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A Confucian Classroom in Qing China

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In September 2005, at the Panjiayuan Antiques Market in Beijing, I  bought a book of materials once used by an elementary school teacher.  It seems the teacher took some of his classroom materials to a shop in  the city of Panshi in Jilin Province in northeast China and had them copied  onto clean, handmade paper and bound together with string. The shop put  its stamp on the cover, so we know the city where it was located.1 The title  the shop wrote on the cover of this collection was Three Items for Mr. Xu  (Xushi sanzhong), so I call the man discussed in this paper Teacher Xu.2 I  picture him as a man, perhaps in his forties, who enjoyed being a teacher  and was welcoming with his young students. I estimate the book was compiled  about 1880.

an illustration of a classroom, showing some scrolls on the wall and students at desks
Teacher Xu’s Classroom in Manchuria. The classroom is cold, so students wear fur-lined hats and heavy padded robes. Young students stand with their backs to the teacher in order to loudly and clearly recite the passages they have memorized. Source: Photo from R. Van Bergen, The Story of China (New York: American Book Company, 1902, 1922).

We know some things about elementary classrooms in the late Qing  Dynasty (1644–1912), when this book was used. The typical classroom was a fairly small room, sparsely furnished. There was a desk or table for the  teacher, and usually several smaller desks or tables for the students. The  classroom would likely have a small case for books, where various educational  texts would be stored. The paper used for the textbooks was soft and  very pliable. Some texts had been printed from woodblocks; some were  handwritten like the book examined here. Most classrooms probably had a  low table where hot water was kept, perhaps along with tea and teacups for  the refreshment of both teacher and students. In colder climates, a small  coal stove was somewhere in the room, although  both teacher and students were expected  to dress warmly and take their lessons  while bundled up.3  Classes were almost always small, consisting  of probably three to ten students.  They were almost always boys, ranging in  age from about eight to older students of  fifteen or sixteen. Schools were generally  privately run by clan temples, wealthy families, or teachers who set themselves up  to offer education. Tuition fees for the students could be provided by wealthy families  or local business associations. Families who  could afford to send their boys to school  paid the tuition directly. There was no standard  or approved curriculum, but customarily,  a number of well-known classic books  were usually studied.4

In China during the Qing Era, most  people had no formal education or only a  few years of elementary schooling. Most  people could not read or write well, but it  seems likely that most people knew some  written characters.5 Many scholars believe  that only 30 percent or less of the people  were fully literate. Because few people had  a more complete education, those who were  fluent in reading and writing, and who knew  in detail about China’s rich literary and intellectual  culture, were highly respected. The  teacher was an honored person and was often seen as an embodiment of  Confucian teaching. Confucius was lauded as the xianshi (“first teacher”)  because his emphasis on life-long learning, diligent study, and thoughtful  discussion set the stage for how Chinese scholars, intellectuals, and students  would approach education. A sense of Confucius and his teaching  has always permeated schools and classrooms in China.

Yet in spite of this, the men who made their living by teaching were not  paid very well. We have the short record of a teacher, probably in northeast  China (Manchuria) in the 1920s, who wrote this about his monthly  income: “School opened on May 19. From Huamin (School), I received 20  yuan dayang piao (foreign money) in guobi (national currency) and 4 jin  (almost four kilograms/nine pounds) of millet. I purchased a shovel for 3  yuan, handed over 10 yuan for coal, then bought chalk, a broom, and took  out a newspaper subscription for 2 yuan.”).6 We can see that he was paid  in both cash and food, and that basic expenses took up much of his salary  from this job. It appears he also had other teaching jobs in the area in order to make ends meet.

The first item copied in this elementary school textbook was the famous  Thousand Character Classic (Qianziwen).7 The text uses four-character  phrases that rhyme to introduce ideas about moral precepts, traditional  values, and natural phenomenon. It may have been originally compiled in the 600s, and it has been taught in the  classroom since then and is considered a  basic primer for elementary education.  Other similar texts were also used in  classrooms.8

a middle aged Asian man with a mustache smiles
An image of Teacher Xu? The man in this photo was actually named Teacher Liu. But his hearty and welcoming smile may be reminiscent of Teacher Xu. The photo was taken about 1918. Source: Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke Library.

