Printer Friendly

San Zi Jing: a Chinese primer.

For centuries, the Chinese taught young children about moral principles; basic concepts of science, daily life, and history; and the importance of learning by fully taking advantage of classical primer reading materials, such as the San Zi Jing (The Three-Character Classic). San Zi Jing is a lens through which one can understand what constitutes the core curriculum of early childhood education in ancient China, as well as view the richness of Chinese culture, history, and civilization. Even though modern Chinese preschools are extensively integrating western philosophies and practices into the development of new curricula, the use of classic primer reading materials remains. They serve as an engine to preserve the "China taste" in early childhood education. In order to develop avenues to effectively balance the integration of western philosophies, the cultural trend shifts in a modern society, and Chinese ancient culture, Chinese scholars are called upon to reexamine the role of classical primers in contemporary early childhood education. This article examines the controversial issues regarding the teaching of such classics as San Zi Jing, in addition to informing the international community about what an exemplary classical Chinese primer encompasses.


In China, from the 13th to the 19th centuries, children's classics greatly enriched the opportunities for young children to learn how to read and write characters and learn basic subjects (including history, science, and moral principles that are highly valued by society). The best-known classical reading primers are San Zi Jing (The Three-Character Classic), Bai Jia Xin (The Hundred Family Surnames), and Qian Zi Wen (The Thousand-Character Classic). These three books, along with other primer reading materials, had significant influence on the education of young children in ancient China. Bai Jia Xin is a book about the common surnames used in ancient China. Qian Zi Wen is primarily used for teaching children about 1,000 basic Chinese characters and helping children to practice calligraphy. The author creatively arranged the 1,000 characters in rhymes without repeating a single character. Among these children's classics, San Zi Jing has received distinctive recognition for a number of reasons and is the classic that parents and schools use most often. From the 13th through the 19th centuries, Chinese parents and teachers of young children based their instruction on this book. San Zi Jing was so influential it was translated into languages spoken by minority ethnic groups in China at that time.


Most Chinese believe that building children's sense of moral responsibilities and desire for learning are integral parts of the traditional culture that need to be passed on from generation to generation. They regard San Zi Jing as one of the most appropriate reading materials for children in teaching these values. Unlike most books written in classical Chinese (which is vastly different from spoken languages and difficult for children to comprehend), San Zi Jing is written in a unique format that is easy for children to understand and memorize. Today, the teachings of San Zi Jing still have a far-reaching impact in preserving the "China taste" of contemporary Chinese early childhood education.

This article will describe key attributes of San Zi Jing, its influences on the education of young children, and current practices in families and preschools; and offer a classroom illustration of how a teacher integrated the teaching of this classical work during daily routines and activities.


Yinglin Wang, an ancient Chinese scholar, wrote San Zi Jing during the Song Dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.). One who is familiar with the evolution of Chinese language knows that the use of grass-style character writing was popularized and predominant during the Song Dynasty. In grass style, each character is written in one beautiful stroke; during the Song dynasty, Chinese children were learning to recognize and write these complicated characters. In the past 800 years, scholars made numerous revisions, footnotes, and illustrations to refine San Zi Jing. The last major revision added the three dynasties that succeeded the Song dynasty: Yuan, Ming, and Qing. This was done to perfect the book's description of the history of ancient China. Currently, San Zi Jing is available in simplified Chinese as well as in pin yin--a Romanized system that represents the sounds of Chinese language phonetically.

In the past decade, many researchers have examined the linguistic and semantic features of San Zi Jing (Cai, M., 2006; Cai, R., 2000; Cai, Y., 2003; Liu, 1995; Wang, 2005). A synthesis of research findings reveals two clear themes: unique sentence structure and content organization, both of which are fundamental reasons for San Zi Jing being considered the most important classic for young children. Even though the English translation of the book accurately reflects the meaning of the book, it fails to capture its exceptionality, due to syntax differences between the two languages.

