Chinese abacus, known as “suanpan” in Chinese, has faded out in most areas of China, as calculators and computers are widely used in modern times. But in the long history until only twenty years ago, the abacus has long been an important calculation tool for every household, not to mention accountants and dealers. Known as the Fifth Invention of Ancient China, the abacus can perform addition, subtraction, division and multiplication, and can obtain square roots, cubic roots and Gauss equation.
The earliest known written documentation of the Chinese abacus dates to the 2nd century BC. In the famous long scroll Along the River During the Qingming Festival painted by Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145 AD) during the Song Dynasty (960–1297 AD), an abacus is clearly seen lying beside an account book and doctor's prescriptions. The suanpan is an abacus of Chinese origin first described in a 190 CE book of the Eastern Han Dynasty, namely Supplementary Notes on the Art of Figures written by Xu Yue. However, the exact design of this suanpan is not known. Some people also believed that Chinese abacus was created by a famous mathematician Cheng Dawei of the Ming Dynasty, who is worshiped as "the God of Arithmetics" in Japan, and August 8 was established as the "abacus festival" in commemoration of him.
Usually, Chinese abacus is a rectangular wooden frame. Inside the frame, there are usually at least seven vertical rods and a horizontal beam. On each rod, there are two rounded beads in the upper deck (each represents five) and five beads at the bottom (each represents one). Each rod represents a different numerical digit. After setting the digit, an operator can move the beads up or down towards the beam to do the calculating. The abacus for general use is made of wood or stone, but there is also a large variety for display and collecting purposes, such as the crystal, ivory, carnelian and jade abacuses. In Cheng Dawei's former residence, which has been listed as a national key cultural relics protection unit, many quality abacuses are displayed, ranging from the smallest -- a finger ring abacus, to the biggest -- a door- shaped one, to the strangest -- a round abacus, beadless abacus, and three-beaded abacus. Enduring interest in the ancient abacuses is evident by the ever-increasing number of visitors from all over the world.
Simple Addition & Subtraction
To use the abacus well, one must recite a concise formula by which the calculations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division can all be simplified into the acts of moving the beads. Numbers are represented and added on the abacus by grouping beads together.
Subtraction can be performed by separating groups of beads. More elaborate processes are used to perform multiplication and division. When using an abacus to solve problems of addition and subtraction, the process can often be quite straightforward and easy to understand. In each of the six examples above beads are either added or subtracted as needed.
The abacus is used for making calculations in the Middle East, Asia and Russia. One particular use for the abacus is to teach children simple mathematics, especially multiplication, since it simplifies the addition and subtraction of Roman numerals and is easy to learn. The abacus is an excellent substitute to memorize the multiplication table -- a particularly detestable task for children. It is also an excellent tool for teaching other basic numbering systems since it is easily adaptable.
The abacus is still in use today by shopkeepers in Asia and "Chinatowns" abroad. Asian schools still teach how an abacus is used, including a few schools in the West. Blind children are also taught to use the abacus. On December 4th, 2013, Chinese abacus was offificially listed as an intangible cultural heritage at the 8th Annual UNESCO World Heritage Congress in Baku, Azerbaijan. Today, the abacus is still an auspicious symbol of wisdom and wealth.