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Chinese Educational Texts of the Late Qing Dynasty

As part of our ongoing work on the library’s Chinese collections (see previous blog post) we are beginning to digitise some of the most significant and interesting texts. Watch out for more soon! Here Gregory Scott, Lecturer in Chinese Studies introduces four items recently digitised. There are three widely used Chinese primers, plus one unique text that reflects a common genre of inscription used during the imperial era.

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Education was a central concern of Chinese society from at least the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 CE), when a centralised exam system was greatly expanded and used to fill positions in an empire-wide bureaucracy of civil officials. Intended to promote meritocracy, excelling in these exams became a means of social advancement for families throughout the realm. Education started quite young, with private tutors and small schools using primers to teach the basic vocabulary of the Literary Chinese language, sometimes also called Classical Chinese. It served as the lingua franca of educated persons throughout East Asia from before the Common Era right up to the early twentieth century. Although likely originally based on the spoken languages of the Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE), Literary Chinese is quite different from any spoken Chinese dialect, and so even native speakers of Chinese have to learn its particular vocabulary, grammatical patterns, and stylistic conventions. Literary Chinese primers were designed to be memorised by students, and were normally also written so that at the same time as they learned the language, they also learned fundamental morality, geography, history, and other subjects. The content of the core texts of the Literary Chinese corpus, from basic primers to advanced classics, were common knowledge throughout the wider East Asian world.

Chinese 23
Sanzi jing
Three Character Classic

So-named because the text is made up of three-character phrases. It was the standard traditional primer for primary education, as it teaches Literary Chinese reading as well as elements of history and philosophy. The earliest editions were likely first composed in the 13th century CE, and are attributed to several authors but its original author remains unknown. This text remained widely used right up to the mid twentieth century, and it is still read today although it is no longer part of formal education. Virtually every educated person in early-modern and modern China, and elsewhere in East Asia, would have memorised this text. Printings of this text were widely available in relatively cheap woodblock printed editions.

Much of the middle of the text describes the dynastic history of China, which in this edition ends with the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) on p. n16. Another feature of this edition is that the upper quarter of the page is devoted to short aphorisms accompanied by illustrations.


Chinese 24
Qianzi Wen
Thousand Character Classic

Another example of a text intended for primary education, the Thousand Character Classic consists of one thousand unique characters grouped into 250 lines with four characters each. It is said to have been composed in the 6th century CE, and earliest extant copies date from the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), but its original author or authors unknown. It was used in primary education throughout East Asia up to the twentieth century, intended to be memorized by pupils.

This edition also has a version of the Hundred Family Surnames printed in the uppermost register. The final three lines describe the origin of the text.


Chinese 25
Baijia xing
Hundred Family Surnames

This text is a collection of four to five hundred single- and double-character surnames depending on the edition. The first examples of this text were originally compiled in the 10th or 11th century, and its original author is unknown. This text would be memorised as a primary education primer, and would teach pupils the essential surnames of established Chinese kin lineages. Each family name is accompanied by the name of their traditionally-recognized native place location.


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Chinese 411
Jiexiao shishi tu
Illustrated True Stories of Chastity and Filiality

No other copies of this work were uncovered during our research. It is a collection of ink rubbings of stone inscriptions, pasted together in an accordian-style folding format. The original inscriptions were part of an ancestral shrine built in Shanghai in 1832, and are dated in sixth lunar month of the gengyin 庚寅 year of the Daoguang 道光 era [1830 CE]. The calligraphy was drawn by Xu Weiren 徐渭仁 (1788-1855.) The content of the inscriptions relates to values of filiality and chastity amongst women, which were important moral teachings found within didactic texts from this era.


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