SHENMO MOTTO: Virtue & Wisdom


The Impact of the Abacus on China

2019-03-29 丨

The writer is from the Ministry of culture development

Abacus is an outstanding cultural and scientific heritage of China and is regarded as the fifth great invention in China; it is invented by Sage of Calculation Liu Hong summing up the experience of predecessors and has been invented for more than 1800 years. UNESCO introduced that abacus is a major invention in ancient China and has gone through a long period of more than 1,800 years. With its simple computing function and unique mathematical connotations, it is known as 'the oldest computer in the world.’ For a long time, abacus has played an important role in the development of China's society, economy, culture, and science. Meanwhile, it also has a certain influence and promotion on the economic and cultural development of some other countries in the world. Today, I would like to focus on the impact of abacus on China.
1. In the field of culture
In China, the abacus has a broad mass base and social foundation and has had a profound impact on literary works, music creation, dance, painting, and other fields. As a result,  it has formed a unique abacus culture phenomenon closely related to the abacus. In Chinese literature, the abacus is used in a variety of literary expressions, such as riddles, metaphor, display of task identity, representation of a person’s specific action and particular mood, etc. There are many descriptions of the abacus in many realistic literary works in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, such as the "Stories to Awaken the World,”  "The Scholars,”  "Dream of Red Mansions" and so on. The abacus also appeared in the paintings and calligraphy works, such as "The Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival” of Zhang Zeduan, a famous scholar of the Northern Song Dynasty, and the “Street Vendor’s Load” of Wang Zhenpeng, a painter of the early Yuan Dynasty. Besides, an abacus was specially painted in Qi Baishi's "Making a Fortune."
On March 8, 1975, China's Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications issued a set of special stamps called "Rural Female Teacher” with a total of four stamps, one of which was the teacher tutoring students to practice the abacus. Abacus has also appeared in stamps in five other countries including Australia, Japan, Brunei, the Philippines, and Liberia. Taiwan, Macao, Hong Kong, etc. have also issued the stamps of the abacus; music works involving abacus include "My Good Fellow - Abacus", "The Sound of Abacus", "The Abacus Song" and so on.

2. In the field of economy
Abacus has played a crucial role in the development of the Chinese economy. Since the invention of the abacus, its development has been closely linked to China's economic development. Abacus has provided strong computing support for business development, and business development has also contributed to the development of abacus. Looking back in history, the important development period of the abacus is also the period of rising prosperity for China's economy and society.
Especially in the Ming Dynasty, with the development of China's handicraft industry, the need for land statistics and the expansion of foreign trade, abacus became the preferred method for calculating large amounts of commercial data at that time. At that time, there were many celebrities and masterpieces related to abacus technology in society. The most famous one is Cheng Dawei. He was a businessman from Anhui who started to do business at the age of 20 and then conducted detailed research on the abacus. At the age of 60, he completed the "General Source of Computational Methods" that influenced the development of abacus in China and even in East Asia. This book uses examples to analyze the abacus algorithm, which has played an important role in promoting the commercial trade in East Asia.
After the founding of New China, skilled use of abacus is still a must-have skill for accounting practitioners. Many accountants of the older generation still attached themselves to the abacus. Nowadays, though computers have been used in large scale, there are still a lot of accountants learning abacus.

The former Chief Financial Officer-Mr. Accountant
3. In the field of mathematics and science and technology
In addition to providing large amounts of data for business development, the abacus is also critical to the development of mathematics and science and technology in China. In other words, the abacus is an important mathematical and technological achievement. It’s like the "computer” in ancient times, supporting the further development of ancient Chinese mathematics, science and technology.
As mentioned above, Cheng Dawei's "General Source of Computational Methods" allows mathematics to solve practical problems better. Zhu Zaiyu, a royalty in the Ming Dynasty, successfully proved that the intervals of the uniform rhythm scale could be taken as the 12th root of 2 (that is, the twelve-tone equal temperament) by using the high-order root of the abacus, which solves the important problem of music history. Today, the manufacture of modern instruments is based on the twelve-tone equal temperament.
Also, the abacus is widely used in astronomical calendars, water conservancy of agriculture, mathematical metrology and other fields. Even after the founding of New China, it has assisted computers in calculating large amounts of data in major scientific and technological projects such as nuclear bombs and nuclear submarines.

The Analysis of Temperament in Zhu Zaiyu's Equal Temperament
4. In the daily life of Chinese
The widely and long-time use of abacus has profoundly affected the daily life and folk customs of Chinese. This is especially evident in folk sayings. For example, "小九九" (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ) originally referred to the multiplication formulas, but now it's used to refer to the self-centered plan, so people with "小九九" in his mind is self-serving. “九九归一” (jiǔ jiǔ guī yī), was originally an abacus multiplication formula, meaning 9 times 9 is equal to 81. 9 is largest single number (the end) and 1 the smallest (the beginning), so this formula was later used to express “coming at last back to the original starting point”. "二一添作五" (èr yī tiān zuò wǔ) was originally an abacus division formula, indicating that when one is divided by two, the quotient is 0.5; now it is used to express dividing equally between the two parties. "一推六二五" (yī tuī liù èr wǔ), originally "一退六二五" (yī tuì liù èr wǔ), was an abacus formula for weight conversion, meaning that one tael in the old scale is equal to 0.625 taels in the new scale. Because the character "退(equal to)" and "推(shirk)" are pronounced similarly, this formula is now used to express shirking all responsibility. "三下五除二" (sān xià wǔ chú èr) is one of the most basic addition formulas in abacus. Since people in ancient China can perform a series of operations on the abacus with simple and easy-to-remember formulas, this formula, as a representative, has been given the connotation of “neatly done”.
There are also a lot of two-part allegorical sayings about the abacus, for example:
Like the upper beads of abacus: one can do the work of five of others.
Like the abacus beads: always at the control of others.
Like the abacus beads: never make a move unless being moved—to take a passive attitude towards one's work.
Abacus beads without the frame: all fall apart.
In addition, some Chinese words, such as “盘算 (pán suàn, deliberate)”, “开盘 (kāi pán, opening)”, “收盘 (shōu pán, closing)”, “清盘 (qīng pán, liquidation)” and “如意算盘 (rú yì suàn pán, wishful thinking)” are also derived from abacus or abacus terms. In some places of China, there is the custom of holding "Zhuazhou" ceremony on a baby's one-year birthday, in which auspicious items, including abacus, are placed around the baby, and the baby's choice is used to forecast his future. The abacus suggests a penchant for business and financing
5. The modern application of abacus
In 2013, the abacus was selected as the world's intangible cultural heritage, making it a new business card of Chinese culture in the world. With the development of China, abacus, like other traditional Chinese culture, has become a symbol of the inheritance of the national spirit.
Today, the computing power of abacus has gradually been replaced by computers. But its intellectual and educational functions are still of great value to personal growth and concentration. At present, the abacus mental math developed from the abacus is gradually on the right track in China, and are also in the ascendant in Japan, South Korea, the United States, and other countries.
In modern society, the identity of abacus has gradually transformed from a computing tool to an educational tool and a cultural carrier. With a thousand years of history, the abacus will shoulder a new purpose with a new image, blooming new vitality!


Comparison Between East and West Calcu... On Apr 19, 2019 >

© Copyright 2015 The President and Fellows of Shenmo Education.