Chinese Invented Number System: Singapore Ressearcher

A Singapore researcher has crushed the long-held belief that the Arabs and Indians invented the numeral system used today, according to a report carried by the Straits Times Thursday.

In fact, they came up only with the written symbols, says acclaimed academic Lam Lay Yong, who believes the Chinese invented the numeral system and were adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing at least 1,000 years before anyone else, with simple bamboo rods.

A retired National University of Singapore mathematics professor, Dr Lam, 66, told The Straits Times the universal system using the numbers one to nine - known as the Hindu-Arabic system - had its roots in the rod bundles used in China from as early as 475 BC.

Merchants, scholars, monks and court officials carried these rods, which they whipped out and used like calculators, placing them on boards or on the ground.

By putting one to five rods in various positions, they formed the nine numerals.

Said Dr Lam, who recently won the Kenneth O. May medal, the highest honour for contributions to the history of mathematics: 'The ancient Chinese invented a notation such that with the knowledge of only nine signs, any number could be expressed. Without this, they would not have been able to develop mathematics.'

And the rods were readily available to foreigners, she said. The system was picked up by traders and travellers on the Silk Road during the Tang Dynasty, between the 5th and 9th century.

The earliest known text on arithmetic based on the current number system was written by an Arab in AD 825, but the earliest Chinese treatise on the rod numerals and procedures for multiplication and division - the sun zi suanjing - was written about 425 years earlier.

When Dr Lam compared the procedures in both, she found, to her astonishment, that they were identical. 'They could not have developed the same systems by sheer coincidence,' said the mother of three.

Over more than 30 years, she pored over ancient Chinese texts written in highly technical language and travelled the world hunting down works on mathematics.

She said: 'Many Chinese scholars did not have access to non-Chinese texts, and other researchers could not read the Chinese texts. I think I made the discovery because as a Singaporean, I had the best of both worlds.'

People's Daily Online ---