Abacus 算盘

Somebody could wonder how an article whose title refers to a counting instrument can actually be related to language learning- as this week the subject is supposed to be something about the niceties and perils of my Mandarin learning journey (used as a time-pacing tool, so language learning is really a nice side-effect).

But, after writing last week about cultural differences within a global economy (Global economy 世界经济https://wodeshudian.wordpress.com/2014/08/31/global-economy-shi-jie-jing-ji/), I found appropriate to add a little twist to my fortnightly post on language learning.

Well, I am one of those who, while learning yet another language, likes to look at how local culture and social customs or social structure influenced the creation of new words.

Admittedly, in most languages, you can find signs of external influences, as historical signposts on when the influence happened, e.g. by looking at German words of French origin, which date from a time when English wasn’t the most common international language.

More interesting is Russian, which moved from the influences of, say, the time of Peter the Great, to the current trend: few years ago, I read that 40% of the new Russian words are actually English words.

But it is the choice of words for everyday objects and activities that is more revealing about the sources of cultural heritage- not just those used by the elites.

In my roaming through local libraries and bookshops looking for books on China and the Chinese language, I was attracted by a curious biography of Joseph Needham, by Simon Winchester, “The Man Who Loved China”.

I do not really like the style adopted by the writer- reminding too much of those docudramas the used (while I was living there) to infest UK TV as if they were a pandemic virus: wherever you turned, there was some show “infected” by that scourge of broadcasting.

For my non-British friends: I am referring to the kind of documentaries where the speaker is so much in love with his own ideas, interpretation, and visibility, that you wonder when you are actually getting some information, and when you are simply getting through a whimsical tirade, complemented by an excessive presence of the voice, feelings, and face of the author (both men and women).

Nonetheless, the book is interesting- and the Abacus is the first example of “technological inventions” listed within the book.

Let’s say that the book is mainly set in the 1940s, during Needham’s mission in China, something that took on a life of its own, and ended up with a Toynbee-style one-man multi-volume encyclopaedia, in his case focused on China’s inventions.

I had planned to re-watch “Red Cliff” (in Chinese with English and Chinese subtitles- look on YouTube) while writing, but, as the author refers to Robert Van Gulik who was stationed in the same town while Joseph Needham was there, I switched to “Detective Dee and the Mistery of the Phantom Flame” (again- in Chinese with English and Chinese subtitles, from the same source).

We Westerners keep talking about China as if it were a country- but it is akin to somebody talking about Europe as if it had always been a more or less unified entity from the Atlantic to the Urals, and from Iceland to Turkey.

Reading this book (I had a couple of quick runs before, now I am reading it and associating what the author describes with something else that I read or is in my library) reminded me of a book about the travels of an Admiral, whose “travel baggage” (various ships) included… a library containing most of what known to China at the time- call it “cultural ambassadorship”.

Of course, you can have a look on YouTube or in your local library, and find conflicting claims about those travels in the XV century, but it is much easier to cross-check “Science and Civilisation in China”- if I can find it in a library (or in a bookshop abroad).

Amazon? Well, I used it often- but only for books that I had already decided to buy, or that were cross-referenced by other books: otherwise, I prefer to check in libraries, or buy something (usually a translation or local book) in ordinary bookshops (to support their business), and look on Amazon for the original version.

Back to the title.

If you do not know how an Abacus works… have a look on Wikipedia or Google, as there are plenty of books, articles, etc.

I liked in the past to sample some “comparative science history”, e.g. by reading material on mathematics in the Middle Age or Ancient Greece in the West and Middle East: but I doubt that I would be willing to read the thousands of pages of the “few” volumes published by Joseph Needham: I hope to browse it in a library, and then find a shortened version, as I did with Toynbee (I read the 3-volumes summary when I was a teenager, in Italian).

Still, browsing first and now reading the less than 300 pages of Mr. Winchester’s biography not just or Joseph Needham, but of how “Science and Civilisation in China” was written is quite entertaining- not as much as a similar book (a biography through the development of ideas) by Einstein, but close enough to make it worth reading, and the idiosyncrasies of the author.

The reason why I picked up this book? In my quick-read in the library, I found the 12-pages Appendix listing “Chinese Inventions and Discoveries with Dates of First Mention”, ranging from the third millennium BC to AD 1584.

Obviously, across the book you will find plenty of references to Chinese books, Chinese words, and bits of historical context.

Personally, on Joseph Needham, after reading the book, and trying to remove few “interpretation layers” added by the author: as with some film directors, you might like what they create, without necessarily considering him or her as somebody that you would like to meet socially.

I found the book interesting enough to add it to my “buy and cross-check with others” list- maybe the latter could be a summer vacation project next year, when my Chinese will be not on Joseph’s Needham level (according to the author, in a couple of years he went from nothing to fluent Chinese- including on classical Chinese), but still good enough to read some contemporary material about this subject (maybe on websites from Chinese academic institutions).

But I’ll write no more: enjoy the book: it is more useful to understand a little bit about cultural differences than many traditional language learning books!

Meanwhile… have a nice week!

PS Please read the introduction to understand how to use this website 🙂


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