The San Zi Jing (Three Character Classic) was written in the 13th century and attributed to Wang Yinglin (1223-1296). It is not one of the traditional six Confucian classics. It is rather a distillation of the essential Confucian thought, expressed in a way that is suitable for teaching young children. Until the latter part of this century, it served as a child's first bit of formal education at home. It is written in couplets of three characters (syllables) for easy memorization. One might call it a Confucian catechism.
George Yeo, then Singapore's Minister for Trade and Industry, in an address at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, described the work thus: "For centuries, Chinese children, before they could read or write, were taught to recite the San Zi Jing. Through which the Confucian idea of society being one big happy family is programmed into their young minds. The three-character phrases are like strands of cultural DNA, which are passed on from generation to generation." (Cf. Sanzijing at raptor.depauw.edu)
To hear how they sound, click:
Below the complete San Zi Jing in Chinese and English
San Zi Jing (Three Character Classic)
人之初 性本善 性相近 习相远
Men at their birth,
Are naturally good.
Their natures are much the same;
Their habits become widely different.
苟不教 性乃迁 教之道 贵以专
If there is no teaching,
The nature will deteriorate.
The right way in teaching,
Is to attach the utmost importance in thoroughness.
昔孟母 择邻处 子不学 断机杼
Of old, the mother of Mencius
Chose a neighborhood
And when her child would not learn,
She broke the shuttle from the loom.
窦燕山 有义方 教五子 名俱扬
Tou of the Swallow Hills
Had the right method
He taught five sons,
Each raised the family reputation.
养不教 父之过 教不严 师之惰
To feed without teaching,
Is the father's fault.
To teach without severity,
Is the teacher's laziness.
子不学 非所宜 幼不学 老何为
If the child does not learn,
This is not as it should be.
If he does not learn while young,
What will he be when old?
玉不琢 不成器 人不学 不知义
If the jade is not polished,
It will become a thing of use.
If a man does not learn,
He cannot know his duty towards his neighbor.
为人子 方少时 亲师友 习礼仪
He who is the son of a man,
When he is young,
He should attach himself to his teachers and friends;
And practice manners.
香九龄 能温席 孝於亲 所当执
Hsiang, at nine years of age,
Could warm his parent's bed.
Filial piety towards parents,
Is what we should hold fast.
融四岁 能让梨 弟於长 宜先知
Jung, at four years of age,
Is willing to share his pears.
To behave as a younger brother towards elders,
Is one of the first things to know.
首孝弟 次见闻 知某数 识某文
Begin with filial piety and fraternal love,
And then see and hear.
Learn to count,
And learn to read.
一而十 十而百 百而千 千而万
One and tens,
Tens and hundreds,
Hundreds and thousands,
Thousands and tens of thousands.
三才者 天地人 三光者 日月星
The three forces,
Are heaven, earth, and man.
The three luminaries,
Are the sun, the moon, and the stars.
三纲者 君臣义 父子亲 夫妇顺
The three bonds,
Are the obligation between sovereign and subject,
The love between father and child,
The harmony between husband and wife.
曰春夏 曰秋冬 此四时 运不穷
We speak of spring and summer,
We speak of autumn and winter,
These four seasons,
Revolve without ceasing.
曰南北 曰西东 此四方 应乎中
We speak of North and South,
We speak of East and West,
These four points,
Respond to the centre.
曰火水 木金土 此五行 本乎数
We speak of water, fire,
Wood, metal, and earth.
These five elements,
Have their origin in number.
曰仁义 礼智信 此五常 不容紊
We speak of charity, of duty towards our neighbor,
Of propriety, of wisdom, and of truth.
These five virtues,
Allow no compromises.
稻粱菽 麦黍稷 此六谷 人所食
Rice , spike, millet, pulse
Wheat, glutinous millet, and common millet,
These six grains,
Are what men eat.
马牛羊 鸡犬豕 此六畜 人所饲
The horse, the ox, the sheep,
the chicken, the dog, and the pig.
These six animals,
Are what men keep.
曰喜怒 曰哀惧 爱恶欲 七情具
We speak of joy, of anger,
We speak of pity, of fear,
Of love , of hate, and of desire.
These are the seven passions.
