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Ancient abacus down for the count

2013-12-24 16:51:43

(Shanghai Daily)


Young children learn to use abacus at a training school in Fuzhou. — Xinhua

The Chinese abacus has received UNESCO world cultural heritage status, which may generate a flurry of interest, but today few children or young people can use the so-called first computer. Wang Jie recounts stories of those who remember suan pan.

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.

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