Initiate a Fascinating Journey of learning Chinese with the Three Character Classic

By Phebe Xu Gray, Ph.D.

In the article of “Economic lessons from Confucius for the new century,” 74 Nobel Prize winners in 1988 made the statement that “if human beings want to live in peace and prosperity in the 21st century, they must look back 2,500 years and seek the wisdom of Confucius.” As Chinese language education is becoming ever increasingly strategic and popular, it is also wise to consider the inclusion of classic Chinese text in today’s Chinese language curriculum.

I would like to invite teachers to consider incorporating a traditional Chinese textbook, the Three Character Classic, known as San Zi Jing 三字经, into their classroom teaching. Upon reviewing contemporary Chinese language curriculum, the content of almost all levels of Chinese language text focus on modern Chinese instruction. While many introduce traditional Chinese cultural elements in the cultural section, few have entire chapters focused on original classic Chinese text.

What is The Three Character Classic: San Zi Jing?

San Zi Jing with commentary, Qing Dynasty. Picture taken by author at Harvard Yenching Library.

San Zi Jing is named after the style of the book in which each and every sentence in the book only has three Chinese characters. It has been a classical Chinese literacy text since the 13th century. Although it was initially circulated in China as a primer for school children, it is more than a literacy text. Comparable to a pocket encyclopedia, it overviews Chinese history and important historical works containing the fundamentals of Confucianism, and teaches the basics of math and sciences, as well as a myriad of moral lessons. Learning San Zi Jing was the first step to becoming educated in China until the early 20th century. Studying classic Chinese text has always been an important part of language education in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and the overseas Chinese community.

In addition to many interesting stories and moral lessons, San Zi Jing overviews Chinese history by listing dynastical names, kings, and major historical events. It prescribes the curriculum sequence of traditional education as well. The highlight of San Zi Jing is its style. It is written in a three-word stanza or three-character-stanza poetic form. Its charm resides in its simplicity and beauty that is most conducive for reading, rhyming, and memorization. The following are excerpts of San Zi Jing:


A jade stone will not become a useful vessel if it is not processed through various stages of polishing and carving. In the same way, a person will not understand how to live a righteous life if he does not apply himself in learning.


In the past, Mencius’ mother relocated three times to avoid bad influences in the neighborhood in order for Mencius to concentrate on study. When Mencius stopped focusing on learning, she cut the fabric she was weaving to teach him a lesson that studying is like making a garment, and a garment cannot be made if the fabric is discontinued half way.

The Benefit of Studying San Zi Jing

It is very beneficial for heritage language learners and westerners whose goal is to become proficient in Chinese to be introduced to San Zi Jing. They will read the primary source of an ancient Chinese text to understand the moral foundation in Chinese culture, become familiar with the stories, people, and historical events in the book, thus joining a fine tradition of learning and the mainstream of Chinese thoughts.

When the students learn the San Zi Jing, they will be introduced to classic Chinese, which is different from modern Chinese. Although the grammar of classic Chinese is different from modern Chinese, the characters are the same. In addition, many lines in the book of San Zi Jing are used as idioms in modern Chinese. San Zi Jing would be a good book for vocabulary studies.

I have used this book to teach Chinese language and culture to college level students with novice proficiency in Chinese. They are able to recognize selected characters in the book. Most of all, they are most thrilled to understand the meaning and experience vicariously what ancient Chinese children study.

How to Incorporate San Zi Jing into the Classroom

Even beginning level students can learn excerpts of San Zi Jing to study the characters and its cultural context. For example, the first word of San Zi Jing is “ren 人 (people),” which is a one of the most frequently used character in Chinese.

Collection of various versions of San Zi Jing at the Rare Book Depository at Harvard Yenching Library. Picture taken by author.

For beginning and intermediate level learners, I would suggest that teachers present selected paragraphs from San Zi Jing systematically while using other textbooks as the main text. On the other hand, advanced level learners can study the entire book of San Zi Jing, with the aid of modern Chinese and English translations. Knowing San Zi Jing certainly helps with superior level speakers as their proficiency level is to be equivalent of “educated native speakers.” San Zi Jing is certainly most ideal for any Chinese culture class, as it demonstrates what the Chinese students actually study in their formative years.

If possible, I would suggest that Chinese teachers create an “Enrichment Class” in teaching San Zi Jing, where the students learn the entire book of San Zi Jing line by line, with the help of modern Chinese translation and English translation, depending on the age and proficiency level.

Both young and adult students can learn San Zi Jing. Younger students between the age of 3-5 can be taught to recite San Zi Jing without knowing the characters and the word to word translation in Chinese. They can learn the meaning of San Zi Jing through pictures and role playing. Older students and adults, depending on their proficiency level, can either learn selected lines and characters or the entire book.

Challenges for the Teacher

In order to successful incorporate original classic Chinese into classroom teaching, teachers have to overcome various challenges. As there are no ready-made lesson plans, teaching materials or assessment critera for teaching classic Chinese, teachers have to make their own. Also, while it is ideal for the teachers to encourage the students to memorize San Zi Jing, the students may find it a challenging task. They might also challenge the content of San Zi Jing, as it was a 13th century classic text. Furthermore, many teachers may be less confident teaching classic Chinese as they themselves are not well trained in this area.

As a Chinese language teacher, I never formally studied nor read San Zi Jing before I translated it into modern Chinese and English. The reason I translated the book is because I wanted to learn it. There are ample resources to help both students and teachers understand the original San Zi Jing with English and Modern Chinese translations. It would be beneficial if teachers share objectives, syllabi, and lesson plans in teaching San Zi Jing among the Chinese language teaching and learning community.

While it may be challenging to incorporate classic Chinese text into contemporary Chinese language education, it is time to consider this issue. Innovative teachers can incorporate San Zi Jing into today’s curriculum with success. The Three Character Classic San Zi Jing is an excellent tool. It will serve to initiate a fascinating journey of learning traditional Chinese text that are hundreds and thousands of years old, which is not only a treasure to the Chinese culture, but a treasure to humanity as well.

Phebe Xu Gray, Associate Professor of Chinese at Lee University, Cleveland, TN, received her Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in Foreign Language Education. She is the author of The Three Character Classic: A Bilingual Reader of China’s ABCs. (Homa & Sekey, 2011) and The Dragons without Eyes (Pro-Lingua Associates, 2008).