匏土革 木石金 与丝竹 乃八音
The ground, the earthenware, the skin
The wood, the stone, the metal,
The silk and the bamboo
Yield the eight musical sounds.
高曾祖 父而身 身而子 子而孙
Great great-grandfather, great-grandfather, grandfather,
Father and self,
Self and son,
Son and grandson,
自子孙 至玄曾 乃九族 人之伦
From son and grandson,
Onto great-grandson and great great-grandson.
These are the nine agnates,
Constituting the kinships of man.
父子恩 夫妇从 兄则友 弟则恭
Affection between father and child,
Harmony between husband and wife,
Friendliness on the part of elder brothers,
Respectfulness on the part of younger brothers,
长幼序 友与朋 君则敬 臣则忠
Precedence between elders and youths,
As between friend and friend.
Respect on the part of the sovereign,
Loyalty on the part of the subject.
These ten obligations,
are common to all men.
凡训蒙 须讲究 详训诂 名句读
In the education of the young,
There should be explanation and elucidation,
Careful teaching of the interpretations of commentators,
And due attention to paragraphs and sentences.
为学者 必有初 小学终 至四书
Those who are learners,
Must have a beginning.
The ‘Little Learning’ is finished,
They proceed to the four books.
论语者 二十篇 群弟子 记善言
There is the Lun Yu (discourse or Analects),
In twenty sections.
In this, the various disciples,
Have recorded the wise sayings of Confucius.
孟子者 七篇止 讲道德 说仁义
The works of Mencius,
Is composed of seven sections.
These explain the way and the exemplifications thereof,
And expound clarity and duty towards one's neighbor.
作中庸 子思笔 中不偏 庸不易
The Chung Yung (the doctrine of the mean),
By the pen of Tzu-su;
Chung (the middle) does not lean toward any side,
Yung (the course) cannot be changed.
作大学 乃曾子 自修齐 至平治
He who wrote the 'Great Learning'
Was the philosopher Tseng.
Beginning with cultivation of the individual and ordering of the family,
It goes onto government of one's own State.
孝经通 四书熟 如六经 始可读
When the 'Classic of Filial Piety' is mastered,
and the 'Four books' are known by heart.
The next step is to the 'Six classics',
which may now be studied.
诗书易 礼春秋 号六经 当讲求
The Books of Poetry, of History and of Changes.
The 'Rites of Chou Dynasty, the book of Tites, and the 'Spring and Autumn Annals'
Are the six classics
Should be carefully explained and analyzed.
有连山 有归藏 有周易 三易详
There is the Lien Shan System,
There is the Kuei Tsang
And there is the system of Changes of the Chou Dynasty,
Such are the three systems, which elucidate the changes.
有典谟 有训诰 有誓命 书之奥
There are the Regulations and the Counsels,
The Instruction, The Announcements,
The Oaths, The Charges,
These are the profundities of the Book of History.
我周公 作周礼 著六官 存治体
Our Duke of Chou,
Drew up the Ritual of the Chou Dynasty,
In which he set forth the duties of the six classes of officials;
And thus gave a settled form to the government.
大小戴 注礼记 述圣言 礼乐备
The Elder and the Younger Tai,
Wrote commentaries on the Book of Rites.
They publish the holy words,
And Ceremonies and Music were set in order.
曰国风 曰雅颂 号四诗 当讽咏
We speak of the Kuo Feng,
We speak of the Ya and the Sung.
These are the four sections of the Book of Poetry,
Which should be hummed over and over.
诗既亡 春秋作 寓褒贬 别善恶
When odes ceased to be made,
The Spring and Autumn Annals were produced.
These Annals contain praise and blame,
And distinguish the good from the bad.
三传者 有公羊 有左氏 有彀梁
The three commentaries upon the above,
Include that of Kung-Yang,
That of Tso
And that of Ku-Liang.
经既明 方读子 撮其要 记其事
When the classics were understood,
Then the writings of the various philosophers should be read.
Pick out the important points in each,
And take a note of the facts.
五子者 有荀杨 文中子 及老庄
The five chief philosophers,
Are Haun, Yang,
Wen Chung Tzu
Lao Tzu, and Chung Tzu.
经子通 读诸史 考世系 知终始
When the classics and the philosophers are mastered,
The various histories should then be read,
And the genealogical connections should be examined,
So that the end of one dynasty and the beginning of the next be known.
