An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

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 Agents, 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 series 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 series 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 series 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. Chen Nianzu 陳念祖 xxx wrote an elementary book on medicine, Yixue sanzijing 醫學三字經, with a length of 4 juan.

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
Men at their birth are naturally good. Their natures are much the same; their habits become widely different.
If foolishly there is no teaching, the nature will deteriorate. The right way in teaching is to attach the utmost importance in thoroughness.
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].
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.
Units and tens, tens and hundreds, hundreds and thousands, thousands and tens of thousands.
The three "Forces" are Heaven, Earth, and Man. The three "Luminaries" are the sun, the moon, and the stars.
The the "Bonds" are the obligation between sovereign and subject, the love between father and child, the harmony between husband and wife.
We speak of spring and summer, we speak of autumn and winter. These four seasons revolve without ceasing.
We speak of North and South, we speak of East and West. These four points respond to the requirements of the centre.
Rice, spiked millet, pulse, wheat, glutinous millet, and common millet. These six grains are those which men eat.
The horse, the ox, the sheep, the fowl, the dog, the pig. These six animals, are those which men keep.
We speak of joy, of anger, we speak of pity, of fear, of love, of hate, and of desire. These are the seven passions.
The gourd, earthenware, skin, wood, stone, metal, silk, and bamboo, yield the eight musical timbres.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 Giles (1900).
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