Sentence Structure

The sentence structure of San Zi Jing supports the ways in which young Chinese children develop spoken language. First, San Zi Jing introduces over 1,000 Chinese characters. Due to different revisions over the centuries, the total number of characters used in the book varies from 1,044 to 1,248. Even though the number of characters in the Chinese language is unlimited, one needs to master approximately 3,500 characters in order to read daily newspapers and magazines, and one should master 5,000 to 6,000 characters in order to be successful in technical writing. The 1,000 characters introduced in San Zi Jing prepare young children to master the basics of the Chinese language. This preparation serves as a stepping-stone to reading more advanced literature. It is stunning to note that the author of this book used only three characters to form each sentence. The use of simple rhyming words makes the sentences easy for children to understand and memorize. Furthermore, San Zi Jing mainly uses nouns and verbs to construct sentences. In terms of sentence structure, the primer most frequently uses subject-predictor combinations ("The silkworm produced silk," "The bee makes honey") and subject-verb combinations (e.g., learn to count, learn to read). Young children tend to find these features helpful in learning words (character combinations) and sentence sequences. As a primer, the sentence structure of San Zi Jing is developmentally appropriate for young children learning the Chinese language.




Content Organization

The content of San Zi Jing largely reflects traditional values in the Chinese culture. Overall, the book covers a variety of topics and meets the needs for educating young children in the following five dimensions:

First, San Zi Jing advises children to read and learn. It describes the importance of learning from different points of view, and teaches children to commit themselves to the habit of studying. For example, "Men at their birth are naturally good. Their natures are much the same; their habits become widely different"; "If man does not learn, he is not equal to the brute." In addition, the primer illustrates examples of ancient saints and scholars as role models of meticulous learners. For instance, "Liu Yan of the Tang Dynasty, when only seven years of age, was ranked as an 'inspired child' (child prodigy) and was appointed a Corrector of Texts" (Corrector of Texts was a type of official rank in ancient China). Another story vividly illustrates the role of parents in children's learning: "Of old, the mother of Mencius chose a neighborhood and when her child would not learn, she broke the shuttle from the loom." There is no doubt that Chinese parents today, like the mother of Mencius, always seek an environment that is most suitable for their children's learning. They are willing to sacrifice their work and leisure time for their children's education.

Second, San Zi Jing provides children with guidance in following a sequence for reading great works. For example, the book says, "Those who are learners must have a beginning. The 'little learning' finished, they proceed to the four books." The book suggests that the sequence for reading classical literature can start with the "Classics of Filial Piety," "Four Books," or "Six Classics," followed by "The Books of Poetry, of History and of Changes." It is interesting that even though the contemporary nationally standardized Chinese reading and literary curriculum touches on classical literature, teachers do not systematically and intensively integrate classical literature to a degree that allows children to fully appreciate the beauty of the great works. According to Wang (1996), if a child consistently spends two to three minutes a day reading and memorizing classical literature for one year, that child is likely to improve his or her literacy level to a degree that is comparable to the level of an average high school student. However, most scholars would agree that unless a student has a personal preference for reading classical literature, the majority of these works are written in a less attractive format than many contemporary works and are less favored by children and youth (Huang, 1986).

Third, San Zi Jing describes moral principles governing relationships between father and son, siblings, couples, friends, and sovereign and subject. The following lines illustrate this concept: "To behave as a younger brother toward elders, is one of the first things to know. Begin with filial piety and fraternal love, and then see and hear"; "The three bonds are the obligation between sovereign and subject, the love between father and child, the harmony between husband and wife." These moral principles reflect the behavioral standards for children in ancient China. Although constraining, they provide guidance to children in forming necessary social behavior. Chinese children learn from a very young age, at home and at school, to pay great respect to parents, teachers, siblings, authorities, and the elderly.

Heightened concerns have been raised regarding children's sense of self-centeredness in contemporary China; many worry that the younger generation is ignoring traditional moral principles. As each family has only one child, that child often is spoiled by four grandparents. Thus, the new generation finds it difficult to live up to traditional standards. For instance, caring for the elderly is one of the strongest Chinese traditions. Chinese society expects young couples to carry on such traditions with both parents' families. The moral responsibility of this duty reportedly overwhelms many couples. A more extensive study of classical literature might be necessary to reinforce the teaching of traditional values and guide children to think about the moral consequences of their behaviors.

