Story of China - R. Van Bergen

What Boys Learn at School

When a boy is six years old his father thinks that it is time to send him to school. As soon as he has made up his mind, he goes to consult a fortune teller who will find him a lucky day. When that important question is decided, and the day arrives, the little fellow goes with his father to the school selected. There are no public schools in China, but a great number of private ones, kept by men who have passed one or two examinations, but who could not succeed in the third.

Chinese children


The little boy looks, neat and tidy. His hair has been shaved from his forehead, and the rest plaited into a long queue or pien-tsz' (peentse), as he calls it, which hangs almost down to his heels. If it is in the summer season, he wears small baggy trousers of grass-cloth, and a loose jacket of the same material, or of cotton, and he is bare-headed. But if it is winter, he has three, four, or five jackets, one over the other, some of them padded with cotton. He has a skull cap of black or blue silk on his head, with a red tassel of silk threads falling down behind, and a little scarlet twist at the top. His shoes have thick, white soles, often with embroidered toes. Sometimes he has a little purse in his belt, but if there is any money in it, it is only a few copper pieces. He has no pockets; if he wants to carry or hide something, he uses his sleeves. They are so large and long that they will hold many things Chinese boys like.

At last he comes to the schoolhouse and enters the school-room with his father. Here there is a tablet with the name of Confucius inscribed upon it. The little fellow kneels before this tablet, and burns incense. When he has performed this duty, he is introduced to the teacher, to whom he makes some small presents, which he has brought with him. Then he lifts his little almond eyes and looks around him.

He sees the small schoolroom with a number of little desks with high stools behind them, most of which belong to the parents of the boys. Each little desk has an ink- stone upon which the boys rub the cake of Chinese ink,—we call it Indian ink, after dipping it in a little water. This is the inkstand, and the pen is a little brush with a holder in it, looking like our camel's-hair painting brush. When he begins to write he holds it straight in his hand, so that the holder points to the ceiling.

Chinese school


The first years at school are spent in learning to recite by heart the sound of the characters, or picture-words, without knowing anything of their meaning. Every day the teacher gives the child the sound of several characters. When the boy thinks that he knows them, the teacher takes the book away, the boy turns round with his back to the teacher, and shouts the sounds from memory in the order in which they are given in the book.

The Chinese language is very difficult to learn. It has no alphabet, but there are two hundred and fourteen primitive words, from which all the others are derived. For instance: This character represents the word sun. If it written above a line standing for the horizon, it means morning; thus morning. Here is the character for tree:  When two of these characters are placed together, thus: it means forest.

Here are the characters for mouth and door. A mouth in a door, like this means: to ask.

Even when a person has learned all these characters, he does not know Chinese by any means.

It would be difficult for a foreigner, coming to the United States, and not perfectly familiar with our language, to understand such an expression as: "Will you please pare a pair of pears for me?" because the sounds are so much alike: pare, pair and pear all have a different meaning. In Chinese there are words with exactly the same sound which have ten, twelve, and sometimes eighteen different meanings. For instance, the one word che, pronounced in exactly the same tone of voice, may mean: famine, fowl, foot, print, foundation, hindrance, sieve, small table, to wind silk, to make fun of, to crowd, to draw water, to strike, to examine, etc. And if it is pronounced with a breathing before it it has a dozen other meanings in addition to those already mentioned.

When, foreigners in China, who think they know something of the language, begin to speak it, their mistakes are sometimes very funny. One man amazes his servant by telling him that he wishes him to purchase half-a-dozen wives, although he thinks he is ordering him to buy half-a-dozen fowls. Another thinks that he is calling for a cake, but his servant brings him a bottle; he wishes to talk about leather, but all the time he is speaking about his nose. Another man grows very angry because his servant does not bring him his hat, although he really has been asking for the cat. "Bring me a biscuit," a gentleman said, or thought he said. His servant looked helplessly at him, for what he really said was: "Bring me a soldier."

But we want to know what the boys learn at school. Let us stand by this boy, who is eight or nine years old, and hear what he is shouting. Every boy in the schoolroom shouts out the characters he is learning at the top of his voice. When he begins a new sentence, the teacher repeats it, and the boys, holding their books in their hands, and with a swinging motion of their bodies, repeat his pronunciation. They then return to their seats, and learn the words by heart. The noise in a large schoolroom may be imagined."

The first book, the boy studies is the San-Tsz-King (sahn-ts'-king), or Learning by Three Words, because each line has that number of characters. The first sentence reads: "Men at their births are by nature good at bottom." Another sentence, which Chinese boys learn very thoroughly without enjoying it very much, says: "To educate without severity shows a teacher's laziness." Do you see that bamboo cane, within reach of the teacher's hand? He uses it frequently and promptly, as every boy knows.

