The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, honored the Chinese abacus as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage. The Chinese abacus, called suanpan (算盤 suàn pán) in Chinese, literally means “counting tray.” It is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the zhusuan (珠算 zhū suàn), but zhusuan refers to why you use an abacus: to calculate.
The Chinese abacus is an ancient instrument that can be used for diverse mathematical applications. It has been in use since ancient times to help shopkeepers do bookkeeping, children do math problems, and scientists to calculate complex natural phenomena. Those who first learned math on the Chinese abacus find mental calculations come easier and quicker even after the Chinese abacus is taken away.
Although the Chinese abacus appears simple, it was crafted on the basis of the cosmological beliefs of traditional Chinese civilization. It calculates things using methods related to traditional theories of the order of the universe held by Chinese. It was the most popular and most efficient method of counting and calculating in China before the widespread use of computers. Today, it lives on in Chinese communities worldwide that recognize its cultural significance. And with the recent recognition by UNESCO, its significance is sure to spread to people of other cultures.