Thousand Character Classic - Qiān zì wén

The longest and last of the three language primers for schoolchildren to learn by heart was the thousand character classic. It consists of 1,000 unique characters (except for one see below) chosen as much for calligraphy practice as for common usage of characters. It is a great achievement to not reuse the same character in such a long piece but it makes the meaning go through many contortions. It was intended to be read aloud (just like the other classics for schoolchildren) in two related groups of four characters, most rhyming with the last. To order these 1,000 characters so that they rhyme and also do not repeat is an amazing feat. It was written about 550CE towards the end of the Period of Disunity. The story is that Emperor Wu of the southern Liang dynasty (r. 502-549), centered at Nanjing, wanted a new calligraphy exercise for his son. He had one thousand characters penned by the great sage of calligraphy Wang Xizhi. The scholar Zhōu Xìngsì took on the task of ordering them so that they made some sort of sense. The legend has it that he completed it all in one night but at the cost of turning his hair white. A variant of the story has Wang's revered pieces of calligraphy accidentally jumbled up and Zhou Xingsi put them back into some sort of order.

It became one of the most hated pieces of world literature as generation after generation of schoolboys were forced to copy out all the characters and memorize the whole piece. It remains well known in many Asian countries that use some Chinese characters including Japan and Korea.

The text gives a summary of all sorts of thing, from cosmology to food but does concentrate somewhat on the correct behavior of a government official. It was the aspiration to be a well paid and respected official that boys (and it was only boys) went through mental torture trying to memorize the whole thing.

For further information about this very influential work please read the notes at the bottom of this very long page.

Video not visible
YouTube video of thousand character classic being sung with cartoons (lines 1-15 only)

The thousand character classic introduces many new characters and was learned by heart by children in ancient China.

Chapter 1 - Cosmology and the World

1. [1]

Tiān dì xuán huáng,天地玄黃
宇宙yǔ zhòu hóng huāng.宇宙洪荒 Heaven is dark, earth golden; the cosmos is vast and diffuse.
The first group of eight set the cosmological scene. Many translate huang as yellow but golden has more of the positive associations in China. I can't help thinking the black and yellow refer both to the night sky but also to the black hair of Chinese and the skin is golden/yellow so this puts people and the cosmos at the very start of this classic work. One Chinese creation myth is that the heavens (all that is subtle and refined) separated from the earth (all that is base and impure) - humans inhabit the thin space in between. The first two hexagrams of the Yi Jing (I Ching) are heaven and earth, yin and yang. The second four characters are variously translated as ‘limitless’ and ‘waste’ but I prefer to think of looking in wonder at the scattered stars in the night sky - the space is vast but stars are widely spread. This has the undertone of China in the early days where the land is vast and settlements scattered. That is a lot to ponder on in just the first eight characters.

2. [9]

盈昃Rì yuè yíng zè,日月盈昃
辰宿列chén sù liè zhāng.辰宿列張 Sun and moon wax and wane; the stars are fixed in their constellations.
Continuing with the cosmological theme, next comes the motions of the sun and moon that form the basic cycles of life on earth. The emphasis is on cycles of change - night and day, full moon and new moon. By contrast the stars are fixed and spread out across the sky. The Chinese numbered 28 constellations along the Ecliptic in ancient times. 宿 was traditionally pronounced xiù.

3. [17]

Hán lái shǔ wǎng,寒來暑往
qiū shōu dōng cáng.秋收冬藏 Cold follows warmth in due cycle; in autumn, food is gathered for winter.
The seasonal cycle is now introduced. Our agrarian ancestors must gather the harvest in autumn to prepare for the cold winter ahead. They used the solar rather than the lunar calendar split into 24 fortnights ( jié qi).

1000 character, calligraphy, script
First page of Thousand Character Classic, with different styles for each character. Japanese document of 1756. Standard script is in white on black disk. Image by Ursus available under a Creative Commons License

4. [25]

Rùn yú chéng suì,閏餘成歲
律吕调lǜ lǚ tiáo yáng.律呂調陽 Extra days complete the year; Tuning harmonizes the yin and yang.
The Chinese calendar does not use leap days; instead a whole leap month is added every couple of years to keep the sun and moon cycles in step with each other. The text only mentions the male principle ‘yang’ but it was long thought that musical notes are associated with yin and yang. This refers specifically to the 律吕 lǜ lǚ which was an ancient bamboo pitch pipe which had 12 pipes and so these may refer to the cycle of 12 months or 12 years. Some transcribers use zhào for ‘to summon’.

5. [33]

Yún téng zhì yǔ,雲騰致雨
lù jié wéi shuāng.露結為霜 Clouds ascend to cause rain to fall; morning dew transforms to white frost.
These accurate meteorological observations would be known to anyone living out in the fields. Clouds can be seen to build upwards to eventually bring rain. A hoar frost forms when dew becomes frozen on a cold night.

6. [41]

Jīn shēng lì shuǐ,金生麗水
yù chū kūn gāng.玉出崑岡 Gold from the Li River; Jade from Kunlun region.
Gold was originally found in the sands of the Li River. Lijiang is a city located on the upper reaches of the Yangzi river in Yunnan, here the river is known as Jinsha Jiang - Golden Sands River. The most prized Chinese gemstone: Jade was for many centuries found in the river basins of the Kunlun mountains. Here the great goddess the Queen Mother of the West was believed to reside. The author does not include ‘mountain’ or ‘river’ to avoid repetition of that character.

7. [49]

巨阙Jiàn hào jù Quē,劍號巨闕
珠称zhū chēng yè guāng.珠稱夜光 Sword named ‘Great Summit’; Pearl named ‘Night Glow’.
These are two legendary objects. The great bronze Sword of Guojian 践剑 comes from the Spring and Autumn period and can be seen today at the Hubei Provincial museum. The pearl was a large stone some connect to the eye of a whale while others connect to the gift of a grateful snake. There is yin-yang contrast at work here as swords are usually yang (male, strong, sun) and pearls strongly yin (female, receptive, moon).

8. [57]

Guǒ zhēn lǐ nài,果珍李柰
芥姜cài zhòng jiè jiāng.菜重芥薑 Of fruits most prized are pears and crab-apples; of seasonings most valuable mustard and ginger.
The classic now moves to more mundane matters: food. The name Lǐ may refer to either pear or plum. The only early apples in China were the bitter tasting small crab apples. Both would have been preserved for winter consumption. Cài is food/cuisine in general but as these examples are added to make food appetizing, ‘seasoning’ seems more appropriate. Mustard and ginger are both also used in medicines: mustard to dispel melancholy and ginger to improve mental concentration.

9. [65]

Hǎi xián hé dàn,海鹹河淡
鳞潜羽翔lín qián yǔ xiáng.鱗潛羽翔 Sea is salt, rivers are fresh; fish dive below, birds soar on high.
The two types of water are distinguished and two important sources of food: fish and birds.

