A Third Grader’s First Taste of Classical Chinese

My daughter is now in third grade in a Chinese school in Shanghai. She was just exposed to her first 文言文 (classical Chinese) passage at the end of last semester. (The kids have all been studying classical poetry since at least first grade, but that’s different.)

The passage she studied is a story that Chinese schoolchildren have been learning for generations, and it comes from the national standard Chinese language (语文) textbook (Lesson 24) third graders all across China are using. Here’s the passage in plain text:



(If your Chinese is good enough to handle classical Chinese, I’m going to assume you don’t need pinyin. Here’s a Baidu Baike article on the passage.)

It’s a story about Sima Guang, a boy who saves the life of a child that fell into a (full) ceramic water jar by bravely smashing the jar with a rock. (This story seems to promote “out of the box” thinking, which honestly feels a little off in the current Chinese education system!)

And here are my daughter’s notes on the passage from class:



I asked her if she liked studying classical Chinese. She remarked that it was fun, because it was like using Chinese to study a foreign language. Interesting perspective! (I think a lot of us foreigners just see classical Chinese as “super mega ultra difficult Chinese.”)

If anyone has any questions for third grader just starting classical Chinese, I’m happy to pass them along and report back.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. She has nice handwriting.

  2. Juliet Thomas Says: March 3, 2021 at 2:19 pm

    She’s amazing! This is super interesting, honestly! I’m spending ages trying just to work out what she’s doing – I get as far as maybe in the center, she’s analyzing the characters – finding the radicals in 司,跌,皆,弃 and 持, then maybe thinking of other words that use those characters… 司令,跌到 ,众皆 ,做弃 (?) and 保持??? Then another set: 司,庭, 登, 跌, 众, 弃 and 持… But the rest of what’s going on… ??? Boy do I feel lame… haha!

    • Thank you! I find it super interesting too, but I’m not sure to what degree this is interesting and to what degree this is a “proud dad post.” Ha!

      Yes, you’re getting it. To be fair, she’s being led by the teacher. I’m not sure how much of this is her own notes and how much is guided by the teacher in class.

  3. Dorota B. Says: March 3, 2021 at 5:20 pm

    Very interesting! This classical text is rewritten in Shadick’s “A First Course in Literary Chinese”, an old textbook (Cornell 1968, I think) still used today. I wonder if your daughter understood the text right away, or just like us foreigners had to slowly parse the words?

  4. Tage Vosbein Says: March 4, 2021 at 12:35 am

    An interesting look inside the classroom. An lots of room for dad pride. Like the way she is taking notes all over the page.

  5. Props to your daughter for recognizing that 文言 is a different language! The characters — and the way it gets mixed in with modern Chinese in 語文 textbooks — tend to confuse a lot of native speakers into thinking that, as you say, it’s just Chinese except harder and more telegraphic, which ends up leading to trouble later on. I always say that in some ways, L2 users of Chinese have an advantage over native speakers when it comes to 文言, because we don’t come at it thinking that we can read it already!

    I’d be interested to hear more about how she and her classmates are being taught: is it like 唐詩, where they just get an original text and a modern gloss, or are they actually being taught to parse the text?

    • Good observation and good question! I feel like there was some parsing during the class, but I’m not sure how much that actually cultivates individual learners’ abilities to parse texts on their own. I’ll ask her about it, although I can’t guarantee a very clear answer.

  6. Juliet Thomas Says: March 5, 2021 at 4:04 am

    I found some teaching materials online about this lesson in case other readers are as taken with this as I am… (see – it really IS super interesting!)

    There are others, but this one was the most helpful to me – (seems to have a lot of the in class graphics, so aimed at 3rd graders – there are text-heavy teacher guides around, as well, but if the student work is challenging to me, the teacher guides are way beyond my capability!)

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