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Counting on the Abacus
The world’s oldest calculator has a place in modern life
By Zheng Yang


Without an electronic calculator, it usually takes at least 10 seconds to add the numbers. But Guo Dian needs only two if she does it with an abacus, the manual computing device consisting of rods and beads that was invented in China well more than 1,000 years ago.

When Guo became a bank teller about two decades ago, this abacus skill was shared by all of her colleagues. At the time, abacus literacy was a prerequisite for all the jobs related to accounting and financing.

Today, Guo still uses an abacus as a supplement to a computer. “It’s just a habit of mine. And in addition operations of large multi-bit numbers, it’s even faster to use an abacus than an electronic calculator, and with lower probability of errors caused by pressing the wrong button.”

Many elderly Chinese remember the legendary match in the 1940s, when an abacus expert beat the most advanced electronic adding machine at the time. In the competition staged in Tokyo, the abacus proved to be fastest in all calculations, except for the multiplication of large numbers. The event sparked a sort of abacus craze.

But now people like Guo are rare in the country. Her younger colleagues in their early 20s have never touched an abacus in their life. In less than half a century, the age-old counting device dropped out of sight, replaced by fast-growing modern technology. Even Guo admits that the need for an abacus keeps decreasing as computers can automatically process the statistics.

Now the value of the abacus lies more in its culture than in utility.

Since at least 200, the abacus has been the most important tool for Chinese people to explore nature and the world by figuring addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, square roots, cube roots and other calculations. It is considered as China’s fifth great invention, after the compass, gunpowder, movable type and paper. In Chinese language, the expression “little abacus” is used to refer to a clever person, and “iron abacus” to those who are sensible and careful about budgeting.

In 2008, China’s State Council recognized the abacus as a national intangible cultural heritage. In early December 2013, the Chinese abacus was listed among the UESCO intangible cultural heritages.

“The old intelligence should be carried on,” said Guo, who insists on her son learning abacus.

Meng Fanxuan, a 26-year-old accountant, still remembers how she got her first abacus.

“The school required every student to have an abacus for math class, so my mother gave me one, a bamboo-made one that used to belong to my grandma,” Meng said. “We learned the concept of numbers through clicking the beads.”

Meng cannot actually work an abacus. At Chinese elementary schools, the emphasis on abacus skills has been phased out since the early 1990s. In 2001, the Ministry of Education finally removed the abacus from the mathematics curriculum in order to reduce study load.

Some abacus advocates believe receiving a UNESCO cultural heritage status will help inspire an “abacus revival” that ultimately places more of the devices in classroom curriculum. But the idea is hardly practicable. Few elementary school teachers, most of whom are very young, know how to work an abacus, let alone teach others to use it.

However, the old device has found a place outside of schools. According to Zheng Shoushu, an abacus teacher who has worked in the field for over 10 years, there is an increasing trend from parents in recent years for abacuses in early childhood education.

“There was a change of concept. Abacus used to be considered as a calculating skill, but parents these days are increasingly aware of its effect on developing a child’s intelligence.”

Now Zheng is the director of the abacus department at Oriental Gold Tower Children’s Potency Training School, which provides abacus classes to children aged from four to 12. Presently, there are 3,000 children, including foreigners from Europe and Africa, learning abacus in its 17 branches in Beijing.

The abacus lesson offered by the school is called “mental abacus arithmetic,” the skill of picturing an abacus in one’s mind, moving the visualized beads and achieving the result without actually touching a real abacus.

“The right brain functions when making the mental picture, then the logical left hemisphere works during calculation. So there is a frequent alternate use of the right and the left,” said Zheng.

She believes that mental abacus arithmetic can simultaneously strengthen the capability of one’s hands, eyes, ears and brain as well as improve concentration and memory. “A child’s potential is like the submerged iceberg, which can be developed through scientific methods.”

Two years ago, Guo Jing, a bank teller, took her son to the school’s abacus class. Until then the four-year-old boy had difficulty understanding figures and calculation. “After the first 90-minute class, he mastered the addition and minus calculation of single-digit numbers,” Guo said.

Despite the efficiency, she decided to have the child quit the abacus class after talking to other mothers. “Some of them fear that two different arithmetic systems of abacus and school math knowledge will confuse the child. After all, I think it’s more important to make him a happy child than a smart one,” she said. “But I will absolutely choose abacus if the two teaching system can be well coordinated, because obviously, the child who knows how to use an abacus scores better in mathematics.”








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