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Learn Chinese with the Three Character Classic

In the article of “Economic lessons from Confucius for the new century,” 74 Nobel Prize winners in 1988 made the statement that “if human beings want to live in peace and prosperity in the 21st century, they must look back 2,500 years and seek the wisdom of Confucius.”

I would like to introduce San Zi Jing 三字经 to you.

What is The Three Character Classic: San Zi Jing?

San Zi Jing is named after the style of the book in which each and every sentence in the book only has three Chinese characters. It has been a classical Chinese literacy text since the 13th century. Although it was initially circulated in China as a primer for school children, it is more than a literacy text. Comparable to a pocket encyclopedia, it overviews Chinese history and important historical works containing the fundamentals of Confucianism, and teaches the basics of math and sciences, as well as a myriad of moral lessons. Learning San Zi Jing was the first step to becoming educated in China until the early 20th century. Studying classic Chinese text has always been an important part of language education in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and the overseas Chinese community.

In addition to many interesting stories and moral lessons, San Zi Jing overviews Chinese history by listing dynastical names, kings, and major historical events. It prescribes the curriculum sequence of traditional education as well. The highlight of San Zi Jing is its style. It is written in a three-word stanza or three-character-stanza poetic form. Its charm resides in its simplicity and beauty that is most conducive for reading, rhyming, and memorization. The following are excerpts of San Zi Jing:



A jade stone will not become a useful vessel if it is not processed through various stages of polishing and carving. In the same way, a person will not understand how to live a righteous life if he does not apply himself in learning.



In the past, Mencius’ mother relocated three times to avoid bad influences in the neighborhood in order for Mencius to concentrate on study. When Mencius stopped focusing on learning, she cut the fabric she was weaving to teach him a lesson that studying is like making a garment, and a garment cannot be made if the fabric is discontinued half way.

The Benefit of Studying San Zi Jing

It is very beneficial for heritage language learners and westerners whose goal is to become proficient in Chinese to be introduced to San Zi Jing. They will read the primary source of an ancient Chinese text to understand the moral foundation in Chinese culture, become familiar with the stories, people, and historical events in the book, thus joining a fine tradition of learning and the mainstream of Chinese thoughts.

When the students learn the San Zi Jing, they will be introduced to classic Chinese, which is different from modern Chinese. Although the grammar of classic Chinese is different from modern Chinese, the characters are the same. In addition, many lines in the book of San Zi Jing are used as idioms in modern Chinese. San Zi Jing would be a good book for vocabulary studies.

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