Although not one of the six traditional Confucian classics, the Three Character Classic is perhaps one of the most popular reads on Confucianism.
Serving as a child’s first formal education at home in the ancient times, along with other universal introductory literary texts such as the Hundred Family Surnames and Thousand Character Classic, the Three Character Classic remains a cornerstone of elementary education for the Chinese-speaking world.
Some familiar Chinese stories can be traced back to these classics. For example, the line 香九齡，能溫席 (“nine-year-old Xiang could warm [his father’s] bed”) explores the concept of filial piety
Another line: 融四歲，能讓梨 (“four-year-old Kong Rong yields the larger pears [to his brothers]”) teaches the virtue of respecting elders, taking good care of children and being forbearing as well as conciliatory.
Written in the form of triplets, the 1,200-character text contains the most commonly used Chinese characters, classical sentence structures, historical elements and Confucian morality.
Though the classic has been viewed as a must-read throughout the centuries, in recent years there has been considerable debate over whether Confucian classics are still valuable learning materials in modern society.
Some people believe that the Three Character Classic contains outdated ethical philosophies that send the wrong message to children. Yet others argue that many of the principles still remain applicable.
“The Three Character Classic contains wisdom and inspirational stories of ancient figures and our forebearers who can be role models for students in developing a positive character,” said Si Chung-mou, head of the department of Chinese language studies at the Education University.
“In being exposed to ancient Chinese culture and classical sentence structures, we hope our students can build a solid foundation for reading and writing.”
In 2015, speaking as the director of the Analects of Confucius and Modern Society project, which published a book under the same name, Si said the theory and practice of Confucian values in ethics, morals, aesthetics, music, education and politics were not outdated.
He added that we should make the past serve the present and apply it flexibly. In view of this, researchers led by Si spent over two years working on the Three Character Classic and Modern Society, publishing it last month and making it available in an audiobook.
With HK$1.6 million in funding from the Quality Education Fund, the project invited Chinese subject teachers from 28 local primary schools to supplement their classroom teaching with Three Character Classic materials provided by the team. Students were also able to make use of these tools for self-learning purposes during class suspension amid the pandemic.
Apart from developing teaching materials for upper primary students, the project organized a family event and a training workshop to facilitate teachers’ understanding of the Three Character Classic, the traditional culture behind it and the development of students’ moral character and Chinese language competence.
The research team has compiled the materials into an illustrated book as well as an audiobook, available in Cantonese and Putonghua.
The book is divided into eight sections. Each contains five to seven chapters, covering short stories, fun facts, explanations, translations, text appreciations and extended questions, which invite readers to reflect on how the theories can be applied to our daily lives and modern society.
The book will be distributed to all primary schools, universities and public libraries for free, while relevant materials are also available online via www.eduhk.hk/analects/.
(This article was published at The Standard on August 11, 2020: Education: A true test of character )