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The Story of the Chinese Abacus


The Abacus on a Water Pipe

This is a relic of the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic period. Since its discovery, it has aroused many people’s wonder. The mini abacus, linked to a water pipe with a brass chain, is made of pure brass. With 9 rods and 63 beads, the abacus is 2 centimeters long and 1.5 centimeters wide. It is ornamental and practical at the same time, because it enables the user to cast accounts while smoking the pipe. To operate it, one also needs a pin. As luck would have it, there is just a pin inserted in the pedestal for pipe-unplugging. More description of how the characteristic water pipe with an abacus is used can be found in many historical novels such as Xin Lu Lin Zhuan (a new biography of heroes) and others.

The Abacus with Rubber Beads

This abacus was made in the Qing Dynasty. With its iron frames, iron beam, five brass rods, and a total of 35 black beads, this abacus also looks mediocre. But examining it in detail, one may find that its beads are not shiny like other abaci’s. If the observer further pinches the beads, he may find that all the matt beads are elastic. That is because the beads are made of rubber.

Why did ancient Chinese craftsmen use rubber instead of wood as the raw material for the beads? Researches have found that they did not simply want to be different. This abacus is actually a material embodiment of Chinese refined and cultured virtue. Imagine a room in which many accountants are using their abaci at the same time. The noise of bead-knocking will be so interruptive that the scholars could not possibly focus on their work. In this situation, abaci with rubber beads stand out. Being elastic, the beads will not produce any noise, even when many people are calculating simultaneously. The rubber-bead abacus is also a good choice when computations need to be done during the night, when any noise will be amplified. Through a small abacus, the Chinese virtue of respecting others is manifested.

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