The ceremony for the initiation of children’s education and character cultivation at the Children’s Palace, Dongyang (東陽), Zhejiang Province (浙江) (Photo credit: Visual China Group)

In ancient early childhood education, most of its textbooks focused on teaching children Chinese characters as a foundation, and through different content including historical records, poetry and rhyme, family management proverbs, to educate children on self-cultivation, family management, and ways of governing the country. Compiled based on the wisdom of the ancients, these textbooks may not meet the needs of the modern society. Nonetheless, since education is in line with culture and tradition, the ancient Chinese early childhood classics provide excellent materials for the exploration of the wisdom embedded in the Chinese traditional culture.


The ancient Chinese early childhood education was generally arranged for children at eight or nine years old. Its textbooks are called “Meng Shu” (蒙書) or “Meng Yang Shu” (蒙養書). The earliest existing Chinese literacy to children is the Ji Jiu Pian (《急就篇》, Primer for Children to Acquire Chinese Characters in a Short Time) written in the Western Han dynasty (西漢). It covers practical topics in Western Han society, such as surnames, clothing, agriculture and nature. The San Zi Jing (《三字經》, Three Character Classic), Qian Zi Wen (《千字文》, Thousand Character Classic), and Bai Jia Xing (《百家姓》, Hundred Family Surnames) are all literacy textbooks. The Three Character Classic contains mainly ancient stories about diligent learning from various dynasties and was widely circulated. Each sentence is written in triplets of characters and the entire text rhymes, making it easy to understand and memorise. The Thousand Character Classic was probably written in the Southern dynasties. It covers astronomy, geography, self-cultivation, history, and other topics in just one thousand characters. Additionally, many of the classical allusions in this work became commonly used idioms in later generations, including “Females should admire chastity; males should emulate talent and virtue” (女慕貞潔,男效才良) and “Older and younger generations relating well, couples living in harmony” (上下和睦,夫唱婦隨). The Hundred Family Surnames was written in the Northern Song dynasty (北宋). Children learn how to read and write better after learning their surnames, and those of relatives and friends.


Regarding history book for early childhood education, there were the Shi Xue Ti Yao (《史學提要》, An Outline of History), Wu Zi Jian (《五字鑒》, Five Character Brief History), Li Dai Meng Qiu (《歷代蒙求》, Rise and Fall of Dynasties and Their Emperors), and Si Zi Jian Lue (《四字鑒略》, A Brief Introduction to History in Four Character Verses). An Outline of History was written by Huang Jishan (黃繼善) of the Song dynasty, recording major characters and events from ancient times to the Song dynasty. The Five Character Brief History was written in the Ming dynasty (明代). In addition to official history, it includes some mythology and legends. The Rise and Fall of Dynasties and Their Emperors was compiled by Chen Li (陳櫟) in the late Song and early Yuan (元代) dynasties. In the form of four-character rhyming verses, it records the emperors who founded states, or were conquered in previous dynasties. A Brief Introduction to History in Four Character Verses was written by Wang Shiyun (王仕雲) in the Qing dynasty (清代). It comprises mainly of the deeds of major historical figures written in four-character verses for easy reading and memorisation.


Meng Qiu (《蒙求》, Stories of Historical Figures for Children) was the most popular work for learning classical allusions. Written by Li Han (李瀚) in the Tang dynasty (唐代), it consists of over 500 classical allusions, including anecdotes of famous figures and knowledge from classics, history, philosophical texts, and literacy works. It became popular and spread to the Korean Peninsula and Japan, and inspired other works with similar functions that named after it, forming the “Meng Qiu genre”. It referred to those rhyme-based readers that introduced allusions and knowledge from three categories, namely history, stories, and common sense. Ming Wu Meng Qiu (《名物蒙求》, A Brief Introduction to Knowledge of Nature and Society), written by Fang Fengchen (方逢辰) in the Southern Song dynasty, was one famous work of the “Meng Qiu genre”. The main purpose of the book was to emphasise the important roles played by sages and Confucian literati and their philosophy of life. The book, like a mini encyclopedia, carries comprehensive knowledge written in four-character rhyming verses that are clear to understand.


Moral education is of great importance to children. Among the ancient textbooks of early childhood education, the Ming Xian Ji (《名賢集》, A Collection of Sages’ Fine Words and Deeds), Zeng Guang Xian Wen (《增廣賢文》, ACollection of Folk Proverbs), and Xiao Er Yu (《小兒語》, Children’s Songs) were written to cultivate children’s moral character. A Collection of Sages’ Fine Words and Deeds contains numerous concise and profound sayings, such as “Be eager to learn and not ashamed to ask questions” (敏而好學,不恥下問). This work had certain reference value for moral education. A Collection of Folk Proverbs mainly collates folk proverbs and sayings, as well as content from classics, history, philosophy, literacy, ancient poetry and writings. The whole text takes the form of maxim, aphorisms, or couplets, making it easy to read. Complied in the Ming dynasty (明代), the Children’s Songs was a collection of songs written with simple language that helped children set norms for dealing with the world, prompting goodness, and managing family affairs.


There are family rules at school and school rules at school. The Di Zi Zhi (《弟子職》, Students’ Regulations) can be regarded as the oldest school rules in China. Originally a chapter in the Guanzi (《管子》), an ancient Chinese political and philosophical text, it was later complied by Zhu Xi (朱熹) into the Yi Li Jing Zhuan Tong Jie (《儀禮經傳通解》, Interpretation of Classics Related to Etiquette and Ceremonial) and became a vital textbook for early childhood education since then. Students’ Regulations has nine sections. From today’s perspective, however, its content seems somehow authoritarian and even contains errors, which should not be adhered to without careful consideration. The Di Zi Gui (《弟子規》, Standards for Being a Good Pupil and Child), was a prevalent book of school regulations written by Qing dynasty scholar Li Yuxiu (李毓秀). Its three-character verses are easy to understand, guiding children norms for dealing with the world, self-cultivation, interpersonal relationships, and studying.

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