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 research expert on teaching the abacus. He says there are about 28,000 classrooms experimenting with new abacus methods in China. "It's still used in rural areas because they have little money for modern technology and teaching aids," he says.
The abacus also has advocates among those teaching arithmetic. After learning the mechanics of the ancient bead-frame, students begin to be able to visualize numbers and compute them without the need for the abacus itself.
Critics say that the abacus only gives students arithmetic skills and does not help them understand mathematical concepts. But supporters say the tool sharpens the mind and builds concentration. The abacus is routinely taught in schools in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea.
Experts say that mastering the "mental abacus" and the calculating tricks developed over centuries can require a year-and-a-half of special training and lots of practice at home.
One innovative teacher in southern Zhejiang Province, Wang Weida, developed a technique called "eye calculation." A student first learns to use the abacus quickly. Then Mr. Wang asks the student to calculate by staring at the abacus without touching it.
The next step is to envision the abacus and calculate in the mind, according to official Chinese press reports. In 1992, Wang was invited with some of his students to the United States to show off their "mental abacus" prowess.
"More and more educators are beginning to respect the mystery of the abacus," says Mr. Chen, the researcher. "We should not let this traditional tool disappear."
At the Minghe School, teenager Kun Lun says he can compute sums using his mental abacus faster than his father, who uses a calculator. The boy says he learned one useful trick of breaking down big numbers into simpler multiplication or division calculations and then adding the figures together. To show his stuff, he multiplied 37,426 by 472 by multiplying 37,426 by 400, by 70, and by 2. He then added the three figures together to arrive at the correct answer.
"I understand the numbers better when I see them in my mind," the student says. "I have to shut everything other than the calculation out of my mind, so I can think clearly."
"After learning the abacus, children can concentrate and are motivated and can learn other subjects," says Wu, the teacher in Tianjin. "They can retain things more easily."