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Ancient Chinese abacus receives UNESCO recognition

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The abacus, also called a counting frame, is a calculating tool that was in use centuries before the adoption of the written modern numeral system and is still widely used by merchants, traders and clerks in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere.  It can be used for high-speed addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, square roots, cube roots and other calculations. Some devices can be quite large and complex. Now this ‘ancient computer’ has received credit for its historical and cultural importance by being added to the world intangible cultural heritage list.

The typical abacus has a hardwood frame and hardwood beads, with two decks and more than seven rods.  The upper deck, which is known as heaven, has two beads on each rod. Each bead has the value of five. There are five beads on each rod on the bottom deck, known as earth. Each has the value of one. The beads are moved up and down during calculations.

According to legend, the Chinese abacus (‘suan pan’ or ‘zhusuan’) was invented by mythical Yellow Emperor (Huangdi), father of Chinese civilization. The earliest known written documentation of the Chinese abacus dates to the 2nd century BC.

According to UNESCO: “Zhusuan is widely used in Chinese life and is an important symbol of traditional Chinese culture, providing a strong sense of cultural identity. It has been handed down through generations by traditional methods of oral teaching and self-learning. Training in abacus-based mental arithmetic is thought to improve a child’s attention span, memory and mental capability.”

In 1946, a competition was staged between an abacus expert and the most advanced electric adding machine of the time. The expert won — the abacus was fastest in all cases, except for multiplication of large numbers.

Today, it contributes to the advancement of calculating techniques, cognitive schemas, educational psychology and intellectual development. It also has a far-reaching influence in various fields of cultural creativity, including folk customs, language, literature, sculpture and architecture.

By April Holloway



aprilholloway's picture

Must have been very interesting to see it in action!

I visited Hong Kong many times during my Naval career , and I was always " blown away" watching a merchant totaling up my purchases on an abacus .Utter magic , and most fascinating .

aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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