Three Character Classic

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Three Character Classic
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese三字經
Simplified Chinese三字经
Hanyu PinyinSānzì Jīng
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetTam tự kinh
Chữ Hán三字經
Korean name
Japanese name

The Three Character Classic (Chinese: 三字经, 三字經), commonly known as San Zi Jing,[1] also translated as Trimetric Classic,[2] is one of the Chinese classic texts. It was probably written in the 13th century and is mainly attributed to Wang Yinglin (王應麟, 1223–1296) during the Song dynasty. It is also attributed to Ou Shizi (1234–1324).

The work is not one of the traditional six Confucian classics, but rather the embodiment of Confucianism suitable for teaching young children.[3] Until the latter part of the 1800s, it served as a child's first formal education at home. The text is written in triplets of characters for easy memorization. With illiteracy common for most people at the time, the oral tradition of reciting the classic ensured its popularity and survival through the centuries.[citation needed] With the short and simple text arranged in three-character verses, children learned many common characters, grammar structures, elements of Chinese history and the basis of Confucian morality, especially filial piety and respect for elders (the Five Relationships in Chinese society).[4]

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Three Character Classic formed the basis of elementary education, along with Hundred Family Surnames and Thousand Character Classic.[5] The group came to be known as San Bai Qian (Three, Hundred, Thousand), from the first character in their titles. They were the almost universal introductory literacy texts for students, almost exclusively boys, from elite backgrounds and even for a number of ordinary villagers. Each was available in many versions, printed cheaply, and available to all since they did not become superseded. When a student had memorized all three, they could recognize and pronounce, though not necessarily write or understand the meaning of, roughly 2,000 characters (there was some duplication among the texts). Since Chinese did not use an alphabet, this was an effective, though time-consuming, way of giving a "crash course" in character recognition before going on to understanding texts and writing characters.[6]

The text fell into disuse during the Cultural Revolution given the state's opposition to non-socialist ideologies. The classic, however, continued to circulate in other parts of the Chinese-speaking world with its inclusion in the Chinese Almanac (通勝) along with several other classics such as the Thousand Character Classic.

The first four verses state the core credo of Confucianism, that is, that human nature is inherently good, as developed by Mencius, considered one of the most influential traditional Chinese philosophers after Confucius.[3]

人之初 (rén zhī chū) People at birth,
性本善 (xìng běn shàn) Are naturally good (kind-hearted).
性相近 (xìng xiāng jìn) Their natures are similar,
習相遠 (xí xiāng yuǎn) (But) their habits make them different (from each other).

Even nowadays, the above two introductory quotes are very familiar to most youth in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, if not known by heart. Though the work is no longer taught at public schools (it is still taught in Beijing today if not in all schools), some parents still use this classic to teach their young children to pronounce Chinese characters. It is sometimes a game for elementary school children to show off who can recite the most sentences from this classic.[citation needed]


The Three Character Classic was translated in 1796 into Manchu as ᠮᠠᠨᠵᡠ ᠨᡳᡴᠠᠨ ᡥᡝᡵᡤᡝᠨᡴᠠᠮᠴᡳᠮᡝ ᠰᡠᡥᡝ ᠰᠠᠨ ᡤᡳᠩ ᠪᡳᡨᡥᡝ (Wylie: Manchu nikan ghergen i kamtsime sughe San tsz' ging pitghe; Möllendorff: Manju nikan hergen-i kamcime suhe San ze ging ni bithe).

The most well-known English translation of the text was completed by Herbert Giles in 1900 and revised in 1910.[7] The translation was based on the original Song dynasty version.[citation needed] Giles had completed an earlier translation in the late 19th century but he rejected that and other early translations as inaccurate. Earlier translations into English include those by Robert Morrison, 1812; Solomon Caesar Malan and Hung Hsiu-chʻüan, 1856, and Stanislas Julien, 1864.

