What Is A Chinese Abacus? ( Suanpan)

The abacus is one of those things that are synonymous with Ancient China. Some people believe the abacas was invented in ancient China when the Ming Dynasty ruled China between 1368 and 1644 CE, but the jury is still out regarding the actual inventors of the abacus.

When Was The Chinese Abacus Invented?

The Chinese abacus is reported to have been invented during the Ming Dynasty by Cheng Dawei.

Even so, the first abacus is believed to go far back to Mesopotamia and the Sumerian Culture between 2700 and 2300 BCE. There is a possibility that this counting tool, along with other tools for counting, was created and used before this time.

The first abacus involved the use of small rocks or pebbles that would be carefully put down on the ground, on tables, or on tablets marked with lines. These tools allowed for easy arithmetic calculations through addition or subtraction. The ancient Chinese particularly used such tables and the pebbles to count.

But over time, people would move from counting on the dirt and from the use of pebbles to the use of beads and wooden frames. Others would also use semi-precious stones like Jade.

The counting tools that resemble the abacus have also been found and reported in Mesoamerican ruins of South America, which shows that most cultures used this counting tool called the abacus to count. This was also the case in Western Europe, and it appears that modern counting methods were only recently adopted. The abacus is still used as an important tool for counting in some parts of the world even today, with China, Japan, and Russia on top of the list of countries that still use Abacus.

So, what does abacus mean?

Contrary to popular beliefs, the abacus isn’t a Chinese or Chinese derivative word but an ancient Greek word derivative – the counting boards that were used by the ancient Greeks were known as abakos, abax, or abakon, which is a root name for the abacus.

But even the adoption and naming of this counting tool by the Ancient Greeks, the ancient Hebrews had a counting tool similar to the abacus, which was known as the ibeq, the abk, or the abq. In Ancient Hebrew, ibeq is defined as wiping dust, and abq or abk means sand. Together, these words would be used to refer to what the Ancient Hebrews used to count objects – they used lines drawn on sand/ ground and the pebbles that would be moved around as they were moved as the counters. When done counting, they would wipe off the dust make the surface smooth, clean, and ready for when it would be needed – this is believed to be the origin of the abacus.

What Was An Abacus Used For In Ancient China?

In ancient China, the abacus was used as a counting tool and is believed to have been the counting tool of choice even before the Ming Dynasty came to power.

Note that the variety of the abacus that was used back in Ancient China was known as the suan pan, a counting tool that was made of a wooden frame and beads.

This beaded wooden frame abacus style, the suan pan, would turn into the popular abacus style at the start of the 13th century CE. Note that this suan pan featured a wooden sturdy frame that was divided into two using a wooden piece, and it had metal rods that ran vertically, holding the beads on either section of the divide. It had 2 beads on top and 5 beads at the bottom. By the middle of the19th century (CE), Suan Pan had only one bead at the top with 5 beads at the bottom.

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