The Three Character Classic(三字经):Ancient Parenting Lessons for Modern Times

Three Character Classic

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The Three Character Classic(三字经), or San Zi Jing, is the best known classic Chinese text for children. Written by Wang Yinglin (1223–1296) during the Song Dynasty, it has been memorised by generations of Chinese, both young and old.

However, after the Cultural Revolution in China, the Three Character Classic was banned and eventually fell into disuse. In this series, we revive and review this great Chinese classic, drawing ancient lessons of wisdom to our modern-day lives.

Parenting is never an easy task. One must look after not just the child’s health, but his  or her education, moral character, and discipline as well.

If one is too lenient in parenting, the child becomes spoiled, and does not learn the right way to behave. But if one is too strict, the child can develop another spectrum of problems—a lack of self-confidence, leading to anxiety and depression, or feelings of resentment and rebellion.

Finding the right balance is challenging, but it is also impactful—after all, parenting remains the most important factor in a child’s development. And that is why the very first examples cited in the Three Character Classic—an ancient text to teach children moral values—are those on parenting.

Parenting Lessons by Mencius(孟子)’ Mother(仉子)

The first example is of Mencius’ mother, Zhang Shi, a virtuous lady who raised her son to become one of the most famous Chinese philosophers in history.

Instead of physically punishing her child, Mencius’ mother helped him understand the logical consequences of his misbehaviour, so that he would realise why skipping school was a poor choice for his future.

There are many stories of how Zhang Shi did everything to ensure her son had a virtuous upbringing. She went to great lengths to provide her son with the right conditions to learn, and taught and disciplined her son from youth to adulthood.

1. Choosing the Right Environment

“Of old, the mother of Mencius / chose a neighbourhood to raise her son;”

—Three Character Classic

Mencius lost his father at a young age, and Zhang raised Mencius as a single mother. One of the most well-known tales is how Zhang moved the family three times, as she sought a good environment to bring up her son.

The first home was near a cemetery, where the young Mencius began imitating the wailing of people visiting graves. Finding this inappropriate, Zhang moved the family to a home near a marketplace.

But Mencius began imitating the raucous banter of salesmen, which she also found inappropriate. So Zhang moved for a third time to a home near a school, and was gratified to see her son learning propriety and social graces from scholars.

Young children do most of their learning by following others’ example—when surrounded by good practices, they copy and entrain these practices too. By choosing the right environment for Mencius at the very beginning, Zhang began building the foundation for Mencius’ character at an early age.

2. Inculcating Discipline

“And when her child would not learn, she tore apart the cloth on her loom.”

—Three Character Classic

To pay for her son’s schooling and to help them get by, Zhang wove cloth on her loom. Each bolt of cloth took days to weeks to make.

Mencius, however, was not always disciplined in his studies, and one day he skipped school.

When Zhang found out, she did not punish Mencius. Instead, she tore apart the cloth she had been weaving on her loom, to show him that his inconsistent, half-hearted efforts in studying would produce useless results—like a ripped piece of fabric.

Mencius was distressed and ashamed, as he knew how much effort it took for his mother to weave each bolt of cloth. From then on, he applied himself to his studies diligently.

Instead of physically punishing her child, Zhang sought to help her child understand the logical consequences of his misbehaviour, so that he would realise why skipping school was a poor choice for his future.

Moreover, Zhang effectively showed Mencius the gravity of his actions, and how disappointed she was in him. This was an efficacious way to motivate her child to change. One of the biggest motivators for children to behave better is their desire to please their parents. When a child has a strong relationship with the parent, and he sees how upset the parent is with his behaviour, he becomes moved to meet the parent’s expectations.

3. Teaching Self-Reflection

Once, the adult Mencius chanced upon his wife squatting in a private room. This angered him, as he felt that she had overstepped the boundaries of propriety by sitting in such a vulgar position.

Zhang, however, admonished him otherwise. She reminded him that, according to the rules of propriety, one should announce oneself and seek permission before entering a room, so that the room’s occupants have time to prepare themselves. “It is you who has not practiced propriety,” she reproached.

Mencius immediately realised his mistake, and apologised to his wife.

When things don’t go according to our expectations, too often do we look externally to blame others, instead of looking internally for our own flaws. Zhang had taught Mencius the benefit of self-reflection—identifying that our life problems may often arise from our own shortcomings.

Dou Yanshan(窦燕山) and His Five Sons

“Dou of the Swallow Hills

had the right method.

He taught five sons,

each of whom raised the family reputation.”

– Three Character Classic

The second example of good parenting is Dou Yujun, who lived in Jizhou, China during the 10th century. Because the area where Dou lived was once the location of the ancient Yan Country, Dou was also known as Dou Yanshan (Dou of the Swallow Hills).

Despite being a role model for parenting, Dou did not always have an illustrious past.  Dou was born to a rich family, and had a reputation for bullying and cheating the poor. As such, by the age of 30, he remained unmarried and childless.

One night, Dou dreamt of his deceased father, who said, “You have committed many evil deeds. If you do not atone for your sins, not only will you remain childless, your life will soon come to an end.”

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