Three Character Classic : San Zi Jing

The three character classic for children introduces many new characters and was learned by heart in ancient China. It formed the first step towards becoming a scholar and taking the Imperial Examinations. The piece contains many elements of culture and history and follows the Confucian doctrine. It is divided into three character groups in blocks of four, 12 characters in all. The characters follow a rhythmic structure to be spoken out loud by the whole class. It dates from the Song dynasty (c. 1280CE) and is attributed to Wang Yinglin or Ou Shizi . The historical section was updated over the centuries to reflect the rise of new dynasties. The Taipings during their rebellion produced their own version of the classic substituting Christian for Confucian doctrine.

It fell into decline in the twentieth century when new teaching practices were introduced, during the Cultural Revolution it was suppressed along with the other ancient Confucian classics. Recently some families have encouraged their children to learn it as they believe it is still an effective early language primer.

The most common English translation seen on the Internet and in books is the one written by the English Chinese scholar Herbert Giles dating from 1910. To a modern audience this translation seems old-fashioned and so we have provided a new one that in places is closer to the original and avoids old English terms that are not well understood. The classic was intended for boys only, in places I have watered down the rather negative tone towards girls and women that was prevalent when it was written.

It consists of a number of sections: importance of learning; basics of numbers and nature; moral code; learning the classics; a comprehensive dynastic history and further examples and admonishment of the need to study hard. It is carefully constructed to introduce frequently used characters that are useful in everyday life.

rén zhī chū,,
xìng běn shànPeople are born good natured,
xìng xiāng jìn,
xí xiāng yuǎn.Their characters are similar but develop differently.
The Confucian view that people at heart are of good intent is the striking and pleasing opening, the other theme that only by proper study can you remain good pervades the piece. The Roman Catholic Augustinian doctrine runs counter to this as it teaches of original sin and propensity to evil that only Christianity can stave off.

gǒu bù jiāo,
xìng nǎi qiānIf not taught, their nature changes
jiāo zhī dào,
guì yǐ zhuān.The principle to be taught is that concentration is precious.
SunXinde, calligraphy
Calligraphy by the Chinese calligrapher Sun Xinde July 2005 Photo by Immanuel Giel , available under a Creative Commons license .

昔孟xī mèng mǔ,
zé lín chùWhen Mencius's mother chose a home
zǐ bù xué,
duàn jī zhù.Her son did not learn so she broke her loom.
The story is abbreviated so much that it hard to understand. The great Confucian philosopher Mencius is held up as the first example of why study is important. The story is that his mother moved house three times just to find the best place (according to Feng Shui etc.) for her son to study. To demonstrate to him the folly of laziness and lack of concentration she deliberated wrecked the cloth she was weaving.

窦燕dòu yàn shān,
yǒu yì fāngDou of Yanshan had the correct method
jiāo wǔ zǐ,
俱扬míng jù yáng.He taught five sons, all raised the family's prestige.
Dou Yujin lived at Yanshan in the Five Dynasties period and raised five sons who all passed the Imperial Examinations and became important officials - known as the Five dragons of Yanshan (Yanshan Wulong). The five sons are often depicted in paintings to symbolize the wish for academic success.

yǎng bù jiāo,
fù zhī guòTo nurture without teaching is the father's fault
jiāo bù yán,
shī zhī duò.To not teach sternly is the teacher's laziness

zǐ bù xué,
fēi suǒ yíFor a child to neglect study is inappropriate
yòu bù xué,
lǎo hé wéi.If he does not study when young, what will he become when old?

yù bù zhuó,
bù chéng qìJade that is not fashioned is of no use
This phrase is used widely as a proverb for anyone in need of education and training. A rough block of jade needs lengthy fashioning to become a thing of beauty.
rén bù xué,
bù zhī yì.People who have not studied, can not know honor.

wéi rén zǐ,
fāng shǎo shíA child must behave honestly when young.
qīn shī yǒu,
xí lǐ yí.Learn from parents and guides to study good manners.

xiāng jiǔ líng,
温席néng wēn xíXiang aged nine would warm (his parent's) bed
xiào yú qīn,
suǒ dāng zhí.Respect for parents ought to be observed.
Huang Xiang is the first of the classic examples of selfless duty to parents. In this case he lay in his father's bed so it would be warmed. It comes from the classic book “The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety ”. He grew up to become a powerful administrator.

