The Problem of Chinese Statistics

Chinese tendency toward numerical imprecision,
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Chinese Statistics   


rice region-.177 acres; winter wheat region-.205 acres, etc. In discussing this problem, D. K. Liu, Director of Statistics under the Kuomintang government, described how the Bureau of Statistics attempted to overcome this problem in its agricultural surveys:  
    Since the linear units in which the local mou is measured also differ widely, a slip of paper representing the standard footrule is attached to the schedule, and the informant is asked to give the equivalent of the local unit in terms of the latter .8      
     A similar situation exists with the catty-the Chinese unit of weight, and the shih-a capacity measure. It is certainly easy to imagine the problems one is likely to encounter in any comparison of crop yield in various parts of China, when expressed in catties per mou.  
     In traditional usage, the Chinese unit of distance-the li (in theory, the equivalent of half a kilometer)-was also a flexible measure. The number of li between two points was often determined by the relative difficulty of traversing the particular terrain. If the road was uphill or over difficult ground, the distance was considered to be longer than if one were walking downhill or over flat land. This reflected the practical nature of the Chinese. Rather than varying the price per li of transporting goods over different types of terrain, they varied the distance depending on whether the porter was to walk up or downhill. Because of these local variations, the distances between several intermediate points frequently did not add to the stated distance between the two end localities.9  
     The Chinese indifference to time is, of course, much more understandable; after all, how many Chinese had watches? It was much more of a problem to visiting Westerners who were accustomed to living by the clock. In the words of one exasperated observer writing in the late 1930's, "Three o'clock does not mean to the unsophisticated Chinese the exact point when the hands of the clock stand at that hour, but a more flexible term, `the third hour,' which is any time during the period of sixty minutes before or sixty minutes after the clock strikes three."10  
     A person's age is also treated very casually. It is true that precise knowledge of one's age is usually characteristic of a literate population. Peasants in backward societies seldom know their exact age. The Chinese system of reckoning age, which considers all infants to be one year old at birth and two years old with the coming of the Chinese new year, further complicates things. Very likely a Chinese will know the animal symbol under which he was born (which reappears every twelve years), but if asked for his exact age he is most likely to give it by "tens," e.g., 30, 40, 60, etc., or simply "a few tens" or perhaps "ever so many tens." The habit of reckoning by tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, and so forth is widespread, and extends to all types of measurements. In some instances, these general expressions of quantity may be quite adequate; in others, such generalizations seem completely out of line, but apparently greater precision is not expected and round figures adequately meet the needs of daily communication.  
     It could truly be said that pre-1949 China was "a land where the statistician may perish for want of a few figures, where records are more romantic than mathematical."11  
8 D. K. Liu, Statistical Work in China, Shanghai, 1930, pp. 25-26.
9 Smith, op. cit., p. 52.
10 Crow, op. cit., p. 84.
11 Bernard Martin, Strange Vigour, Kinnikat Press, Port Washington, N.Y., 1970, p. 3.


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Posted: May 08, 2007 08:35 AM
Last Updated: May 11, 2007 05:39 AM