Why is the monk in 丈二和尚 defined by Pleco CC as 3m tall?

If you search for the phrase "丈二和尚摸不着头脑" in Pleco (iOS), one of the definitions (from 'CC') is 'like a three-meter high monk, you can't rub his head'. If we take the modern meaning of 丈 as being 'equal to 10 chi [尺]', or 3.33 metres, then in this phrase the monk seems to in fact be over six metres.

According to this fascinating (Chinese) article the phrase originates from Buddhist temple statues which indeed would have been taller than actual monks. However, the article points out that the definition of 尺 has changed over time. For example, in the Shang dynasty it was (according to the article) just under 17cm, not 33.33cm. This would seem to provide some reason for confusion over the monk's height.

However, Baidu-Baike states that the written source of the phrase "丈二和尚" comes from 金瓶梅传奇, a Ming dynasty text. So if we take the above-cited article's assertion that in the Ming dynasty a 尺 was over 33.33cm, and Baidu-Baike's statement that the source is from the Ming dynasty, then the monk is indeed over six metres.

Does the phrase precede the text by a couple of thousand years? Or is the definition in Pleco wrong? Any contributions to this mystery gratefully received!

朱明
 

Shun

状元
Hello 朱明,

that's an interesting research question. We could of course make light work of it and state that the monk was definitely meant to be at least 20% taller than the tallest man, just enough for the back of the monk’s head to remain untouchable to that man. But your research question centers on what the actual height of such an imaginary monk may have been. We have to agree first that 丈二 means 一丈二, or twelve 尺, as the Hanyu Da Cidian’s definition of “丈二” postulates:

丈二:数量词。十进制的度量衡往往将量词前置表示整数量, 数词后置表示分数量。丈二, 为一丈二尺。 (similar to “一块二” meaning 一块二毛)

If we go by the modern definition of the unit of length of 尺, which is exactly a third of a meter, we could multiply that by 12 to obtain four meters. As your article from 每日头条 states, the length of 尺 has increased over time, from about 17 cm in the Shang Dynasty to around 34 cm in the Qing Dynasty. So the actual height would go from 12 times 17, equal to 204 cm, in the Shang Dynasty 3,000 years ago to 12 times 34, equal to 408 cm, in the Qing Dynasty.

If we assume that the phrase 丈二和尚,摸不着头脑 first surfaced in the famous Jin Ping Mei, which was published in 1610 in the vernacular, and may have arisen in the spoken language not too long before that, I think that a height of around four meters for the monk may be a reasonable guess. To prove it one way or the other, we would probably need more sources.

I'd like to add that I just searched on Google for "jin ping mei monk", and if you scroll down to the book:

«Desire and Fictional Narrative in Late Imperial China»
By Martin W. Huang

you can find references to other kinds of monks in Jin Ping Mei. I conclude that our oversized monk from chapter 6 wasn't the only one that had to serve as a metaphor.

I hope this contributes to our understanding at least a little bit. I think that perhaps you had made the assumption that “丈二” meant “20 feet", which of course would have been over 6 meters.

Cheers,

Shun
 
Hello 朱明,

that's an interesting research question. We could of course make light work of it and state that the monk was definitely meant to be at least 20% taller than the tallest man, just enough for the back of the monk’s head to remain untouchable to that man. But your research question centers on what the actual height of such an imaginary monk may have been. We have to agree first that 丈二 means 一丈二, or twelve 尺, as the Hanyu Da Cidian’s definition of “丈二” postulates:

丈二:数量词。十进制的度量衡往往将量词前置表示整数量, 数词后置表示分数量。丈二, 为一丈二尺。 (similar to “一块二” meaning 一块二毛)

If we go by the modern definition of the unit of length of 尺, which is exactly a third of a meter, we could multiply that by 12 to obtain four meters. As your article from 每日头条 states, the length of 尺 has increased over time, from about 17 cm in the Shang Dynasty to around 34 cm in the Qing Dynasty. So the actual height would go from 12 times 17, equal to 204 cm, in the Shang Dynasty 3,000 years ago to 12 times 34, equal to 408 cm, in the Qing Dynasty.

If we assume that the phrase 丈二和尚,摸不着头脑 first surfaced in the famous Jin Ping Mei, which was published in 1610 in the vernacular, and may have arisen in the spoken language not too long before that, I think that a height of around four meters for the monk may be a reasonable guess. To prove it one way or the other, we would probably need more sources.

I'd like to add that I just searched on Google for "jin ping mei monk", and if you scroll down to the book:

«Desire and Fictional Narrative in Late Imperial China»
By Martin W. Huang

you can find references to other kinds of monks in Jin Ping Mei. I conclude that our oversized monk from chapter 6 wasn't the only one that had to serve as a metaphor.

I hope this contributes to our understanding at least a little bit. I think that perhaps you had made the assumption that “丈二” meant “20 feet", which of course would have been over 6 meters.

Cheers,

Shun
Hi Sun,

Thanks for the reply, that was clear and helpful.

I must admit that I didn't at all know 丈二 meant 一丈二, but then again I'm not in the habit of using 汉语大词典 -- which I perhaps should be!

Thanks once again. This was my first time posting on the Pleco forums and it was great to receive an interesting and helpful reply.

朱明
 

Shun

状元
Hi 朱明,

I’m glad to hear it! You’re very welcome. Perhaps you can tell that most forum members are currently awaiting the Pleco 4.0 beta, and questions like yours can shorten the wait decisively. :)

Have a nice weekend,

Shun
 
Top