róng sì suì,
让梨néng ràng líRong aged four gave up the (larger) pears
dì yú zhǎng,
yí xiān zhī.As a junior to an elder, should be the foremost thing to know.
Kong Rong is another example of filial devotion. He was a descendent of Confucius and rather than selfishly keep the larger pears for himself gave them to his elder brothers. He grew up to be a politician in the Han dynasty. Note that Chinese ages start at 1 so by Western conventions he was aged only three.

shǒu xiào dì,
cì jiàn wénStart with due obedience; next is knowledge
某数zhī mǒu shù,
识某shí mǒu wén.Know the numbers, know some culture.

yī ér shí,
shí ér bǎiOne and so to ten, ten and so to a hundred
bǎi ér qiān,
qiān ér wàn.A hundred and so to a thousand, One thousand and so to Ten thousand.

sān cái zhě,
tiān dì rénThe three powers are Heaven, Earth and People
sān guāng zhě,
rì yuè xīng.The three lights are the sun, moon and stars.

sān gāng zhě,
jūn chén yìThe three guiding principles are justice of the ruler
fù zǐ qīn,
fū fù shùn.Love for father, wife follows husband.
The main principle of Confucian duty and responsibility.

yuē chūn xià,
yuē qiū dōngOf spring and summer, of autumn and winter
cǐ sì shí,
yùn bù qióng.The seasons march on endlessly.

yuē nán běi,
西yuē xī dōngOf north and south, of west and east
cǐ sì fāng,
yìng hū zhōng.All directions depend on the center.
In China center or middle is treated as a direction, so there are five directions in all.

yuē shuǐ huǒ,
mù jīn tǔOf water and fire, wood, metal and earth
cǐ wǔ xíng,
běn hū shù.These five elements originate in numbers.
The elemental essences had a great impact on Chinese science and are widely used in Feng Shui.
jade, Guanyin, deity
Jade carving of Buddhist Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin)

yuē rén yì,
智信lǐ zhì xìnOf benevolence and honor, courtesy, wisdom and truth
cǐ wǔ cháng,
bù róng wěn.These five virtues must not fall into confusion.

稻粱菽dào liáng shū,
麦黍稷mài shǔ jìRice, fine millet, beans, wheat, glutinous millet and common millet
cǐ liù gǔ,
rén suǒ shí.These six grains are what people eat.

mǎ niú yáng,
jī quǎn shǐHorses, cattle, sheep, fowl, dogs and pigs
cǐ liù chù,
rén suǒ sì.These six animals are reared by people.
This does suggest that dogs were raised for meat quite widely in ancient China.

yuē xǐ nù,
哀惧yuē āi jùOf joy and anger, of sorrow and fear
ài è yù,
qī qíng jù.Love, evil and desire. These are the seven emotions.

páo tǔ gé,
mù shí jīnGourd, clay, leather, wood, stone, metal
yǔ sī zhú,
nǎi bā yīn.together with silk and bamboo make the eight musical instruments.
Musical instruments are classified by the material used to make them.

gāo zēng zǔ,
fù ér shēnGreat-great-grandfather, great grandfather, grandfather, father as well as me
shēn ér zǐ,
zǐ ér sūn.Me and child, child as well as grandchild.

zì zǐ sūn,
zhì yuán zēngFrom child, grandchild to great-grandchild
nǎi jiǔ zú,
rén zhī lún.These nine generations are people's relationships.
Qufu, Confucius
Statue of Confucius at Qufu, Shandong

fù zǐ ēn,
fū fù cóngKindness between father and child, Wife following husband
xiōng zé yǒu,
则恭dì zé gōng.Friendship from elder brothers, respect from younger brothers.

幼序zhǎng yòu xù,
yǒu yǔ péngOlder and younger in order, friend with friend
则敬jūn zé jìng,
臣则忠chén zé zhōng.Respect from rulers, loyalty from the people.

cǐ shí yì,
rén suǒ tóng.These ten obligations are common to all people.

