Ancient Chinese Wisdom: Gems of Chinese Classics

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Throughout China’s long history, classic texts have played a vital role in shaping the country and influencing the daily lives of its people. They have provided academic learning, practical advice and instructions on how to live in harmony with man and nature. They have also given expression to hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows.

In this series of short articles, originally published in a weekly column in the English-language Shanghai

Daily, we introduce classic texts spanning more than 3,000 years and covering subjects ranging from medicine, mathematics and military strategy to religion, literature, arts and travel.

These articles, written by Shanghai Daily’s founding Editor-in-Chief Zhang Ciyun, tell interesting stories behind some of China’s most famous classic texts and reveal their indelible mark on the Chinese culture and their enduring influence in the country's history.


About the Author

Born in Shanghai in 1949, ZHANG Ciyun (Peter) is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Shanghai Daily, a leading regional English-language daily newspaper on the Chinese mainland. He is also a prolific translator and writer.

Mr. Zhang graduated from Jilin Normal University in China, majoring in English language, and later from Stanford University in the United States with a master’s degree in journalism.

Starting from 1980, he had worked in several news agencies in China and helped bring into existence four English-language newspapers, including China Daily and Shanghai Daily.

Table of Contents

三 字 经

Three Character Classic

千 字 文

Thousand Character Classic

百 家 姓

Hundred Family Surnames

周 易

Book of Changes

考 工 记

The Records of Examination of Craftsmen

山 海 经

The Classic of Mountains and Seas


Ancient Guide Still Yields a Harvest


The Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art


China's First Agricultural Encyclopedia

水 经 注

Commentary on the Waterways Classic

缀 术

The Method of Interpolation


Materia Medica for Dietotherapy Contents

茶 经

The Classic of Tea

酒 经

The Classic of Wine and Spirits


Dream Pool Essays

授 时 历

The Season-Granting Calendar


Tiangong Kaiwu Encyclopedia


A Complete Treatise on Agriculture


The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon

难 经

Canon of 81 Difficult Medical Issues

伤 寒 论

Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders


Essential Prescriptions in Chinese Medicine


Compendium of Materia Medica

春 秋

The Spring and Autumn Annals

史 记

Records of the Grand Historian


Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government

诗 经

The Book of Songs

离 骚

The Lament


Explaining and Analyzing Characters


The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons

唐 诗

Tang Poetry

宋 词

Song Lyric Poetry

西 厢 记

Romance of the West Chamber

窦 娥 冤

The Injustice to Dou E

牡 丹 亭

The Peony Pavilion

西 游 记

Journey to the West

水 浒 传

Water Margin


Romance of the Three Kingdoms

红 楼 梦

A Dream of Red Mansions

金 瓶 梅

The Plum in the Golden Vase


Strange Stories of Liaozhai


The Scholars


The Ultimate Anthology of Ancient Prose

道 德 经

The Book of Virtue

论 衡

Discourses Weighted in the Balance

盐 铁 论

Discourses on Salt and Iron

金 刚 经

The Diamond Sutra

坛 经

The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch

兰 亭 序

Calligraphy Sage's Crowning Masterpiece


The Art of War


Thirty-Six Stratagems


The Travelogue of Xu Xiake

Sample Pages Preview
Sample pages of Ancient Chinese Wisdom: Gems of Chinese Classics (ISBN:9787532781652)
Sample pages of Ancient Chinese Wisdom: Gems of Chinese Classics (ISBN:9787532781652)
Sample pages of Ancient Chinese Wisdom: Gems of Chinese Classics (ISBN:9787532781652)


Three Character Classic

Making characters as easy as 1-2-3


“Three Character Classic” was one of the most popular texts for elementary education in China for more than 700 years until the middle of last century. Almost all children at school used to be required to recite the text of 1,248 Chinese characters in three-character verses for easy memorization.


Many historians have attributed this text to Wang Yinglin (1223-1296), a famous scholar of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). But they say that the version we see today was revised by later scholars because it contains content about history after the Southern Song Dynasty.


As a writer and scholar of Chinese classics and history, Wang obtained the title of “Presented Scholar,” a graduate of the Imperial Palace examination, at the age of 18. Three years later, he was appointed as an official of today’s Quzhou City in his home province

of Zhejiang in eastern China. The highest office Wang ever held was the Director of the Board of Rites in the Imperial Court.


It was said that Wang authored “Three Character Classic” in order to spread Confucian classics and knowledge of Chinese history among children. Therefore, he wrote the text both short and simple and arranged it all into three-character verses, very suitable

for reading and reciting.


As a result, even today, more than 60 years after it stopped being used as a text for primary schools, many people in China can still

recite some of its most readable verses.


“Three Character Classic” is divided into six parts, each focusing on a specific topic. It begins with four verses about the core belief of Confucianism:


“People at birth,

All innately kind.

Natures are alike,

But habits different.”


Then, it goes on to preach traditional Chinese values, such as to follow filial piety, to observe the proprieties, to respect teachers and to be diligent and to study hard.


It even mentions an ancient episode concerning Kong Rong (153-208 AD), a Han Dynasty writer and descendant of Confucius. As a boy of 10, Kong was asked to divide two pears between his younger brother and himself. Kong gave the bigger one to his brother while keeping a smaller one for himself.


The story has been told for centuries in China to encourage young students to take after Kong’s humbleness and generosity.


In addition to teaching children the basics of math, Chinese language, music and science, the text also lists titles of important

Chinese classics in Confucianism and works of other ancient philosophers.


The text tells students that before one begins to study Chinese history, he or she must first become versed in those classic master



After expounding all kinds of knowledge and principles, the classic text tells students in conclusion that people studying and working hard will be eventually rewarded, while those who waste their time on play will regret of it one day.


Because of its rich content, beautiful verses and simple style, it was translated into Mongolian and Manchu languages during the

Yuan and Qing dynasties. In the early years of Meiji Reign (1868-1912), it was widely used as a text in private schools in Japan.

Later, it was also translated into English, French and Italian.


Now, it has been listed by UNESCO as one of its recommended children’s readings worldwide.


Later, people also tried to imitate the writing style of “Three Character Classic” to spread knowledge of specific subjects and

religions. So, for many hundreds of years, a good number of books have been published in China in the “three-character” style.


Titles include: “Three Character Classic for Females,” “Three Character Classic of Geology,” “Three Character Classic of

Medicine,” “Three Character Classic of Military,” “Three Character Classic of Buddhism” and “Three Character Classic of Taoism.”

Ancient Chinese Wisdom: Gems of Chinese Classics