The suanpan (), also spelled suan pan or souanpan) is an
abacus The abacus (''plural'' abaci or abacuses), also called a counting frame, is a calculating tool which has been used since ancient times. It was used in the ancient Near East, Europe, China, and Russia, centuries before the adoption of the Hin ...
Chinese Chinese can refer to: * Something related to China * Chinese people, people of Chinese nationality, citizenship, and/or ethnicity **''Zhonghua minzu'', the supra-ethnic concept of the Chinese nation ** List of ethnic groups in China, people of va ...
origin first described in a 190 CE book of the
Eastern Han Dynasty The Han dynasty (, ; ) was an imperial dynasty of China (202 BC – 9 AD, 25–220 AD), established by Liu Bang (Emperor Gao) and ruled by the House of Liu. The dynasty was preceded by the short-lived Qin dynasty (221–207 BC) and a wa ...
, namely ''Supplementary Notes on the Art of Figures'' written by Xu Yue. However, the exact design of this suanpan is not known. Usually, a suanpan is about 20 cm (8 in) tall and it comes in various widths depending on the application. It usually has more than seven rods. There are two beads on each rod in the upper deck and five beads on each rod in the bottom deck. The beads are usually rounded and made of a
hardwood Hardwood is wood from dicot trees. These are usually found in broad-leaved temperate and tropical forests. In temperate and boreal latitudes they are mostly deciduous, but in tropics and subtropics mostly evergreen. Hardwood (which comes ...
. The beads are counted by moving them up or down towards the beam. The suanpan can be reset to the starting position instantly by a quick jerk around the horizontal axis to spin all the beads away from the horizontal beam at the center. Suanpans can be used for functions other than counting. Unlike the simple
counting board The counting board is the precursor of the abacus, and the earliest known form of a counting device (excluding fingers and other very simple methods). Counting boards were made of stone or wood, and the counting was done on the board with beads, ...
used in elementary schools, very efficient suanpan techniques have been developed to do
multiplication Multiplication (often denoted by the cross symbol , by the mid-line dot operator , by juxtaposition, or, on computers, by an asterisk ) is one of the four elementary mathematical operations of arithmetic, with the other ones being addi ...
division Division or divider may refer to: Mathematics *Division (mathematics), the inverse of multiplication * Division algorithm, a method for computing the result of mathematical division Military *Division (military), a formation typically consisting ...
, addition, subtraction, square root and cube root operations at high speed. The modern suanpan has 4+1 beads, colored beads to indicate position and a clear-all button. When the clear-all button is pressed, two mechanical levers push the top row beads to the top position and the bottom row beads to the bottom position, thus clearing all numbers to zero. This replaces clearing the beads by hand, or quickly rotating the suanpan around its horizontal center line to clear the beads by centrifugal force.


The word "abacus" was first mentioned by Xu Yue (160–220) in his book ''suanshu jiyi'' (算数记遗), or ''Notes on Traditions of Arithmetic Methods'', in Han dynasty, Han Dynasty. As it described, the original abacus had five beads (''suan zhu)'' bunched by a stick in each column, separated by a transverse rod, and arrayed in a wooden rectangle box. One in the upper part represents five and each of four in the lower part represents one. People move the beads to do the calculation. The long scroll ''Along the River During Qing Ming Festival'' painted by Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145) during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) might contain a suanpan beside an account book and doctor's prescriptions on the counter of an apothecary. However, the identification of the object as an abacus is a matter of some debate. A 5+1 suanpan appeared in Ming dynasty, an illustration in a 1573 book on suanpan showed a suanpan with one bead on top and five beads at the bottom. The evident similarity of the Roman abacus to the Chinese one suggests that one must have inspired the other, as there is strong evidence of a trade relationship between the Roman Empire and China. However, no direct connection can be demonstrated, and the similarity of the abaci could be coincidental, both ultimately arising from counting with five fingers per hand. Where the Roman model and Chinese model (like most modern Abacus#Japan, Japanese) has 4 plus 1 bead per decimal place, the old version of the Chinese suanpan has 5 plus 2, allowing less challenging arithmetic algorithms. Instead of running on wires as in the Chinese and Japanese models, the beads of Roman model run in grooves, presumably more reliable since the wires could be bent. Another possible source of the suanpan is Chinese counting rods, which operated with a place value Decimal, decimal system with empty spot as 0 (number), zero.


There are two types of beads on the suanpan, those in the lower deck, below the separator beam, and those in the upper deck above it. The ones in the lower deck are sometimes called ''earth beads'' or ''water beads'', and carry a value of 1 in their column. The ones in the upper deck are sometimes called ''heaven beads'' and carry a value of 5 in their column. The columns are much like the places in Indian numerals: one of the columns, usually the rightmost, represents the ones place; to the left of it are the tens, hundreds, thousands place, and so on, and if there are any columns to the right of it, they are the tenths place, hundredths place, and so on. The suanpan is a 2:5 abacus: two heaven beads and five earth beads. If one compares the suanpan to the soroban which is a 1:4 abacus, one might think there are two "extra" beads in each column. In fact, to represent decimal numbers and add or subtract such numbers, one strictly needs only one upper bead and four lower beads on each column. Some "old" methods to multiply or divide decimal numbers use those extra beads like the "Extra Bead technique" or "Suspended Bead technique". The most mysterious and seemingly superfluous fifth lower bead, likely inherited from counting rods as suggested by the image above, was used to simplify and speed up addition and subtraction somewhat, as well as to decrease the chances of error. Its use was demonstrated, for example, in the first book devoted entirely to suanpan: ''Computational Methods with the Beads in a Tray'' (''Pánzhū Suànfǎ'' 盤珠算法) by Xú Xīnlǔ 徐心魯 (1573, Late Ming Dynasty). The following two animations show the details of this particular usage: File:Panzhu Suanfa addition.gif, alt=Animation of the use of the fifth lower bead in addition, Use of the 5th lower bead in addition according to the ''Panzhu Suanfa'' File:Panzhu Suanfa subtraction.gif, alt=Animation of the use of the fifth lower bead in subtraction, Use of the 5th lower bead in subtraction according to the ''Panzhu Suanfa'' The beads and rods are often lubricated to ensure quick, smooth motion.

