marching; on the plain this would represent a third of a mile, a half-kilometre, more or less, but in hilly country it varies considerably. By Chinese reckoning, if it is 50 li to the top of Mount Washington, returning by the same road to the same point the distance may be 25 li; and similarly a mountain may be spoken of as 100 miles high—by road.
Hosea Ballou Morse.
The Trade and Administration of China. Third revised edition.
London: Longmans, Green and Co. 1921.
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Last revised: 7 December 2010.