Primary Source

Three-Character Classic


The famous Three-Character Classic, a children's primer attributed to Wang Yin-lin (1223-1296) whose text consists of rhymed verse developed to help children increase their vocabulary in Chinese characters, provides a valuable introduction to the social values that children were encouraged to embrace as well as a detailed look at the language – rhetorical, idiomatic, and visual – that conveyed them.

This source is a part of the Children in Late Imperial China, 900-1930 teaching module.


Men at their birth
are naturally good.

Their natures are much the same;
their habits become widely different.

If foolishly there is no teaching,
the nature will deteriorate.

The right way in teaching
is to attach the utmost importance to thoroughness.

Of old, the mother of Mencius
chose a neighborhood;

and when her child would not learn
she broke the shuttle from the loom.

Tou of the Swallow Hills
had the right method.

He Taught five sons,
each of whom raised the family reputation.

To feed without teaching
is the father’s fault.

To teach without severity
is the teacher’s laziness.

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?

If jade is not polished,
it cannot become a thing of use.

If a man does not learn,
he cannot know his duty towards his neighbour.

He who is a son of a man,
when he is young

should attach himself to his teachers and friends,
and practice ceremonial usages.

Hsiang, at nine years of age,
could warm (his parents’) bed.

Filial piety toward parents
is that to which we should hold fast.

Jung, at four years of age,
could yield the (bigger) pears.

To behave as a younger brother towards elders,
is one of the first things to know.

Begin with filial piety and fraternal love,
and then see and hear.

Learnt to count,
and learn to read.

Units and tens,
tens and hundreds,

Hundreds and thousands,
thousand and tens of thousands.

The Three Forces
are Heaven, Earth, and Man.

The Three Luminaries,
are the sun, the moon, and the stars.

The Three Bonds are

the obligation between sovereign and subject,
the love between father and child,
the harmony between husband and wife.
We speak of spring and summer,
we speak of autumn and winter.

These four seasons
revolve without ceasing…


Wang Yin-lin. Three-Character Classic [San tzu ching]. Transl. by Herbert A. Giles. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1963. 2nd ed, 22–9.

How to Cite This Source

"Three-Character Classic," in World History Commons, [accessed June 12, 2024]