Shaanxi, calligraphy, rubbing
Taking a rubbing of famous calligraphy at Xian Beilin museum, Shaanxi Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Chapter 2 - The Golden Age of wise rulers

10. [73]

Lóng shī huǒ dì,龍師火帝
niǎo guān rén huáng.鳥官人皇 ‘Dragon Master’, ‘Fire Emperor’, ‘Bird Ruler’, ‘Sovereign of Men’.
These are the honorific titles given to four of the earliest rulers and officials. They go back to the days of the Legendary Rulers and may relate respectively to Fuxi, Shennong, a son of the Yellow Emperor and another early figure respectively. ‘Bird Ruler’ may also refer to the Chinese phoenix (feng huang). The order and names of these legendary rulers is not consistent across ancient sources.

11. [81]

Shǐ zhì wén zì,始製文字
nǎi fú yī cháng.乃服衣裳 Birth of writing and culture; and then clothes were worn.
The character stands for both culture and writing as it was thought that without writing there can be no culture. The Adam and Eve like appreciation of nakedness and need for clothes naturally follows. It suggests wearing clothes distinguishes cultured peoples.

12. [89]

Tuī wèi ràng guó,推位讓國
虞陶yǒu Yú Táo Táng.有虞陶唐 The succession to the throne; passed on to Yu, Tao Tang.
A very important precedent was when the throne (Son of Heaven) was passed not from father to son but to the person with the appropriate morals and skills. In the case Emperor Shun (sometimes known as Yu) was passed the throne from his predecessor Tao Tang rather than the heir presumptive and Shun himself then passed over the natural heir to give the throne to ‘Yu the Great’.

13. [97]

伐罪Diào mín fá zuì,吊民伐罪
殷汤Zhōu Fā Yīn Tāng.周發殷湯 Support the people and punish crimes; as Zhou Fa and Yin Tang did.
The primary role of the Emperor is to help people and punish criminals. Two ancient paragons are mentioned Fa is one name given to the founder of the Zhou dynasty who overthrew the evil ruler of the Shang (Zhou Xin) and also Yin Tang of the middle of the Shang dynasty who moved the capital to Yin .

14. [105]

Zuò cháo wèn dào,坐朝問道
垂拱chuí gǒng píng zhāng.垂拱平章 They sat at court pondering the Way; handing down guidance for a peaceful life.
These are the actions of the previous mentioned wise rulers. ‘Way’ is the ‘Dao’ which the Daoists in particular spent their lives pondering - the correct ‘way’ through life. The second part is more obscure and translations differ substantially; the essence seems to be that wise rulers held debates with advisers to develop wise policies.

15. [113]

育黎Ài yù lí shǒu,愛育黎首
臣伏戎羌chén fú róng qiāng.臣伏戎羌 With love they nurtured their people; overcoming by force the wild tribes.
The text uses ‘black haired’ to refer to the Han Chinese. I have used ‘wild’ rather than ‘barbarian/uncivilized’. The Chinese view was that they were at the center of civilization surrounded by barbarian people.

16. [121]

遐迩Xiá ěr yī tǐ,遐邇壹體
率宾shuài bīn guī wáng.率賓歸王 Both far and near were joined as one; visitors acknowledged the ruler.
The rulers had control over all their lands and even visitors/foreigners accepted Chinese rule. yī is sometimes written in the full (banker's anti-fraud) form as yī.

17. [129]

Míng fèng zài zhú,鳴鳳在竹
bái jū shí cháng.白駒食場 Then the male phoenix called from the bamboo thicket and the white foal grazed in the courtyard.
The appearance of a phoenix is an auspicious sign and reinforces the idea of a Golden Age. A peaceful white foal is also a sign that all is well with the world.

18. [137]

Huà bèi cǎo mù,化被草木
lài jí wàn fāng.賴及萬方 Transformation spread even to the grass and trees; sincerity spread everywhere.
The character huà encapsulates a flower as it represents transformation of leaves into flowers. The enlightened rule of the ancient wise rulers extends even to the plants. It is notable that two confusingly similar characters are put together (wan and fang) - it should be remembered that this is more of a calligraphy practice than a history lesson.

Buddhism , prayer wheel
Buddhist prayer wheels at Wudang temple, Inner Mongolia

Chapter 3 - Self cultivation

19. [145]

Gài cǐ shēn fà,蓋此身髮
sì dà wǔ cháng.四大五常 Our human bodies (to the tips of our hairs) live under four great elements and five constant virtues.
The focus moves to individual self cultivation. The ‘four greats’ are probably the four Buddhist elements (fire; wind; earth and water) and the five Confucian virtues (benevolence, justice, propriety, wisdom and truthfulness). The Chinese normally number five elements, perhaps the writer had to find a way to avoid duplicating the character for 'five'.

20. [153]

恭惟鞠养 Gōng wéi jū yǎng,恭惟鞠養
岂敢毁伤qǐ gǎn huǐ shāng.豈敢毀傷 Honor those that raised you; do not consider harming yourself.
Honoring your parent's effort in bringing you up is a core Confucian belief. For the sake of your parent's blood pressure children should take care! As well as avoiding dangerous games this also relates to things like tattooing and weird haircuts. In the second part the three consecutive third tones would be modified in speech.

21. [161]

Nǚ mù zhēn jié,女慕貞絜
nán xiào cái liáng.男效才良 Girls should seek chastity and purity; boys aspire to talent and virtue.
The misogynistic tone was the norm when this was written. Women should aspire only to homely virtues.

22. [169]

Zhī guò bì gǎi,知過必改
dé néng mò wàng.得能莫忘 Recognize faults you must correct; make use of the skills you possess.
The Confucian looks for faults in their own behavior but must not shirk from using their own skills and abilities. Similar to the Christian adage ‘hiding a light under a bushel’.

23. [177]

罔谈彼短Wǎng tán bǐ duǎn,罔談彼短
靡恃mí shì jǐ cháng.靡恃己長 Do not point out the faults of others; do not waste your own abilities.
Another Biblical parallel may be: ‘Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to notice the beam in your own eye’. Although you should note faults in others, it is not advantageous to point them out.

24. [185]

使Xìn shǐ kě fù,信使可覆
qì yù nán liàng.器欲難量 Your truthfulness must withstand challenge; mere capabilities are hard to gauge.
This seems to be akin to ‘Actions speak louder than words’.

25. [193]

墨悲Mò bēi sī rǎn,墨悲絲染
赞羔shī zàn Gāo Yáng.詩贊羔羊 Mozi was grieved that silk had been dyed; as described in the poem ‘The Lamb’.
Mozi[470-391BCE] thought silk’s pure qualities had been adulterated by dyeing the cloth. A poem called ‘The Lamb’ ( gāo yáng) in the ‘Book of Odes’ praises austere purity of plain wool and silk. It is an admonishment against pride in adornment.

