2:32 pm

Why we shouldn't ignore East-Asian mathematical traditions

Well I felt inspired by my friend over at http://phrenicphilosophy.blogspot.com/ to actually put my blog to some use. There is probably some interesting things I can post on here along with some rants.

Those who know me know that I've been learning a bit of Japanese this year, because my Masters thesis is on mathematics in Japan in the Edo period. I've been looking at Korean these past few days also because I'm considering teaching English in South Korea next year. Korean has a very interesting and intuitive alphabet, and after learning Japanese it's much easier to pick up. Their pronunciation is a bit harder though. I find it interesting how different the Korean and Japanese languages are, especially given how many Koreans immigrated to Japan in this early years (the Yayoi people in around 300 BCE for example). I had assumed some of their spoken language would have made its way into Japanese, but from what I gather this doesn't seem so.

I think I'd like to become reasonably proficient in Japanese and Korean so that I can research the mathematical influence the Yayoi had on Japan. I find the mathematics of cultures in Asia so fascinating, and I don't think history of mathematics can be complete until we study it, because if we want to claim that mathematics is universal and cross-cultural we need to actually study the history and philosophy of mathematics of countries like Japan and Korea. I know a fair bit about mathematics in old Japan now, but I have no clue of what went on in Korea other than that they used counting rods which were probably got from China. But did they use Chinese mathematical texts like the Japanese did? I just don't know, and I feel I should know because I'm supposed to be a Historian and Philosopher of Mathematics. I know Koreans do use some Chinese in their language, and the alphabet they use now was only introduced in 1443, so did they use Chinese characters solely before then?

I kinda feel any good historian of mathematics should know about Asian mathematical tradition, but the fact is most historians knowledge is limited to a bit about China. Historians seem to assume that mathematics in Korea and Japan isn't worth studying because "It's all just copied from the Chinese", but my research into Edo mathematics has proved this is most certainly not the case. Japanese mathematics diverged from Chinese and became something unique to Japanese culture during 1600 and 1868, and historians ought to know this. I can only wonder at what amazing stuff there is in the history of Korean mathematics that I don't know about.