The Three Character Classic, or San Zi Jing (三字经), 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 for our modern lives.
As one of the oldest civilisations in the world today, the Chinese civilisation boasts 5,000 years of history. These five millennia of historical continuity have shaped the traditional Chinese worldview, crystallising many virtues and customs that we value.
Like many others, I’ve always been a little fuzzy about how Chinese civilisation began, and which dynasty followed which! But what the Three Character Classic does is summarise China’s extensive history into concise milestones – like an ancient version of Sparknotes.
This historical narrative has been studied by generations of Chinese, and while some scholars debate the accuracy (and believability!) of early Chinese history, it is important to realise that this narrative shaped Chinese culture as we know today.
Fu Xi, Shen Nong, and the Yellow Emperor were the earliest rulers of Chinese society. But the primitive people at the time was no barrier to these forward-thinking rulers. They brought order and modern advancements to Chinese society 5,000 years ago, making improvements in technology, social policies, and more.
Fu Xi (伏羲) and Shen Nong (神农): The Founders of Early Chinese Society
Let us begin in 2900 BCE, with the birth of Fu Xi, a god and legendary progenitor of today’s world and civilisation. Fu Xi was said to have appeared at a time when a global flood had ravaged the world and destroyed nearly all human civilisation. Using his divine power, Fu Xi brought order to the global chaos.
According to legend, the people who survived led very primitive lives. They ate when hungry, and discarded the remains when they were full. So Fu Xi taught them netting, fishing, hunting and domesticating livestock, so that early man could have more systematic food sources. He taught them to harness fire and cook food, and to offer the food to the gods before eating, thereby establishing the first sacrificial rite to Heaven.
The rites of sacrifice were not the only rites that Fu Xi founded—he also instituted marital rites in Chinese society. Early people mated with their relatives, and there was no family unit. Children lived with their mothers without knowing who their fathers were.
But Fu Xi married the goddess Nu Wa (女娲), and together they had four children, who became the gods of the seasons and directions. He set forth the Chinese system of marriage and wedding etiquette, thereby marking the union of a couple as a sacred match by Heaven.
Under Fu Xi’s rule, the first system of governance was created, with laws, public administration and officials. He also created shuqi, a system of carving on wood to replace the previous record keeping through knot tying.
With his divine insight, Fu Xi also created the dual forces of Yin and Yang and the Eight Trigrams, an ancient system of divination that can be found in the I-Ching. This gave future generations the means to understand the changes in the world and Heaven’s will.
After Fu Xi came Shen Nong, the Divine Farmer. Regarded as the god of agriculture and medicine, he taught people to cultivate crops and trade goods. He was also a medical herbalist who spent his life tasting and amassing experience in countless herbs, leaving behind indispensable knowledge of herbal Chinese medicine.
The Yellow Emperor: The Dawn of Chinese Civilisation
After Shen Nong’s death, his descendents continued to govern under the title of the Yan Emperor (炎帝). But the region eventually fell into unrest, and the various tribes began fighting with each other. One tyrannical rebel leader, Chi You (蚩尤), overthrew the Yan Emperor and declared himself ruler.
At the Yan Emperor’s plea, a tribal leader named Xuanyuan led his forces and defeated Chi You at Zhuolu. Thereafter, he unified the region and was revered as Huang Di, or the Yellow Emperor.
The golden age of the Yellow Emperor marked the dawn of Chinese civilisation. During his hundred-year-long reign, society enjoyed stability and culture flourished. Government positions were set up, rules and regulations formulated, and an established society grew around the Yellow River Basin.
There were many inventions and achievements during the Yellow Emperor’s time. Amongst the most significant was the scholar Cangjie’s (仓颉)creation of Chinese characters, which are preserved today in the form of oracle bone writing. The Yellow Emperor’s wife, Leizu (嫘祖), also discovered silk and invented silk farming and weaving.
Other inventions included early Chinese astronomy, the Chinese lunar calendar, mathematics, music, wooden houses, carts, boats, and the bow and arrow. For his battle against Chi You, the Yellow Emperor also invented the south-pointing chariot, the earliest form of the compass.
The Yellow Emperor cultivated the Dao or the Way, eventually achieving Consummation. Legends record that when he achieved Consummation, he rode a dragon that carried him to the heavens. The monarch had created a culture of cultivation, by which humans could become divine beings.
This legend also gave birth to the belief that—at the end of a successful life—one’s ancestors will return to Heaven, where they will continue to look over their descendents. As a result, traditional Chinese culture emphasises the worship of ancestors on special occasions, and the building ancestral shrines to worship together.
As the ancestor of Chinese civilisation, the Yellow Emperor continues to be revered as a deity and cultural hero. The several emperors following the Yellow Emperor, such as Yao, Shun, Yu, and Tang were all his descendants, and it is traditionally said that all Han Chinese are his descendants as well.