凡训fán xùn méng,
须讲究xū jiǎng jiūWhen teaching the ignorant, they must pay particular attention
详训诂xiáng xùn gǔ,
míng jù dòu.Painstakingly study the classics, understand the structure.
Classical Chinese text did not use punctuation marks, so it is tricky to understand classic literature without knowing the 'structure'.

wéi xué zhě,
bì yǒu chūThose who wish to become scholars, must have a beginning.
xiǎo xué zhōng,
zhì sì shū.When primary school complete, go on to the Four Classics.

lún yǔ zhě,
èr shí piānThe Analects of Kongfuzi, in twenty chapters.
qún dì zǐ,
jì shàn yán.Where the group of followers recorded wise sayings.
As this is a Confucian classic it is natural that the first book is that of Kongfuzi (Confucius).

mèng zǐ zhě,
qī piān zhǐWorks of Mencius, seven chapters only
jiǎng dào dé,
shuō rén yì.Preach the way to virtue, explain honor.
Mencius was the second sage of the Confucian doctrine.

zuòzhōng yōng,
nǎi kǒng jíThe writing of the Doctrine of the Mean by Kong Ji
zhōng bù piān,
yōng bù yì.The center does not stray from the intended line, the course is unchanging.
Kong Ji or Zisi , a grandson of Confucius (Kong Fuzi) was the author of the ‘Doctrine of the Mean ’ which advocating sticking to a middle course to achieve perpetual balance in all things.

zuò dà xué,
nǎi zēng zǐThe writer of the Great Learning, was Zengzi
修齐zì xiū qí,
zhì píng zhì.To study it will ensure all arrive at peaceful government.
Zengzi was taught by Kong Ji and is credited as the author of the ‘Great Learning’ which is another of the Four Confucian Classics. It emphasizes the importance of reflection and contemplation as well as study.

xiào jīng tōng,
sì shū shúWhen the ‘Classic of Filial Piety’ is well known and also familiar with the Four Classics
rú liù jīng,
shǐ kě dú.The Six Classics can then be read.
Normally there are considered to be Five Classics , here the Rites of Zhou has been added. Another classic the ‘Classic of Music’ has been lost.

shī shū yì,
lǐ chūn qiūThe books of Poetry, History; Changes; Rites of Zhou and Rites; the Spring and Autumn Annals
hào liù jīng,
讲求dāng jiǎng qiú.Number the Six Classics which should be carefully understood.

yǒu lián shān,
yǒu guī cángThere is Lianshan, there is Guicang
yǒu zhōu yì,
sān yì xiáng.There is Zhouyi, a comprehensive analysis of the Book of Changes.
The Book of Changes (Yi Jing) is an all pervasive book of divination and wisdom. The Zhou Yi, Lianshan and Guicang are known as the ‘Three I Chings’ as they are alternative interpretations of the 64 hexagrams.

典谟yǒu diǎn mó,
训诰yǒu xùn gàoThere are laws and plans; there are patterns and admonishments
yǒu shì mìng,
shū zhī ào.There are vows and orders; and mysteries in the Book of History.
The Book of History (or Documents) is a list of events from the first legendary Yellow Emperor through to the Shang dynasty.

wǒ zhōu gōng,
zuò zhōu lǐOur Duke of Zhou wrote the Rites of Zhou
zhù liù guān,
cún zhì tǐ.Showing the six classes of officials which manage the government.
The Rites of Zhou covers the roles of officials within government.
Tiananmen square, Beijing, dragon, cloud, architecture
Marble stone pillar with cloud and dragon in Tiananmen Square, Beijing

dà xiǎo dài,
zhù lǐ jìThe Elder and Younger Dai commented on the Book of Rites
shù shèng yán,
lǐ lè bèi.They relate the Sacred words and arrange ceremonies and music.
These commentaries on the Rites were written in the Han dynasty by Dai Sheng and Dai De .

yuē guó fēng,
雅颂yuē yǎ sòngThey speak of the manners of nations; they speak of the Odes and Songs
hào sì shī,
讽咏dāng fěng yǒng.Four parts of the Book of Poetry, ought to be recited and sung.
The Book of Poetry (or Songs or Odes) is an anthology of poems/songs by anonymous authors dating from the Zhou dynasty.

shī jì wáng,
chūn qiū zuòWhen the Book of Poetry had been finished, the Spring and Autumn Annals were written.
寓褒贬yù bāo biǎn,
bié shàn è.They contain appraisals and distinguish good from evil.

