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 people, young and old. Until the 1800s, the “Three Character Classic” was the first text that every child would study.
The text’s short, simple, and rhythmic three-character verses allowed for easy reading and reciting, while the content covered a broad range of topics. It not only helped children learn common Chinese characters, grammar structures, and lessons from Chinese history but also, above all, enabled them to develop an understanding of traditional Chinese culture and the upright ways of conducting themselves as good people.
The very first lesson in the “Three Character Classic” teaches children about their original pure nature:
People at birth
Are good by nature.
Their natures are much the same,
Their habits become widely different.
In other words, people are born innately good. Infants may vary in their personality, but by and large they share similar qualities of innocence and purity.
However, as the young grow up and are influenced by different people, environments, and experiences, they develop priorities and habits that can lead them to become very different individuals.
For example, some learn to value family and filial piety as being of the highest importance; others learn to cherish money above all things. Some find gratification through material gains; others find meaning in spiritual pursuit.
Same Background, Different Values
The following anecdote illustrates how two people who grew up together can turn out very differently. A Chinese writer relates how her father, a carpenter named Jing, was a kind, honest, and respectful man who was well liked by everyone in his village for his good character.
Jing had an old classmate and friend named Wang. One day, Wang invited Jing to his house for dinner.
As they were chatting, Jing saw that an old man who looked like a servant was cooking for them and serving them tea and wine. He asked Wang, “Who is this elderly man?”
When Wang replied, “That’s my father,” Jing was shocked.
Jing jumped up and said to Wang’s father, “Uncle, please sit down.” He helped the elderly man into his seat, poured him a glass of wine, and respectfully said, “Uncle, please forgive my rudeness.”
Then, turning to Wang, Jing said, “I am no longer your friend. You don’t know how to respect your elders.” He picked up his tools and walked out the door.
Jing had learned from a young age that one must be respectful to one’s elders and teachers. Wang, on the other hand, never learned to take this principle seriously. Despite growing up as old friends, the two had developed widely different characters and values.
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.
The story of Kou Zhun, a prime minister who lived during China’s Northern Song Dynasty, offers an example.
Kou was born into a family of intellectuals. However, his father died when Kou was young, and he was raised by his mother, who wove fabric to help them get by.
Despite their poverty, Kou’s mother taught and urged Kou to work hard so that he could one day make great contributions to society.
Kou proved to be extremely intelligent, and at 18, he passed the national examinations with outstanding results. He was thus among the 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, she 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, please give him this painting.”