The Three Character Classic, or San Zi Jing, is the best known classic Chinese text for children. Written by Wang Yinlian (1223–1296) during the Song Dynasty, it has been memorized by generations of Chinese, both young and old. Until the 1800s, the Three Character Classic was the very first text that every child would study.
The text’s rhythmic, short, and simple three-character verses allowed for easy reading and memorization. This enabled children to learn common characters, grammar structures, lessons from Chinese history, and above all how to conduct oneself.
However, after the Cultural Revolution in China, the Three Character Classic was banned and eventually fell into disuse. In this series, we revive and review this great Chinese classic, drawing ancient lessons of wisdom for our modern-day lives.
The Three Character Classic’s very first lesson arises from a philosophical belief of the Confucian scholar Mencius, and which was echoed by other philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant:
People at birth
Are good by nature.
Their natures are much the same,
But their habits become widely different.
In other words, people are born innately good. As a result, their natures are very similar at the beginning. Young infants and toddlers may vary in their personality, but by and large they share similar natures of innocence and purity that we adults do not share as a whole.
However, as we grow up in differing living environments and are influenced by various people and experiences, we develop priorities and habits that push us further and further apart.
Some of us learn to value family and filial piety with utmost importance; others learn to value work and finances above all other things. Some find gratification in life through fulfilling material wants; others find meaning in spiritual pursuit.
The following real anecdote illustrates how two old friends grew up and developed very different personalities and values in life:
Same Background, Different Values
A Chinese writer relates how her father, Jing, was a respectful, kind, and honest man, who worked as a carpenter in a village in China. His good character made him well-liked by everyone.
Jing had an old classmate named Wang, whom he was good friends with. One day, Wang invited Jing over to his house for dinner and drinks.
As they were drinking and chatting, Jing noticed an elderly man, who looked like a servant, bringing them tea and wine and cooking food for them.
So he asked Wang, “Who is this elderly man?” Wang replied, ‘That’s my father.’
Jing was thunderstruck. He jumped up immediately and said to the elderly man, “Uncle, please sit down.” He helped the man into his seat, then poured him a glass of wine and said, “Uncle, please forgive my rudeness.”
Jing then turned to Wang and said, “I am no longer your friend. You don’t know how to respect your elders.” He picked up his tools and walked out. Wang tried to say something, but Jing was already gone.
Jing had learned from a young age that one must always be respectful to one’s elders and teachers. Wang, on the other hand, had not learnt to take this principle to heart. Despite being old friends and growing up in the same village, both Jing and Wang had developed widely different characters – one of which was better than the other.
Kou Zhun Receives a Lesson Beyond the Grave
So what makes a person become like Jing instead of Wang? The answer lies in the next stanza of the Three Character Classic:
If foolishly there is no teaching,
The nature will deteriorate.
The right way in teaching
Is to attach the utmost importance in thoroughness.
A person’s innately good nature is maintained through teaching and guidance throughout one’s life. Without guidance, however, this good nature can become corrupted.
A great example is the story of Kou Zhun, a prime minister who lived during China’s Northern Song Dynasty.
Kou was born into a family of intellectuals. However, Kou’s father died when Kou was young, and he was raised singlehandedly by his mother, who wove fabric to help them get by.
Despite their poverty and hardship, Kou Zhun’s mother taught him and urged him to work hard, so that he could one day make great contributions to society.
Kou proved to be extremely intelligent, and he did not disappoint his mother. At 18, he passed the National Examinations with outstanding results. He was thus among the lucky few to be selected by the emperor to become a government official.
The good news spread to Kou’s mother, who was seriously ill at the time. As she lay dying, Kou’s mother gave a faithful servant a painting she had made.
“Kou Zhun will one day become a government official,” she whispered. “If his character starts to go astray, give this painting to him.”
Kou Zhun eventually rose through the ranks to become prime minister, but fame and luxury began to get to his head. To show off his wealth and status, he decided to host an extravagant birthday celebration, replete with a banquet and opera performances.
Feeling that the time had come, the servant presented Kou with his mother’s painting. When Kou opened it, he saw a painting of himself reading a book under an oil lamp, with his mother weaving cloth by his side.
Written next to the painting were the words:
Watching you endure the hardship of studying under a dim light,
I hope that you become a better person and benefit many others in future.
Your doting mother has taught you the virtue of thrift;
In times of future wealth, never forget those who are poor, like we once were.
Kou Zhun read his mother’s words again and again, and then burst into tears. It was clear beyond doubt that he had not lived up to his mother’s expectations. He asked his guests to leave and called off the banquet.
Thanks to the timely reminder from Kou’s mother beyond the grave, Kou was saved from a downward spiral towards greed and corruption. From then on, Kou lived frugally, treated others generously, and carried out his official duties with high morals and integrity. He eventually became one of the most famous and beloved prime ministers of the Song Dynasty.
This heartwarming tale not only illustrates that guidance and teaching are necessary to groom one’s character, but the tale also carries a deeper message – because people are innately good, even those whose characters have gone astray can rediscover their good nature, and return to their original, truly good selves.
One famous example is the story of Zhou Chu, a ruffian who terrorized his village for decades. Upon realizing the error in his ways, he turned himself around and helped his village slay two monsters – a tiger and a dragon – that had plagued the village for years.
As long as we realize our mistakes and are determined to change, it is never too late to become an even better person.