Saturday, July 21, 2012

Pyeong, and Old Habits Dying Hard

Dear Korean,

When Koreans talk about the size of their condos they talk in something called pyung, like fifty pyung or one hundred pyung. So far nobody has been able to explain to me what that is. Could you tell me what one pyung is in square footage?

Conde


Pyeong [평] is a unit of measurement that has been in use in Korea, until very recently. It is the traditional measurement unit that managed to survive in Korea the longest.

First, let's cut to the chase -- how large is a single pyeong? Here is the conversion of pyeong into square meters and square feet:

1 pyeong = 3.3058 square meters = 35.5833 square feet

Korea shared its traditional measuring system with other East Asian countries. One pyeong is a square whose side is six cheok [척]. One cheok about as long as a foot -- hence, one pyeong is fairly close to 36 square feet. A typical small apartment/condo in Seoul is around 27 pyeong, which translates to approximately 960 square feet, or 89.25 square meters.

Korea has left behind most of its traditional measurements in favor of the metric system, like most sane countries around the world. *Coughamericacough* Most traditional units of measurements can now only be found in traditional literature. But pyeong has been a gigantic exception: it has been commonly in use until July 2007, when Korean government decided that it was high time to adopt the metric system in all aspects of life. Other traditional measurement units that were discarded include don, i.e. 3.75 grams, which was the unit to measure the weight of gold. (Traditional units were not the only ones that were hit by the new regulations.  For example, electronics manufacturers were also banned from advertising their 40-inch television also.)

What ensued, lasting to this day, was high comedy:  instead of fitting to the round numbers in the metric system, Korean people simply began to opt for the decidedly non-round numbers that formed a round number in the old metrics system. For example, rather than building a condo that is 90 square meters, builders would build and advertise a 89.25 square meters-sized condo -- and everyone understood the number stood for 27 pyeong. 

Even better is what some A/C unit manufacturers did. Previously, A/C units in Korea were sold with a pyeong number associated with it also. That is, for example, a 18-pyeong A/C unit is enough to cool a space that is 18 pyeongs. Once the use of pyeong was banned, air conditioner manufacturers simply began to sell "18 Type" air conditioners -- a thinly veiled reference that the unit is enough to cool an 18-pyeong space.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

13 comments:

  1. My understanding is that 1 pyeong = the rectangular area covered by 1 person laying flat with his arms and legs extended so as to form an "x" shape.

    As for my opinion, I think both metric and the non-metric systems have their own use. I don't mind the use of "non-metric" units, because a person can relate them more to daily life. For instance, 1 bo = roughly 1 pace. Compare the bo to 1 meter or 1 decimeter, where that relation becomes lost. A modern example of a "non-metric" unit is the AU, which is the rough distance between the sun and the earth.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My understanding is that 1 pyeong = the rectangular area covered by 1 person laying flat with his arms and legs extended so as to form an "x" shape.

      That's one way to think about it, since it is approximately a 6 feet by 6 feet square.

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    2. My point is non-metric units, such as the pyeong, are useful in that they designed in such a way so that a person can easily relate them. I don't think even the strongest proponents would be up for banning non-metric units such as the Astronomical Unit (AU), electron Volt (eV), or the atomic mass unit (amu).

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  2. It wasn't just air-conditioner manufacturers: despite the new regulations, real-estate agencies too would provide the size of apartment in square meters, but then describe it as a "27 type" or "35 type" or whatever directly under that. Judging by the agencies I pass by on my to work, they didn't stop providing those until about 6 months ago.

    Not that it was a bad thing of course: it helped people adjust.

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  3. I recently saw a poster in the subway informing advertisers that they would have to pay a fine if they were caught using "평" or "돈" (specifically those two).

    As for daily life, if I ever get to talk about real-estate in Korea, we always use 평, even with young Koreans, and even with other foreigners!

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  4. While they may not advertise in inches, most box stores are still describing those televisions and computer screens in inches underneath, or next to, their display models on their shelves.

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    1. Yeah, that's interesting about screens. In Europe we all use the metric system (except the U.K., as far as I know), but computer monitors and television sizes are expressed in inches.

      Additionally, paper size is expressed as Ax (x is rappresenting the number), with A4 being the standart printing paper, A3 is dubble size and A5 the half size.

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    2. The numbers refer to how many times you have to fold a sheet of paper 1m^2 in area (with specific dimensions) to get a sheet of paper of that size. A3 is that sheet folded in half 3 times, A4 4 times, A5 five times, etc. The specific dimensions are chosen so that the length divided by the width is always the same number, so it's easy to scale between different paper sizes. It's a neat idea.

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  5. One clarification regarding "A typical small apartment/condo in Seoul is around 27 pyeong, which translates to approximately 960 square feet, or 89.25 square meters."

    Generally apartments are advertised as the gross size, which splits up the size of other public facilities like hallways, elevators, parking lots, playgrounds, etc. and divides them among the apartments. So that spacious 27 pyeong apartment may actually be a much smaller 19 pyeong of actual interior space, or about 70% of the gross advertised floor space.

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  6. There is one more traditional measurement still in use. Something like 끈 (if I wrote it right). For weight. I hear that at the market street, when buying meat.

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  7. Korea is not unique to this: many countries, particularly nations with strong historical systems, still have holdover pockets where their traditional measurements are still in use. For example, several Commonwealth nations still use a few Imperial measurements for distance and volume, sometimes even codified by law (British/Irish Pint for beer being the most famous). Other metric nations with a few holdovers include the Spanish and Chinese. I suppose that eventually the old systems will fade in another generation or two, but traditions like this are hard to dislodge.

    ReplyDelete

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