The most traditional way to teach Chinese characters is the use of 三字經 Three Character Scripture (Three), 百家姓 Hundred Family Names (Hundred) and 千字文 A Thousand Characters (Thousand), or in short 三百千 Three, Hundred and Thousand, which had been widely in use all over China for more than a thousand years (張志公, 1999, pp. 3-42).
To a large extent, they reflect the experience that teachers in ancient times gained in how to teach the characters effectively to children. As an illustrative example, the first few lines of 千字文 Thousand, which is the oldest among the three, are shown below.
天地玄黃 宇宙洪荒 Dark sky and yellow soil. Spacious is the universe.
日月盈昃 辰宿列張 The sun and moon wax and wane. The sky is full of stars.
寒來暑往 秋收冬藏 Seasons come and go. Harvest in autumn, stock in winter.
雲騰致雨 露結為霜 Cloud rises to become rain. Dew freezes as frost.
The beginning of 千字文 Thousand Rhythmic text.
As seen above, each line is regularly composed of 4 characters, which gives rise to a rhythm in recitation. Moreover, the last characters in every even line are basically in rhyme, namely, 荒[huāng], 張[zhāng], 藏[zàng] and 霜[shuāng]. All these are helpful to children’s memorization of the text.
High density of characters. As the name 千字文 Thousand implies, there are altogether a thousand characters with basically no repetition, i.e., all the characters are unique. The purpose of this is to condense the occurrence of new characters so that children can learn more characters without having to memorize a lengthy text (i.e., learning the characters intensively). It is worth noting that in 千字文 Thousand, 百家姓 Hundred and 三字經 Three, the ratios of the new to the total number of characters are as high as 1000 to 1000 (i.e., 100.0%), 443 to 472 (i.e., 93.9%) and 520 to 1068 (i.e., 48.7%) respectively.
Vast diversity of topics. Regarding the content, 千字文 Thousand provides a wide coverage of topics, including history, geography, moral values and others. Indeed, one major objective of education at that time was to instill broad general knowledge, including feudal ideas, to the children (i.e., 文以載道(write text to convey the truth)). However, children found it generally difficult to fully understand the content. Because of this, teachers usually only required the children to recite the text, and even accepted that the children did not need to know the exact correspondence between the sounds and the characters. The use of content irrelevant to children’s experience is a major critique of the traditional way of teaching the characters.
Learning the characters first before reading. The rationale underlying this traditional approach is to teach intensively many characters at the beginning. Children were required to concentrate their efforts on learning about 2000 characters in the first year. Only after that would the teachers ask them to read classical texts, poetry, legendary tales and others (i.e., 先識字，後讀書(learning the characters first before reading)).
Separating learning to read from learning to write. Another important characteristic of the traditional approach was to separate the teaching of reading from that of writing. In the old days, teachers recognized that the ability to write the characters was developed much slower than that to recognize the characters. Thus, in order not to stop the children from learning how to recognize a large number of characters, teachers often did not require them to write the characters in 三百千 Three, Hundred and Thousand. Instead, the children were asked to practice writing characters of fewer strokes, for example, “上大人，丘乙己(In ancient time, there was a superior man called Confucius)”.
三百千 Three, Hundred and Thousand are no longer used since early last century after the 新文化運動(New culture movement in China). But undeniably some of the ideas behind this traditional approach, especially the intensive way of teaching, still have much influence on the later endeavors to improve the teaching of the characters.