A Christian Three Character Classic (Chinese: 新增三字經; Pinyin: Xīnzēng Sānzì Jīng) by Walter Henry Medhurst was first published in 1823 as an aid to missionary education. The three-character rhyming format was retained but the content was completely different.[8]


The first and second page of Tam tự kinh thích nghiã 三字經釋義. It shows the original text of the Three Character Classic 三字經 annotated with the Vietnamese translation.
In the book, Tam tự kinh giải âm diễn ca, shows the original text of 三字經 alongside the Vietnamese translation.
Second and third page of Tam tự kinh lục bát diễn âm 三字經六八演音

The earliest recorded date that the Three Character Classic was introduced to Vietnam is around 1820-1830 according to primary sources at the time.[9] From there, it was circulated and modified. Different variants of the text began to emerge.[10] The texts would either have different characters used, new lines, or different ordering. The most common variant of the Three Character Classic in Vietnam has 30 lines that are different from the Chinese edition.[10] There are also two lines in the Vietnamese version that does not exist in the Chinese version.

Line Vietnamese Chinese
28 不知理 不知義
36 所當識 所當執
39 悌於長 弟於長
41 首孝悌 首孝弟
44 識某名 識某文
49 一太極 No
50 二陰陽 No
84 曰哀樂 曰哀懼
86 乃七情 七情具
89 與絲竹 絲與竹
96 至曾玄 至元曾
103 君則敬 長幼序
104 臣則忠 友與朋
105 長幼序 君則敬
106 朋友公 臣則忠
115 由孝經 小學終
126 乃孔伋 子思筆
139 號五經 號六經
149 我姬公 我周公
151 梂六典 梂六官
160 當詠諷 當諷詠
188 稱盛治 稱盛世
266 心而推 心而惟
292 猶苦學 猶苦卓
303 對大庭 對大廷
305 彼晚成 彼既成
322 且聰明 且聰敏
324 當少成 當自警
334 亦如是 亦若是
350 垂於後 裕於後

The two lines were added to form a full sequence of numbers (Chinese version begins from three to ten).[11]

  • One (nhất thái cực 一太極)
  • Two (nhị âm dương 二陰陽)
  • Three (tam tài 三才, tam quang 三光, tam cương 三綱)
  • Four (tứ thời 四時, tứ phương 四方)
  • Five (ngũ hành 五行, ngũ thường 五常)
  • Six (lục cốc 六穀, lục súc 六畜)
  • Seven (thất tình 七情)
  • Eight (bát âm 八音)
  • Nine (cửu tộc 九族)
  • Ten (thập nghĩa 十義)

The text was also translated into vernacular Vietnamese, with the books such as Tam tự giải âm 三字解音, Tam tự kinh diễn âm 三字經演音,[12] Tam tự kinh giải âm diễn ca 三字經解音演歌,[13] Tam tự kinh thích nghiã 三字經釋義,[14] and Tam tự kinh lục bát diễn âm 三字經六八演音[15] having chữ Nôm characters annotating the original text.

Differences in Chinese texts[edit]

The following stanzas do not appear in the Giles translation and originally appeared in Simplified Chinese. They list the dynasties that followed the Song dynasty up to and including the founding of Republican China. These stanzas were probably added cumulatively sometime between late 13th century and after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Simplified Chinese Traditional Chinese Pinyin Translation
辽与金 皆称帝 遼與金 皆稱帝 liáoyǔjīn jiēchēngdì The Liao and Jin (dynasties),
both claimed to be emperors.
太祖兴 国大明 号洪武 都金陵 太祖興 國大明 號洪武 都金陵 tàizǔxīng guódàmíng hàohóngwǔ dūjīnlíng Taizu rises,
his country is the Great Ming.
His regnal name is Hongwu,
his capital at Jinling.
迨成祖 迁燕京 十六世 至崇祯 迨成祖 遷燕京 十六世 至崇禎 dàichéngzǔ qiānyànjīng shíliùshì zhìchóngzhēn By the time Chengzu started ruling,
he moved (his capital) to Yanjing.
(His dynasty) lasted for sixteen successions,
until the Chongzhen Emperor.
阉乱後 寇内讧 闯逆变 神器终 閹亂後 寇內訌 闖逆變 神器終 yānluànhòu kòunèihòng chuǎngnìbiàn shénqìzhōng Eunuchs stir up trouble in the palace,
rebels cause internal conflict.
The Dashing King starts a rebellion,
the Divine Utensil comes to an end.
清顺治 据神京 至十传 宣统逊 清順治 據神京 至十傳 宣統遜 qīngshùnzhì jùshénjīng zhìshíchuán xuāntǒngxùn The Shunzhi Emperor of Qing,
seized the Imperial Capital.
After ten generations,
the Xuantong Emperor abdicated.
举总统 共和成 复汉土 民国兴 舉總統 共和成 復漢土 民國興 jǔzǒngtǒng gònghéchéng fùhàntǔ mínguóxìng A President is elected,
the Republic is formed.
Chinese soil was recovered,
the Republic of China flourishes.
廿二史 全在兹 载治乱 知兴衰¹ 廿二史 全在茲 載治亂 知興衰¹ niànèrshǐ quánzàizī zàizhìluàn zhīxīngshuāi The Twenty-two Dynastic Histories,
are all embraced in the above.
They contain examples of good and bad government,
whence may be learnt the principles of prosperity and decay.

