Counting on a tangible future

BEIJING, Dec. 6 — Inscription of Chinese zhusuan, (calculation by abacus) on the UNESCO intangible heritage list is a way forward for fading skills facing the irreversible march of modernization.
For centuries, people in China have used the suanpan (abacus), — literally “calculating tray” — for both decimal and hexadecimal computation.
A simple bamboo frame with moving beads on rods, the typical Chinese abacus is not just for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division but can cope with advanced operations such as roots and exponentials.
The world’s oldest computer was listed as intangible cultural heritage of humanity at the 8th Annual UNESCO World Heritage Congress on Wednesday in Baku, Azerbaijan.
“The function of the abacus can be replaced by advanced tools, but the invisible benefit it brings to practitioners will last,” said Yang Qingxia, a retired accountant and a proficient abacist in Beijing.
Although Yang has turned to calculators and software for accounting and stopped using the abacus more than two decades ago, she attributes her accountant’s concentration and professionalism to use of the abacus in her early years.
“Some new accountants who were born and raised in the digital age tend to be impatient and hasty,” Yang said. “Accounting is not a difficult job. It requires no more than calmness and care.”
UNESCO’s website says that zhusuan has played a vital role in mathematical studies, promoting algorithmic practices and fostering intelligence. Training in abacus arithmetic is thought to improve a child’s attention span, memory and intellectual capability, as demonstrated by primary school kids in northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province.
“The combination of abacus training and math education has yielded good results and will be expanded to more primary schools,” said Chen Hongxia, of a Heilongjiang education bureau.
“The abacus does not improve just a single competency, but fosters efficient learning habits, trains imaginal thinking and coordinates development of left and right brain,” said Xu Sizhong, an educator from the eastern city of Ningbo in Zhejiang Province.
Calligraphy, on the UNESCO list since 2009, has moved from a tool of communication to what UNESCO describes as “an important channel for the appreciation of traditional culture and for arts education”. Zhusuan is following a similar route.
“No one is using the abacus at work any more, but its image never fails to stir up some memories of the old days,” Yang said, adding, “I’ve always wanted to buy a little golden abacus in the jewelry store I frequent.”
Three abacus and zhusuan museums in east and north China are attracting millions of visitors every year.
“The abacus is more of a cultural symbol than a tool,” said Lei Guohua, who runs a private zhusuan museum in Zhejiang. “The abacus as intangible cultural heritage will have new functions in today’s China.”[db:内容2]

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