The Chinese abacus (suan pan 算盘) is said to be China’s fifth great invention, along with the compass, gunpowder, movable type and paper.
Legend has it that the so-called “first computer” was invented by mythical Yellow Emperor (Huangdi), father of Chinese civilization. Suan pan literally means calculator plate.
In any case, the calculating frame can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), almost 3,000 years ago. Some say the simplest counting device is even older.
The portable, easy-to-use abacus was carried far and wide by Chinese traders.
It remains today an enduring symbol of wealth and prosperity.
Earlier this month on December 4, UNESCO recognized calculating with the abacus as part of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage.
Today using the abacus — also known as zhu suan (珠算) — is a lost skill, almost an art, and the abacus itself is largely a cultural relic with a rich history.
However, it’s still in use in some marketplaces. And it can be seen on some bank teller’s cash counters alongside calculator and computer, just in case.
Most children and young people cannot use an abacus.
Abacus calculating is no longer a mandatory course in schools — it was dropped around 2001. There are elective courses and outside special courses, however, as well as societies, associations and competitions. Whether recognition of the abacus, long replaced by electronic calculators, leads to a revival of interest remains to be seen.
A symbol of wealth
Asked about prospects, China’s abacus association in Beijing declined comment.
The abacus used to be everywhere and it was the primary calculator for every Chinese family.
As a symbol of wealth and prosperity, it was often included in dowries. Today one Shanghai family still treasures its 2-meter-long abacus and the great-grandmother says she still can do quick mental calculations by visualizing the abacus.
The expression “little abacus” is still used to refer to someone who is very shrewd. An excellent, reliable fortune teller is sometimes called an “iron abacus.”
In the famous long scroll “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” painted by Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145) during the Song Dynasty (960-1297), an abacus is depicted on an apothecary’s counter along with prescriptions and an account ledger. Traditional Chinese medicine prescriptions can contain many ingredients and an abacus was necessary for addition.
In 1946, a competition was staged in Tokyo between an abacus expert and the most advanced electric adding machine of the time. The expert won — the abacus was fastest in all cases, except for multiplication of large numbers.
When China was developing its first nuclear device in the 1960s, the abacus was used in calculations.
“Before the 1970s, the calculator was not used in China, so each family had an abacus,” says Feng Qi, a 68-yuear-old former shop assistant. “We used the abacus in work and daily arithmetic. It was very convenient.”
Her company used to hold abacus competitions, and Feng say she was always the fastest with the right answer.
“But young people today have already forgotten it,” she says.
Liu Qian, a 35-year-old accountant, remembers the sounds of clicking beads in zhu suan class which she calls “a happy hour when we loved to compete. It was a sweet childhood memory.”
She doesn’t use one at work now, however, saying, “It’s a pity that I totally forgot. But if I learned the basic technique, then it would be easy for me to pick up again.”
Still, some banks and shops use the abacus as a supplement to computers.
“Every new staff member will be trained in zhu suan,” says Wen Li, senior manager at the Shanghai Industrial and Commercial Bank. “Especially for those working at the cash counter, ‘grasp’ of zhu suan is a must. What if the computer breaks down? There should also be a backup.”
Many young tellers able to use the abacus still prefer using a calculator in daily work, Wen says. “The reason is simple: You don’t need to work your brain.”
Some older people still prefer the abacus and for some, it’s a hobby.
Retired middle school teacher Zhang Fang says she is accustomed to using the abacus. “For me, it’s better than a calculator. My eyesight isn’t good and the calculator numbers are too small. I often press the wrong buttons, but that doesn’t happen with the abacus.”
She says using the abacus is good for dexterity and mental acuity. She records her daily cash flow on her abacus, then writes it in a notebook.
“My son is a doctor, and he encourages me to use the abacus,” she says. “Some of my friends say it can prevent Alzheimer’s disease.”
For most young people, the abacus is a curiosity.
However, Liu the accountant takes her seven-year-old son to a zhu suan class after school, while other parents take their children to “Olympic math” training.
“Zhu suan is one aspect of profound Chinese culture and a test for the brain and fingers. I think practice can help mental calculation and improve my son’s intelligence,” Liu says.
“When fewer and fewer young people can grasp zhu suan, those who can do that definitely distinguish themselves,” she says.
“Zhu suan is very helpful for children’s calculating skills,” says Wen Sihui, a 36-year-old arithmetic teacher at a middle school.
UNESCO recognition of the abacus may generate more interest, she says, adding that she expects to see more specialized, certificate courses and abacus competitions. She also expects commercial interests to cash in and parents to use abacus training to win their child more points for admission to quality schools.
“It’s still better to see Chinese children using and abacus,” she says, “so the young generation won’t forget about the ancient computer.”
What’s an abacus
The typical abacus has a hardwood frame and hardwood beads, famous for the rapid, clicking sounds of calculations. It has two decks and more than seven rods.
The upper deck, which is known as heaven, has two beads on each rod. Each bead has the value of five. There are five beads on each rod on the bottom deck, known as earth. Each has the value of one. The beads are moved up and down during calculations.
It can be used for high-speed addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, square roots, cube roots and other calculations. Some devices can be quite large and complex.