Three Character Classic of New Learning
Rewritings of the Three Character Classic often make use of its obvious didactic tone. Yet, by inscribing themselves in the authoritative format and filling it with entirely new content, they also change and sometimes subvert its message (exchanging Christian for Confucian values, for example). This is true for the illustrated Three Character Classic of New Learning (新学三字经 Xinxue Sanzijing) by Yu Yue 俞樾 (1821-1906), which appeared in 1902 (XXSZJ 1902). In terms of illustrations, it keeps to a long-familiar orthodox iconography. Few images are strikingly “new”: a world map on the first page (T1a), a globe and setting sun (4a), a thermometer (7b), clock (14a), the flags (19a ff.), the particular depiction of the sea (T29a), a silk factory (32a), a building (33b), the zoo (34a). The reader is presented with rather familiar imagery such as the allegorical depiction of a planet (2a), typically Chinese architectural features (13b, 14a, 22a ff., 30b ff., also see ill. 3.2) and landscapes with their peculiar conic mountain shapes (13a, 27a ff.), their stylized bamboo, stones, and plants (24a, 26b, 6a, 12a), and their small lonely figures (2b, 25b, 25b, 39b) on minute little boats (3a).
And yet, this is a very new Three Character Classic much different from its original. It offers information rather than instruction, and from the complicated nature of the characters used here, it is clear that this is information not for the beginner but rather for the advanced student. This Three Character Classic of New Learning, then, is a handbook of scientific knowledge and lacks completely the moral exhortatory element prevalent in all of the other variants discussed above. The only reference to the Confucian prototype in this version is the very rough correspondence between the contents and the general knowledge section in the original (lines 49-106). The Three Character Classic of New Learning leaves out, however, all references to the roles and relations between humans, a section which reflects most clearly the (Neo-)Confucian worldview presented in the original. It also does not mention plants and animals as they appear in the original. Instead, it begins with thoughts on the structure of the world and the universe, the seasons and time, the five elements, and the directions. It contains a geographical description of China and the world, introduces different geographical terms, from country to province to city to hamlet, and their architectural styles, then turns to rivers, deserts, and mountains. Not unlike the general knowledge section in the original Three Character Classic, the three character phrases here are simply lined up like lists, with no effort to form a coherent or logical narrative.
Although there is no explicit moral message propagated in the text, this Three Character Classic of New Learning, too, can be read as a countertext to the original. It offers no human exemplars. It does not emphasize the all-important study of history and human relations so clearly emphasized in the original. It does not ruminate on the sages of Chinese antiquity. Instead, it provides “objective,” “scientific,” and “technological” facts from the world at large. Thus, it looks towards the future rather than ruminating the past. Perhaps even more radically than other parodies, this Three Character Classic of New Learning offers a new view of the world, one that is indifferent to Confucian morality.