26. [201]

Jǐng xíng wéi xián,景行維賢
kè niàn zuò shèng.剋念作聖 Enlightened actions maintain worthiness; restrain yourself from too much study to become wise.
The first character means ‘bright’ so enlightened seems appropriate. The second part may seem counter-intuitive but there is a Daoist belief that too much book study is not beneficial - a wise person must have time to think and ponder what has been read not just regurgitate other's writings.

27. [209]

Dé jiàn míng lì,德建名立
形端表xíng duān biǎo zhèng.形端表正 Virtue when established sets up respectability; the upright have correct appearance.
This group makes the point that a good appearance must be based on a good inward character. Beauty is only skin deep.

28. [217]

Kōng gǔ chuán shēng,空谷傳聲
虚堂xū táng xí tīng.虛堂習聽 An empty valley just spreads sound; but even the most modest of halls permits study by attentive listening.
An early commentator (about 1,500 years ago) reckoned that the first part refers to the story of a prince who vainly sought fame in an empty valley. By contrast even a modest hall is a suitable place to listen to others. So it can be considered a lesson about the pitfalls of grandstanding.

29. [225]

祸因Huò yīn è jī,禍因惡積
fú yuán shàn qìng.福緣善慶 Calamity is the reward for accumulating evil; Good fortune is the just reward for benevolence.
An admonishment to choose good over evil with the Buddhist notion of karma - your deeds will eventually be appropriately punished or rewarded. Throughout Chinese history belief in all three main beliefs Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism was the norm - three paths to one goal.

30. [233]

尺璧Chǐ bì fēi bǎo,尺辟非寶
cùn yīn shì jìng.寸陰是競 A foot length of precious jade is not to be valued; rather struggle for just an inch of time.
This became a well-known proverb. Compared to possession of even the most expensive things, time is much more precious. An inch of time is worth more than a foot of jade, because an inch of time cannot be purchased. Money spent can be earned again, but time lost, is lost for good.

31. [241]

Zī fù shì jūn,資父事君
yuē yán yǔ jìng.曰嚴與敬 Sustain your father and serve your lord; that is to say rigorously and respectfully.
Further examples of Confucian duty - father first, elders and betters next.

1000 characters, script, calligraphy
Four cases; lacquered wood and paper with gold togidashimaki-e on black ground Netsuke: manjū type, ivory; with the 'Fifty-three stations of the Tōkaidō' and checkpoint towns. The Howard Mansfield Collection, Purchase, Rogers Fund, 1936. Image by Met. Museum available under a Creative Commons License The small seal script style is used.

32. [249]

Xiào dāng jié lì,孝當竭力
zhōng zé jìn mìng.忠則盡命 Devoted to parents to the utmost; loyal until the end of your life.
Filial piety (utter devotion to parent's well-being and every whim) is a strong Confucian value. The second part is sometimes translated as ‘loyal to the throne’ but is probably more general loyalty to the system.

33. [257]

临深履薄Lín shēn lǚ bó,臨深履薄
sù xīng wēn qìng.夙興溫清 Take care when facing chasms and walking on thin ice; in the morning rise early whether warm or cold.
Taking care of yourself and not taking unnecessary risks is again part of devotion to parents. The first part is a quote from the Book of Odes . Rising early is all about being on hand to help your parents when they get up.

34. [265]

斯馨Sì lán sī xīn,似蘭斯馨
rú sōng zhī shèng.如松之盛 Like the orchid in fragrance; as the pine flourishes.
As a reward for obeying your parents you will seem to be as fragrant as an orchid and develop sturdy strength like the pine tree.

35. [273]

Chuān liú bù xī,川流不息
渊澄yuān chéng qǔ yìng.淵澄取映 The river flows without ceasing; deep, unruffled waters allow reflection.
Perhaps an analogy to the English phrase of ‘Still waters run deep’ is appropriate. It perhaps refers to the calm waters that allow reflection (in both senses) to the ever-flowing stream of everyday events.

36. [281]

Róng zhǐ ruò sī,容止若思
yán cí ān dìng.言辭安定 Let your manner by thoughtful; may what you say be calm and disciplined.
A general plea to maintain dignified behavior.

37. [289]

Dǔ chū chéng měi,篤初誠美
shèn zhōng yí lìng.慎終宜令 To begin earnestly is truly excellent; but carefulness to see it through is equally honorable.
A strong Chinese admonishment is to complete everything that has been started and not leave things half-done.

38. [297]

Róng yè suǒ jī,榮業所基
籍甚jí shèn wú jìng.籍甚無竟 Prodigious study forms the foundation; and then your good reputation will be limitless.
is usually translated ‘glorious’ but this makes it sound a little odd.

39. [305]

Xué yōu dēng shì,學優登仕
摄职shè zhí cóng zhèng.攝職從政 Excel in studies and become an official; master your duties to join in the work of government.
The prize for all this study will be a well-paid and well-respected job as a government official.

40. [313]

Cún yǐ gān táng,存以甘棠
益咏qù ér yì yǒng.去而益詠 While alive, relax under the sweet pear tree; when dead, people will still sing your praises.
This refers to the respected Duke of Shao who once set up his court from under a pear-tree (from the Book of Odes ); he was long remembered for his wisdom. More rewards of following the precepts are described. Even after a relaxed life people will be praising your memory. This is the last of many consecutive lines to rhyme with ending ‘ng’.

41. [321]

Yuè shū guì jiàn,樂殊貴賤
尊卑lǐ bié zūn bēi.禮別尊卑 Music differentiates the noble and the base; decorum the superior and inferior.
Confucius claimed the style of music alone could tell him if a king's court was well ordered. Propriety in this context refers to obeying the strict rules of behavior at official functions.

42. [329]

Shàng hé xià mù,上和下睦
fū chàng fù suí.夫唱婦隨 With superiors have peace, with inferiors harmony; as the husband's song is accompanied by his wife.
More on the proper ‘harmonious’ position to take in life - in harmony with everyone. Another quote from the Book of Odes .

43. [337]

傅训Wài shòu fù xùn,外受傅訓
rù fèng mǔ yí.入奉母儀 Out of doors accept your tutor's instruction; at home show respect for mother's counsels.
Parent's instruction takes priority to teacher's instruction within the home. Obeying parents is at the center of Confucian teaching. Some translators suggest the first part applies to boys and the second to girls; alternatively it may allude specifically to Mencius and his mother who discarded her woven cloth as it was not perfect.

44. [345]

伯叔Zhū gū bó shū,諸姑伯叔
yóu zǐ bǐ ér.猶子比兒 Towards each aunt and uncle; be just like you were their own child.
In Chinese there are two types of uncles which have their own distinct characters one is for father's elder brother and one for his younger brother . Correct regard for family relationships remains very important. Traditionally it was the father's family that was all important, on marriage a wife lost most of her contact with her birth family.

