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Ancient Chinese Mathematics – To infinity and Beyond


The thinking behind the chinese ancient maths may not be your normal arithmetic. What we have studied in school today inherits from western mathematics. It encompasses topics like quantity, structure, space, change and etc. What usually comes to my mind is that, we need quantitative inputs to help us arrive at a tangible output. It involves formula, equations, logics and a structured framework to help us calculate and derive an answer. In my own words, it works within what our “naked eyes” can capture.

I chanced upon an article about the concepts of ancient maths and what intrigues me is not just the level of precision that the mathematician (in the little anecdote that I am going to share here) was able to achieve but its function is seemingly beyond what contemporary people like us could fathom.

Mr Yuan, a government official in the Tang Dynasty, was an expert in Maths. There was this day that he went to visit a friend. The friend took out 2 jade bowls. Yuan took a look at one, casually measured the depth and width. After doing some quick mental calculation, Yuan said, ”Next year, on the 16th day of May, during Si hour (between 9 to 11 am), the 2 bowls will certainly be broken.”

After listening to Yuan, his friend replied that he is going to safe-keep them and keep them very well protected so that the chances of breaking them is almost zero. The friend then proceed to wrap the bowls with layers of clothes, place them in a rattan cage and store them in a warehouse.

One year passes and on the 16th May, Si hour, the beam in the warehouse suddenly gave way. It fell directly on top of the cage and the impact smashed the 2 bowls. This incident was witnessed by another government official.

There are many more such cases that have been documented in the chinese literatures 《太平廣記》第215卷《算術》. Unfortunately, almost all the “ancient mathematical trade secrets” were not documented and passed down. If not, it may lead us and expose us to a whole new dimension of how maths was closely interlinked with the order of universe and possibly ancient maths was much more advance than what we know today.