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The Suan shu shu 筭數書 'Writings on Reckoning' 

Christopher Cullen

Needham Research Institute Working Papers: 1

A translation of a Chinese mathematical collection of the second century BC, with explanatory commentary, and an edition of the Chinese text

The Suan shu shu 筭數書 is an ancient Chinese collection of writings on mathematics approximately seven thousand characters in length, written on 190 bamboo strips. It was discovered together with other writings in 1983 when archaeologists opened a tomb at Zhangjiashan 張家山 in Hubei 湖北 province. From documentary evidence this tomb is thought to have been closed in 186 BC, early in the Western Han 漢 dynasty. The occupant of the tomb - whose name is unknown to us - appears to have been a minor local government official, who had begun his career in the service of the Qin 秦 dynasty, but started work for the Han in 202 BC. The Suan shu shu is anonymous, in the sense that we do not know the name of the person who assembled this material. A few sections of text are however marked with the common surnames Wang 王 and Yang 楊; whether these persons were merely scribes or were the actual authors of  mathematical material is not clear.

The Suan shu shu is the earliest known extensive Chinese writing on mathematics. I present here a fully commented translation of the original Chinese text, with an introductory essay. This is followed by a critical edition of the original text prepared from photographs of the bamboo strips themselves.


All material given here and in the appended pdf files is Copyright © Christopher Cullen 2004. Christopher Cullen has asserted his moral right to be identified as the author of this work. It may however be read downloaded and distributed free of charge and not otherwise, for scholarly purposes only, on the conditions that the text shall not be altered in any way, and that the whole of this notice is included with any distribution of the material.

This book is published by the Needham Research Institute, 8 Sylvester Road, Cambridge UK. It has been deposited in the copyright libraries required by UK law, and has been allocated ISBN 0-9546771-0-2. Bound copies of the work may be purchased from the Needham Research Institute: please send enquiries to admin@nri.org.uk.

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