45. [353]

怀Kǒng huái xiōng dì,孔懷兄弟
tóng qì lián zhī.同氣連枝 Care deeply about your brothers; they share the same breath as yourself and are like branches of the same tree.
As with uncles, elder and younger brothers are given separate characters and respectively.

46. [361]

Jiāo yǒu tóu fèn,交友投分
切磨箴規qiè mó zhēn guī.切磨箴規 In friendship each must do their part; cut and polish yourself or else beware!
切磨 Qiē mó is an allusion to Guan Zhu of the Three Kingdoms period who was distracted from study by a passing glittering chariot.

47. [369]

慈隐恻 Rén cí yǐn cè,仁慈隱惻
zào cì fú lí.造次弗離 Charitableness, compassion and tender-feeling; it would be rash to abandon them.
Keep hold of the key virtues at all costs.

48. [377]

廉退Jié yì lián tuì,節義廉退
颠沛diān pèi fěi kuī.顛沛匪虧 If integrity, justice and honesty are in decline; even though when overwhelmed these should never be lacking.
Never fail on the main tenets of Confucius - rén (benevolence) even in hard times it should not be abandoned.

49. [385]

性静Xìng jìng qíng yì,性靜情逸
xīn dòng shén pí.心動神疲 If your nature is calm, the passions will be subdued; but when the heart is agitated the spirit is wearied.
Advice on keeping calm and relaxed.

50. [393]

Shǒu zhēn zhì mǎn,守真誌滿
zhú wù yì yí.逐物意移 Maintaining purity brings fulfillment; but if you pursue distractions your purpose will waver.
All about maintaining focus on goals and avoiding distractions.

51. [401]

坚持雅操Jiān chí yǎ cāo,堅持雅操
hǎo jué zì mí.好爵自縻 Firmly grasp fine aspirations; innate nobility will shield you.
A repeat of the previous sentiment - keep hold of your dreams.

lion, sculpture
Lion statue

Chapter 4 - Imperial life and duties

52. [409]

Dū yì huà xià,都邑華夏
西dōng xī èr jīng.東西二京 The ancient capitals were splendid and glorious; both Eastern and Western capital cities.
The next chapter looks at life of the cultured elite in the Han dynasty. The Eastern and Western capitals were Chang'an (west, now Xi'an) and Luoyang (east). Chang'an was the capital until 206BCE and also later on, Luoyang became the capital in 25CE - these represent the two halves of the Han dynasty named Western and Eastern Han. Also note that east and west ‘Dong xi’ together may mean ‘thing, stuff or person’.

53. [417]

背邙Bèi Máng miàn Luò,背邙面洛
浮渭据泾fú Wèi jù Jīng.浮渭據涇 The first of these is backed by Mount Mang and fronted by the River Luo; around the other is the swift Wei river and the meandering Jing river.
A little lesson on the geography of these two ancient capitals.

calligraphy, 1000 characters
One page of the album "Thousand Character clasic in both formal and cursive script" attributed to Zhi Yong (7th century, China). National Treasure in Japan. Image by Reiji Yamashina available under a Creative Commons License The standard script is in the righthand columns, cursive on the left. This page shows characters [424-450].

54. [425]

殿盘郁Gōng diàn pán yù,宮殿盤鬱
lóu guān fēi jīng.樓觀飛驚 Their palaces and halls were built densely; the buildings so high that looking down inspired fear of plunging down.
Multi-story buildings were very rare and so seeing many of them all together in the capital cities must have been an impressive sight.

55. [433]

禽兽Tú xiě qín shòu,圖寫禽獸
huà cǎi xiān líng.畫彩仙靈 Drawings were made of birds and animals; depictions of immortals and deities.
The paintings of wildlife must have been awe-inspiring as this comes from 2,000 years ago.

55. [441]

傍启Bǐng shè bàng qǐ,丙舍傍啟
jiǎ zhàng duì yíng.甲帳對楹 Splendid apartments opened out on each side; fine drapes adorn the parallel rows of pillars.
More on the sumptuous buildings of the ancient capitals. The first two characters refer to the ‘third chambers’ which are the apartments for the Imperial concubines. When this was written the Han dynasty was considered as a long lost Golden age of civilization.

57. [449]

肆筵设席Sì yán shè xí,肆筵設席
鼓瑟吹笙gǔ sè chuī shēng.鼓瑟吹笙 There were spread out lavish banquets; and there was played the drum, harp and the sheng was blown.
More wistful longing for a vanished splendor. The sheng is a complex form of mouth organ made with multiple connected tubes that is still played today.

58. [457]

升阶纳陛Shēng jiē nà bì,升階納陛
弁转疑biàn zhuàn yí xīng.弁轉疑星 Ascending the steps to the throne; with the whirling hats of officials numberless as the stars.
A glimpse at Imperial grandness with a vast multitude of officials.

59. [465]

广Yòu tōng guǎng nèi,右通廣內
达承zuǒ dá chéng míng.左達承明 On the right is the library; on the left the scholars' dormitory.
The types of room are variously translated ‘wide inner hall’ and ‘splendid chamber’, I have chosen possible room functions.

60. [473]

集坟典Jì jí fén diǎn,既集墳典
yì jù qún yīng.亦聚群英 There can be found the most ancient books and records; and also a host of wise men.
‘Fen’ and ‘Dian’ refer to two specific ancient books ‘San fen’ and ‘Wu dian’.

61. [481]

稿Dù gǎo Zhōng lì,杜稿鐘隸
qī shū bì jīng.漆書壁經 Du’s cursive style and Zhong’s formal style; ancient lacquered books and classics concealed in a wall.
Du Du 杜篤 of the Han dynasty wrote with cursive style calligraphy while Zhong Yao of the [151-230] of the Three Kingdoms period helped produce the official (clerical) script Lishu which influenced the standard script Kaishu in use today. The second part is harder to understand. Some of the oldest known writings had characters written in lacquer on bamboo strips. Some ancient classics from the Zhou dynasty (Confucius' own time) were concealed in walls to survive the Qin dynasty destruction of all old books. Some important books were then rediscovered during the Han dynasty.

62. [489]

Fǔ luó jiàng xiàng,府羅將相
侠槐卿lù xiá huái qīng.路俠槐卿 In the mansions senior officials assemble in order; the junior grades flank their path down the road.
The senior generals and ministers are paraded out of their mansions down roads flanked by junior officials.

63. [497]

Hù fēng bā xiàn,戶封八縣
jiā jǐ qiān bīng.家給千兵 Some of these households will be granted eight counties; and to these families a thousand troops.
In the feudal system of the Zhou dynasty a lord would control eight counties/districts and have a local militia of a thousand men (there was no standing army in those days). A ‘door’ represents a household. At this point in the classic 500 characters has been reached which is the half-way point of the classic.