Calculating on a suanpan

At the end of a decimal calculation on a suanpan, it is never the case that all five beads in the lower deck are moved up; in this case, the five beads are pushed back down and one carry bead in the top deck takes their place. Similarly, if two beads in the top deck are pushed down, they are pushed back up, and one carry bead in the lower deck of the next column to the left is moved up. The result of the computation is read off from the beads clustered near the separator beam between the upper and lower deck.


There exist different methods to perform division on the suanpan. Some of them require the use of the so-called "Chinese division table". The two most extreme beads, the bottommost ''earth bead'' and the topmost ''heaven bead'', are usually not used in addition and subtraction. They are essential (compulsory) in some of the multiplication methods (two of three methods require them) and division method (special division table, ''Qiuchu'' 九歸, one amongst three methods). When the intermediate result (in multiplication and division) is larger than 15 (fifteen), the second (extra) upper bead is moved halfway to represent ten (xuanchu, suspended). Thus the same rod can represent up to 20 (compulsory as intermediate steps in traditional suanpan multiplication and division). The mnemonics/readings of the Chinese division method [Qiuchu] has its origin in the use of bamboo sticks [Chousuan], which is one of the reasons that many believe the evolution of suanpan is independent of the Roman abacus. This Chinese division method (i.e. with ''division table'') was not in use when the Japanese changed their abacus to one upper bead and four lower beads in about the 1920s.

Decimal system

This device works as a bi-quinary coded decimal, bi-quinary based number system in which carries and shifting are similar to the decimal number system. Since each rod represents a digit in a decimal number, the computation capacity of the suanpan is only limited by the number of rods on the suanpan. When a mathematician runs out of rods, another suanpan can be added to the left of the first. In theory, the suanpan can be expanded indefinitely in this way.

Modern usage

Suanpan arithmetic was still being taught in school in Hong Kong as recently as the late 1960s, and in China into the 1990s. In some less-developed industry, the suanpan (abacus) is still in use as a primary counting device and back-up calculating method. However, when handheld calculators became readily available, school children's willingness to learn the use of the suanpan decreased dramatically. In the early days of handheld calculators, news of suanpan operators beating electronic calculators in arithmetic competitions in both speed and accuracy often appeared in the media. Early electronic calculators could only handle 8 to 10 significant digits, whereas suanpans can be built to virtually limitless precision. But when the functionality of calculators improved beyond simple arithmetic operations, most people realized that the suanpan could never compute higher functions – such as those in trigonometry – faster than a calculator. As digitalised calculators seemed to be more efficient and user-friendly, their functional capacities attract more technological-related and large scale industries in application. Nowadays, even though calculators have become more affordable and convenient, suanpans are still commonly used in China. Many parents still tend to send their children to private tutors or school- and government-sponsored after school activities to learn bead arithmetic as a learning aid and a stepping stone to faster and more accurate mental arithmetic, or as a matter of cultural preservation. Speed competitions are still held. In 2013, the UNESCO, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has inscribed Suanpans on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists, Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This has included the Chinese Chinese Zhusuan, Zhusuan, knowledge and practices of mathematical calculation through the Suanpans (
abacus The abacus (''plural'' abaci or abacuses), also called a counting frame, is a calculating tool which has been used since ancient times. It was used in the ancient Near East, Europe, China, and Russia, centuries before the adoption of the Hin ...
). Zhusuan is named after the Chinese name of abacus, which has been recognised as one of the Fifth Four Great Inventions, Great Innovation in China Suanpans and Zhusuan are still widely used elsewhere in China and Japan, as well as in a few places in Canada and the United States. With its historical value, it has symbolized the traditional cultural identity. It contributes to the advancement of calculating techniques and intellectual development, which closely relate to the cultural-related industry like architecture and Tradition, folk customs. With their operational simplicity and traditional habit, Suanpans are still generally in use in small-scale shops. In mainland China, formerly accountants and financial personnel had to pass certain graded examinations in bead arithmetic before they were qualified. Starting from about 2002 or 2004, this requirement has been entirely replaced by computer accounting.


See also

*Abacus *Counting rods *Soroban


* *{{cite book , author = Martzloff , title = A History of Chinese Mathematics , publisher = Springer-Verlag , year = 2006 , isbn = 3-540-33782-2

External links

Suanpan Tutor
- See the steps in addition and subtraction
A Traditional Suan Pan Technique for Multiplication

Hex to Suanpan
Abacus Chinese inventions Science and technology in China