The boys learn from their books that there are three great powers: heaven, earth, and man; that there are three lights: the sun, moon, and stars; and that there are six kinds of grain used for food: rice, millet, pulse, wheat, rye, and barley. After a good deal more of this, they begin to study Chinese history, and then they are promoted to the stories told of wonderfully wise boys and men.

Here is one about Lao Lai-tsz' (lah-oh lie-tsz'): At the time when David was King in Jerusalem, that is about three thousand years ago, this Lao Lai-tsz' was seventy years old. His parents, however, were still living. For this reason he grew angry if his neighbors spoke to him as Honorable or Venerable, words which are always used when a man has passed the age of sixty, because he thought that if his parents heard him addressed in this manner they would remember how very old they were, and it might make them feel sad. He wished to make them very happy, and so bought the very best food in the market for them, and thought of them day and night.

Sometimes he would dress himself in a coat of the same pattern and color as he had worn when a boy. Then he would come into his parents' room, and jump and play with the toys which he had had in his childhood. At other times he would bring a pail of water from the well. He would take it to the guest room and pretend to stumble, and begin to cry. Then he would run up to his father or mother, and, like a little child, ask to be petted and soothed. He did all this so that the old people might, for a time, forget their great age in caring for their little boy, and once again imagine themselves young.

Here is the story of Koh Kü (koh kee). At the time when emperors of the Han family reigned over China (B.C. 202-A.D. 221) there lived a man named Koh Kü. He lived with his wife, his son, a fine boy three years of age, and his mother who was very old. They were very happy, for Koh Kü worked hard and supported his family.

But trouble came. There was no rain. The harvest failed, there was no work, and there was no food. The Chinese do not, as we would do, move to another place to find work. They would not think of such a thing, for who would worship at the ancestral graves? So long as there was any food in the house, the old grandmother and the little son ate together. At last the food began to give out; they all grew thin, and their strength began to fail.

One day Koh Kü took his spade, and called to his wife to follow him with the child. He hurried on beyond the bamboo fence around their little homestead, and then stopped. When his wife and child came to where he was standing, he said to her: "Wife, we are now so poor that I can no longer support my mother, and the child takes from the little food we can give her, so that both are growing weaker before our eyes. We may have another child, but when a mother is dead, she can never return. The child must die; then my mother's life may be saved, and perhaps we may manage to live until a better time comes."

The poor woman could not speak. She knew that her husband was master: but she held the child close to her heart, while Koh Kü was digging the grave. Suddenly the spade seemed to strike against some hard substance. The man bent down, and scarcely believed his eyes when he pulled out a pot full of gold. But the most wonderful part of it was that written on the pot were the words: "Heaven gives this treasure to the dutiful son Koh Kü. The officers must not take it away from him, and the neighbors must not ask for a share."

Another one of these stories is about Wang Liang (wahng leeahng): About fifteen hundred years ago, at the time when the Emperors of China were of the Chin family (A.D. 386-534), there lived a boy whose name was Wang Liang. He was only a child when his mother died, and soon after her death his father married another woman named Chu. The boy's stepmother took a strong dislike to Wang; she scolded him continually, and complained of him to his father. Wang did not like this at all. He did not mind so much being scolded and punished, but he did not want to have his father annoyed.

It was in winter, and snow was falling heavily. Icicles were hanging from the eaves, and pond, lake, and river were covered with ice. Mrs. Chu had been scolding and complaining as usual, and at last she threw herself into one of the stiff-backed chairs, and said: "Oh! dear, I wish I had a dish of fresh carp!"

There were plenty of carp in the lake near by, but who was going to catch them under that thick sheet of ice? Wang thought that he could do it. He left the house and went to the lake, where he threw himself upon the ice, hoping that the heat of his body would melt it. Heaven smiles upon such dutiful conduct. The ice did melt, and two beautiful carp leaped out. Wang caught them, and ran home.

When he came into the room where his stepmother was half asleep, he knelt before her, and offered her the fish.

Here the story ends. I hope that Mrs. Chu was a little kinder to the boy thereafter, and that Wang did not catch cold from his wetting.



Besides reading and writing, Chinese boys learn arithmetic. They use no slate, but a swanpan or abacus. This is a case with wires strung across it. On the wires are strung five movable balls, and beyond a dividing slat two more balls. The five balls are units, and the two balls make a ten. Of geography, grammar, and other studies they learn nothing.