64. [505]

冠陪辇Gāo guān péi niǎn,高冠陪輦
驱毂振缨qū gǔ zhèn yīng.驅轂振纓 With their high hats they accompany the Imperial carriage; their ribbons flutter with the rapid stir.
The style was to wear high hats tied on with ribbons. As they escorted the Emperor in his carriage/chariot their top-nots would flap around.

65. [513]

禄侈Shì lù chǐ fù,世祿侈富
驾肥轻chē jià féi qīng.車駕肥輕 Their inherited wealth gives plenteous riches; their carriages are pulled by sturdy but light steeds.
More on the affluence of the wealthy feudal lords.

66. [521]

Cè gōng mào shí,策功茂實
勒碑lè bēi kè míng.勒碑刻銘 Their noble plans are many and attested; they are carved on stones as inscriptions.
The noble deeds of the officials are recorded on stone steles.

67. [529]

磻溪伊尹Pán xī Yī Yǐn,磻溪伊尹
阿衡zuǒ shí ā héng.佐時阿衡 At Pan Brook he hired a man, also Yi Yin; assisted for a while and became chief minister.
This alludes to a historical event when the admired King Wen of Zhou hired Lǚ Shàng when he found him fishing at Pan brook, Shaanxi. Lu Shang became Duke of Qi and chief adviser to King Wen who set the precedent of hiring people based on talent not family connections. The other wise adviser wasYi Yin a minister of the early Shang dynasty who was also known as 阿衡 ā Héng (chief minister).

68. [537]

奄宅曲阜Yǎn zhái Qū Fù,奄宅曲阜
孰营wēi Dàn shú yíng.微旦孰營 Within Yan is the city of Qufu; who but the Duke of Zhou could have built it?
Qufu was the birthplace of Confucius and it used to be in the state of Yan. ‘Dan’ refers to the Duke of Zhou a brother of King Wu. Qufu has grand buildings that rival the Forbidden City in splendor. These events happened over 3,000 years ago!

69. [545]

Huán gōng kuāng hé,桓公匡合
弱扶倾jì ruò fú qīng.濟弱扶傾 The Duke of Huan put things in order and united the people; he helped the feeble and revived the stricken.
Extolling the virtues of Duke Huan of Qi [d. 643BCE]

70. [553]

Qǐ huí Hàn Huì,綺回漢惠
Yuě gǎn Wǔ Dīng.說感武丁 Qi returned to aid Han Hui; influenced Wu Ding in a dream.
The second Han Emperor Hui (when Crown Prince) was helped by the Duke of Qi . Wu Ding was a Shang dynasty emperor and, according to legend, saw in a dream of the perfect minister Fù Shuō or Yuě and tirelessly sought him out so he could recruit his services.

71. [561]

俊乂密Jùn yì mì wù,俊乂密勿
duō shì shí níng.多士寔寧 The talented scholars regulate access to state secrets; and the many who cultivate true peace.
These are the responsibilities and duties of the top officials.

72. [569]

晋楚Jìn Chǔ gēng bà,晉楚更覇
赵魏困横Zhào Wèi kùn hèng .趙魏困橫 The Jin and Chu states became tyrannical; the states of Zhao and Wei fell into misery and lawlessness.
The history now moves to the middle of the Spring and Autumn Period within the Zhou dynasty when the small states/kingdoms began to attack each other.

73. [577]

假途Jiǎ tú miè Guó,假途滅虢
Jiàn Tǔ huì méng.踐土會盟 Feigning a march the Jin army destroyed the state of Guo; at Jian Tu the rulers signed a treaty.
These are the events of 672BCE when Duke Xian of Jin conquered the small kingdom of Guo by feigning a frontal attack but instead going through Li territory to catch them by surprise. Jian Tu was where a peace treaty was signed by several states with the Jin kingdom. 假途 became a proverb which means to form a false alliance with someone only to later turn against them.

74. [585]

遵约Hé zūn yuē fǎ,何遵約法
韩弊烦刑Hán bì fán xíng.韓弊煩刑 (Xiao) He advocated simple laws; he followed Han (Fei)'s philosophy but suffered cruelly under the laws that he himself instigated.
Jumping onwards to the Han dynasty is another historical incident this time about Xiao He Emperor Gaozu's first minister (c. 195BCE) who introduced ‘Nine Articles’ under whose strict terms he himself fell victim. He based his code on the work of Han Fei who was the main proponent of the Legalist philosophy.

75. [593]

翦颇牧Qǐ Jiǎn Pō Mù,起翦頗牧
yòng jūn zuì jīng.用軍冣精 The famous generals Qi, Jian, Po and Mu were pre-eminent in tactics.
These generals of the Qin army Bai Qi [332-257BCE], Wang Jian and the Zhao army Lian Po and Li Mu [d.229BCE] are considered the top experts in military strategy.

76. [601]

宣威沙漠Xuān wēi Shā mò,宣威沙漠
驰誉丹chí yù dān qīng.馳譽丹青 Tales of their ascendancy reached even the deserts; their reputation swiftly spread and they are immortalized in paintings.
Sha Mo refers to the far flung deserts of China. Dān qīng is literally ‘red’ and ‘green/blue’ and these colors together mean ‘painting’. Memorial halls to past heroes often had large painted portraits.

77. [609]

禹迹Jiǔ zhōu Yǔ jì,九州禹跡
bǎi jùn Qín bìng.百郡秦併 All the nine regions of China bear the traces of Yu the Great; All the hundred districts united by the Qin.
A traditional name for China is the ‘Nine regions’ representing the combined smaller kingdoms. Yu the Great was the legendary ruler who by tradition ruled it all. Another name was the ‘100 districts’, the Qin dynasty was the first to truly unify the whole country.

78. [617]

岳宗泰岱Yuè zōng Tài dài,嶽宗泰岱
chàn zhǔ Yún Tíng.禪主云亭 Of the sacred mountains Taishan is the most honored; at its base are altars at Yun and Ting
Taishan in Shandong is the most sacred of the Daoist sacred mountains. Emperors often climbed to the summit and held ceremonies . Two smaller peaks of Yun(shan) and Ting(shan) are nearby which also had altars on them. The author was, of course, unable to repeat the ‘mountain’ character which would have clarified the meaning.

79. [625]

紫塞Yàn mén zǐ sài,雁門紫塞
Jī Tián Chì Chéng.雞田赤城 The Yanmen pass and the Great Wall; Ji Tian station and Chicheng mountain.
The sight-seeing tour of China continues. Yanmen is a high pass in Shanxi that crosses the Great Wall it translates as ‘Goose gate’. The Great Wall is also known as the Purple Wall as purple has an Imperial association. Ji Tian's location as a staging post on the great Imperial road is unknown. Chi Cheng is a sacred mountain down in Zhejiang (then on the fringes of China), it means literally ‘red wall’.

