The Thousand Character Poem

Hi guys,

Recently my family and I were watching another episode of the Korean family show Return of Superman (we watch every Sunday morning together), and in this episode the children stayed overnight at a traditional Korean, Confucian-style etiquette school called a seodang (서당, 書堂). According to Wikipedia, these villages existed in the Korean countryside during the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties so this is a historical recreation. I recommended watching the whole episode, it’s a great, but if you’re short on time, go to 26:50 or so. Also, click on “CC” in Youtube so you can see English subtitles.

During the first evening the children learn the first four characters of something called the “Thousand Character Classic”:

天玄地黄
Cheon ji hyeon hwang

The romanization above is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese characters.

Anyhow, I got confused because I assumed this was a four-character yojijukugo phrase, but I couldn’t find much information or a clear explantion of what it meant. Literally it means “Heaven is black, the Earth is yellow.” But that doesn’t make sense, right? I even looked it up in Japanese, but it just kept telling me it was the first line of a the Thousand Year Classic.

It turns out the Thousand Year Classic (千字文) is a special poem composed in the short-lived Liang Dynasty in China for the purposes of learning Chinese characters.1 The poem has a strongly Confucian theme, but each character in the poem is used only once, and they are neatly divided into 250 lines, 4 characters each. The idea was that practicing writing out this poem would give a student a solid foundation in the basics of Chinese calligraphy. Pretty clever. By the Song Dynasty, it was part of a trio of books used for literacy along with the Three Character Classic and the 100 Family Surnames. These were known as the S&257;n Bǎi Qiān 三百千 or “Three-Hundred-Thousand”. These formed the core of Chinese literacy education up until the modern period.

Anyhow, it’s a fascinating example of Confucian education even in modern times. 😉

P.S. I thought the teacher at the seodang school was great. He was good at teaching kids the “traditional way”, but behind his fierce demeanor, it’s clear he likes kids a lot. 🙂

1 The poem is called cheonjamun (천자문) in Korean and senjimon in Japanese (same
kanji).

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

4 thoughts on “The Thousand Character Poem”

  1. whew, I came here after studying RTK1 for a while, my brain seems to become weaker the longer I study. This post is a nice to know stuff. It is much more uplifting than the sexual-themed mnemonics of the RTK1 site I am using. Like trudging through a spiritual wasteland. I wish I could add something meaningful here Doug. Thanks.

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  2. I suppose we are getting closer to ohigan, so I was reading your post of 2014, and first I remembered a pen and ink art show in Ginza done by one of THE most famous illustrators, but I can’t remember his name, priest in the Edo era, I believe. He has a really big nose, but is that stylistic? In any case there is a large hanging scroll of heaven and hell. really impressive. But how motivationally different! Heaven is just a few monks sitting there looking somewhat bored, but hell is filled with descriptive lavish details of levels and punishments and agony across the frightening masks of the human faces.. And then I thought about this S. Korean video you have posted. It is on the surface such a beautiful, comfortable, peaceful, sercure, youthful, rich in future hopes (I mean the youth of everyone points to greater levels of prosperity and success. We are easily lulled into dreams of that world. For Americans of the post-WW2 this image in S. Korean TV is seen as a birthright for all who study hard in their schools of opportunity, then work hard in the jobs they automatically land after graduation. then it is merely a matter of time, and counting the signposts of success along the way: the first car, the marriage, the first apartment, the first new furniture, the second apartment in a better location, the job promotions, the second car, the first child and so on up the ladder. this is what I was preprogrammed to expect because I grew up in the US after WW2. I unconsciously chose to watch only hours and hours and hours of TV which lionized that lifestyle, I later called the consumer lifestyle. My parents, it seemed to me did their sincere God-given hearts to protect me from suffering.
    As I watched the Korean TV, I began identifying with the husband, and later with the child’s projection of her fife’s probable dreams. The show reminded me of all my aspirations when I lived in the US, until…….. However a small devil voice was whispering, I continued to have no trouble drowing it out by a really subconscious avoidance of pain and seeking the APPROVED pleasures of the society.
    However as I am hinting, I was never at peace with myself, actually, it just took a loooooooooooooong time for the devil’s voices to become loud enough, and the angel voices to begin to not have complete explanations. When I saw that exhibit, and the detailed, somewhat fetish love of the hellish details, 3/4s of the scroll, I thought of how a dichotomy of American cultural messages were playing themselves out inside me. DESPITE my best efforts to find resolution!. Of course all things are relative, I have never experienced the hedonistic success of the Wolf of Wall Street, or growing up black in the South. nor had I found the Middle Way as a low level technocrat in an LA aerospace corp,, fearing what seemed like everyday of a layoff.AND unable to share my worried with my trusting Japanese wife. Ahhhh those were the days, and some of them still are, it seems I was unable to innocently enjoy the simple Korean home drama you posted. Well, Ifeel refreshed enough to go back and eat a peanut butter sand, and return to Heisig. I want meet you on the mountain road!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! with sincere regards from Saitama

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