sān zhuàn zhě,
yǒu gōng yángThe three commentaries involved, are Gong Yang
yǒu zuǒ shì,
yǒu gǔ liáng.That of Zuo Shi, and that of Gu Liang.
The Spring and Autumn Annals attributed to Confucius is more correctly translated as ‘Annual Records’ because at this time the year was divided into just two seasons (Spring and Autumn). It is a list of events of State of Lu, one of the kingdoms at the time of the Eastern Zhou dynasty. The book is of such importance that the time period covered is now named Spring and Autumn after the book. Gong Yang; Zuo and Guliang all wrote important commentaries on them.

jīng jì míng,
fāng dú zǐWhen the Classics are understood, only then read the Philosophers
cuō qí yào,
jì qí shì.Pick out the important parts, remember the facts.

wǔ zǐ zhě,
荀杨yǒu xún yángThe five philosophers: there is Xun and Yang
wén zhōng zǐ,
jí lǎo zhuāng.Wen Zhongzi, Laozi and Zhuangzi.
The inclusive nature of Chinese philosophy is demonstrated by the presence of the non-Confucian philosophers Laozi and Zhuangzi (Daoists) in the list of great philosophers.

jīng zǐ tōng,
读诸dú zhū shǐWhen the Classics and Philosophers are well known, read all the histories
kǎo shì xì,
zhī zhōng shǐ.Examine the lineages, know the starts and ends.

羲农zì xī nóng,
zhì huáng dìFrom Emperor Xi and Nong to Huangdi
hào sān huáng,
jū shàng shì.Number the Three Sovereigns who lived long ago.
The first legendary figures in Chinese history are Fuxi (a.k.a. Xi) and Shennong (a.k.a. Nong). Huangdi is the Yellow Emperor from whom all Chinese dynasties claim descent and he is the father figure of the nation.

táng yǒu yú,
hào èr dìThere were Tang and Yu, called the Two Emperors
Tang is better known as Emperor Yao c. 2356-2255 BCE and Yu better known as Emperor Shun . Yao abdicated in favor of Shun rather than his own son Danzhu because he was so impressed with his abilities. This created an important precedent for peaceful succession on merit.
揖逊xiāng yī xùn,
称盛chēng shèng shì.One yielded to the other, in an Age of Prosperity.

xià yǒu yǔ,
shāng yǒu tāngXia dynasty had Yu, the Shang dynasty had Tang
zhōu wén wǔ,
chēng sān wáng.The Xia dynasty had Wen and Wu, named the Three Kings.
Yu the Great founded the Xia dynasty. King Wen of Zhou and his son Wu founded the Zhou dynasty. This is confusingly out of order as the Shang dynasty was in between.

xià chuán zǐ,
jiā tiān xiàThe Xia passed from father to son, a family ruling the whole world
sì bǎi zǎi,
qiān xià shè.After 400 years, the Xia dynasty ended.

汤伐tāng fá xià,
guó hào shāngTang brought down the Xia, forming the Shang dynasty
liù bǎi zǎi,
zhì zhòu wáng.It lasted 600 years, until King Zhou.
Tang Shang also known as Da Yi was the first king of the Shang dynasty. King Zhou (better known as Di Xin) was the last ruler of Shang, famous for his debauchery.

zhōu wǔ wáng,
诛纣shǐ zhū zhòuKing Wu of Zhou dynasty slew King Zhou
bā bǎi zǎi,
zuì cháng jiǔ.800 years long, the longest dynasty.
Di Xin was overthrown by King Wu to found the Zhou dynasty [1100-221BCE]. The Zhou dynasty had little centralized control in its later half so 800 years of rule is an exaggeration.

zhōu zhé dōng,
wáng gāng duòWhen the Zhou made forays east, the king's rule waned
chěng gān gē,
shàng yóu shuì.They gave way to weapons of war, yet ideas were promoted among the rulers.
Shang dynasty, bronze, shield
Ancient 'gan' shield design in bronze

shǐ chūn qiū,
zhōng zhàn guóBegan with the Spring and Autumn period, ended with the Warring States period
霸强wǔ bà qiáng,
qī xióng chū.Five powerful lords ruled, seven mighty states arose.
The Eastern Zhou marked the end of Imperial control and the emergence of states often at war (hence the term Warring States Period). This was the age of the great philosophers (the Hundred Schools of Thought) with Confucius and Laozi amongst others making it China's Golden Age of Philosophy.

