Mathematical Literacy in China

Published November 12, 2018

Given recent reports suggesting that mathematical literacy in China is higher than in America today I think that it is interesting to explore the complex history of mathematics in China. To this end, I highly recommend Jean-Claude Martzloff’s masterful A History of Chinese Mathematics (Springer-Verlag, 1997). Martzloff argues that while Chinese mathematical practice has long been tied to practical problems in astronomy, engineering and commerce that Chinese mathematicians  also paid close attention to algorithmic methods. He explores in depth the Suanjing shi shu (Ten Computational Classics), Jiuzhang suanshu (Nine Chapters)Sunzi suanjing, Zhoubi suanjing, Zhang Qiujian suanjing, Shushu jiuzhang  (Qin Jiushao of 1247), Suanfa tonzong by Cheng Dawei of 1592) and the Yongle Dadian among others.  He also carefully demarcates the arrival of western mathematical texts in China commencing with the Jesuits and explores the way in which western ideas began to radically transform Chinese mathematical practices during the 19th and 20th centuries.

While mathematics was widely regarded as a minor art when compared to the esteem in which the Chinese literary classics were held for most of Chinese history its intricacies were nonetheless mastered by every generation as a means of solving practical problems. Today, China is benefiting enormously from the advances in mathematical theory that were pioneered in the west but now are assiduously studied throughout the far east. Recent rapid advances in aerospace engineering, nuclear physics, and artificial intelligence in China attest to this fact.