The four terms are: chi3, cun4, fen1, and hao2. For the moment, let’s just call them words of measurement.
I will attempt to answer your questions, but first I have a few observations about Yang Jwing-Ming’s handling of the texts and terminology. The first has to do with his application of the term “jins” in the context of the four terms, which are essentially words of measurement. You will notice that in his translations of the Yang Forty texts using the four terms, he introduces the term “jins” in parentheses. I believe among the Yang Forty there are at least four texts using the words of measurement (#28, 29, and 31, 35). Of those, the word jin only appears in #29 and #35, and in neither case does it refer even remotely to the four words of measurement. So in my opinion, there is no textual basis for nominalizing the measurement terms as “jins,” although YJM may have a reasonable rationale for doing so—as levels of skill or specific foci of skill and strength. Note also that YJM places commas between the individual terms in the Chinese titles. This punctuation does not exist in the handwritten manuscript versions of the Wu Jianquan line or that reproduced in Yang Zhenming’s book. This may seem a small issue, but how one parses unpunctuated literary Chinese can result in subtle differences of interpretation.
I would also express caution regarding Yang Jwing-Ming’s attribution of the full Yang Forty texts to Yang Banhou. The evidence from the Wu Jianquan tradition consists of Wu Gongzao’s preface to Wu Jianquan’s handwritten manuscript, stating that it records teachings received by Quan Yu from Yang Banhou after he became his student. Does that mean Yang Banhou wrote them? There’s no reason to eliminate that possibility, but the evidence doesn’t compel a positive identification of authorship.
Now as for the terms themselves, you have good reason to find the metric terms of Yang Jwing-Ming’s translation odd. The words far preceded China’s adoption of the European metric system, although as it happens, they do share the feature of being divisible by increments of ten.
The first word, chi3, probably originally stood for a length as measured by a fully spread hand, but later became a larger unit, closely equivilant to the European “foot.” In modern Chinese, chi3 stands for one third of a meter, making YJM’s translation as “meter” already problematic. The problem compounds in his inconsistency of use, even within a given text. That is, after using the translations “meter,” “decimeter,” “centimeter,” and “millimeter,” he then randomly switches to the translations “foot,” and “inch” for the first two terms. Compare Douglas Wile’s translations in his _Lost T’ai Chi Classics of the Late Ch’ing Dynasty_, where he consistently uses “feet,” “inches,” “hundreth-parts,” and “thousandth-parts,” which is probably more representative of the meanings.
The second term, cun4, stood for a measurement about the width of a man’s thumb. There were ten cuns to a chi.
The third, fen1, means in general “to divide” and specifically in mensuration, “tenth,” so, ten fens to a cun.
The fourth term, hao2, means “a hair,” hence a miniscule amount or increment. In modern Chinese, it appears in the compound, “hao2mi3,” which is the translation of “millimeter.”
I mentioned that setting the terms off with commas influences the interpretation, and while they do appear to be treated as individual terms in some places in the texts, there is also another possible reading. That is, the first two terms can be read as a compound, “chicun,” which is a general term for “measure” or “measurement.” The second pair of terms can likewise be read as a compound, “fenhao,” which can mean “a fraction,” “iota,” or just a very slight amount.
To me, although I haven’t spent enough time with the texts to feel confident about the best interpretation, my sense of it is that “chi cun fen hao” is meant to refer to a progressive refinement of technique and focus. In push hands, for example, the slightest change in angle of the torso and relative pressure in the arms can make a huge difference in the result that, say, rollback will have on one’s partner. But as suggested in Yang Forty text #35, while these refinements are important, they are still subsidiary to the greater attainment of “dongjin,” the ability to comprehend energy.
In any case, I’m always interested, linguistically and historically, by terms of weights and measure, which tend to change over time and from region to region. One of my favorite history professors at Berkeley, David Keightley, wrote a fascinating essay, “A Measure of Man in Early China: In Search of the Neolithic Inch,” which explores some of these very terms, including chi and cun, and their earliest antecedents.
I hope other Chinese readers will add their thoughts about these terms appearing in the Yang Forty Chapters.
[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 09-13-2003).]