# Early Chinese Mathematics

Math is something that is found all throughout history.  It was used for may different reasons, in many different cultures.  What I find interesting is how these different cultures learned some of the same ideas without even having knowledge of the others’ work. These works could be anything from counting systems to Pascal’s triangle.  It can also include how one culture passed its knowledge on to another. This makes you wonder how some ideas that were known in western civilization could also be found in Asia.  As I was looking into this I found some very interesting facts about mathematics in China. Some small examples of math found in China begin with something called oracle bone scripts: scripts carved into animal bones or turtle shells. These scripts contain some of the oldest records in China.  This, like the clay from babylonian times, had many different uses including math.  Chinese culture also had something called the six arts: Rites, Music, Archery, Charioteerring, Calligraphy, and Mathematics.  Men who excelled in these arts were known as perfect gentlemen.

In China, like in India, one can find the use of a base ten numeral system.  This is quite different from the Babylonians, which makes it seem like there must have been some conduit of knowledge between India and China.  In China, around 200 BCE, they used something called “rod numerals.”  Rod numeral counting is very similar to what we use today.  This counting system consisted of digits that ranged from one to nine, as well as 9 more digits to represent the first nine multiples of 10.  The numbers one through nine were represented by rods going vertically, while the numbers of the power of 10 were horizontal.  This means that every other digit was horizontal while its neighbor was vertical.  For example 215 would be represented like this ||—|||||.  If one wanted to use a zero you would have to use an empty space.  The empty space is also something that can been seen in the Babylonian counting system.  As with the Babylonians, a symbol was eventually used for zero.  Interestingly enough, before there was a symbol for zero, counting rods included negative numbers. A number being positive or negative depended on its color: black or red.  This idea of having negative numbers didn’t come about in another culture until around 620 CE in India.  It seems quite apparent that several ideas that originated in China could possibly have been passed on to a neighboring country.

Rod numerals. Image: Gisling, via Wikimedia Commons.

The use of counting rods as a counting system brought about another very interesting mathematical concept, the idea of a decimal system.  China first used decimal fractions in the 1st century BCE.  Fractions were used like they are today, with one number on top of another.  For example, today if you used a faction for one half, it would be written like this: 1/2.  Using rod numbers you can do the same thing like this: | / ||.  Not only could this be represented as a fraction but it could also be written as a decimal.  To do this one would simply write the number out and insert a special character to show where the whole number started.  For example, if you wanted to say 3.1213, you would write it as a whole number like this: |||—||—|||.  To show where the left side of the decimal starts, you would mark it with a symbol under the number to the left of the decimal point, in this case under the first 3.  To me the use of rod numbers is so similar to how we use our numbers today that even the arithmetic that was used can be done easily by someone in our culture.  Addition is done almost the same except they would work from left to right.  Multiplication and division were used as well.   The use of base ten as well as using rod numerals made complicated equations much easier to attain, such as the use of polynomials and even Pascals triangle.

The triangle known as “Pascal’s” in the west, in a Chinese manuscript from 1303 CE. Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Centuries before Pascal, the Chinese knew about Pascal’s triangle.  Shen Kuo, a polymathic Chinese scientist was known to have used Pascal’s triangle in the 12th century CE.  It appears that knowledge of Pascal’s triangle begins even before this. The first finding of Pascal’s triangle was in ancient India around 200 BCE.  We can see that this idea was sprouting around and found evidence in different cultures, from Persia to China and to Europe.  This again makes one wonder how this knowledge base was passed around from one culture to another.  Lacking historic details, it is hard to see if this idea of Pascal’s triangles was thought up individually or if this concept was somehow passed from one culture to another.

It seems that in all cultures there is a need for counting, which in turn brings about the need for math.  The cultural implications can mean that you are a “perfect gentlemen” by having mathematical knowledge, or it could lead a greater knowledge that can be passed on to other cultures.  In China, we see that many ideas of numbers and mathematics were thought up on their own without having other culture’s ideas intervening.  We can also see that the knowledge that was passed on was able to thrive and turn into something even more intriguing.  It is apparent that we can always learn and teach others to help our knowledge grow.

Source:

Boyer, Carl B., and Uta C. Merzbach. A History of Mathematics. 3rd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Jon Wiley and Sons, 2010. Print.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decimal#History

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rod_calculus

http://nrich.maths.org/5961

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal’s_triangle