The second item for classroom use  in Teacher Xu’s copied collection was a  riddle (dasizi miyu).9 In this riddle, the  boys were given some sentences to read.  By picking two characters from each sentence  and combining them into one new  character, the “moral” of the sentence was  revealed. For example, the first sentence  read: “This person could not take care of  their valuables” (Conglaizhe, bei bukexing).  If the boys combined the words for  “person” (zhe) and “valuables” (bei), the  new word they formed was “gamble”  (du). The moral of the sentence is this  person could not preserve their valuables  because they gambled. In this manner,  the riddle went on to talk about people  who became greedy, then poor, and then  turned to stealing. It was clearly a message  upholding conventional morality of  the kind that was often taught in China’s  schools in the late Qing. The secret to solving the riddle was to find the  key character of bei that appeared in each sentence and to combine it with  another character in close proximity. An adult might be able to quickly  solve this riddle, but for boys of nine or ten, it must have presented a good  challenge. I wonder if Teacher Xu assigned groups of perhaps two boys  to each sentence and formed a competition to see which group would be  the first to find the hidden meaning? It must have been a fun classroom  exercise and also a good basis for a discussion of moral behavior and the  consequences of not following moral actions. This was very much in the  Confucian tradition of understanding the importance of one’s actions.

an aged paper with chinese text on it
Three Items for Mr. Xu. Cover. The student who received this text wrote the date in pencil, June 27, 1920 at the top. Note the red stamp of the copy shop. Source: Photo by author.

The third item in Teacher Xu’s collection was not intended for classroom  use. It was a recipe of an herbal medicine to help one sleep. It was  a compound of many natural roots and powders that could be found in  almost any pharmacy in China in those days. Actually, many Chinese communities  in the West (often called “Chinatowns” in English) these days also  have pharmacies that sell traditional medicines and herbs such as those  mentioned in Teacher Xu’s recipe. This item tells us that most likely Teacher  Xu acted as a “doctor” or a medical adviser for those who consulted him  on medical matters. In the late Qing and early Republic, from the 1890s to  the 1930s, it was a typical practice among the common people of China,  called ordinary people (pingmin), to approach any person who was literate  and ask them for advice on all sorts of matters. Since fully literate people  were few, it was assumed that educated people had knowledge on all sorts  of subjects, including fortunetelling and medicine. It is also possible, of  course, that Teacher Xu needed the recipe for his own use.10

Possibly Teacher Xu was also a fortune teller; he gave predictions for  his students’ futures, as we will see later, and also earned extra income for  that service. If we look at the full page of the teacher’s income mentioned  above, we see that the teacher at the Huamin School also had other teaching  jobs in order to earn enough to live on.

To return to our discussion of the classroom, I believe Teacher Xu  was a keen observer of the students in his class and that he enjoyed their  personalities. I draw this conclusion because on one of the latter pages of  his collection, he wrote the names of some of his students and then gave  a short predicition about their futures. For example, for one student he  wrote: “Wang Kemin, Sun and moon shine forth, Good Fortune” (Riyueguang,  fuxiang). For another student he wrote: “Dong Yongfa, Cold and  heat follow naturally, Good Prospects” (Hanlai shuwang, lutian).

A boy named Wang Jufu may have been Teacher Xu’s favorite student,  because he wrote Wang’s name and address on the last page. He wrote:  “Wang Jufu eleven years old, originally from Pingding County, Shanxi  Province. Living in Jilin Province, Henan Road, Hexingyin Department  Store.” We can see that young Wang was probably living with his parents  above the family store (a small shop could also call itself a department  store), so this was likely a working-class family that had moved from  Shanxi west of Beijing all the way east to southern Manchuria. In the late  Qing, the economy of Manchuria was better than were economic and living  conditions in Shanxi.11

Another favorite student was Wang Bingming. On the back cover of  Teacher Xu’s classroom materials, young Wang practiced writing his name.  He wrote it four times and began to write it the fifth time, but wrote only  the first two characters of his name. Why did he write his name on the back  cover? I hypothesize that Teacher Xu decided to give the book to Wang,  perhaps because he was such a good student or perhaps because the riddle  intrigued him so. I also make a great (but logical) leap in interpretation  by assuming that Teacher Xu gave the book to young Wang in about 1883  when Wang was probably about twelve years old (the typical age of elementary  school students in most classrooms at the time). If the book had  been copied out in 1880, then it had been in use for three years and the thin  paper could have been showing a lot of wear.

I like to think that Teacher Xu epitomized the Confucian ideal of a  teacher who was caring and willing to engage his students intellectually. In  practice, we know that elementary teachers were often strict taskmasters who might even beat poorly performing students. But the writings about  his students that Teacher Xu put in his classroom materials indicate to me  that he was a gentler and more open teacher. If so, he was following the  words of Confucius, who said, “If three of us walk along, one of my companions  will be my teacher.” Confucius felt we should always be open to  learn from others.12

an aged paper with chinese text on it
Three Items for Mr. Xu, page 101, “A Favorite Riddle.” This shows the riddle (dasizi) that Teacher Xu
used in class with his students. It challenged their ability to recognize and manipulate written characters, while also teaching a moral lesson. Source: Photo by author.

