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Singapore Math

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Abacus as a Divination Tool

For generations of Chinese traders and shopkeepers, the abacus (called suanpan) has been an indispensable tool for calculation and for finding the financial health of their business – the profit and loss of their trade.

Two Chinese and two Japanese abaci 
Less well known is that the suanpan is also used as a divination tool among many Chinese migrants. If you go to Chinatown today, you can still see old folks (who are usually the owners of their businesses) strike the beads of their abacuses before opening their shops in the morning. Striking the abacus is perceived to be a good omen: This primitive calculator will be used often throughout the day, indicating brisk business. And the louder they strike the beads, the better the business. 

The choice of the beads (sizes, shapes and types) matters. The common beads are made of wood, stone, silver or gold, each serving a different purpose. For example, some beads are chosen as they allegedly help to secure a faster job promotion, while others to gain health and wealth. 

Moreover, the placement of the abacuses (or abaci) at home or in the office is important to ensure that there is no bad feng shui (meaning “wind and water” in Chinese). Furthermore, the positioning of the abacus also changes with each Chinese zodiac year – twelve animals which repeat themselves every twelve years.

A 4 cm by 2 cm Soroban
Some years ago, I bought a small key chain that comes with a tiny golden-looking soroban (Japanese abacus). It never occurred to me then that this little ornament could serve as a divination tool for good luck. Today, it is not uncommon to see souvenir shops selling abacus-pendants (silver or gold bracelets, earrings, and the like) – some kind of amulets to thwart off any evil spirit, or some divination tool to attract success and prosperity.

So, the next time a friend gives you an ornament that comes with a cute-looking abacus as a gift, think twice before wearing it. You may unknowingly be the recipient of some superstitious or irrational belief that good luck is yours to come; or worst, if it's from some fiend or foe, you could be under the curse of some object of worship.

For reflection 

0. How would you reason with (or respond to) someone who faithfully believes that abacus-pendants are to be worn for good omen?

1. Give five reasons why people use the abacus as a symbol of prosperity and wealth.

2. What are some dangers in using the abacus as a divination tool?

3. How can you educate the public that wearing abacus-pendants as a sign of good omen will only promote pseudoscience and innumeracy?

For Mathepreneurs ONLY

1. Design an abaculator.
2. Improvise a solar-powered soroban.
3. Invent an electrified suanpan.

© Yan Kow Cheong, 26 August, 2010


Ben Lim said...

Can i know where did you buy the 4 cm by 2 cm Soroban from, and how much is it? thanks cause i would like to collect one myself.

Ben from Malaysia

Singapore Math said...

Hi Ben

I bought the miniature soroban from a Japanese shop some two decades ago, in City Hall. I couldn't recall how much I paid for it - it probably cost about S$15 - indeed, quite dear for a small
collectible like this.

May I suggest you visit some shops specialising in some Japanese gift items, or some Chinese jewellery shops which tend to carry these cute-looking "gold" suanpans?

In fact, not too long ago, a salesgirl showed my wife and me her silver abacus, which is much smaller than the one pictured above - around one quarter or fifth the size.

So, all the best of luck in looking for a minature primitive calculator to add to your collection.

Kow Cheong

jeff said...

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