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  [Sanzi Jing]

Three-Character Classic: A Confucian Roadmap for Kids

YellowTipThe Sanzi Jing, usually translated as the Three-Character Classic, has been a required text for all Chinese children and was used in Taiwan at least as late as the 1960s. Kids would recite it as a group, accompanied with the swaying of the body to give it a proper rhythm. It was written in the thirteenth century and usually attributed to Wang Yinglin (1223-1296), a renowned Confucian scholar. The "poem" consists of a series of couplets of three characters. The complete text is less than 1200 characters but in that limited space it manages to enumerate all of the salient features of the Confucian tradition. Children were required to memorize it, much as a Catholic Catechism might be, even before they could read and write. The text is broken down into five paragraphs, as follows:

In this translation, we have tried to keep the language simple and short to emulate the terseness of the original. After, all not much flowery language can really be created when every phrase has to be exactly three characters-long.

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Paragraph 1: The Basics

Original Translation Commentary

People at birth,
are naturally good.
Their natures are similar;
their habits become different.
Note the fundamental difference between Confucian and Western Christian thought. Confucianists believe that people are born pure while Western Christians believe that people are born sinners.

If, negligently, not taught,
their nature deteriorate.
The right way to teach,
is with absolute concentration.

Formerly, the mother of Mencius
chose a neighborhood.
When her child would not learn,
she broke the shuttle from the loom.
Mencius' mother moved her residence three times to avoid bad influence for her son. She remonstrated to her son by ruining a piece a cloth she was weaving to dramatize the effect of lack of diligence on studies.

Dou Yanshan,
had the right method.
He taught five sons,
each of whom raised the family reputation.
In the tenth century, Dou (Yujun), raised five sons, all of whom passed the Imperial Examination.

To feed without teaching,
is the father's fault.
To teach without severity,
is the teacher's laziness.

If a child does not study,
it is improper.
If he does not study while young,
how will he act when old?

Jade that has not been polished
cannot be used.
Person that has not studied
cannot know righteousness.
This couplet also stands alone as a Chinese proverb.

Being a human child,
there is little time.
He should engage teachers and friends;
and practice etiquette.

Xiang, at nine,
could warm (his parent's) bed.
Filial piety towards parents,
should be carried out.
Huang Xiang, one of the 24 classic examples of the filial piety, would cool down his parents' bed in the summer and warm in the winter. He became a prime minister.

Rong, at four,
could yield the (bigger) pears.
To behave as a younger brother towards elders,
is one of the first things to know.
Kong Rong, a descendant of Confucius, would yield the bigger pears to his elder brother.

Begin with filial piety and fraternal love,
then see and hear.
Learn to count,
learn to read.

One to ten,
ten to a hundred,
a hundred to a thousand,
a thousand to ten thousand.

The three forces:
heaven, earth and man.
The three lights:
sun, moon and stars.

The three principles:
duty between sovereign and subject,
love between father and child,
harmony between husband and wife.

We speak of spring and summer,
we speak of fall and winter,
These four seasons
revolve without end.

We speak of north and south,
we speak of east and west,
These four directions
depend on the center.

We speak of water, fire,
wood, metal and earth.
These five elements
have their origin in the numbers.
These are the five basic elements in traditional Chinese alchemy. The second sentence probably refers to the association of the basic elements with ying and yang interactions, which are usually represented by numbered trigrams.

We speak of benevolence, duty,
propriety, wisdom, and truth.
These five virtues
must not be compromised.

Rice, fine millet, beans,
wheat, glutinous millet, and common millet.
These six grains
are those which people eat.

Horse, ox, sheep,
chicken, dog, pig.
These six animals
are those which people raise.

We speak of joy, anger,
we speak of grief, fear,
love, hate, desire.
These are the seven emotions.

Gourd, earthenware, skin,
wood, stone, metal,
silk, bamboo,
yield the eight musical sounds.
These are the materials used to make musical instruments.

Great great grandfather, great grandfather, grandfather,
father and self,
self and child,
child and grandchild,

from child and grandchild,
on to great grandchild and great great grandchild.
These nine generations
that make up your family.

Kindness between father and child,
harmony between husband and wife,
friendliness from elder brothers,
respect from younger brothers.

Precedence between elders and youngers,
support between friends,
Respect from the sovereigns,
loyalty from the subjects.
These ten obligations,
are the same for all.
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