Monday, June 17, 2013

San Zi Jing (Three Character Classic) by Anonymous

Confucian crib notes
The Three Character Classic, or San Zi Jing, is a Chinese text that dates to about the 13th century (according to Wikipedia. I have seen other sources that date it a millennium earlier.) Though it is sometimes attributed to various writers, it’s authorship is unclear and often listed as Anonymous. The book’s title refers to the fact that it is written in lines composed of three characters each. These three-character phrases are arranged into stanzas, each consisting of four lines. For centuries this book was used to introduce the basic concepts of Confucianism to children, and it also served as a beginning language text. Children were often required to memorize the complete text, which is less than 1200 characters long, much like Catholic children were required to memorize the Catechism.

The San Zi Jing is divided into five sections, or paragraphs. The first is an introduction to basic Confucian concepts like the three principles, five elements, five virtues, and so on. The second lists a number of Confucian Classics recommended for study. The third provides a history of the dynasties that ruled China. Paragraph four gives examples of individuals who exhibited behavior exemplifying the Confucian code. The fifth paragraph is a brief conclusion urging children to work hard and study diligently. 

Those learning the Chinese written language might think that a book that’s been memorized by millions of Chinese schoolchildren would be a good place to start. That’s not the case with this one, however. The vocabulary is by no means elementary. It contains a lot of obscure characters, many of them proper names. The three-character phrases are so condensed that they read more like abstract suggestions of sentences, rather than complete thoughts. It takes a lot of effort and imagination for a novice to derive an English translation from them. Often the San Zi Jing reads not like a text or a poem but rather as a mnemonic device. When it lists the “Six Classics,” for example, it abbreviates the titles of the six books to a mere six characters. The dynastic history of China is almost a roll of surnames presented in chronological order, with no dates and little elaboration. Such linguistic condensation makes it difficult for a Westerner unfamiliar with the subject matter to make much sense of it. For those hoping to decipher this Confucian classic, you need either a Chinese teacher to guide you through the process, or an annotated bilingual edition. 

As a source of knowledge about Chinese culture in general or Confucianism specifically, the Three Character Classic raises more questions than it answers, but that in itself is valuable. It is essentially a book of lists that offers a series of topics, each of which requires further investigation to comprehend. Though it only provides a shallow overview of the Confucian tradition, it is a good starting point for those hoping to gain a better understanding of Chinese history and culture. 

Project Gutenberg offers a free ebook of the San Zi Jing, in Chinese, unannotated. At least five of the book’s characters are missing, however, having been inexplicably replaced by empty boxes. The Kindle does a fine job of displaying Chinese characters in the ebook file, but for some reason it is unable to display such characters on its home page, so where the book is listed the title of San Zi Jing is replaced by three boxes with question marks. For online study, the Chinese language learning site Yellow Bridge provides the Three Character Classic in its entirety with English translation and explanatory notes.

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