Education in Ancient China From the ‘Three Character Classic’
Education in Ancient China From the ‘Three Character Classic’

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.

It is said in the Three Character Classic: 

To raise without teaching
is the father’s fault.
To teach without strictness
is the teacher’s laziness.

If the child does not learn,
this is not as it should be.
If he does not learn while young,
what will he be like when old?

If jade is not polished,
it cannot become a thing of use.
If a man does not learn,
he will not know the virtues of honesty and righteousness.

The ancient Chinese always had a thing about education—kids were expected to go to school (if it was within the family’s means) and to invest a good amount of time and effort in studying.

The Three Character Classic alludes to how important education was in ancient Chinese culture. “If the child does not learn, this is not as it should be. If he does not learn while young, what will he be like when old?” Education was not just an asset, but a mandatory part of a child’s development.

In particular, education and schooling were considered essential for grooming a child’s values and character. “If jade is not polished, it cannot become a thing of use. If a man does not learn, he will not know the virtues of honesty and righteousness.”

Why did the ancient Chinese think this way? To understand why, one must realize that ancient Chinese education was rather different from our education system today.

Confucianism: the Core of Ancient Chinese Education

Our modern education system predominantly emphasizes the teaching of technical knowledge, including mathematics and science, language skills, and social studies.

In contrast, education in ancient China was largely based on Confucian classics. From a young age, children spent their schooling time learning and memorising Confucian texts like the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects of Confucius , the Book of Odes, and of course, the Three Character Classic.

At the core of Confucianism are five cardinal virtues — benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, faithfulness. Many values, such as loyalty, filial piety, courage, transparency, diligence, and so on are derived from it.

The teachings of Confucianism defined the moral standards for being a good person. They covered and effectively regulated the various strata of society, from the individual and the family unit, to society and the principles of governance.

Through the education system, Confucian values were imbued in children from a young age, and remained the backbone of education even at advanced, scholarly levels. At the same time, students developed their language skills and knowledge in social studies by studying these ancient texts.

This was the education standard for thousands of years, as dynasties rose and fell. With such wholesome and edifying core material, we now know why the ancient Chinese believed education was integral to a child’s moral development.

Enforcing Discipline in Education

To raise without teaching / is the father’s fault. To teach without strictness / is the teacher’s laziness.
— Three Character Classic

Of course, it wasn’t enough to have good values and education material at hand. The people who delivered the material—the parents and teachers—were equally important.

There is an ancient Chinese fable about a child who was spoiled by his mother. Having lost his father at a young age, this child became the apple of his mother’s eye.

She indulged him so much that when he bullied other kids, she would never reproach him. When he stole from the neighbors, she would not return the things he stole.

As the child grew up, his petty misdemeanors escalated into serious crimes. He robbed and looted from others, and committed arson by burning people’s homes. Yet his mother still refused discipline him, and instead praised him for his felonious abilities.

Finally, the son was captured by the authorities, and sentenced to death.

Before being executed, the son requested to see his mother one last time. When his mother arrived, the son shed tears as he said to his mother, “I hate you, mother. This is entirely your fault. When I was young, you never taught or disciplined me for my wrongdoings. Now, I don’t even have a second chance to turn over a new leaf…”

The son’s words broke his mother’s heart, as she realized it was true.

Teachers in ancient China were extremely strict, and even the youngest students were expected to sit properly and memorize the assigned material without a single mistake.

As mind-numbingly dreary as this sounds, this method of teaching was actually quite effective. Firstly, it tempered students to have excellent focus and endurance in studying. Secondly, it ensured that the wisdom of the sages was deeply imprinted in their minds, such that they could easily draw upon it from memory for the rest of their lives.

By enforcing classroom discipline from a young age, the teachers ensured that the students had a solid foundation for learning, which would serve them well for many years to come.

Education: The Great Equalizer

Besides building moral character and training discipline, education was also the greatest equalizing force in ancient China. It enabled those born to the humblest backgrounds to rise to the highest levels in society—to become government officials, strategic advisers, physicians, artists, and poets.

The imperial examinations, which were established during the Sui and Tang Dynasty, were the main drivers for meritocracy and social mobility. Before that, important government roles were assigned purely by recommendation, and this went to those from rich and influential families.

But the imperial examinations were open to everyone and anyone, and they gave the general public an equal chance to enter a governing role. In fact, during the Ming Dynasty, about 47 percent of candidates who passed the highest level of the examinations were from families with no official connections.

Because education was such an important ticket to a brighter future, those who did not have the opportunity to go to school greatly lamented their loss. One such person was a beggar named Wu Xun from the Qing Dynasty, who made his dream a reality for other underprivileged children.

Wu Xun’s father died when Wu was only five years old, and he and his mother begged to survive. But two years later Wu’s mother passed away as well, leaving Wu to fend for himself.

Wu supported himself by begging and doing odd jobs. While he didn’t mind the hardship, his greatest regret was that he didn’t have the opportunity to receive an education, like any other child. As such, he found it impossible to further himself and rise above his current status.

So Wu decided to set up a school for children of humble backgrounds, so that they would not suffer the same fate. For 30 years Wu raised funds by begging in the day and made rope to sell at night, and eventually managed to set up his school for underprivileged students.

The school proved extremely successful. Wu took an active interest in his students’ progress and was very respectful to the teachers. But whenever he saw teachers being lax or students being lazy, he would get on his knees and plead them to do their part. His sincerity inevitably moved the teachers and students to be more diligent, and no one dared to slacken.

Since ancient times, people have known the importance of education for one’s future. Even in our modern meritocratic society, people with good academic performance are given opportunities for social mobility. No matter how well one ultimately does, the chance to receive an education is something that should be treasured and never wasted.

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