Fourth, San Zi Jing teaches basic knowledge of daily life, including numbers, time, solar terms, plants, and animals. For instance, "Rice, spike, pulse, wheat, glutinous millet, and common millet, these six grains, are those which men eat." Another great example is teaching of place values: "Units and tens, then tens and hundreds, hundreds and thousands, thousands and then ten thousands." These key points serve as a conceptual framework for teachers and parents in designing how to teach those subjects to children. Children who have memorized these key concepts find it easier to make connections with real-life applications.

Fifth, San Zi Jing teaches about classical works and historical events. For instance, it describes the Lun Yu (discourse of Analects) in this way: "There is the Lun Yu in twenty sections. In this, the various disciples have recorded the wise sayings of Confucius." It also vividly describes ancient Chinas emperors, capital cities, and other important facts. The 5,000-year history of ancient China reveals valuable lessons for new generations to learn from. A child who can clearly dictate these major events and key points of the history of ancient China can draw lessons from the past to meaningfully benefit his or her life and learning.

Overall, San Zi Jing covers a broad array of topics that are logically organized. Its nurturing of basic knowledge and teaching of moral education highlight the main features of education in ancient China. As a primer reading material, San Zi Jing inarguably represents the most useful and important children's classic since the Nan Song Dynasty in the 1300s.


Since the reforms of the late 1970s, Chinese people have been eager to abandon "old" thoughts and embrace "new" ideas in many domains. Undoubtedly, education beliefs and practices are important in this process. Contemporary early childhood education in China features a mixture of western philosophies (e.g., Piaget, Dewey, and Vygostky), communist culture, and traditional cultural beliefs (Zhu & Zhang, 2008). Western program models, such as Reggio Emilia and Montessori, became increasingly popular among public and private preschools. However, the ideology of these concepts has not been carefully examined in the Chinese social-cultural context. Therefore, many scholars questioned the appropriateness of integrating these programs (Jiang & Deng, 2008). In the midst of embracing foreign philosophies and programs to develop modern Chinese early childhood education, the roles of classical reading materials were diminished and neglected.

However, traditional cultural beliefs (such as the teaching of moral principles) are deeply rooted in the core value system of Chinese people and the society as a whole. Since the 1990s, reading ancient children's classics (predominantly represented by San Zi Jing) has gained popularity among scholars and parents. This trend of revisiting classics swiftly spread from Hong Kong and Taiwan to Mainland China (Shen, 2006).

Advocates of classics believe that young children's recitation from books such as San Zi Jing can support their moral and cognitive development (Guo, 2005). One of the most significant benefits is that it helps the youngest generation understand, preserve, and feel a sense of ownership for traditional Chinese culture. Wang (1996) suggests that young children should learn about classical literature when their memory is at its peak capacity for absorbing knowledge and their views of the world have not yet taken shape. It is believed that repeated reading energizes one to develop a genuine and dynamic character, although the child might not comprehend the material directly (Guo, 2005; Wang, 1996). Memorizing classical writing can also aid children's memory, enhance their abilities to pay attention, and provide learning strategies that enable a child to progress to his/her fullest potential. Through survey and interviews, Wu, Xie, Lu, and Chen (2005) found that the most prominent change in students' behaviors as a result of reading a classical book is their emphasis on moral principles. According to the parents, after reading such books, their children paid more respect to parents and the elderly, showed more empathy for peers, and formed a more harmonious relationship with siblings.

Some skeptics (Liu, 2004, 2006) question the benefits of reading classics. They believe the integration of this literature contradicts a scientifically based approach to education and they equate such efforts with revisiting old-school thoughts. They emphasize that most classical books written in traditional Chinese are difficult to comprehend at young children's developmental level. If educators insist on children memorizing verses from these books without an initial understanding, then they risk the children losing their motivation for learning classical literature as well as mastering the Chinese language. Moreover, some content and moral principles taught in the classics might be inappropriate for children living in a contemporary society. For example, one moral principle teaches women never to marry a second time under any circumstances in order to show her faithfulness and purity.

