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I was attempting to translate this passage from the Records of the Three Kingdoms:

比到當陽,衆十餘萬,輜重數千兩,日行十餘里,別遣關羽乘船數百艘,使會江陵。

The background of this is: Cao Cao had invaded Jingzhou, Liu Bei was fleeing towards Jiangling with 100,000 civilians and supplies, and Guan Yu travelled by river with hundreds of ships. Later, Cao Cao caught up with Liu Bei with 5,000 elite cavalry, captured the civilians and supplies, forcing Liu Bei to flee with very few followers. From here we get the classic episodes like Zhao Yun rescues Adou and Zhang Fei at Changban Bridge.

The question is: how many supplies was Liu Bei travelling with?

See, the original text reads "輜重數千兩" - supplies of several thousand liang/taels. But during the Han dynasty, one Chinese tael was approximately 13.8 grams. If you do the math that's like 30-40 kilograms - one person can carry it! This makes no sense.

What does 兩 in this sentence mean? Could it be an ancient variant of 辆 (measure word for vehicles)? That would make more sense - thousands of carts of supplies.

  • Yeah, it means 辆, no one measure the number of vehicles with weights. – Jacob Aug 23 '18 at 9:16
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Yes, 兩 used to have many more meanings.

In the details section of zdic, there's the following additional meanings:

(4) 匹(长四丈)

归夫人鱼轩,重锦三十两。——《左传·闵公二年》

(5) 通“辆”。车一乘 [used for buses,carts,etc.]

武王戎车三百两。——《书·牧誓·序》

之子于归,百两御之。——《诗·召南·鹊巢》

Definition 4 shows that it's also a measure word for silk fabric, but in this context definition 5 would be more appropriate - it is indeed the same as the modern 辆. So "輜重數千兩" should mean "supplies of thousands of carts".

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比到當陽.衆十餘萬.輜重數千兩.日行十餘里.別遣關羽乘船數百艘.使會江陵

i think this text is quoted from the 三國志 蜀志 卷二

https://archive.org/stream/06081982.cn#page/n37/mode/1up

it's an "official" history, don't mix up with the novel 三國演義 :)

one of the tricky aspect of reading literary chinese text is, one must guess the meaning of particular character, according to the context.

兩 (u+5169) should be treated as a borrowed character (假借) of 輛 (u+8f1b); that 輛 means cart, or classifier of vehicle.

btw, i would interpret "輜重" as belongings, not military supplies. cause in "衆十餘萬"; "衆" was civilians / refugees.

the scenario would be:

at 當陽, there'er more than a lakh of refugees, with several thousands of carts of belongings, they followed 劉備, moving 10+ "miles" daily. a very slow pace.

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edited.

well, in 孟子 盡心下

武王之伐殷也.革車三百兩.虎賁三千人

the "兩" is also used as "classifier of vehicle". nowadays, we would use "輛" for this purpose.

so, to interpret the meaning of "兩" in this context, or the original one; i would say that "兩" is borrowed from "輛".

anyway, it's my suggestion :)

btw, the earliest appearance of 輛 i found, is in 十六國春秋 卷六

https://archive.org/stream/06080911.cn#page/n17/mode/1up

十六國春秋 卷二十四

https://archive.org/stream/06080914.cn#page/n95/mode/1up

to be fair, these were recorded in the imperial collection of four (四庫全書); so, the character might be changed, not the original one :(

  • At the time of 三國志, 輛 wasn't invented yet, so I don't think we can call 兩 a borrowed character for 輛. The earliest appearance of 輛 I could find dates to the Song Dynasty, about 800 years after 三國志 was written. – droooze Aug 16 '18 at 9:03
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    @droooze, answer edited; in lieu of long comment. have fun :) – 水巷孑蠻 Aug 16 '18 at 9:38

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