The Three Character Classic(三字经): Learning Can Occur Anytime, Anywhere, From Anyone

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By Jade Pearce,

The Three Character Classic, or San Zi Jing (三字经), is the best known classic Chinese text for children. Written by Wang Yinlian (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 for our modern-day lives.

I’ve been incredibly privileged to be able to study all the way up to university, and I am acutely aware that there are many who don’t have that luxury. There are students who have to overcome some very incredible odds to pursue an education.

These students truely demostrate that with determination,learning can take place anytime, anywhere and is the face of difficult odds.

I remember my university peers who worked hard to pay for their tuition fees out of their own pocket. I also remember the classmates who had to deal with parental deaths and family upheavals, but who went on to ace their GCE O- and A-levels.

And there are also students who have overcome formidable physical odds. In March 2016, Asiaone reported the story of 20-year-old Brendan Lau who, despite being deaf, scored 5 As in his GCE A-Level examinations.

All these are just modern examples of a traditional virtue: the diligent pursuit of learning and education.

Overcoming Obstacles to Learning

Since ancient times, there have been many examples of students who overcame significant odds to educate themselves. They were poor; they had no study materials; they had to work from day to night. But because of their determination and desire for knowledge, they always found ways around these obstacles.

Those who couldn’t afford books improvised with other materials: Lu Wenshu plaited rushes into sheets, and copied Confucian classics onto them. Gongsun Hong, a poor swineheard, split and scraped pieces of bamboo into tablets, which he copied textbooks on.

Those who couldn’t afford a light to study at night improvised with other sources: Che Yin caught fireflies and placed them in a bag to create a makeshift lamp; Sun Kang studied outside in the winter, using the light reflected from the snow.

Those who had to work by day performed some ingenious multitasking to catch up on their studies. Li Mi, a cowherd, would clip his books to his cows’ horns so that he could study while working. Zhu Maichen, a 40-year-old woodcutter, would read classics aloud while carrying his wood home.

With such sheer determination, it’s no surprise that these students later became distinguished scholars and officials, and had their stories immortalised in Chinese history.

It is thus commendable that, instead of focusing on top scorers, the media now celebrates students who have overcome the odds in their education. These students truly demonstrate that with determination, learning can take place anytime, anywhere, and in the face of difficult odds.

Confucius Learns From a Seven-Year-Old Boy

Learning doesn’t end with one’s youth, but should persist throughout one’s life. In ancient times past, many sages and distinguished men kept studying into their twilight years. The great Chinese philosopher Confucius was one such example.

Confucius saw learning opportunities everywhere, at anytime, and he had the great humility to learn from anyone, even from a seven-year-old boy.

During the Warring States Period, there was a seven-year-old boy named Xiang Tuo. One day, Xiang Tuo and his companions were playing with a fort they had built on the road. Just then, Confucius and his students drove up in a horse cart. The other children immediately got off the road, but Xiang Tuo kept sitting in the fort.

Confucius asked, “Why don’t you clear the road like the other children?”

Xiang Tuo replied stoutly, “Wise men once said that men should know everything in the Heavens above, in the Earth below, and in men’s hearts. Since ancient times, I have only heard of carts going around forts, but never have I heard of forts moving aside for carts.”

Confucius( 孔子)
Confucius( 孔子) learn from 7 years old boy Xiang Tuo (項橐)

Confucius couldn’t help but agree with Xiang Tuo, and asked his students to drive around the fort. He said to Xiang Tuo, “You speak a lot of sense for someone so young.”

Confucius saw learning opportunities everywhere at any time and he had the great humility to learn from anyone, even from a seven years old boy.

Miffed by Confucius’ comment about his age, Xiang Tuo replied, “Fish can swim freely in the river within three days of hatching. Rabbits can hop within three days of birth. Infants can recognise their parents by the time they are three months old. What does age have to do with anything?”

Xiang Tuo’s reply amazed Confucius, who decided to test his knowledge. “Let me ask you this: what kind of mountain has no stones? What kind of water has no fish? What kind of vehicle has no wheels?  What kind of horse has no colts? What kind of fire has no smoke?”

Without any hesitation, Xiang Tuo replied, “A mountain of soil has no stones. Well water has no fish. A sedan chair has no wheels. A wooden horse has no colts. A firefly’s flame has no smoke.”

Confucius was delighted with Xiang Tuo’s answer. Then, Xiang Tuo asked, “Sir, do you know why ducks can float on water? Why cranes can call? And why pines and cypresses are evergreen?”

Confucius replied, “Ducks can float because they have webbed feet. Cranes can call because they have long necks. Pines and cypresses are evergreen because their trunks have sturdy centres.”

Xiang Tuo shook his head and said, “That’s not right! Turtles can float, but do they have webbed feet? Frogs can call, but do they have long necks? Bamboo is evergreen, but isn’t it hollow in the centre?”

Confucius was speechless. He sighed and said to his students, “This youth is to be regarded with respect! It appears that I have much to learn from him!”

Although Xiang Tuo was much younger than Confucius, Confucius was not misguided by Xiang Tuo’s childlike appearance. He immediately recognised that Xiang Tuo knew something that he did not. Confucius had the humility to realise his limits in understanding, and was deeply respectful of Xiang Tuo’s insight.

When we hear from people younger than us, it‘s easy to dismiss their opinions as amateur and ignorant. “I’ve eaten more salt than you’ve had rice!” is the common rebuttal we hear.

But wisdom should be judged by the content that is spoken, not by the person who speaks it. Just as Confucius learned from Xiang Tuo, there is always something to learn from another person, regardless of their age or background.



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