While learning the classics offers tremendous benefits, the potential drawbacks certainly must be considered. The benefits depend upon teachers' ability to cautiously select the appropriate materials, based on children's developmental characteristics, and carefully plan the instruction, based on learner preferences and their language abilities. Zhao (2009) advised that schools should implement the study of ancient classical literature in such a manner that it not only results in learning about Chinese culture, but also positively influences children's knowledge expansion and development of moral character. He implies that parents and teachers should avoid forcing children to drill and memorize. It is also necessary to logically adapt the content when it does not match with current scientific discoveries and beliefs.


The heated debate around the "classics reading trend" has provoked parents and educators to seek a balance between "new" and "old" beliefs and practices in the education of young children. San Zi Jing differs from most other classical books due to its unique structure; therefore, it offers positive insight into the development of modern preschool curricula. After meticulous consideration, many parents and early childhood facilities are infusing the teaching of San Zi Jing into daily routines and activities.

Teaching of San Zi Jing at Home

Many Chinese parents, especially those with a higher level of education and stable and above-average income, favor the use of San Zi Jing. They use the text to teach their children traditional moral principles and believe that such teachings allow their children to inherit the richness and excellence of ancient history and culture. These parents usually informally teach their children to recite each line from the book, using multimedia resources and picture illustrations that make it engaging for their children. A popular Chinese saying states, "Once you read the book many times, you will automatically understand its meaning." Chinese parents may put this precept into action by teaching their children to recite the text repetitively until they have memorized the verses. Then, parents might explain the stories or meanings drawn from the book and relate them to real-life examples. For instance, when teaching young children to share, parents frequently use the following story from the book: "Hsiang, at nine years of age, could warm (his parent's) bed. Filial piety toward parents is that to which we should hold fast."

Teaching of San Zi Jing in Preschools

Preschools in China mainly utilize two approaches when incorporating the teaching of San Zi Jing. With the indoctrination style, the preschools formally lead older children in repeatedly reciting San Zi Jing in order for them to memorize each line of the book. Preschools also use multimedia resources, such as audios and videos, to illustrate background stories from the book. This enhances children's understanding of the context and content of the book. With the immersion style, preschools may play the audio of San Zi Jing as background music during nap/lunch, free-play, and transition times. In addition to using multimedia resources, teachers will sometimes creatively integrate the text into dramatic play and have children role-play and act out the stories from San Zi Jing.

Illustration of a Preschool Classroom That Has Integrated San Zi Jing

Known for her creativity in teaching San Zi Jing by utilizing the transition times in daily routines, Ms. Yueming Hang says, "I chose to teach children San Zi Jing because it helps the children know traditional Chinese culture. When they are reading the verses in San Zi Jing, the children learn about Chinese history, astronomy, geology, morals, and folk stories. More importantly, this primer is short and concise, which makes it easy to read."

Ms. Hang selects only one verse every day. The children follow along as she reads the verse. The teacher explains the verse and tells the children the story reflected in the verse, which inspires the children to learn San Zi Jing and understand the meaning of each verse. For example, after they read, "Rong, at four years old, could yield the bigger pears," the teacher asks the children: "What do you think this verse means?" Some children answered: "We can eat pears when we are four." The teacher explained to the children that there is a story in this verse. The children were very surprised and interested to know that a story could be told in just one verse. Then the teacher told the children the story of "Rong Kong Yielded Pear." All the children paid full attention and listened to the teacher. When the teacher finished the story, the children not only understood the meaning of this verse, but also learned how to make a humble concession.

In order to make learning more fun, Ms. Hang leads the children in interpreting the verse with body language, just like students did in the ancient schools. Honghong is a very active child in the class. When the teacher led the children in reading San Zi Jing, he showed little interest and played by himself. When the teacher added body language to the reading, however, Honghong joined the other children in following the teacher. The teacher also invited him to stand and read the text aloud. The teacher and other children praised his performance. Since then, Honghong has shown more interest in learning San Zi Jing.


Ms. Hang applies different approaches to inspire the children's interest in San Zi Jing. Sometimes, the teacher reads the first half of the verse, and the children respond with the second half. On other occasions, she divides the class into small groups and leads a competition to see who can read the verse the fastest and the most accurately. Participating students have responded with a great deal of interest in San Zi Jing, especially the folk stories. If, for some reason, the teacher skips the lesson to give the children snacks, some children will ask: "Why don't we study San Zi Jing today?" Then, the children will ask the teacher to make it up. The parents report that their children have shown noticeable improvements in language, oral expression, and memory. They have been very pleased that their children have learned San Zi Jing, and they completely support these activities.


