The First Step in Children’s Learning of Classical Chinese
- Title: 蒙學漢文初階(몽학한문초계) (The First Step in Children’s Learning of Classical Chinese)
- Authors: Written by Weon Yeongeui (元泳義, 원영의, ?-?); edited by Yu Geun (柳瑾, 유근, 1861-1921) and Jang Jiyeon (張志淵, 장지연, 1864-1921)
- Publisher: Central Bookstore (中央書館, 중앙서관), 1907
- Price: Free (Available in entirety on Google Books for those in the US)
- Language: Classical Chinese with Korean grammatical markers
Today, the vast majority of books on learning Classical Chinese (漢文, 한문) — especially those in English — primarily focus on reading Chinese classics, such as the Analects of Confucius (論語, 논어) and Mencius (孟子, 맹자). With this post, I would like to focus attention on one early modern source on teaching Classical Chinese, the Monghak Hanmun Chogye (蒙學漢文初階, 몽학한문초계), or translated into English The First Step in Children’s Learning of Classical Chinese. Although I had read about this book before, I found out that the entirety of it is available on Google Books from one of my readers. The book was published in 1907, when Classical Chinese was a living, working language, by Weon Yeongeui (元泳義, 원영의, ?-?). He authored a number of modern style textbooks on Classical Chinese and on Korean history as a part of Korea’s modernization efforts, such as: Chodeung Jakmunbeop (初等作文法, 초등작문법), a primer on composing Classical Chinese; Shinjeong Dongguk Yeoksa (新訂東國歷史, 신정동국역사), a textbook on Korean history written in mixed script; and Sohak Hanmun Dokbon (小學漢文讀本, 소학한문독본), another primer on Classical Chinese. His works were so popular because of their patriotic content that they were put on Japanese colonial administration’s (統監府, 통감부) list of prohibited books. The Monghak Hanmun Chogye itself was put on the list in 1909, merely two years after its first publication. Unlike many of the resources on Classical Chinese today, the work does not cite old Chinese Classics, but is itself new source material.
Contents of the Book
In the preface, Weon Yeongeui emphasizes the continuing need for Classical Chinese education in the modern era for proper moral education and to grasp Korean vocabulary. The Monghak Hanmun Chogye was just one of the several textbooks that were published during the early 20th century in a movement to modernize Classical Chinese language education in Korea. The book contains a series of lessons (課, 과), 213 lessons in all, each with two or three sentences in Classical Chinese annotated with Korean grammatical markers (懸吐, 현토). The lessons touch on a variety of topics, including wildlife, flora, food, basic science, and geography:
小兒이 問其兄曰: “禽何善飛며 獸何善走니잇고?”
A small child asked his brother saying, “Why do birds like to fly and why do beasts like to run?”
曰: “禽有兩翼故로 善飛오, 獸有四足故로 善走니라”
[His brother replied] saying, “Birds have two wings and therefore like to fly; beasts have four feet and therefore like to run.”
The primary focus of the work is on Confucian tenets, particularly on human relationships. Below is an excerpt about the importance of literacy and studying:
祖父이 問二兒曰: “汝兄弟二人이 已入塾讀書乎아?”
A grandfather asked [his] two children saying, “Your elder and younger brothers, have you two already entered school to read books?”
一小兒答曰: “予兄은 讀書이 已二年矣오. 我는 年幼하여 尙未讀書也이로소이다.”
One small child replied saying, “My elder brother has been reading books already for two years. I, as [my] age is young, have still not yet read books.”
In addition, the work has a number of lessons on history, particularly on Korean history. There are also lessons on the history and customs of the Chinese, Indians, Vietnamese, and Thai, and even two on Mohammed and Jesus.
新羅之末에 弓裔이 叛于北京하여 國號를 泰封이라하고,
At the end of Shilla (新羅, 신라, 57-935), Gung’ye (弓裔, 궁예, 869?-918) [caused a] rebellion in the Northern Capital (Pyongyang). The country’s name was Taebong (泰封, 태봉).
甄萱이 叛據完山하여 自稱後百濟라하니,
Gyeon Hweon (甄萱, 견훤, 869-936) [started a] rebellion at Mount Wan (完山, 완산), calling his [country] Later Baekje (後百濟, 후백제).
新羅이 漸見侵削하여 遂至於亡하니라.
Shilla gradually succumbed to capitulation, and finally reached ruination.
I found the Classical Chinese in the Monghak Hanmun Chogye fairly easy to read. For one, it does not use too many difficult, rarely occurring characters. For another, it does not use complicated sentence structures and often employs parallel structure between sentences. These observations should not be surprising, because Weon Yeongeui specifically wrote it for educating children. Readers might find this work refreshing, as it is stands out from the typical resources on Classical Chinese in use today in that it presents newly created text rather than reciting Chinese Classics. The work seems to be influential even today in Classical Chinese education in Korea: a quick Google search for the work reveals that it has appeared a number of times on the Classical Chinese portion of the Korean Collegiate Scholastic Ability Test (修能, 수능). Unlike most English sources, Korean sources on learning the language typically cite not only Chinese Classics, such as the Analects and Mencius, but also heavily reference much later works — although I have yet to see them create new sentences only for the book. This raises the question of whether learning Classical Chinese should be strictly based on reading the old, venerable classics.