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East Asian History Sourcebook:

Père du Halde:

The Chinese Educational System, c. 1575 CE

How Chinese Children Learn to Read

From the age of five or six, according to the children's capacities, and the care that parents take of their education, the young Chinese begin to study letters; but as the number of the letters is so great and without any order as in Europe, this study would be very unpleasant if they had not found a way to make it a sort of play and amusement. For this purpose about a hundred characters are chosen which express the most common things and which are most familiar to the senses; as, the sky, sun, moon, and man, some plants, animals, a house, and the most common utensils. All these things are engraved in a rude manner, and the Chinese characters set underneath. Though these figures are very awkwardly represented, yet they quicken the apprehension of the children, fix their fancies, and help their memories.

There is this inconvenience in the method, that the children imbibe an infinite number of chimerical notions in their most tender years; for the sun is represented by a cock in a hoop, the moon by a rabbit pounding rice in a mortar. A sort of demon who holds lightning in his hand, nearly like the ancient representations of Jupiter, stands for thunder; so that in a manner the poor children suck in with their milk these strange whimsies. The next book they learn is called the "San tsee king," containing duties of children, and the method of teaching them. It consists of several short sentences of three characters in rhyme to help the memory of the children. There is likewise another, the sentences of which are of four characters; as likewise a catechism made for the Chrizstian children, the phrases of which are but of four letters, and which for this reason is called "Ssee tsee king ver."

After this, the children must learn by degrees all the characters, as the European children learn our alphabet, with this difference that we have but four-and-twenty letters, and they many thousand. At first they oblige a young Chinese to learn four, five, or six in a day, which he must repeat to his master twice a day, and if he often makes mistakes in his lessons, he is chastised. The punishment is in this manner: They make him get upon a narrow bench, on which he lies down flat on his face, when they give him eight or ten blows with a stick something like a lath. During the time of their studies they keep them so close to their learning that they have very seldom any vacation, except a month at the beginning of the year and five or six days about the middle of it.

As soon as they can read the "Ssee chu," the four books which contain the doctrine of Confucius and Mencius, they are not suffered to read any other until they have got these by heart without missing a letter; and what is more difficult and less pleasing is that they must learn these books understanding almost nothing of them, it being the custom not to explain to them the sense of the characters >till they know them perfectly. At the same time that they learn these letters, they teach them to use the pencil. At first they give them great sheets, written or printed in large red characters. The children do nothing but cover with their pencils the red strokes with black to teach them to make the strokes. When they have learned to make them in this manner, they give them others which are black and smaller; and laying upon these sheets other white sheets which are transparent, they draw the letters upon this paper in the shape of those which are underneath; but they oftener use a board varnished white and divided into little squares, which make different lines, on which they write their characters, and which they rub out with water when they have done, to save paper.

Finally, they take great care to improve their handwriting, for it is a great advantage to the learned to write well. It is accounted a great qualification, and in the examination which is made every three years for the degrees, they commonly reject those that write ill, especially if their writing is not exact, unless they give great proofs of their ability in other respects, either in the language or in composing good discourses. When they know characters enough for composing, they must learn the rules of the "Ven tchang," which is a composition not much unlike the theses which the European scholars make before they enter upon rhetoric; but "Ven tchang" must be more difficult, because the sense is more confined and the style of it is peculiar. They give for a subject but one sentence, taken out of the classic authors.

In order to ascertain if the children improve, the following method is practices in many places: Twenty or thirty families who are all of the same name and in consequence have one common hall of their ancestors, agree to send their children together twice a month into this hall to compose. Every head of a family by turns gives the thesis and provides at his own expense the dinner for that day, and takes care that it be brought into the hall. Likewise it is he who judges of the compositions and who determines who has composed the best, and if any of this little society is absent on the day of composing, without a sufficient cause, his parents are obliged to pay about twenty shillings, which is a sure means to prevent his being absent.

Besides this diligence which is of a private nature and their own choice, all the scholars are obliged to compose together before the inferior mandarin of letters, which is done at least twice a year, once in the spring and once in the winter, throughout the whole empire. I say "at least," for besides these two general examinations, the mandarin of letters examines them pretty frequently to see what progress they have made in their studies and to keep them in exercise.

A Child's First Lessons.

No. 1: Men at their birth are by nature radically good; in this all approximate, but in practice widely diverge. If not educated, the natural character is changed; a course of education is made valuable by close attention. That boys should not learn is an improper thing; for if they do not learn in youth, what will they do when old?

No. 2: Formerly Confucius had the young Hiang Toh for his teacher; and Chau too, though high in office, studied assiduously. One copied lessons on reeds, another on slips of bamboo; to conquer sleep one suspended his head by the hair from a beam. One read by the light of glow-worms, another by reflection from the snow; these, though their families were poor, did not omit to study. Yung, when only eight years old, could recite the Odes; and Pi, at the age of seven, understood the game of chess. The silkworm spins silk, the bee gathers honey; if men neglect to learn, they are inferior to brutes. He who learns in youth, and acts when of mature age, extends his influence to the prince, benefits the people; makes his name renowned, renders illustrious his parents, reflects glory on his ancestors, and enriches posterity. Diligence has merit; play yields no profit. Be ever on your guard! Rouse all your energies! 


Questions from a Civil Service Examination.

1. How do the rival schools of Wang and Ching differ in respect to the exposition of the meaning and the criticism of the text of the "Book of Changes"?

2. The great historian Sima-Qian prides himself upon having gathered up much material that was neglected by other writers. What are the sources from which he derived his information? Summarize this information in detail.

3. From the earliest times great attention has been given to the improvement of agriculture. Indicate the arrangements adopted for that purpose by the several dynasties.

4. The art of war arose under Hwangte, forty-four hundred years ago. Different dynasties have since that time adopted different regulations in regard to the use of militia or standing armies, the mode of raising supplies for the army, etc. State these.

5. Give an account of the circulating medium under different dynasties, and state how the currency of the Sung Dynasty corresponds with our use of paper money at the present day.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., China, Japan, and the Islands of the Pacific, Vol. I in The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), pp. 210-213, 222, 225

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

This text is part of the Internet East Asian History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, July1998

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