San Tzu Ching/Preface
The San Tzŭ Ching, otherwise called the Three-Character-Classic or Trimetrical Classic, is an elementary guide to knowledge for Chinese children, arranged in 356 alternately rhyming lines of three characters to each, and containing about 500 different characters in all. It is the foundation-stone of a Chinese education. Every child throughout the empire begins his or her studies with this book, learning to repeat a certain amount daily, until the whole is known by heart. Its importance therefore to foreigners who wish to study the book-language of China, and to be able to follow out Chinese trains of thought, can hardly be overestimated. Serious students would do well to imitate the Chinese schoolboy, and commit the whole to memory.
So firm a hold has this primer taken upon the national mind that both Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries have published similar works, availing themselves of the familiar form and title, as a means of teaching the principles of Christianity. Even the T'ai-p'ing rebels, when striving to establish a new dynasty, issued a San Tzŭ Ching of their own.
To Wang Ying-lin, A.D. 1223–1296, the authorship of the San Tzŭ Ching is by common consent attributed, and although it was not printed among his collected works as issued in 1813, there seems to be no valid reason for disputing his claim. He was a voluminous writer on classical and educational subjects, and rose to be President of the Board of Rites. As a statesman however he was not an unqualified success, and in 1274 he retired, disgusted with official life.
Among the countless editions of the original San Tzŭ Ching which have appeared during the past six hundred years, there is one which may be said to give the textus receptus, accompanied by the very best commentary which has hitherto been produced. It is by a scholar named 王相 Wang Hsiang, and was published in 1786. Another almost equally well-known and more pretentious edition is by one 賀興思 Ho Hsing-ssŭ. In the preface to this, written as usual by an enthusiastic friend, the San Tzŭ Ching is likened unto "a jewelled sword, which is an object of reverence to all." The writer goes on to lament that "boys merely learn to repeat the bald text, remaining ignorant of the fact that this book is positively a pocket edition of 'The Mirror of History.' For although there is a commentary by Wang Hsiang, that scholar did not see the whole leopard;"—implying that his field of view was narrow, like that of a man looking through a tube at a leopard, and seeing only one or two of its spots. This is unfair. Ho Hsing-ssŭ appropriated the best part of Wang Hsiang's commentary, and drew out his own to a quite unnecessary length by additions which furnished little that was new.
From the above it may be guessed that the San Tzŭ Ching, a hornbook for boys, contains a text upon which scholars have not disdained to exercise their wits. Some of it is indeed quite beyond the comprehension of a child. It has also proved to be more or less beyond the comprehension of a host of foreign translators. The prose translations of Bridgman in 1835 and of Julien in 1864 must be relegated to the limbo of pioneer work. In 1873 I myself published a metrical version based on the above, which passed muster at that time, but which will not do now. In 1879 Père Zottoli, S.J., published the San Tzŭ Ching in Chinese and Latin, with notes, as part of his Cursus Litteraturae Sinicae; and in 1892 the Rev. E. J. Eitel, Inspector of Schools in Hongkong, supplied to the China Review (vol. XX, p. 35) a new English rendering, without any notes at all, the aim of which, according to the author, was intended to be "exclusively tutorial." This last is a very poor production, inferior in fact to any one of the earlier versions mentioned above; and so far from being adopted for "tutorial" purposes, it should be carefully removed from the hands of any student either English or Chinese.
It is hoped that the present work will prove to be an advance upon those which have gone before. In addition to the text of Wang Hsiang and a translation with explanatory notes, the literal meaning of each character is given, with its sound and its all-important tone according to the Peking dialect, and with its structural analysis as found in the 說文 Shuo Wên, an etymological dictionary by 許慎 Hsü Shên, who died about A.D. 120. There are also some Appendices, showing passages which have been interpolated by later hands, chiefly in order to bring the historical portion down to the present dynasty.
Cambridge, 20 March, 1900.