自羲农 至黄帝 号三皇 居上世
From Fu Hsi and Shen Nung.
To the Yellow Emperor,
These are called the three rulers.
Who lived in the early ages.
唐有虞 号二帝 相揖逊 称盛世
Tang and Yu-Yu
Are called the two emperors.
They abdicated one after the other;
And it was called the Golden Age.
夏有禹 商有汤 周文武 称三王
The Hsia dynasty has Yu
And the Shang dynasty has T’ang’
The Chou dynasty had Wen and Wu;
These are called the Three Kings
夏传子 家天下 四百载 迁夏社
Under the Hsia dynasty, the throne was inherited from father to son,
Making a family possession of the empire.
After four hundred years,
The imperial sacrifice passed from the house of Hsia.
汤伐夏 国号商 六百载 至纣亡
T'ang the completer destroyed the Hsia Dynasty,
And the Dynastic title became Shang.
The line lasted for six hundred years,
Ending with Chou Hsin.
周武王 始诛纣 八百载 最长久
King Wu of the Chou Dynasty
Finally slew Chou Hsin.
His line lasted for eight hundred years;
The longest dynasty of all.
周辙东 王纲堕 逞干戈 尚游说
When the Chous made tracks eastwards,
The feudal bond slackened;
The arbitrate of spear and shields prevailed;
And peripatetic politicians were held in high esteem.
始春秋 终战国 五霸强 七雄出
This period began with the Spring and Autumn Epoch
And ended the Warring States.
Next, the Five Chieftains domineered,
and Seven Martial States came to the front.
嬴秦氏 始兼并 传二世 楚汉争
Then the House of Chin, descended from the Ying clan,
Finally united all the states under one sway.
The thrown was transmitted to Erh Shih,
Upon which followed the struggle between the Ch'u and the Han states.
高祖兴 汉业建 至孝平 王莽篡
Then Kao Tsu arose,
And the House of Han was established.
When we come to the reign of Hsiao P'ing,
Wang Mang usurped the throne.
光武兴 为东汉 四百年 终於献
Then Kuang Wu arose,
Founded the Eastern Han Dynasty.
It lasted four hundred years,
And ended with the Emperor Hsien.
魏蜀吴 争汉鼎 号三国 迄两晋
Wei, Shu and Wu,
Fought for the sovereignty of the Hans.
They were called the Three Kingdoms,
And existed until the two Chin Dynasties.
宋齐继 梁陈承 为南朝 都金陵
Then followed the Sung and the Ch'i dynasties,
and after them the Liang and Ch'en dynasties
These are the Southern dynasties,
With their capital at Nanking.
北元魏 分东西 宇文周 兴高齐
The northern dynasties are the Wei dynasty and the Yuan family
Which split into Eastern and Western Wei.
The Chou dynasty and the Yuwen family,
With the Ch'i dynasty of the Kao family.
迨至隋 一土宇 不再传 失统绪
At length, under the Sui dynasty,
The empire was united under one ruler.
The throne did not inherited,
Succession to power lost.
唐高祖 起义师 除隋乱 创国基
The first emperor of the Tang dynasty
Raised volunteer troops.
He put an end to the disorder of the House of Sui,
And established the foundation of his line.
二十传 三百载 梁灭之 国乃改
Twenty times the thrown was inherited,
In a period of 300 years.
The Liang State destroyed it,
And the dynastic title was changed.
梁唐晋 及汉周 称五代 皆有由
The Liang, the T'ang, the Chin
The Han and the Chou
Are called the five dynasties,
And there was a reason for the establishment of each.
炎宋兴 受周禅 十八传 南北混
Then the house of Sung arose,
And received the resignation of the house of Chou.
Eighteen times the throne was inherited,
And then the north and the south were reunited.
太祖兴 国大明 号洪武 都金陵
迨成祖 迁燕京 十六世 至崇祯
阉乱後 寇内讧 闯逆变 神器终
清顺治 据神京 至十传 宣统逊
举总统 共和成 复汉土 民国兴
廿二史 全在兹 载治乱 知兴衰】
十七史 全在兹 载治乱 知兴衰
The Seventeen Dynastic Histories,
Are all embraced in the above.