80. [633]

昆池碣Kūn chí jié shí,昆池碣石
钜野洞庭Jù yě Dòng tíng.鉅野洞庭 Kunming Pool and Jieshi Rocks; Juye Wasteland and Dongting Lake.
The survey of the country goes on. When the beauty of Kunming Lake in Yunnan came to the attention of Han Emperor Wudi he had a similar lake constructed at Chang'an. Kunchi refers to this lake, now dried up, instead of the modern one in the Summer Palace, Beijing. Jieshi or Tablet rock is near Changli, Hebei. Juye was a swampy wasteland in eastern Shandong, now a coalfield. Lake Dongting, Hunan is a buffer lake on the lower Yangzi and at one time was China's largest lake.

81. [641]

绵邈Kuàng yuǎn mián miǎo,岩岫杳冥
岩岫杳冥yán xiù yǎo míng.曠遠綿邈 They are vast and distant, enduring forever; shaded cliffs and caverns shrouded in gloom.
The quick survey of China's geographical features comes to a gloomy end. Also the end of a long run of rhymed endings ‘ng’, which was used for the whole chapter - a useful ploy to help the person trying to memorize this classic.

weiqi, games, pastimes
Weiqi strategy game

Chapter 5: Rural life

82. [649]

Zhì běn yú nóng,治本於農
兹稼穑wù zī jià sè.務茲稼穡 Getting to grips with agriculture is vital; always give attention to farm work.
The next section goes back to the basis of civilization - the farms that provide the food. Without a supply of food the cities can not function. The term ‘farm work’ is more general than the literal ‘sowing & reaping’ as it covers managing livestock as well.

83. [657]

Chù zǎi nán mǔ,俶載南畝
黍稷wǒ yì shǔ jì.我藝黍稷 The year begins in the southern fields; I cultivate the cereal crop.
The first part alludes to a poem in the Book of Odes (ChUni ( - Da Tian about toiling in the fields). In the text ‘millet’ is used but this stands for most crops. The very common and important character for ‘I, me’ makes it's only appearance.

84. [665]

熟贡Shuì shú gòng xīn,稅熟貢新
黜陟quàn shǎng chù zhì.勸賞黜陟 The tax due on ripe grain spurs the cultivation of the new crop; indolence is punished, hard-work rewarded.
Tax was paid in harvested grain and this provided the eternal pressure on farmers to keep working diligently.

85. [673]

轲敦素Mèng Kē dūn sù ,孟軻敦素
Shǐ Yú bǐng zhí.史魚秉直 Mencius was kind-hearted and genuine; Shi Yu was steadfastly truthful.
Mencius (Meng Ke) was the second sage of Confucianism and noted for his compassion and purity. Shi Yu or ‘Historian’ Yu was admired by Confucius for his steadfastness.

86. [681]

Shù jī zhōng yōng,庶幾中庸
谦谨敕láo qiān jǐn chì.勞謙謹敕 They neared the Golden Medium; striving for modesty and obeying orders.
The famous Confucian ‘Doctrine of the Mean ’ Zhōng yōng which advocates seeking the middle ground, avoiding extremism as well as being modest/careful and doing what superiors tell you to do.

87. [689]

Líng yīn chá lǐ ,聆音察理
鉴貌辨jiàn mào biàn sè.鑒貌辨色 Listen to what is said and examine its logic; scrutinize people's countenance and their appearance.
The character can mean ‘color, hue, appearance or sex’. These wise words are to spot any sign of dissembling and may add to the notion of Chinese inscrutability - giving nothing away in word or gesture.

Video not visible
YouTube video of Calligrapher Cai Xingyi writing the first part of the thousand character classic [1-3 only].

88. [697]

贻厥嘉猷Yí jué jiā yóu,貽厥嘉猷
miǎn qí zhī zhí.勉其祗植 Make your exemplary principles your legacy; exert yourself so as to nurture respectfulness.
It’s not good enough just to cultivate fine principles in yourself they should be passed on to your children. means ‘plant’ so emphasizes the nurturing aspect.

89. [705]

省躬讥诫xǐng gōng jī jiè,省躬譏誡
宠增抗极chǒng zēng kàng jí.寵增抗極 Scrutinize yourself when mocked and admonished; zealously guard against praise inflating self-esteem.
More fine words on proper behavior. Take on-board criticism and guard against pride.

90. [713]

殆辱Dài rǔ jìn chǐ,殆辱近恥
lín gāo xìng jí.林皋幸即 When malevolent dishonor and disgrace comes near; spend time visiting the woods and streams.
Seek solace from pressures of life in some rural idyll. It seems surprising that 1,500 years a trip to the countryside was already seen as a powerful form of relaxation.

91. [721]

Liǎng Shū jiàn jī,兩疏見機
jiě zǔ shéi bī.解組誰逼 The two Shu brothers observing other's intentions resigned from office, no-one compelled them.
In the reign of Han dynasty Emperor Xuandi (r. 74-89BCE), two brother officials pre-empted any problems at court by resigning their positions - quitting while ahead.

92. [729]

Suǒ jū xián chù,索居閒處
沉默寂寥chén mò jì liáo.沉默寂寥 Look for a tranquil place to live; to meditate alone.
It was in the Daoist tradition for people to seek a quiet spell communing with nature to escape the politics and strife in the cities.

93. [737]

寻论Qiú gǔ xún lùn,求古尋論
虑逍遥sàn lǜ xiāo yáo.散慮逍遙 Seek out and ponder on ancient writings; dispel worries and take your leisure.
More advice about meditation and relaxation.

94. [745]

欣奏Xīn zòu lèi qiǎn,欣奏累遣
qī xiè huān zhāo.慼謝歡招 Enjoy music to banish tension; troubles wane as joy is welcomed.
The scholar/official's evenings were often taken up with gatherings where music, calligraphy, painting and poetry were performed. The ideal scholar was well skilled in all these arts.

95. [753]

渠荷Qú hé de lì,渠荷的歷
莽抽yuán mǎng chōu tiáo.園莽抽條 In the waterways the lotus plant grows; in the countryside lush wild-flowers flourish.
The lotus plant is sacred to Buddhists and a subject of contemplation.

96. [761]

枇杷Pí pá wǎn cuì,枇杷晚翠
梧桐Wú tóng zǎo diāo.梧桐早凋 The Loquat tree retains its green leaves; while the Wutong tree's leaves are early to fade.
Thoughts now turn to the seasons and the evergreen compared to deciduous. The loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) is a small evergreen tree noted for its tangy fruit. The wutong tree (Firmiana simplex) is deciduous and the oil it produces is used to preserve wood.

97. [769]

陈根委翳Chén gēn wěi yì,陳根委翳
落叶飘摇luò yè piāo yáo.落葉飄搖 Old roots suffer from decay and are cast aside; the fallen leaves float down forlornly in the wind.
More on autumn fungi and fallen leaves.

