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Publication Date : 04-01-2014
Ancient inventions that enriched our ancestors can still inspire us, but they should not be excuses for living in outdated ways
In December, the Chinese abacus was listed as an intangible cultural heritage at the annual Unesco World Heritage Congress. It was not big news in China. But it perplexed as many people as it made proud: Are we supposed to keep using the old calculating tool, or should we place it in museums?
I grew up with the clicks and clacks of the abacus. I was not very good at it, doing a bang-up job at addition and subtraction only. My father, an old-school accountant, could use two abacuses at the same time like a pianist playing a Steinway. And he tried to teach me multiplication and division on one, but that proved an impossible task for me. Fortunately, the electronic calculator came into my life at the right time, saving me from the embarrassment of using pen and paper to do complex calculations.
I was not the only one to heave a sigh of relief. Students not excelling in the craft of moving the beads along the rods would have the same feeling. We either relied on the scribbling method or mental arithmetic. The abacus was reserved for the smarty-pants. As the world is made up mostly of clumsy people like me, the calculator and the computer quickly replaced the abacus in the lives of most Chinese - probably faster than horse carriages gave way to motor cars.
When I saw an abacus recently, it was on somebody's wall as a decoration - to show off the owner's taste for tradition and sophistication, I guess. He wouldn't have done it three decades ago. Some people want to set themselves apart by doing things opposite to prevailing fashion, which is not a bad thing because most simply adopt the herd mentality. But that does not mean they truly love those things the public has given up on.
The Unesco recognition, in a sense, highlights the cultural value of the ancient tool. But it does not point to its future direction. Some suggested we should start teaching zhusuan (literally, calculation with the abacus) in elementary schools. I wonder how many parents and students would choose it if it was an elective course.
Culture, in the broad sense, refers to ways of doing things. The abacus was what people used for calculation in many parts of the world. I did not know that it went back to the Mesopotamian civilisation. Neither did I know that the Chinese abacus and the Roman device were so similar there was conjecture about their origins. And I'm pretty certain that even my father could not do square root and cube root calculations partly because he had little need for them.
I never heard my father lament the vanishing of his favourite calculating tool. Elegant as it was, there was no chance it could compete with the electronic version. There's only so much the abacus can do. For one thing, I cannot imagine manipulating a large spreadsheet on an abacus.
Whatever glow it gets from authorities, the abacus is not going to be revived on a large scale or in a serious manner. There are reasons it has been washed away by modern gadgets. The UN listing acts to alert us to the glory of our ancestors, of which we should be rightly proud. But we should not be carried away to the point of believing that we can still live in old times, say the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when the abacus made an appearance on the counter of an apothecary's store in the famous long scroll Along the River During the Qingming Festival.
The abacus is not the only thing on our heritage list. In the past three decades, many things we took for granted gave way to modern replacements. When I was a kid, we used to sit on wooden benches and now we have chairs and sofas. (We had simple chairs then, but sofas did not come into ordinary households until the reform and opening-up, at least in my hometown.)
For heating our bed, we used to have bottles filled with hot water or even bronze containers with half-burnt charcoal, which could be dangerous if you inadvertently overturned it in your sleep. Now we can electronically heat the blankets, or better, heat the entire room with various convenient, but expensive, technologies. We used to turn to thermos bottles for hot water, and now - well, we still do, at least in addition to water coolers with the heating function.
Honestly, when the old stuff was first gone, we almost had a feeling of good riddance. It was only much later that we gradually realised the value - aesthetic and cultural, if no longer functional - of the things that used to be part of our lives.
Our cultural identity is made up of many things, most of which will evolve beyond our control. We used to live in single-storey courtyard homes, but rapid urbanisation necessitates higher density. It has become simply impractical for everyone to have old-style residences.
We used to cook every meal, but now we have all kinds of fast food and cooking has turned into a luxury. Overall, to live like a Chinese of old would require considerable wealth. But that's assuming the lifestyle of the ancient aristocrat. For the majority, life today is much improved as compared with the old times. Remember, even something as simple as the abacus was not really available in every Chinese home. It was much less ubiquitous than the calculator today.
Many of the things the ancient Chinese were enamoured with were abolished a century ago, including bound feet and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) men's hairdo; others are still tenaciously with us but are looking frayed, such as the preference for male heirs. Physical things have an easier time finding their new places. They can be housed in museums or collected by individuals who cherish antiques and can afford them.
It is intangible heritage that has caused the most headaches. Take local operas, for example. There used to be hundreds of varieties across the country but, with the rise of television, the loss of audiences for most operas has been so devastating they cannot survive. Should the government keep them resuscitated by subsidising them unconditionally?
Mind you, it's not that their shows are not affordable, but their target audience has moved on to other forms of entertainment. Or should the government pick a few varieties still with a sizable, but ageing, audience to support? Or should it suppress modern competition, such as pop music, to divert audiences to the old forms?
The Chinese government has been searching for ways to preserve and protect much of this intangible heritage. In recent years, it has started to pay basic salaries to descendents of artisans for a few selective grassroots crafts. It encourages them to turn the inheriting of special skills into enterprising efforts that can sustain themselves in the marketplace, especially with the aid of the tourism industry.
The way I see it, the situation is similar with the abacus. In a nation of 1.3 billion people, there should be a few remaining masters of the tool, if not as a hobby then as a government-sponsored academic pursuit. The device itself can be a collector's item or a curiosity for travelers. But it's wishful thinking that it reappears on every accountant's desk.
There is a difference between loving something as a confirmation of one's cultural identity and loving it as a pragmatic instrument for getting things done.