yíng qín shì,
兼并shǐ jiān bìngThe Ying of the Qin kingdom, began to annex the country
chuán èr shì,
chǔ hàn zhēng.Passed to Er Shi, Chu and Han states vied for power.
Considering the impact of the Qin dynasty the entry in the Three Character Classic is very short. Ying was the family name of the Kings of Qin. It was Ying Zheng better known as Emperor Qin Shihuangdi who unified the nation. Er Shi is the title of his son the ‘Second Emperor’ and last Qin Emperor.

gāo zǔ xìng,
hàn yè jiànEmperor Gaozu arose, the Han dynasty founded
zhì xiào píng,
莽篡wáng mǎng cuàn.Until the reign of Xiaoping when Wang Mang usurped the throne.
Liu Bang became Emperor Gaozu when he founded the Western Han dynasty, Emperor Ping was the last before Wang Mang briefly took control.

guāng wǔ xìng,
wéi dōng hànEmperor Guangwu arose and created the Eastern Han dynasty
sì bǎi nián,
zhōng yú xiàn.Four hundred years of rule ended with Emperor Xian.
Liu Xiu (Emperor Guangwu ) reinstalled the Han dynasty in the Eastern capital of Luoyang. Emperor Xian was the last Han emperor.

魏蜀吴wèi shǔ wú,
zhēng hàn dǐngWei, Shu and Wu vied for the Han prize
hào sān guó,
qì liǎng jìn.Called the Three Kingdoms until two Jin dynasties.
The Three Kingdoms were called Wei, Shu and Wu which sought to re-establish central control and failed. The Period of Disunity covers a number of 'minor' dynasties that did not rule the whole country.

齐继sòng qí jì,
梁陈承liáng chén chéngSong and Qi followed, Liang and Chen continued
wéi nán cháo,
dū jīn líng.These are the Southern dynasties, capital at Jinling.
Another set of 'minor' dynasties that failed to maintain control during the Period of Disunity. The modern city of Nanjing was then called Jinling.

běi yuán wèi,
西fēn dōng xīIn the north Yuan Wei split into east and west
yǔ wén zhōu,
xìng gāo qí.Yu Wen of Zhou, arose with Gao of Qi.
The Northern Wei (386-533); Eastern Wei (534-549); Western Wei (535-557); Northern Qi (550-577); Northern Zhou (557-588) complete the set of 'dynasties' in the Period of Disunity.

dài zhì suí,
yī tǔ yǔAt last arrive at Sui dynasty as one united land
bù zài chuán,
shī tǒng xù.But power was not passed on, it lost control.
The Sui dynasty founded by Yang Jian re-unified the country but his successor Yangdi fell in a rebellion.

táng gāo zǔ,
qǐ yì shīTang Emperor Gaozu formed a military uprising
chú suí luàn,
chuàng guó jī.Eliminated Sui disorder, consolidated national rule.
The start of the Tang dynasty under Li Yuan who became Emperor Gaozu started the illustrious Tang period of rule.

èr shí chuán,
sān bǎi zǎiTwenty times rule passed on, in 300 years
liáng miè zhī,
guó nǎi gǎi.Liang extinguished it, the country thereupon changed.

liáng táng jìn,
jí hàn zhōuLiang, Tang, Jin and Han, Zhou
chēng wǔ dài,
jiē yǒu yóu.Named the Five Dynasties, each followed its own destiny.
After the Tang fell there was a brief period of disunity with several short lived 'dynasties' Later Liang (907-923); Later Tang (923-935); Later Jin (936-947); Later Han (947-951) and Later Zhou (951-960)

yán sòng xìng,
shòu zhōu chánThe fiery Song arose, receiving the abdication of the Zhou
shí bā chuán,
nán běi hùn.Eighteen times rule passed on, north and south muddled along separately.
The Song dynasty began fairly peacefully with states acknowledging the Zhao family's control. The description 'fiery' may refer to first use of gunpowder or an association with the five elements. It became divided into Northern and Southern dynasties.

liáo yǔ jīn,
皆称jiē chēng dìLiao and Jing, both are called dynasties
yuán miè jīn,
jué sòng shì.Yuan wiped out Jin, cut short Song dynasty.
The Mongol invasion first conquered the northern Jin dynasty then the south with capital at Hangzhou.