98. [777]

游鹍Yóu Kūn dú yùn,游鵾獨運
凌摩绛霄líng mó jiàng xiāo.凌摩絳霄 The huge, roaming bird journeys alone; soaring to touch the purple heavens.
The Kun is a huge mythical bird like the Peng Niao. means purple/red and purple is the Imperial color, the circumpolar region of the sky is called the Purple Heavens.

ginseng, TCM, food, ginseng

Chapter 6. Advice for the student

99. [785]

耽读Dān dú wán shì,耽讀玩市
囊箱yù mù náng xiāng.庽目囊箱 Indulge reading for fun at the market; with a roving eye look for new boxes of books.
This alludes to the author Wang Cheng who read so avidly that he neglected to eat and sleep. The admonishment is to read widely not just the classics.

100. [793]

Yì yóu yōu wèi,易輶攸畏
垣墙zhǔ ěr yuán qiáng.屬耳垣牆 Gossip and rash talk should be dreaded; as even apartment walls have ears.
Wise advice to avoid being overheard.

101. [801]

具膳Jù shàn cān fàn,具膳餐飯
充肠shì kǒu chōng cháng.適口充腸 When preparing meals eat plain food; suit the palate and fill the stomach.
Advice against gluttony, treating palatable food as a fuel and not for pleasure.

102. [809]

饫烹宰Bǎo yù pēng zǎi,飽飫烹宰
饥厌糟糠jī yàn zāo kāng.饑厭糟糠 Gluttons will gorge on boiled meat; the starving will relish even the poorest husks.
A further note touching on relative food poverty.

103. [817]

Qīn qī gù jiù,親戚故舊
lǎo shào yì liáng.老少異糧 Relatives and old friends; the old and the young like different food.
Dishes should be prepared to suit individual tastes, not all the same.

104. [825]

妾御绩Qiè yù jì fǎng,妾御績紡
shì jīn wéi fáng.侍巾帷房 The concubines run the chores; they do the laundry and tidy rooms.
There's no getting away from the fact that in olden days that a wealthy man had a wife but also a few concubines who often did the menial housework.

105. [833]

纨扇圆絜Wán shàn yuán xié,紈扇圓絜
烛炜煌yín zhú wěi huáng.銀燭煒煌 White silk fans round and unblemished; silver light of brilliant candles.
Thoughts turn to the fans perhaps in the hands of the concubines. Here is the only repeat of a character () [see below for explanation]. The brightest and whitest candles were the most expensive.

106. [841]

昼眠Zhòu mián xī mèi,晝眠夕寐
lán sǔn xiàng chuáng.藍筍象床 For snoozing at noon and sleeping at night; blue bamboo mats and ivory framed beds.
It is traditional to take a nap at midday, there is a species of bamboo that has blue/green stems/culms that can be woven into mats.

107. [849]

Xián gē jiǔ yàn,弦歌酒宴
举觞jiē bēi jǔ shāng.接杯舉觴 Amidst music and feasting; raise the glass and make a toast.
It would not have been glasses but ceramic cups/goblets that were used; however not to use ‘glass’ would make it sound rather odd. The music in this case is specifically stringed instruments.

108. [857]

Jiǎo shǒu dùn zú,矯手頓足
悦豫yuè yù qiě kāng.悅豫且康 Wave the hands and stomp your feet; everyone is joyful and at ease.
The party continues with everyone getting in to the groove.

109. [865]

嗣续Dí hòu sì xù,嫡後嗣續
祭祀烝尝jì sì zhēng cháng.祭祀烝嘗 May the principal heir endure; offer sacrifices at the appropriate season.
The heir in this case is the first wife's son or it may be referring to the Emperor's heir presumptive. The text mentions the winter zhēngand autumn cháng sacrifices. Only the male heir can take part in the ancestral ceremonies.

110. [873]

稽颡Qǐ sǎng zài bài,稽顙再拜
悚惧恐惶sǒng jù kǒng huáng.悚懼恐惶 Kowtowing to the ground repeatedly; in dread, awe and trembling.
The kowtow is the traditional way of showing deep respect and reverence by knocking the head on the ground. The ancestors are considered capable of exacting revenge on their descendents and so fear and trembling was appropriate. Kowtowing to the Emperor was done with extreme trepidation.

111. [881]

笺牒简Jiān dié jiǎn yào,箋牒簡要
顾答审详gù dá shěn xiáng.顧答審詳 In correspondence be concise; give carefully considered and comprehensive replies.
A useful sentiment still useful today, take care with what you say and write.

112. [889]

骸垢Hái gòu xiǎng yù,骸垢想浴
zhí rè yuàn liáng.執熱願涼 When dirty to the bone we desire a bath; when we grasp something too hot we crave coolness.
Some basic instincts. Keeping the mind and body clean is a desirable aim. If ‘something’ is too hot to handle we seek its opposite and that applies to contentious ‘hot’ thoughts as well as physically scorching things.

113. [897]

驴骡犊特Lǖ luó dú tè,驢騾犢特
骇跃hài yuè chāo xiāng.駭躍超驤 Just as donkeys, camels, calves and bullocks do when startled - they leap around and take flight.
This is linked to the next line by analogy to these ‘base’ animals.

114. [905]

诛斩贼盗Zhū zhǎn zéi dào,誅斬賊盜
捕获叛bǔ huò pàn wáng.捕獲叛亡 Punish by beheading thieves, traitors and robbers; seize the rebels who flee.
China has for a very long time used capital punishment and torture for even relatively minor crimes.

Kowtowing before the magistrate. Official session at a Chinese Yamen, Guangzhou, pre-1889. Image available under a Creative Commons license

Chapter 7. Final encouragements

115. [913]

僚丸Bù shè Liáo wán,布射僚丸
嵇琴阮啸Jī qín Ruǎn xiào.嵇琴阮嘯 Lu Bu the archer, Yi Liao the juggler; Ji Kang the musician and Ruan Ji the flute player.
Lǚ Bù (d. 198) was renowned for skill at archery (the Chinese Robin Hood); Xióng Yi liáo (c. 600BCE) for juggling; Jī Kāng (223-262) was a poet, philosopher and musician; Ruǎn Jí was a poet and musician known for qin and flute playing.

116. [921]

Tián bǐ Lún zhǐ ,恬筆倫紙
钧巧任钓Jūn qiǎo Rén diào.鈞巧任釣 Tian invented the writing brush, Lun paper; Jun was an inventor, Ren an angler.
Méng Tián (d. 210BCE) is traditionally (but erroneously) regarded as the inventor of the writing brush. 蔡伦 Cài Lún (48-121) similarly regarded as the inventor of paper. Mǎ Jūn (c. 200-165) was a mechanical engineer, inventor and politician who developed the famous south-pointing chariot . Rèn Gōng zǐ is attributed as the inventor of fishing with a pole and line.

