Learning to Read in Late Imperial China

In Uncategorized by Skritter

author photoHere at Skritter we are all about making learning to read and write Chinese and Japanese characters as easy and effective as possible. For those who started learning characters in the pre-Skritter days, or the pre-tech days, there is no denying how much easier things have gotten. Rote memorization and character practice squares, memorizing corresponding page numbers for the radicals and stroke counts in paper dictionaries–they’re things of the past, fleeting memories of the “old way” of learning Chinese.

Actually, the “old way” of learning Chinese isn’t as old as you might think. In fact, mechanical drilling of individual characters (especially for the purpose of reading) was considered a pedagogical breakthrough when it was first introduced in the late 17th century, when individual characters first started to appear on carved blocks of wood or paper for children to recognize. As second language learners we might cringe at this kind of approach. Not to mention the lack of of radical and phonetic info, stroke count, and no place for a personalized mnemonic! It’s hard to think of a more painful approach to learning to read and write Chinese, but look back a even a century earlier (the 1600s) and this method seems like the Skritter of its day.

In those pre-wood block character days, there was no individual character learning. Rather, character learning and reading were one and the same. Students, rich and poor, were given the task of memorizing whole texts (think: The Four Books, Book of Odes, A Thousand Characters Text, Three Character Classic etc.) through oral repetitions. After orally memorizing a text the students would learn to “recognize” the characters by matching sounds and shapes.

It’s no wonder why literary figures in historical China were often praised for good memory at a young age. As Li Yu writes in their dissertation from Ohio State University:

The prominent Neo-Confucian scholar Cheng Hao (1032-1085) was said to be able to recite the Book of Odes and the Book of Documents at the age of ten. Hu Yin (?-1151, j.s. 1119), the confidential advisor of Emperor Gaozong of the Southern Song, managed to memorize several thousand volumes of books when he was an unruly teenager.

In an age of no formal training for character recognition, memorization and oral recitation were how one learned to read (and later write). If memorization wasn’t your strong suit, than you were most likely never going to learn to read, at least until the new theory of character recognition came along. So next time you’re feel down on yourself for how many characters there are, or even having to look up an individual character that’s trolling you, remember that things could be worse. Just be glad you didn’t grow up in Imperial China, where the only path to reading and writing was memorization.

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