They contain examples of good and bad government,
Whence may be learnt the principles of prosperity and decay.
读史书 考实录 通古今 若亲目
Ye who read history
Must study the Annals,
Whereby you will understand ancient and modern events,
As though having seen them with your own eyes.
口而诵 心而惟 朝於斯 夕於斯
Recite them with the mouth,
And ponder over them in your hearts.
Do this in the morning;
Do this in the evening.
昔仲尼 师项橐 古圣贤 尚勤学
Of old, Confucius,
Took Hsiang T'o for his teacher.
The inspired men and sages of old,
Studied diligently nevertheless.
赵中令 读鲁论 彼既仕 学且勤
Chao, president of the Council,
Studied the Lu Test of the Analects.
He, when is already an official,
Studied with even more diligence.
披蒲编 削竹简 彼无书 且知勉
One opened out rushes and plaited them together,
Another scraped tablets of bamboo.
These men had no books,
But they knew how to make an effort.
头悬梁 锥刺股 彼不教 自勤苦
One tied his head to the beam above him;
Another pricked his thigh with an awl.
They were not taught,
But toiled hard of their own accord.
如囊萤 如映雪 家虽贫 学不辍
Then we have one who put fireflies in a bag.
And again another who used the white glare from snow.
Although their families were poor,
These men studied incessantly.
如负薪 如挂角 身虽劳 犹苦卓
Again, there was one who carried fuel,
And another who used horns and pegs.
Although they toiled with their bodies,
They were nevertheless remarkable for their application.
苏老泉 二十七 始发愤 读书籍
At the age of twenty-seven
At last began to show his energy,
And devote himself to the study of books.
彼既老 犹悔迟 尔小生 宜早思
Then when already past the age,
He deeply regretted his delay.
You little boys,
Should start early.
若梁灏 八十二 对大廷 魁多士
Then there was Liang Hao,
Who at the age of eighty-two,
Made his replies to the great hall,
And came out first among many scholars.
彼既成 众称异 尔小生 宜立志
When thus late he succeeded,
All men pronounced him a genius.
You little boys,
Should make up your minds to work.
莹八岁 能咏诗 泌七岁 能赋棋
【缺字, 原文棋用或体, 基之下改石】
Jung at eight of age,
Could compose poetry.
Pi, at seven years of age,
Could make an epigram on wei-ch'i.
彼颖悟 人称奇 尔幼学 当效之
These youths were quick with apprehension,
And people declared them to be prodigies.
You young learners,
Ought to imitate them.
蔡文姬 能辨琴 谢道韫 能咏吟
Was able to judge from the sound of a psaltery.
Was able to compose verses.
彼女子 且聪敏 尔男子 当自警
They were only girls,
Yet they were quick and clever.
You boys ought to
唐刘晏 方七岁 举神童 作正字
Liu Yen of the Tang dynasty
When only seven years of age,
Was ranked as an 'inspired child' (child prodigy)
And was appointed to correct Texts.
彼虽幼 身己仕 尔幼学 勉而致
He, although a child,
Already held an official post.
You, young learners
Strive to bring about a similar result.
Those who work,
Will also succeed as he did.
犬守夜 鸡司晨 苟不学 曷为人
The dog guards at night;
The rooster proclaims the dawn.
If foolishly you do not study,
How can you become men?
蚕吐丝 蜂酿蜜 人不学 不如物
The silkworm produced silk,
The bee made honey.
If man does not learn,
He is equal to the brutes.
幼而学 壮而行 上致君 下泽民
Learn while young,
And when grown up, apply what you have learned;
Influencing the sovereign above,
Benefiting the people below.
扬名声 显父母 光於前 裕於後
Make a name for yourselves,
Glorify your father and mother.
Shed luster on your ancestors,
Enrich your posterity.
人遗子 金满嬴 我教子 惟一经
Men bequeath to their children,
Coffers of gold.
I teach you children,
Only this book.
勤有功 戏无益 戒之哉 宜勉力
Diligence has its reward;
Play has no advantages,
Oh, be on your guard,
And put forth your strength.
(from http://afpc.asso.fr/wengu/wg/wengu.php?l=Sanzijing )
or translation at
all in chinese
Edited by Lin Sophia Ma, September 2007