SHENMO MOTTO: Virtue & Wisdom


A brief history of abacus math

2019-01-15 丨

The writer is from the Ministry of culture development

Abacus math is one of the major scientific achievements in ancient China. Its main carrier--the abacus, with a simple and portable structure, is easy to handle in the calculation. People who are skilled in using abacus can even be faster in calculation speed than that of the calculator. This invention collects the wisdom of Chinese ancients. It has changed the life of Chinese people and witnessed China's development history.
I. The origin of the abacus
About 2,000 years ago in the Eastern Han Dynasty, Liu Hong, the famous mathematician and astronomer,  officially proposed the concept of "abacus math" (recorded in Memoir on Some Numerological Arts, an arithmetic book in the Eastern Han Dynasty). However, the source of abacus math dated back to a time far earlier than this. According to research, the early abacus math was developed from “ rod-arithmetic”. “Rod-arithmetic” is closely related to the Book of Changes, a book of ancient China to explain the laws of the universe.

Lead-made calculating rods in Han Dynasty

The original Eight-Diagram tactics of the Book of Changes was highly possible to be placed with calculating rods.
The calculation method of rod-arithmetic is roughly the same with abacus math; however, the promotion of rod-arithmetic was hindered for its inconvenience (it needs large space, and the placement of calculating rods is extremely easy to be confused).
In The Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), thanks to the development of the Silk Road and the control of the Western Regions, the business and handicraft industry in ancient China ushered in a round of rapid development. Along with this were a lot of mathematical calculations. At that point, the inconvenience of rod-arithmetic was more and more obvious. Therefore, the abacus math, which was more convenient, gradually embarked on the stage of history. Ancient Chinese mathematics has thus entered a new era of development!

II. The maturity and development of the abacus
Although abacus math appeared in the Eastern Han Dynasty, the process of abacus math replacing rod-arithmetic was relatively slow. The early abacus was quite different, and the beads can be placed at will. In the Tang Dynasty, the abacus combining frame, beam, rod, and beads, which was similar with recent abacus structure, appeared initially. Abacus gradually replaced rod-arithmetic till that time.
The Tang Dynasty was the culmination of the development of ancient feudal society in China. Merchants and tourists of many countries gathered in the eastern market and western market of Chang'an (Tang’s capital). Besides handicrafts and commerce, the financial industry began to flourish in Chang'an. These greatly facilitated the development of computing tools. By the time of the Song Dynasty, China’s business had further flourished, and the opening of the Maritime Silk Road gave China a reputation as a “country of china”. It was said that China's GDP in the Song Dynasty exceeded 80% of countries in the world at that time. In the field of science and technology, China's four major inventions have all been published at that time. In the blaze of glory of the Tang and Song Dynasties, we can see the abacus in the famous masterpiece Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival, which has the same shape and structure as today's abacus.

The abacus and account book on the counter of a shop
The gradual maturity and development of abacus math and abacus were accompanied by the economic and social development of ancient China. It witnessed the brilliant achievements of China's feudal age.
III. The comprehensive development of the abacus
In the Ming and Qing dynasties, abacus achieved comprehensive development. The application of abacus penetrated into all walks of life, and even some illiterate craftsmen knew how to use the abacus. The emergence of words such as "bean counter" and "Ruyi abacus" also showed that abacus was integrated into people's life and culture. The abacus changed from a simple computing tool to an irreplaceable daily necessity.
In the history textbooks, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the well-known capitalism in embryo in the Jiangnan area was also inseparable from the support of the abacus. In the Ming Dynasty, the mathematician, Cheng Dawei, who made the largest contribution to the promotion of abacus development, had a second identity--a businessman. He compiled an application-based mathematics book--General Source of Computational Methods , which further promoted the development of abacus. The book was spread to Japan, North Korea, and Southeast Asia later, and it played an important role in promoting local mathematics development.  

After the founding of New China, the abacus not only became an important tool for financial work, but also calculated a large amount of difficult data for major projects such as “Two bombs and one satellite”. After existing for a thousand years, the abacus is still contributing to China's economic development and scientific and technological progress.
IV. The decline and revival of the abacus
After China entered the information age, the abacus was shocked by computer and other electronic computing devices, making it change from a "technique" to a "memory”. Many accounting staff no longer used an abacus, and the teaching and inheritance of abacus in China fell into a trough.
Until recently, thanks to the development of the country and the emphasis on traditional culture, the education, and promotion of folk abacus mental math has gradually developed, and the education departments in some regions have begun to pay more attention to abacus education. In October 2011, China Association of Abacus and Mental Arithmetic put forward the theme of “Lifelong Learning of Abacus Math and Abacus Mental Math”, which pushed the abacus math and abacus mental math to the height of lifelong learning. The number of children learning abacus mental math is increasing year by year, and abacus math is gradually going out of the slump and returning to everyone's vision with its unique education and intellectual function.
At the end of 2013, UNESCO passed a resolution in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, announcing that abacus math has officially become intangible cultural heritage. The world knew the abacus again.

Old-fashioned abacus

Abacus for children's teaching in the new era

The abacus was invented in the Han Dynasty, developed in the Tang and Song Dynasties, and flourished in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Now it is ushering in renaissance. Each of its important development stages witnessed the strong national power of China. Abacus has witnessed the rise and fall of China in the past 2000 years. It is the essence of Chinese culture. Inheriting the abacus culture and making it bloom in contemporary people are both the consensus and the mission.


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