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Sanzijing 三字經

Jan 3, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Sanzijing 三字經 "Three-character classic" is a character text book for elementary learning (mengxue 蒙學). It is traditionally attributed to the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279) scholar Wang Yinglin 王應麟 (1223-1296).

The common version of the book has 1,248 characters (a Qing period print only 1,140), which are arranged in sets of three, or verses of six. The book is divided into five parts, explaining the various steps of learning, from the initial requirements, the understanding of social relationships, the numbers, seasons, the Five Processes, plants and animals, to the standardized learning with succesful outcome. The book was very popular in traditional China, and there was even a multi-lingual version including Manchurian and Mongolian. For practical learning, the Sanzijing has often been rated as not very applicable because of the complexity of the text and the use of specialised characters.

There is a commentary to the Sanzijing written by Zhao Nanxing 趙南星 (1550-1627) which is included in the collectanea Meiniezhai yishu 昧檗齋遺書, as well as a textual explanation called Sanzijing xungu 三字經訓詁 and written by Wang Xiang 王相 (early 18th cent.).

The collectanea Guangrentang congshu 廣仁堂叢書 includes the supplement Guang sanzijing 廣三字經 written by a certain Master Jiaoxuan 蕉軒氏 (late 19th cent., author of the collection Jiaoxuan suilu 蕉軒隨錄). The latest commentary, Chongding sanzijing 重訂三字經, was written by Zhang Binglin 章炳麟 (1869-1936).

Shang Zhaozhi 尚兆志 (dates unknown) wrote an illustrated commentary to the Sanzijing, Sanzijing zhutu 三字經注圖, that was printed by the Li Guangming Zhuang Press 李光明莊.

An enlarged version of the Sanzijing was created by Xu Yinfang 許印芳 (1832-1901). It is called Zengding qimeng sanzi jing 增訂啟蒙三字經 and consists not only of three-syllable phrases but also of longer ones constituting coherent thematical paragraphs. It is included in the collectanea Yunnan congshu 雲南叢書.

Another imitation of the Sanzijing is Yu Maoxun's 余懋勛 Sanzijian 三字鑒 with a length of 2,700 words. Another imitation with four-syllable verses is Xiao Liangyou's 肖良友 Sizijing 四字經 "Four-Characters Classic" from the Ming period 明 (1368-1644). It is 4,400 words long.

The Sanzijing belongs to the "canon" of elementary education, the San-Bai-Qian 三百千, which also includes the texts Baijiaxing 百家姓 and Qianziwen 千字文 (or Qianjiashi 千家詩, alternatively).

