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The Story of the Chinese Abacus


The Abacus with Chinkang Beads

The beads of this special abacus are made of Chinkang Nuts (the solid, hard fruit of a rare chinquapin), and is an abacus-treasure cherished by the famous Shanghainese collector Chen Baoding. To propagate the culture of abacus reckoning, Mr. Chen left this abacus with the Cheng Dawei Abacus Museum in Huangshan City, Anhui Province to have it shown to the tourists from throughout the world.

This abacus is not attractive at all at first glance, because its frames, rods, beam, and set of beads look no different from the common ones. However, after hearing the explanation of the tour guide, every tourist will feel that they have not visited the museum in vain. The truth is that the Chinkang-bead abacus is priceless, mostly because of its 91 rare beads. Firstly, the trees which bear the Chinkang nuts have only been found in the wild mountains of Hainan Province. Secondly, the trees only bear very few fruit every year, and the fruits are of different sizes and irregular shapes. All the nuts collected within the bounds of the entire province every year will still not be enough for making one abacus. Thirdly, to have enough usable fruit is only the beginning. The nuts are so hard, even common knives can not make a scratch on one, let alone drill a standard and smooth hole through it. As a result, the rate of defects in the producing process is rather high. Just owing to these three reasons, the Chinkang-bead abacus became a rarity. Once, there was a foreign collector who visited Mr. Chen. He wanted to have the abacus at the price of three electronic calculators, which were then worth a lot; however, Mr. Chen politely turned him down.

The Abacus Inlaid in a Ring

This is a relic of the Chinese Qing Dynasty, and is made of pure silver. Inlaid in a ring like a decoration, the size of the abacus is 1 cm×0.5 cm. It has seven rods and on each rod there are seven beads. With a diameter of less than 1mm, the little beads are not made of filamentary silver, because they have no seams even when being examined under a microscope. More surprisingly, the beads can be moved easily and smoothly along the silver rods. For operating this tiny abacus, fingertips are too big. It seems that the beads can only be moved by small tools such as pins. However, this is no problem for this abacus’s primary user—the ancient Chinese lady, for she only needs to pick one from her many hairpins.

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