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The Story of the Chinese Abacus


The Origin of Abaci

When did the Chinese invent the abacus? Scholars of China and other countries have been working at this question ever since Chinese Qing Dynasty (1636AD-1911AD), but still there is no set answer. Up to the present day, there have been three camps of scholars holding different opinions.

Firstly, starting in the Qing Dynasty, a group of people advocated that there had been documents on abaci since the Han Dynasty (202BC-220AD). Their proof was the book A Gleaning of Arithmetic (Shu Shu Ji Yi) by the mathematician Xu Yue (?-220AD). In this book, Xu recorded fourteen ways of calculation, among which there was a description of a way of computation by moving beads within three beams. But other scholars disapproved this assertion by classifying the mentioned tool as a gadget used only for addition and subtraction.

Then there came a second camp who believed that the abacus was invented in the middle period of the Yuan Dynasty (1206AD-1368AD) and became widely used in early Ming Dynasty (1368AD-1644AD). They cited the note of a Yuan Writer named Tao Zongyi, who portrayed in his book that “unlike the newly-bought servants, the experienced ones were just like abacus beads; they wouldn’t move unless you poked them to.” The analogy demonstrated that the using of the abacus was probably very common at that time. Scholars of this camp also cite many other literary descriptions of the abaci as evidence.

As the new discoveries on the old materials emerged, there appeared another assertion about the time of the abaci’s origin. Their first proof is that, in the famous long scroll, Along the River During the Qingming Festival, painted by Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145) during the Song Dynasty (960AD–1279AD), an abacus is clearly seen lying beside an account book and a doctor’s prescription. Another proof is in a children’s premier of early Yuan Dynasty, there is a picture of an abacus which has nine rods. Since abaci have appeared in the premier, scholars believe that at least by the Song Dynasty, abaci had already been invented. In addition, since the design of the abacus in the scroll looks like a very mature piece, instead of a primary one, the origin time of the abacus can be brought forward again, to a very reasonable result—the prosperous Tang Dynasty.

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