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May 20, 2023

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An inch in time as the clock ticks

HOW to measure time? Of course, most people would reply that it’s done by the year, month, week, day, hour, minute and second, depending on the span of time you want to measure.

But Chinese people might tell you that time should be measured by units of length, such as inches.

More than 8,000 years ago, a legendary Chinese cultural hero and sage named Fuxi, who authored “I Ching,” or the “Book of Changes,” invented a very simple instrument to measure time.

He planted a rod perpendicular to the ground, then measured the length of its shadow on a plane surface under sunlight to calculate the time.

In the 7th century BC in China, this rod evolved into guibiao or a “gnomon” — that part of a sundial that casts a shadow. This helped the ancient Chinese to determine the dates of the summer and winter solstices and vernal and autumnal equinoxes.

Today, clock or electronic displays of time are ubiquitous, but many Chinese people still use inches when they talk about time.

For example, they often say yicun guangyin yicunjin, cunjin nanmai cunguangyin, which means “an inch of time is an inch of gold, yet an inch of gold can’t buy that inch of time.”

This saying emphasizes that one should not waste time — if one spends all his money, he can always go out and earn it back, but there’s no way to get back lost time.

This Chinese proverb is akin to the English saying: “Time equals money, but money does not equal time.”


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