The use of the decimal system
According to the oracle inscription shown on tortoiseshells or animal bones,
Chinese people in the Shang
Dynasty (16th-11th century BC) was already able to use 13 words -- one, two,
three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, hundred, thousand, and ten
thousand -- to denote any number within 100,000. However, the largest number
that can be found is 30,000. The notions of odd, even, and multiple also
appeared on the oracle inscriptions.
An example of how the Chinese used the decimal system may be seen in an
inscription from the thirteenth century BC, in which "547 days" is written "five
hundred plus four decades plus seven of days." The Chinese wrote with characters
instead of an alphabet. In the Western alphabet, when writing out numbers
greater than nine, new words are used (for example, ten, eleven, and so on).
characters, ten is ten-blank and eleven is ten-one (zero was left as a blank
space: 405 is "four blank five"). This was much easier than inventing a new
character for each number. Having a decimal system from the beginning was a big
advantage in making mathematical advances. The first evidence of decimals in
Europe is in a Spanish manuscript of 976 AD.
The decimal system, as a very important invention by the Chinese, boasts
great significance in world mathematic history as well as general human history.
Joseph Needham (1900-1995), a famous scientific historian who specialized in
Chinese sciences, noted that it was virtually impossible for human beings to
have a unified world without the decimal system, and the Chinese numeral system
in the Shang Dynasty was basically more advanced and scientific than that of
contemporary Babylon and Egypt.