As a primer reader, San Zi Jing is an exemplary work and an ancient classic. It captures the magnificence of the Chinese culture and civilization and teaches a variety of subject knowledge to young children. Integrating San Zi Jing into an early childhood curriculum can enrich program quality, enhance children's understanding of traditional culture, and foster a sense of appreciation for classical literature. San Zi Jing also provides meaningful lessons on the importance of building one's moral character. Because of those reasons, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added the book to its collection of worldwide children's literature on moral education.

San Zi Jing is worthy for consideration when designing a modern Chinese early childhood education curriculum. It is hoped that future research can provide further empirical evidence on children's improvement in the areas of cognition, language, social behavior, and memory as a result of studying the text, as well as other practical implications for curriculum development. Such evidence can offer explicit guidelines on how to systematically support the integration of San Zi Jing into the curriculum and daily activities.



Cai, M. (2006). [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [Study on the educational thought in Three Character Classic]. Journal of Language and Literature Studies, 6, 2-3.

Cai, R. (2000). [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [A study on an ancient textbook: Three Character Classic]. Journal of Hebei Normal University (Educational Science), 3, 34-40.

Cai, Y. (2003). [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [Preliminary analysis on the modern educational value of ancient enlightenment textbook Three-Character Classic]. Journal of Hujian Institute of Education, 8, 91-92.

Guo, J. (2005). [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [Classical juvenile and cultural inheritance]. Journal of Hunan University of Science and Engineering, 1, 49-52.

Huang, Q. (1986). A survey of children's literature in China. The Lion and the Unicorn, 10, 23-25.

Jiang, Y., & Deng, S. (2008).[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [The pledge of situation and the culture transition of early childhood education]. Studies in Early Childhood Education, 160(4), 11-14.

Liu, H. (1995). [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [Brief comment on Three Character Scripture]. Journal of Jiangsu Institute of Education (Social Science), 1, 85-87.

Liu, X. (2004). [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [Discussing with Mr. Huai-jin Nan: Against the movement of children's reciting Chinese ancient classics]. Journal of Nanjing Normal University (Social Science), 3, 63-70.

Liu, X. (2006).[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [Discussing with Mr. Jiaqi Guo: Can children's reciting of Confucius classics foster children's moderation in their early ages]. Journal of Nanjing Normal University (Social Sciences), 6, 74-79.

Shen, L. (2006). [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [Reflection on the current movement of children reciting Chinese ancient classics]. Journal of the Chinese Society of Education, 5, 18-21.

Wang, C. (1996). [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [A handbook on how to teach children reading classical scriptures]. Taipei: Huashan Jiangtang.

Wang, X. (2005). [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [Initial discussion on the status of the Three Character Classic in the history of education]. Theory Horizon, l, 52-153.

Wu, L., Xie, H., tu, M., & Chen, S. (2005). [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [The influence of reading classics on children's study behaviors]. The E journal of Grade 1 to 9 Curricula of Zhanghua School District, 96. Retrieved from tw/94Webs/94paper33.htm

Zhao, N. (2009). [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [San Zi Jing revisited: The implications of traditional Chinese primers for the current kindergarten curriculum design]. Journal of Nanjing Normal University (Social Sciences), 4, 84-90.

Zhu, J., & Zhang, J. (2008). Contemporary trends and developments in early childhood education in China. International Journal of Early Years Education, 28(20), 173-182.

by Zong Shun Zhu and Bi Ying Hu

Zong Shun Zhu is Professor, Early Childhood Education, Hangzhou College of Preschool Teacher Education, Zhejiang Normal University, Hangzhou, China.

Bi Ying Hu is Assistant Professor, Early Childhood Special Education, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth.
COPYRIGHT 2011 Association for Childhood Education International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Zhu, Zong Shun; Hu, Bi Ying
Publication:Childhood Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Aug 15, 2011
Previous Article:A story to tell: the culture of storytelling and folklore in Ireland.
Next Article:Welcoming the world's children: building teachers' understanding of immigration through writing and children's literature.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters