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November/December 2010

Standards and Standardization in China

A Historical Perspective

Just like musical notation, standards and standardization comprise an international language. Standards are like individual notes, while the standardization system provides a method for writing these notes on the staff. People from every part of the world can sing songs fluently as long as they know the rules of reading music. Similarly, standards and standardization have the power to change our work and personal lives from unpredictable to predictable and safe.

As people in ancient times got musical inspiration as they played their instruments, they used the concept of standardization when tying knots for recording data, measuring length with cubits, and when marking on the bones of animals with sharp tools. If such informal standards did not exist, we would not have inherited technological inventions and our rich cultural human heritage.

In fact, the compass and the square are ancient Chinese inventions. According to the first-century B.C. work, “Historical Records,” in 2000 B.C., Yu, the king of the Xia Dynasty, issued the directive of “Leveler and straightening rope (yardstick) on the left hand; compass and square on the right hand,” to guide his people toward regulating water resources and controlling flood hazards. The people used tools such as these to construct water conservation projects and achieved great success in prehistoric flood control; the term for tools such as compass, square, leveler and yardstick became the Chinese word for “standard.”

Because the compass and square were used as early standards, these two words appeared very early in oracle bone inscriptions, which were late Bronze Age Chinese histories and genealogies. Paintings from the Han Dynasty (see next page) depict Fu Xi, the first of the three sovereigns of ancient China, holding a square and Nu Kua, a goddess of ancient China, holding a compass.

As early as 221 B.C., more than 700 years before the creation of the mural paintings shown opposite, the emperor Qin Shihuang issued a series of laws to unify different measurement systems, set one currency and nationalize the coin-casting system, unifying the original six kingdoms. He also standardized the roadway’s width as well as the width of axles, and plannned the roads and vehicles according to a new standard; this was conducive to land expansion and to consolidating his political power.

In Europe, movable type technology was invented by the German printer Johannes Gutenberg around 1450. But in fact, more than 400 years before Gutenberg’s invention, Bi Sheng had invented the technology during the 11th-century Song Dynasty.

Movable type technology embodies the principles of standardization, simplification and re-use, and it’s one of the best examples of popularly known standardization technology.

Top, Fu Xi depicted with a square, and bottom, Nu Kua depicted with a compass. Both photos are from China’s Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes, painted by Dong Po in the sixth century.

At the time of Europe’s Industrial Revolution, China experienced retrograde economic and societal development, and, inevitably, standards and standardization became outdated. Although China was a founding nation of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in 1947, in the next 30 years, China would drift away from international standardization activities as a result of the civil war and a planned economy.

Since China’s reform and the opening of its culture and economy in the 1980s, the cause of standards and standardization has been promoted and China has sought alignment with global norms. In particular, after China became a member of the World Trade Organization in December 2001, the government and enterprises implemented the WTO “Code of Good Practice” for standardization in accordance with the rules of the WTO Technical Barriers to Trade committee and the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, and has made progress in implementing them. Progress has been demonstrated and government at all levels from the central to the local have paid special attention to the work of standards and standardization, not only laying down policies that encourage standardization but securing the necessary funds and human resources. It can be seen that in China’s 10th and 11th five-year plans for economic and social development, beginning in the years 2001 and 2006 respectively, governments at all levels have spent as much as several billion renminbi (RMB) in developing all kinds of standards, launching standardization pilot projects and organizing standardization projects in various demonstration areas.

Chinese movable type technology from the 11th century.

In the work of standards and standardization funded and supported by government, especially the central government, China either ranks first or among the best in the world. And the awareness of business and the community to the importance of standards and standardization is being further enhanced. Since China introduced ISO 90001 and ISO 140002 certification in 1992, the Chinese people have been involved in standards development activities in a practical and operable way. The successful adoption of these ISO certifications has helped promote an understanding of standardization among the Chinese people. Now that more and more Chinese-made products are entering the international market and demand in China itself is gradually expanding, it is vital that people understand the importance of standards and standardization, which affect such everyday needs as food, automobiles, household appliances and energy efficiency. At the same time, China’s standardization experts have also increased their participation in international standardization activities, which can be seen in their participation in ISO and International Electrotechnical Commission activities, and friendly cooperation with standards organizations such as ASTM International, the British Standards Institution, the American National Standards Institute and so on. (See sidebar for more about CNIS’s relationship with ASTM.)

The China National Institute of Standardization, of which I am now president, is a public welfare organization financially supported by the Chinese central government, where 65 percent of nearly 500 employees who study standards and standardization have advanced degrees and a variety of practical experience in standardization. In addition, many of them actively participate in international standardization activities and the implementation of international standards in China. Meanwhile, we are engaged in examining standardization theory and in training and education. My colleagues and I have a common belief: The reason why we work so hard to develop standards is to apply them practically in the field. Standards are not to be put on shelves, and their usefulness only lies in their ability to make people’s lives better and more orderly.

Wang Zhongmin is the president of the China National Institute of Standardization and a research fellow. He previously served as the president of a large state-owned metallurgical corporation, deputy general director of Liao Ning Provincial Bureau of Metallurgical Industry, deputy commissioner of Liao Ning Provincial Commission of Economics and Trade, vice executive mayor of Hu Ludao City in Liao Ning Province, general director of the Liao Ning Provincial Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision, director of Northeast Metrology and Testing Centre, the president of the Metallurgical Society of Financial Accounting in Liao Ning Province, vice president of the Liao Ning Provincial Law Society, executive director of the China Certification and Accreditation Association, and vice president of the China Association for Standardization. Beginning in 2001, he served successively as the vice administrator of the Standardization Administration of the People’s Republic of China, general director of the China Logistics Standardization Technical Committee, vice president of the China Special Equipment Inspection institute, and vice chairman of the China Special Equipment Inspection Association.

1. ISO 9000, Quality Management.
2. ISO 14000, Environmental Management.