舆图广yú tú guǎng,
chāo qián dàiThe map of territory vast, surpassing previous dynasties
jiǔ shí nián,
祚废guó zuò fèi.90 years pass, the throne is ousted.
The non-Han Chinese Yuan dynasty is rather skated over except for acknowledging its vast scale.
Henan, Kaifeng , monkey
Ancient decorated bricks of the Iron Pagoda, Kaifeng

tài zǔ xìng,
guó dà míngEmperor Taizu arose, the great nation of Ming
hào hóng wǔ,
dū jīn líng.called himself Hongwu with capital at Jinling.
The Mongols were deposed by Zhu Yuanzhang who founded the Ming dynasty at Nanjing (originally called Jinling) as Emperor Hongwu.

dài chéng zǔ,
迁燕qiān yàn jīngUntil Emperor Chengzu moved the capital to Yanjing
shí liù shì,
崇祯zhì chóng zhēn.Sixteen generations until Emperor Chongzhen.
The Emperor Yongle (a.k.a. Ming Chengzu) built the present day Forbidden City at Beijing (originally called Yanjing).

权阉肆quán yān sì,
kòu rú línThe power of eunuchs unrestrained, plundered like so many trees in a forest
lǐ chuǎng chū,
器焚shén qì fén.Li Chuang came, burnt holy objects.
The fall of the illustrious Ming was brought about partly by the corruption of hordes of court eunuchs. The rebellion led by Li Chuang created the opportunity for the Manchus to move in.

qīng shì zǔ,
yìng jǐng mìngQing dynasty's ancestor responded to the call of fate
jìng sì fāng,
kè dà dìng.Peace was everywhere, establishing great stability.
This version of the Three Character Classic was written during the Qing dynasty and so is deferential to the current rulers and does not go on to mention the Republic.

gǔ jīn shǐ,
quán zài zīThe ancient and modern annals all completed.
zài zhì luàn,
zhī xīng shuāi.They record control and disorder, document the rise and fall.

dú shǐ shū,
kǎo shí lùStudy the history books, examine the true records.
tōng gǔ jīn,
ruò qīn mù.Know the ancient and modern, as if a first-hand witness.

kǒu ér sòng,
xīn ér wéiMouth as well as recite them, study intention as well as action
zhāo yú sī,
xī yú sī.Do this in the morning, do this in the evening.

昔仲尼xī zhòng ní,
师项橐shī xiàng tuóFormerly Zhongni had Xiang Tuo as teacher
gǔ shèng xián,
shàng qín xué.Ancient virtuous sages valued diligent study.
The condensed dynastic history is followed by several admonishments for hard and diligent study. Zhong Ni is another name for Confucius, who himself learned from the seven year old child prodigy Xiang Tuo .

zhào zhòng lìng,
读鲁论dú lǔ lùnZhao, the Grand Secretary studied the Analects
bǐ jì shì,
xué qiě qín.Although already an official, he still studied industriously.
Zhao Pu was Song Emperor Taizong's secretary and chancellor.

披蒲编pī pú biān,
xiāo zhú jiǎnSplitting up reeds and weaving them, cutting bamboo for writing
bǐ wú shū,
qiě zhī miǎn.They had no books and still knew how to make an effort.
These two examples of Han dynasty students show how even the very poor studied hard. Lu Wenshu copied borrowed books in exchange for work weaving reeds. Gongsun Hong cut up bamboo to make books (then made from strips of bamboo) to earn money.

悬梁tóu xuán liáng,
锥刺股zhuī cì gǔOne suspended his head from a roof beam, another pricked his thigh with an awl
bǐ bù jiāo,
zì qín kǔ.They were not taught these ways but devised from a desire for hard work.
In the first case the diligent student Sun Jing kept awake by stopping his head drooping forward by a rope from the roof, Su Qin pricked himself to keep himself awake and alert for study.

囊萤rú náng yíng,
rú yìng xuěOne put glow-worms in a bag; another used the reflection from snow to read by
jiā suī pín,
xué bù chuò.Their homes were poor, yet they studied incessantly.

