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One of Ancient China’s Greatest Inventions Still Mysterious to the West

Ancient China’s greatest inventions were rooted in China’s 5000-year-old civilisation, which is said to have been divinely passed down by gods. (DaveFayram/Flickr)
Ancient China’s greatest inventions were rooted in China’s 5000-year-old civilisation, which is said to have been divinely passed down by gods. (DaveFayram/Flickr)

The abacus is a counting tool that has been used in China for thousands of years. It is widely used in shops, restaurants, and anywhere that bills need to be settled.

The abacus has a rectangular frame made of wood, bamboo, or steel. It is assembled with rods, and is divided into two parts: the top part and the bottom part. On the top part, it has two sliding beads on each rod, and each sliding bead stands for 5; while on the bottom part, each rod has 5 sliding beads, and each bead stands for 1.

Counting operations are performed moving the beads by hand. When performing calculations, the operator moves the abacus beads up and down, and left and right, on the rods with his fingers.

According to Chinese traditions, if you practice using the abacus for mathematics, you will develop a smart mind and a healthy brain, because finger movements are good exercise for the brain. In fact, in most schools in China, students still learn how to use the abacus, and can gain unimaginable speed and great accuracy.

(Image: David Boté Estrada via flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Counting operations are performed moving the beads by hand. When performing calculations, the operator moves the abacus beads up and down, and left and right, on the rods with his fingers. (Image: David Boté Estrada via flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The abacus has proven to be one of ancient China’s greatest inventions. Before the abacus was invented, people used small wooden sticks as calculation chips to make calculations. However, with the increase in calculation numbers, performing calculations with small sticks failed to meet the requirements.

Thus, the calculator-abacus was invented. In Chinese history, the origin of the abacus can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn Period, 600 B.C., and it was widely used before the invention of Arabic numerals appeared in the world.

ancient china's greatest inventions abacus

The abacus has proven to be one of ancient China’s greatest inventions. Before the abacus was invented, people used small wooden sticks as calculation chips to make calculations. (Image: Derrick Coetzee via Flickr/ CC0 1.0))

By the Ming Dynasty (1368~1644), the abacus was not only used for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division operations, but also for measuring shapes and sizes of various objects, for measuring land area, etc. This calculation tool is simple, inexpensive, and easy to operate.

By memorising some simple calculation tips and as their experience accumulates, people can perform calculations highly efficiently. The user can even benefit both physically and mentally by using an abacus.

In modern times, with the wide use of computers, some might think the abacus will become obsolete. Actually, it still has a role in many aspects of Chinese daily life.

Now, you can find many famous abacus museums in different cities in China, like the Wenzhou Abacus Museum, Shanghai Abacus Museum, and Tianjin Abacus Museum, displaying different kinds of abaci, not only as calculation devices, but also as objects of art.

Master Li Hongzhi commented in Lunyu (論語 – Statement):

Ancient China’s greatest inventions were rooted in China’s 5000-year-old civilization, which is said to have been divinely passed down by gods. Today’s China could benefit greatly by reviving its 5000-year-old traditional culture.

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