117. [929]

Shì fēn lì sú,釋紛利俗
并皆佳妙bìng jiē jiā miào.竝皆佳妙 They all overcame life's difficulties and brought benefits to all; taken together they were all marvelous.
The foregoing eight men brought benefits to everyday life.

118. [937]

淑姿Máo Shī shū zī,毛施淑姿
颦妍gōng pín yán xiào.工顰妍笑 Mao and Shi were benevolent and beautiful; even while working their frowns were charming.
Máo Qiáng of the Warring States period was a legendary beauty. 西 Xī Shī (b. 506BCE) was another such beauty. When Xi Shi was struck with heart seizures she still maintained her smile. It is said that a fish seeing Xi Shi was so awestruck that it forgot how to swim. The misogynistic tone continues with eight talented men followed by only two women noted just for their good looks.

119. [945]

Nián shǐ měi cuī,年矢每催
曦晖朗曜xī huī lǎng yào.曦暉朗曜 Years pass like flying arrows each in urgent haste; but the sun continues to shine bright and glorious.
The arrow may be an allusion to the pointer of a water clock that measures the time of day.

120. [953]

璇玑悬斡Xuán Jī xuán wò,璇璣懸斡
晦魄环huì pò huán zhào.晦魄環照 The Big Dipper hangs and turns in the sky; the pale moonlight encompasses the luminous earth.
Xuan and Ji are the names of stars in the ‘Big Dipper’ constellation which was the most important cluster of stars to the Chinese as it is always overhead at that latitude. The previous line has the ‘yang’ sun now we have the ‘yin’ moon. At the end just like at the beginning the thousand character classic considers cosmology.

121. [961]

指薪修祜Zhǐ xīn xiū hù,指薪修祜
yǒng suí jí shào.永綏吉劭 Like the tinder that lights fires; always encourage and then good fortune will be the reward for effort.
The analogy of spreading fire seems a good one for encouraging effort and passing it on to descendents just as fire spreads.

122. [969]

Jǔ bù yǐn lǐng,矩步引領
俯仰廊庙fǔ yǎng láng miào.俯仰廊廟 Regulate your pace and lead the way; bowing at the Imperial court.
It was considered that a steady, regulated pace was correct at court. Bowing to superiors as appropriate (and kowtowing when necessary) was all part of showing due respect.

123. [977]

束带矜庄Shù dài jīn zhuāng,束帶矜莊
徘徊瞻眺pái huái zhān tiào.徘徊瞻眺 Girt with your belt esteemed and grand; walking with hesitancy as you gaze around your lands.
More about proper deportment for a senior official. Maintaining haughty dignity seems to be the aim. The piece was written with the Imperial princes in mind as they were the first people to hear and learn it.

124. [985]

孤陋寡Gū lòu guǎ wén,孤陋寡聞
yú méng děng qiào.愚蒙等誚 Fools and numbskulls; dunderheads and the absurd may deride you.
Advice on people who may seek to ridicule you - they should be ignored.

125. [993]

Wèi yǔ zhù zhě,謂語助者
焉哉yān zāi hū yě.焉哉乎也 At last these will help: that's it, all done, finito, the end.
The classic ends on a bit of a joke and is pretty much untranslatable as the last four characters are all used in classical Chinese to end a ‘sentence’ and so putting four in a row puts a definite end of the whole piece. Classical Chinese has no separate punctuation characters and so these characters are used as four common ways to indicate the end of a sentence. As this has no direct equivalence in English I have attempted a similar ‘joke’ by ending with four alternative ways to say ‘the end’.

calligraphy, Ouyang Xun,  1000 characters
One Thousand Character classic in Ouyang Xun calligraphy style. Image by available under a Creative Commons License The scholar Ouyang Xun is credited with developing the standard block script in the Tang dynasty.


When I considered adding the 1,000 character classic to the Chinasage web site I had expected to be able to just refer to an existing text and leave at that. However I found problems with each version I looked at. Some just used simplified characters others just traditional. I found quite a number of transcription errors both in the Chinese and English but the big thing was that the English translation did not seem as clear and flowing as it could be.

I have studied the characters and five separate translations. For each character I give the pinyin, both simplified and traditional characters. The vast majority of characters are the same in both simplified and traditional but it is irritating to see a break in the flow of groups of characters to highlight each difference so instead each character is given in both forms.

The main authority I have used is Nathan Sturman which itself is based on the Zhongguo Mengxue Tushuo series, edited Xu Hairong, Huaxia Chubanshe, Beijing, 2001.


As well as putting 1,000 unique characters in some sort of logical order the author manages to keep a rhyme going. As the classic was read aloud by everyone in the class this was an important consideration. The difficultly in keeping a strict rhyme is impossible at times but the whole of the second chapter uses ‘ng’ for lines 1-40 and 52-81 which is impressive. I have made no attempt to make the English translations rhyme.

Video not visible
YouTube video of first part of the thousand character classic being recited demonstrating the strong rhymes [1-16 only].

The Classic Code

This classic has been used as a simple cipher. As the characters occur only once they can be referred to by their position in the text. Each character has a unique three digit position. So any string of digits can be encoded in groups of three. For example gāo xìng would be 504 261 . So the six digit number 504261 uniquely encodes gaoxing 'happy'. In times when all Chinese would know the classic by heart this was a way of communicating without risk of interception by those without a Classical Chinese education. In a similar way the order of characters could be used to order documents - just put the character for the number on the sheet of paper and you can easily put 1,000 pages back into order. In a nod to this old method of encoding the first 80 characters of the classic are sometimes printed on lottery tickets.

Decline and rise

The classic does not cover many everyday characters, for example hěn ‘very’ and tā ‘he’ are missing, and so is not very good as a first language primer. It should be remembered it was intended as calligraphy practice rather than a guide to conversational Chinese.

The Thousand character classic fell out of favor towards the end of the Qing dynasty when Western teaching methods were introduced. In recent years there has been a bit of a revival, with academic success so important to youngsters the learning of the three ancient teaching classics is seen as giving their children an edge - not just language but a glimpse of history and culture too. For the same sort of reason some children are learning the abacus.

Only 999 different characters

In the modern version there are 999 not 1,000 unique characters. This is because the character is repeated at positions 21 [ 164] and 105 [836] but according to many these two are pronounced differently jié clean and xié pure, regulated. It is most likely that two rather similar but different characters are now drawn in the same way. Various proposals have been made to remove this slight defect but none have been universally accepted. Alternatively, there is a widespread view that something flawless is too boastful and would be punished by the gods, it's quite nice to think that the author deliberately chose not to attempt perfection.

In this version there are three further duplicated characters, for example fā at 13 [102] and 19 [148] but in this case it because the simplification of traditional characters has produced the duplication - they were distinct characters in the original, traditional form.

See also