¹ this line replaces the original one in the Song version where it says "The Seventeen Dynastic Histories... 十七史...".


The first two lines were recited at the Academy Awards 2021 by Chloé Zhao, the award winner for best director.[16][17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "San Zi Jing". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2010-08-15.
  2. ^ Minjie Chen (22 January 2016). The Sino-Japanese War and Youth Literature: Friends and Foes on the Battlefield. Routledge. pp. 15–. ISBN 978-1-317-50881-6.
  3. ^ a b Scollon, Ron; Suzanne Wong Scollon; Rodney H. Jones (3 January 2012). Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach. Vol. 35. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 166–167. ISBN 9780470656402.
  4. ^ Kutcher, Norman (2006). Mourning in Late Imperial China: Filial Piety and the State. Cambridge University Press. pp. 27. ISBN 9780521030182.
  5. ^ Johnson, David; Andrew James Nathan (1987). Popular Culture in Late Imperial China. University of California Press. p. 29. ISBN 9780520061729.
  6. ^ Rawski (1979), pp. 46–48.
  7. ^ "Elementary Chinese ... San tzu ching". Shanghai, Kelly & Walsh. 1900.
  8. ^ Guo, Hong (2022-11-15), "From Children's Instructional Textbook to Missionary Tool: the Publication History of the Christian Three-Character Classic from 1823 to 1880", Beyond Indigenization: Christianity and Chinese History in a Global Context, BRILL, pp. 202–224, ISBN 978-90-04-53212-0, retrieved 2023-04-23
  9. ^ Nguyễn, Tuấn Cường (2015). "Giáo dục Hán văn bậc tiểu học tại Việt Nam thời xưa qua trường hợp sách Tam tự kinh". p. 5.
  10. ^ a b Nguyễn, Tuấn Cường (2015). "Giáo dục Hán văn bậc tiểu học tại Việt Nam thời xưa qua trường hợp sách Tam tự kinh". p. 24.
  11. ^ Nguyễn, Tuấn Cường (2015). "Giáo dục Hán văn bậc tiểu học tại Việt Nam thời xưa qua trường hợp sách Tam tự kinh". p. 25.
  12. ^ "三字經演音 Tam tự kinh diễn âm". Nom Foundation. n.d.
  13. ^ "三字經解音演歌 | Tam tự kinh giải âm diễn ca". Nom Foundation. 1888.
  14. ^ "Tam-tự- kinh thích-nghĩa. 三字經釋義". Bibliothèque nationale de France. 1873.
  15. ^ "三字經六八演音 Tam tự kinh lục bát diễn âm". Nom Foundation. 1905.
  16. ^ "Chloé Zhao accepts Best Director Academy Award for 'Nomadland'". GMA. April 26, 2021. Archived from the original on 2021-12-12. Retrieved April 27, 2021. It's called the Three Character Classics. And the first phrase goes: 人之初, 性本善 - - People at birth are inherently good
  17. ^ "This year's Oscars could have been a moment of pride for China. Then politics got in the way". April 26, 2021. Retrieved April 27, 2021. Zhao said she used to recite classic Chinese poems and texts with her father, and one particular line from the Three Character Classic -- "People at birth are inherently good" -- had helped her keep going when things got hard.


  • Rutledge, Jayne (Translator) (2005). Three Character Primer. ISBN 7-80702-148-9. {{cite book}}: |author= has generic name (help) Original Chinese Text plus pinyin, modern Chinese translation, modern Chinese commentary and stories, plus complete translation of all material into English.
  • Rawski, Evelyn Sakakida (1979). Education and Popular Literacy in Ch'ing China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0472087533.

External links[edit]