Chinese Culture >> Chinese Society Traditions
One of the most fascinating things about history
is the amount of it that's been wiped out - on purpose. For example, in
the ninth century CE, the greatest library in the world, the Library of
Alexandria, was burned in an act of war, and ever since, history buffs
have kept themselves tantalized and amused by trying to guess the
identity of some of those books we'll never see. From the burning of
libraries to the destruction of presidential diaries today, the idea of
the lost book holds a certain romantic - albeit frustrating - appeal.
Folks who've studied the history of mathematics have their own "lost
library" to wonder about - the treasure trove of early Chinese
mathematical treatises burned by the order of Emperor Qin Shi Huang in
212 BCE.
China has been on the leading edge of math for nearly as long as
civilization has existed. Evidence of a highly developed number system
has emerged from as far back as the Shin Dynasty period - 1600 to 1046
years before Christ. This early Chinese number system also includes
decimals, a major intellectual breakthrough in itself. To write the
number 260, for example, you'd write the number two, followed by the
symbol for a hundred, then six followed by the symbol for ten - You get
the idea. There's also evidence that Chinese mathematicians had
developed their own version of the abacus (an ancient calculating
machine that used rods with movable counters) from a very early period.
So whatever was contained in those burned math books of 212 BCE, it was
probably significant work.
A handful of early Chinese mathematical works did survive this public
purging (the reasons for which aren't clear). From as long ago as 1046
BCE, we have the I Ching, a favorite of '60s hippies and of mystics even
today, and the Mo Jing, a compilation of geometry and physical science
dating from around the fifth century BCE. These two survivors illustrate
the high level of intellectualism and imagination characteristic of
ancient Chinese math.
Writers during the Han dynasty period - a four-hundred-year stretch of
time that begins in 202 BCE and extends to 220 CE - did their best to
preserve and build upon what was known of math in China before the
burning of 212. The Han mathematicians were synthesis's, putting
together the best insights of ancient thinkers, and their most important
work was the Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art. This pivotal
compilation illustrates the proper way to use geometry to build a
structurally sound dwelling; it also shows that Chinese mathematicians
understood pi (the seemingly-unending number by which we calculate the
circumference of a circle) and various laws concerning right triangles.
Perhaps most strikingly, it uses Cavalieri's principle for figuring out
the volume of a shape - but it does so more than a thousand years before
Cavalieri came up with the idea. In other words, Chinese mathematicians
understood some geometrical ideas a good while before anyone in the West
did.
Elsewhere during the Han dynasty, other Chinese mathematicians were also
"getting there first," including Jing Fang (78-37 BCE), a musical
theorist who discovered principles of temperament that had to wait, in
the West, until the seventeenth century.
For a thousand years following the Han dynasty, Chinese mathematicians
continued to yield great insights - all during a time when European
mathematicians didn't, strictly speaking, exist. Chinese thinkers
developed such ideas as negative numbers (the brilliant invention that
helps us all keep our bank balances straight), the use of matrices to
solve linear equations (an idea that continues to stump Western
eleventh-graders to this day), and elements of calculus and
trigonometry. From prehistory to the middle ages, China produced some of
the greatest mathematical reasoning ever found.
Still - you wonder what further heights these brilliant thinkers might
have scaled if their foundation hadn't been partially destroyed. Just as
playwrights and poets today lament the great tragedies and epics that
were probably lost in the burning of the library of Alexandria,
historians of human genius must wonder what wonderful insights fell
victim to the pride of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. (His order, after all,
only pertained to provinces of China that fell outside his own state of
Qin - so presumably, though we don't know for sure, he only wanted
people from his own part of China to be able to read for themselves.) On
the other hand, maybe he did Chinese math a favor. By giving the
Han dynasty mathematicians the impetus to save and consolidate every scrap
of mathematical lore still available, perhaps he lit another fire - one
he never intended.
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