“If three of us walk along, one of my companions will be  my teacher.” Confucius felt we should always be open to  learn from others.

Young Wang treasured the book he had received from his teacher as  he grew older and gradually became bald. About thirty-seven years later,  when Wang would have been forty-nine years old, the book came into the  hands of another young boy. Possibly Wang gave it to this young student,  or for some other reason it passed into the possession of the student. When  he received the book, this student used a pencil to write the date on the  front cover: “20 nian, 6 yue, 27 ri” (June 27, 1920). This student did not  write his name in the book, but he used the same pencil to tell us something  about the book. On the inside of the front cover he wrote: “This is the  book that retired bald-headed Wang used to read so earnestly.”

In my analysis, this set of materials used in an elementary classroom in  China had a life of three generations. The first generation was when Teacher  Xu had it copied out, perhaps in 1880. He used it in the classroom and  added his own notes about his students, their  personalities, and in one case their address.  The second generation of the book began about  1883 when Teacher Xu decided to give the book  to Wang Bingming. It seems logical to assume  that boy Wang became the bald-headed and  retired Wang who was often seen reading the  book by the young student with the pencil who received it in 1920.13 It is  nice to think that the materials in the book were important to all three of  its owners. In a good Confucian manner, they all respected their elders and  teachers, and they diligently read the text.

an aged paper with chinese text on it
Three Items for Mr. Xu, page 102, Student Names. On this page, Teacher Xu wrote the names of some of his students, along with a comment on their fortune. He also wrote his motto, “Seize the day and you will succeed,” meant to encourage himself and his students. Source: Photo by author.

This text that was so important to a number of people was acquired by  me in 2005. I feel grateful myself to possess this treasured book. But logically,  it passed through other hands before it reached me. For example, if  the young student with the pencil was twelve years old in 1920, then he was  fifty-eight years old in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution swept through  China. That was not the time to have an example of “feudal thinking” such  as this book.14 If I continue guessing about the life of this book, I could  think that it was hidden away during the Cultural Revolution and later  found by relatives of the person who hid it. Most likely at that point, they  turned it over to a paper recycler who put it into the market system that  would eventually see it turn up in Beijing’s Panjiayuan Market.

It could have happened that way. I feel grateful to have the book in my  collection and to be able to do research and analysis of its probable history.  The materials in the book and its long history of transmission from student  to student (I am also a student of history) follow the honored Confucian  tradition of respect for precedent, for the written word, and for the relationship  between teacher and student. Now that China is officially embracing  Confucian teaching and is suggesting it can be the basis for constructing  a better international community, Teacher Xu’s book takes on renewed  importance for those of us who read it and appreciate its contents.


1. The shop put its stamp in red on the cover. It was called the Zhizhoutang. The  shop’s trademark was a round jade disk they called “The Translucent Jade Disk  (Bi Jin Ming). They gave the name of their city as Panshi, a city in south Manchuria  (then called the Three Eastern Provinces [Dongsansheng]), to the south of Jilin  City and to the north of Fengtian City (present-day Shenyang city in Liaoning  province).

2. Three Items for Mr. Xu (Xushi sanzhong) is 93 inches (24.76 cm) h x 83 inches (22.22 cm) w, which gives it a square shape, similar to Korean string-bound books. A woodblock publication with the same title appeared in the early Qing,  annotated by Wang Xiang and edited by Xu Shiye. It was reissued in 1821 by the  Fuchuntang. Thus it could be that the copyists used this “classic” title for the work  they copied, and the name of the teacher discussed in this paper was not in fact  Xu. These published works always contained a copy of the Thousand Character  Classic. 

3. The hand-written copied text discussed in this paper and a more complete  analysis of its contents is in my book, Ronald Suleski, Daily Life for the Common  People of China: Understanding Chaoben Culture (Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2018),  Chapter 4.

4. For a good discussion of traditional education under the Qing, placed in the context  of Chinese society at the time, see Richard J. Smith, The Qing Dynasty and  Traditional Chinese Culture (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

5. Estimates of literacy and functional literacy vary widely, from 5 percent to over  50 percent. A thoughtful and well-documented consideration of this topic is in  Cynthia J. Brokaw, Commerce in Culture: The Sibao Book Trade in the Qing and  Republican Periods (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007), 559–568.

6. This information is taken from another hand-written book I bought titled Riches  Bestowed (Qianjinfu). This is a work of seventy-four pages written in a very good  calligraphic hand on poor-quality handmade paper. It is 81 in (21.59 cm) h x 51  in (13.34 cm) w, a size likely intended for a reference book. This is probably a Republican-  era (1912–1949) text, and the ink still looks crisp. The quality of writing  ink used by writers in China was usually very high.

