Eager to catch up with the developed world, the Chinese have taken to computers and calculators with a frenzy.
But at the Minghe Middle School in Tianjin, the country's technological revolution is held in abeyance. As mathematics teacher Wu Guozhang announces a string of three-digit numbers for 20 youngsters to add and subtract, his words trigger the staccato click of abacus beads. Just as he reads out the last number, a flurry of eager hands shoot into the air. "4,212," sings out a preteen.
Some children don't even touch their abacuses. They close their eyes and work an imaginary abacus to find the answer with lightning speed. "We teach them to imagine an abacus in their heads," Mr. Wu explains.
But, this classroom aside, the abacus, the simple counting frame with rows of beads used for thousands of years here, is in danger of getting pushed aside by China's hunger for technology.
Today, even clothing and food vendors use calculators to add up their sales. More than 1 million Chinese families now own personal computers. That number is expected to rise to 5 million by the turn of the century.
Yet, amid this computer craze, some schools are trying to save the abacus as a method of learning mathematics and as a mental exercise. With the help of this traditional calculating tool, the most talented students can, in a matter of seconds, add, subtract, multiply, and divide about 10 numbers larger than 10,000, with few or no errors.
"After students learn to use the abacus, they then move on to learning mental arithmetic," says Mr. Wu, the mathematics teacher in Tianjin.
The abacus is believed to have originated in ancient Babylon, although it is usually associated with China, where it has been used for more than 2,500 years. For four decades after the Communist victory in 1949, learning to use the abacus was required in primary schools.
The structure and rules are simple. Beads on the same rod represent the decimal units: tens, hundreds, and thousands. Different actions carry out different calculations. Adding is done by sliding up a bead in the lower part of the abacus, subtracting by sliding it down. Employing other rules, the user can change the adding function to multiplication and subtraction to division.
"The abacus is disappearing quickly from classrooms in many areas, especially big cities," says Chen Pu, a government …