Thousand Character Chinese Classic
Like I do at the end of every year, I have my students in speaking class become teachers. Their final exam is to “teach class” for 15 minutes. (Not a presentation, but actually teach.)
This is always super fun. Students freak out when I assign it to them, but then they quickly realize class is much more fun and silly and it’s a great note to end the school year on.
Students tend to also prepare prizes to encourage each other to participate and speak more, usually chocolate or some little snack. But in one class, they made an appropriate prize.
Two students worked together to teach both Chinese and English calligraphy and they had all of us “students” try it out. (When they teach I am a student.) We wrote both fancy styles of Chinese characters and English based on what they showed us.
After we all finished the “teachers” collected our papers and gave prizes to the top three. And they chose me! (I’m full aware I didn’t deserve it, but they tend to give me prizes in hopes of a higher grade.)
Instead of a lollipop or some chocolate they handed me a scroll with lot’s of Chinese characters on it.
“What’s this?” I asked opening it up and looking intrigued.
“It’s a thousand character essay,” one student told me. “It has 1000 characters each written one time.”
“And it’s one story?” I asked.
“Yep,” the students told me. Intrigued I was still looking at it on my walk home when I ran into three other students.
“Do you guys know what this is?”
“It’s the thousand word essay,” one of them said. “It’s 1000 different characters written one time to make one story.”
“And what’s the story?” I asked. My students looked at each other.
“It’s 1000 words to make one story,” another one said.
“I know…” I said. “But what’s the story?” One looked closer at the paper and the other just kinda shrugged. “It’s kinda deep,” said one.
“Philosophy,” said the other. “But I’m not really sure.”
“So you’ve never read it?” I was under the impression it was a important thing in Chinese literature so I thought they would know a lot about it.
“Each character represents a word or a phrase, and it’s old. So it’s a little hard to understand.”
“How old is it?” I asked.
“Maybe 100 years,” one student said.
“Noooo,” disagreed another. “500 years old.”
So basically my students were no help. When I got home, I fired up the Google machine. It seems that this piece of writing is much older than 500 years even, more like 1500 years old. One of the origin stories of this writing is it was made at the request of Emperor Wudi to teach his sons calligraphy.
But it didn’t stop there. It was allegedly used to teach children writing, calligraphy and Chinese for basically the next 1000+ years as it was a good and easy resource. It’s separated into 4 character couplets which makes it easy to memorize and allegedly has a tune (ala the alphabet song) to help children remember all the words (although my students didn’t seem to know it. So maybe it’s not a teaching tool in the modern age.)
It was also used as a numbering tool, since back in the day everyone knew the entire essay by heart, if you mentioned a line, you would know that was line number 45 or whatever, so things could be categorized by it.
What Wikipedia, and other several websites don’t tell you is the content of the essay. I did find an English translation and it says it is a text about life, human nature, the way of the world and so on.
Still, accumulated wisdom stands; why read Homer, Virgil, or Ovid? Must we reinvent ourselves and relearn constantly, the hard way, the lessons of long ago? The wisdom and relavency of much of the Thousand Character Essay and of ancient China is startling in its clarity today, most clearly in its emphasis on the value of time and on the development of personal character, on doing what we now call “the right thing”. And they are a rewarding introduction to the legends of early China and the Chinese view of the cosmos and life…
Of course some of the content is superstitious, perhaps oppressive, or undemocratic, or gender biased by today’s standards, but that is why a teacher is needed, to provide the historical understanding of the past, of its areas of darkness and ignorance, and place it in a constructive and progressive present context.
-From Nathan Sturman’s essay
To get a little idea of the content, this is his translation of the first line.
The sky was black and earth yellow; space and time vast, limitless.
So you can see that it is indeed quite deep in it’s meaning and understanding.
I didn’t read it all, but I did very quickly find an “ignorant” and “gender biased” part of the essay:
Girls admire the chaste and pure; boys, the talented and good.
Wellll….ya know, it was a long time ago. But still…. sigh.
So while I’m not going to model my modern woman’s life around this essay, I think it’s a very cool part of China’s literary heritage and if you are interested in traditional Chinese thoughts, or calligraphy, a cool resource. Glad a copy of it ended up in my hands.