Quotation 1. Verses from the Sanzijing 三字經
人之初,性本善;
性相近,習相遠。
Men at their birth are naturally good. Their natures are much the same; their habits become widely different.
苟不教,性乃遷;
教之道,貴以專。
If foolishly there is no teaching, the nature will deteriorate. The right way in teaching is to attach the utmost importance in thoroughness.
昔孟母,擇鄰處;
子不學,斷機杼。
[...]
Of old, Mengzi's mother chose a [good] neighbourhood. When her son did not learn, she broke the shuttle from the loom. [in order to show him that only constant learning leads to success].
玉不琢,不成器;
人不學,不知義。
為人子,方少時;
親師友,習禮儀。
[...]
If jade is not polished, it cannot become a thing of use. If a man does not learn, he cannot know his duty towards his neighbour. He who is the son of a man, when he is young should attach himself to his teachers and friends, and practise ceremonial usages.
一而十,十而百,
百而千,千而萬。
Units and tens, tens and hundreds, hundreds and thousands, thousands and tens of thousands.
三才者,天地人。
三光者,日月星。
The three "Forces" are Heaven, Earth, and Man. The three "Luminaries" are the sun, the moon, and the stars.
三綱者,君臣義,
父子親,夫婦順。
The the "Bonds" are the obligation between sovereign and subject, the love between father and child, the harmony between husband and wife.
曰春夏,曰秋冬;
此四時,運不窮。
We speak of spring and summer, we speak of autumn and winter. These four seasons revolve without ceasing.
曰南北,曰西東;
此四方,應乎中。
[...]
We speak of North and South, we speak of East and West. These four points respond to the requirements of the centre.
稻粱菽,麥黍稷;
此六穀,人所食。
Rice, spiked millet, pulse, wheat, glutinous millet, and common millet. These six grains are those which men eat.
馬牛羊,雞犬豕;
此六畜,人所飼。
The horse, the ox, the sheep, the fowl, the dog, the pig. These six animals, are those which men keep.
曰喜怒,曰哀懼,
愛惡欲,七情具。
We speak of joy, of anger, we speak of pity, of fear, of love, of hate, and of desire. These are the seven passions.
匏土革,木石金,
絲與竹,乃八音。
The gourd, earthenware, skin, wood, stone, metal, silk, and bamboo, yield the eight musical timbres.
高曾祖,父而身,
身而子,子而孫,
自子孫,至玄曾;
乃九族,人之倫。
Great great grandfather, great grandfather, grandfather, father and self, self and son, son and grandson, from son and grandson on to great grandson and great great grandson. These are the nine agnates, constituting the kinships of man.
父子恩,夫婦從,
兄則友,弟則恭,
長幼序,友與朋,
君則敬,臣則忠;
此十義,人所同。
[...]
Affection between father and child, harmony between husband and wife, friendliness on the part of elder brothers, respectfulness on the part of younger brothers, precedence between elders and youngers, as between friend and friend, respect on the part of the sovereign, loyalty on the part of the subject. These ten obligations, are common to all men.
凡訓蒙,須講究;
詳訓詁,明句讀。
為學者,必有初;
小學終,至四書。
論語者,二十篇;
群弟子,記善言。
孟子者,七篇止;
講道德,說仁義。
作中庸,子思筆;
中不偏,庸不易。
作大學,乃曾子;
自脩齊,至平治。
[...]
In the education of the young, there should be explanation and elucidation, careful teaching of the interpretations of commentators, and due attention to paragraphs and sentences. Those who are learners, must have a beginning. The "little learning" finished, they proceed to the four books. There is the Lunyu, in twenty sections. In this, the various disciples have recorded the wise sayings of Confucius. The works of Mencius are comprised in seven sections. These explain the way and the exemplification thereof, and expound charity and duty towards one's neighbour. The Zhongyong was written by the pen of Zisi; "the middle" (zhong) being that which does not lean towards any side, "the course" (yong) being that which cannot be changed. He who wrote the "Great Learning" was the philosopher Zeng. Beginning with cultivation of the individual and ordering of the family, it goes on to government of one's own State and ordering of the Empire.
自羲農,至黃帝;
號三皇,居上世。
唐有虞,號二帝;
相揖遜,稱盛世。
夏有禹,商有湯,
周文武,稱三王。
[...]
From Fu Xi and Shen Nong on to the Yellow Emperor, these are called the Three Rulers, who lived in the early ages. Tang (Yao) and You-Yu (Shun) are called the two emperors. They adbicated, one after the other, and theirs was called the Golden Age. The Xia dynasty has Yu [the Great]; the Shang dynasty has Tang [the Perfect]; the Zhou dynasty had Wen and Wu; these are called the Three Kings
犬守夜,雞司晨;
苟不學,曷為人?
蠶吐絲,蜂釀蜜;
人不學,不如物。
幼而學,壯而行;
上致君,下澤民。
揚名聲,顯父母;
光於前,裕於後。
人遺子,金滿籯;
我教子,惟一經。
勤有功,戲無益;
戒之哉,宜勉力。
The dog keeps guard by night; the cock proclaims the dawn. If foolishly you do not study, how can you become men? The silkworm produces silk, the bee makes honey. If a man does not learn, he is not equal to the brutes. Learn while young, and when grown up apply what you have learnt; influencing the sovereign above; benefiting the people below. Make a name for yourselves, and glorify your father and mother, shed lustre on your ancestors, enrich your posterity. Men bequeath to their children coffers of gold; I teach you children only this one book. Diligence has its reward; play has no advantages. Oh, be on your guard, and put forth your strength.
Note: Translation by Herbert A. Giles (1900). Elementary Chinese: San Tzu Ching 三字經 (Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh).
Sources:
Jiaoyu da cidian bianzuan weiyuanhui 教育大辭典編纂委員會, ed. (1991). Jiaoyu da cidian 教育大辭典 (Shanghai: Shanghai jiaoyu chubanshe), Vol. 8, 211.
Li Ming 黎明 (1993). "Sanzijing 三字經", in Zhongguo xiaoxue jiaoxue baike quanshu 中國小學教學百科全書, Yuwen 語文 (Shenyang: Shenyang chubanshe), 90.