负薪rú fù xīn,
rú guà jiǎoOne carried firewood, another hung [books] from horns [to read]
shēn suī láo,
yóu kǔ zhuó.Even though they were exhausted, they achieved acclaim through hardship.
Che Jin recruited glow-worms or fireflies so he could study into the night; while Sun Kang used the reflected light from snow to read by. Zhu Maichen earned money for study by selling firewood; Li Mi (Tang dynasty) hung books from the horns of cows so he could study while working as a cowherd.

sū lǎo quán,
èr shí qīSu Laoquan at 27
shǐ fā fèn,
dú shū jí.Began to make a determined effort to study books.
Qing dynasty, Tianjin, dragon, sculpture
Stone monument with dragon and fireball at Tianjin

bǐ jì lǎo,
犹悔迟yóu huǐ chíWhen he was old he regretted his delay
ěr xiǎo shēng,
yí zǎo sī.You, the young student should set about early study.
Su Laoquan (a.k.a. Su Xun) was the father of the famous poets Su Shi and Su Zhe. Collectively father and the two sons are known as the ‘Three Sus’ ( sān sū cí).

若梁灏ruò liáng hào,
bā shí èrAs Liang Hao at 82
duì dà tíng,
kuí duō shì.Went to the Great Hall and was acclaimed the foremost student.

bǐ jì chéng,
zhòng chēng yìAfter that had been accomplished many praised his exceptional talent
ěr xiǎo shēng,
yí lì zhì.You, the young student should be similarly determined.
Liang Hao lived in the Northern Song period. Here the poem launches into more examples of early promise.

yíng bā suì,
咏诗néng yǒng shīYing when eight years old was able to write poetry
mì qī suì,
néng fù qí.Mi when seven years old could write about weiqi.
Zu Rong (a.k.a. Ying) became a government official at the age of 12. Li Bi (a.k.a. Mi) served four Tang emperors. Weiqi is the strategy game better known as Go.

彼颖悟bǐ yǐng wù,
rén chēng qíThey were intelligent and called wonderful
ěr yòu xué,
dāng xiào zhī.You, the young student ought to emulate them.

cài wén jī,
辨琴néng biàn qínCai Wenji could analyze the music of the qin
xiè dào yùn,
咏吟néng yǒng yín.Xie Daoyun could compose poems.

bǐ nǔ: zǐ,
qiě cōng mǐnThey were girls and moreover clever
ěr nán zǐ,
dāng zì jǐng.You boys should stay attentive.
The slightly misogynistic tone was the attitude at the time. Cai Wenji (c. 200CE) had perfect pitch and became a famous poet and musician. The qin or guqin is a form of Chinese lute. Xie Daoyun (c. 340-399CE) was a noted poet and writer. Girls did not generally learn to read or write and could not enter the Imperial Examinations and so could not become officials (see our section on attitudes to women).

刘晏táng liú yàn,
fāng qī suìTang dynasty Liu Yan when only seven years old
jǔ shén tóng,
zuò zhèng zì.Was held up as a child prodigy and became Corrector of Writings.
Liu Yan belonged to the Imperial Liu family and became Grand Chancellor in the Tang dynasty.

bǐ suī yòu,
shēn yǐ shìEven though a child he served as an official
ěr yòu xué,
miǎn ér zhì.You, the young student should make an effort and devote yourself to study.

yǒu wéi zhě,
yì ruò shì.Those who show promise will surely succeed like they did.

quǎn shǒu yè,
司晨jī sī chénDogs guard the night; cockerels proclaim the dawn
gǒu bù xué,
hé wéi rén.If carelessly you do not study, how can you learn to conduct yourself?

蚕吐cán tǔ sī,
蜂酿蜜fēng niàng mìThe silkworm produces silk; the bee makes honey
rén bù xué,
bù rú wù.People who do not study are no better than things that lack consciousness.

yòu ér xué,
zhuàng ér xíngStudy when young to become competent when grown up
shàng zhì jūn,
xià zé mín.Be devoted to the ruler above, benefit the people below.

yáng míng shēng,
xiǎn fù mǔBecome a great voice, bring honor to your parents
guāng yú qián,
yù yú hòu.Shed luster upon your ancestors, bring abundance to your descendents.

rén yí zǐ,
jīn mǎn yíngPeople bequeath loads of profit in gold
wǒ jiào zǐ,
wéi yī jīng.I teach my children only one classic.

qín yǒu gōng,
xì wú yìDiligence brings achievement, play has no benefit
jiè zhī zāi,
yí miǎn lì.Guard against it, strive forward confidently.

Here is the classic recited to music. Note: It breaks off from this rendering about halfway through.

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Citation information: Chinasage, 'Three Character Classic : Sanzi Jing', last updated 24 Dec 2014, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/lang3characters.htm.

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