7. Printed editions of the Thousand Character Classic are ubiquitous in China today.  Some are adapted as children’s picture books, while others contain examples  of the fine calligraphy for use in improving one’s own calligraphy. The Thousand-  Character Classic was one of the most popular texts used in traditional-style  elementary education. A version containing Chinese and English is Evelyn Lip,  1,000 Character Classic (Singapore: SNP, 1997).

8. A discussion of the texts used in private academies and schools in traditional  China is Ōsawa Akihiro, Keimō to kyogyō no aida: dentō Chūgoku ni okeru  chishiki no kaisōsei (Between Elementary Education and Official Office: The Class  Basis of Knowledge in Traditional China),” Tōyō bunka kenkyū (Research on Asian  Culture), (no. 7, March 2005), 27–65.

9. Interesting points about riddles in China, both traditional and contemporary, are  in Wang Fang, ed., Zhongguo miyu daquan (Collection of Chinese Riddles) (Shanghai:  Shanghai wenyi chubanshe, 1983), 1–16, 544–556.

10. The recipe called for domestic ginseng, 5 fen (lucan wufen); bamboo leaves, 5 fen  (zhuye wufen); anther, a medicine extracted from flowers, 5 fen (huafen wufen);  brown sugar, 4 or 5 fen (chitang sifen wufen); ashes, 5 fen (yanhui wufen); Korean  ginseng, 5 fen (Gaolican wufen); hot wine, 1.5 to 2 jin (shaojiu jinban er jin);  chocolate vine, 5 fen (mutong wufen). The instructions following it said: “Cook  this repeatedly for x hours over seven days, and then take it for three or four  days. After three days the body will x x (unclear characters). Then who would be  unable to sleep!” (Zhu erwang x shi, x qitian, baohaoqian sansitianhao, housantian  x fa, kongbu nengshuijinghu).

11. The difficulties of life in Shanxi in the late Qing and early Republic are detailed in  Henrietta Harrison, The Man Awakened from Dreams; One Man’s Life in a North  China Village, 1857–1942 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005). For a contrast of the growing economy in Northeast China see Ronald Suleski, Civil  Government in Warlord China: Tradition, Modernization, and Manchuria (New  York, Peter Lang, 2002).

12. This well-known quote is taken from the Analects, the book that contains a record  of the discussions that Confucius had with many of his students. It is in the  Chapter on Expounding Ideas, Book Seven, Section 21. There are many English  language translations of this phrase, and differing translations for the sections  of the Analects. The version of the Analects I consulted was The Four Books with  Chinese-English Translation (Taipei: Wenyou shudian, 1955), 51-52, an unauthorized  pirated copy of a translation made by James Legge as The Four Books,  and in China published in 1930. Legge (1815–1897) carried out his translations  from 1841 to his death in 1897. His works were originally published in England,  and his first translation of the Analects was published in 1861. In the twentieth  century his translations were widely pirated in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  A contemporary interpretation of this phrase, meaning we should apply it in its  broadest possible terms, is in He Jun, Bushe Lunyu (Don’t Discard the Analects)  (Shanghai: Huadong shifan daxue chubanshe, 2017), 127. Dr. He is a well-respected  Confucian scholar in China today.

13. My hypothetical chronology for the book is based on the following logical  associations: I took the one clearly written date of 1920 on the inside front cover,  and calculated back three generations, taking thirty years as a generation. Thus,  Teacher Xu may have been born about 1840. He may have been a forty-threeyear-  old teacher in 1883 when he gave the book as a memento to twelve-year-old  Wang Bingming, the boy who became bald-headed Wang. When the final student  received the book in 1920, bald-headed Wang might have been forty-nine-yearold,  and the boy who wrote the date on the book might have been between twelve  to fifteen years old, judging from the handwriting.

14. During the Cultural Revolution, people who had written materials that might be  considered to uphold feudal thinking, tried in various ways to protect themselves  while still keeping their materials. Some of them wrote slogans praising  Chairman Mao in the margins, to show they were in sympathy with the political  tenor of the times and that they did not support feudal thinking. Several books in  my collection show this practice. One of them is Ruili Company Accounts (Ruili  qingchaozhang). The Ruili Company operated as a bank or money lender in  Shandong province between 1924 to 1932. The record of their operations that I  have is a 298-page book of 71 inches h x 6 inches w. A hastily brushed anti-feudal  phrase in this book (page 177) is “Mao Zedong Thought is the steam engine  leading forward our revolutionary thinking.” (Maozedong sixiang shizhiyin geming  qianjinde sixiang huochetou).

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