Tam Tự Kinh: Three-Word Book: 1:2



  1. 昔孟母,擇鄰處;
    Tích Mạnh mẫu, trạch lân xứ;
    The tale of young Mạnh’s mother and her efforts to choose a good neighborhood for her son.

    In six words, we have the entire story of Tích Mạnh, an ancient philosopher and one of Confucius’ famous students.  His brilliance, alas, only blossomed later in life, and only through the perseverance of his mother’s direction and sacrifice.  As a kid, he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.

    You see, in his early childhood, Tích Mạnh and his family lived across from a cemetery, where many funeral processions were held.  In ancient times, funerals were noisy, obnoxious events where people hired professional wailers who would cry and howl away at some dead stranger.  It was one big dog and pony show, complete with musical instruments and ‘dancers’, doing the wailing and gnashing of teeth dance.

    Since Tích Mạnh was a young impressionable boy, he would imitate the mourners with the joy and gusto of youth, wailing and gnashing his teeth and dancing around in an effort to copy what he saw.  Horrified at the thought that her only son might end up doing this for a living,Tích Mạnh’s mother moved her family away to a house near the market area.

    The market was a bright, bustling place, filled with people and things to look at and enjoy.  The free exchange of goods and money was fascinating to the young and impressionable Tích Mạnh; so much so that he began to imitate the merchants, selling things and bargaining with the best of them.

    Mom was not happy.  Even though being a merchant was several degrees better than being a professional mourner, this was not something she wanted for her son.  Since he was HER son, he had to be more spectacular than any other kid his age.  He had to shine above the riff-raff of the market stalls.

    By this time, after noticing that her son tended to be one of those monkey-see, monkey do type of kids, she got wise and moved her household next to a school.  As predicted, once Tích Mạnh saw all the kids going to school everyday and seeing how fun school life could be, he began to pretend-play going to school as well, carrying a book around, and scribbling on scraps of paper in his pretend school.  He was still too young to join the school kids at that time, but it was not long before the play became a reality.

    Finally satisfied, his mother said to herself, “This is a good place.  Here, we will stay.”


  2. 子不學,斷機杼
    Tử bất học, đoạn cơ trữ.
    The young boy (Tích Mạnh) did not want to study, so his mother cut the fabric that she was weaving from her loom to teach him a lesson.

    This set of six words is short, but there was no way I could translate in six words, the complete idea behind this verse.  Once Tích Mạnh had started school, he turned out to be just an average student.  Lazy and rather unmotivated, he would often skip school and go play.

    One day, he was caught, red-handed, skipping school, and by his mother, no less.

    In a fit of rage, she grabbed him by the ear and yanked him homeward.  Once inside, she took a pair of scissors and cut out the piece of fabric she was weaving on her loom, destroying it in the process.

    That action scared the crap out of Tích Mạnh, because it was so unlike his mother to do something so wasteful.  His family was poor.  The only means his mother had to feed the family was through her piecemeal weaving.  Destroying this piece of fabric meant that they could go without basic necessities for that week.

    “Why, Mother?” was all he could ask.

    “You skipping school before you have finished your education is the same as this unfinished piece of fabric.”  She threw the mangled rag at her son’s head.  “It is now useless.  You can’t even pull the threads out to make anything new.  It is not even fit to wipe the floor with because it is so small and will unravel at all the ragged edges.”

    Tích Mạnh hung his head in shame.  He mumbled his apology to his mother and returned to class.  After that day, he resolved to finish ‘weaving’ himself so that he would not turn into that mangled piece of cloth.  One week without adequate food due to the loss of the piecemeal work, turned into a great lesson, paid for with the mangled, torn fabric with which his mother had sacrificed.


  3. 竇燕山,有義方
    Đậu Yên Sơn, hữu nghĩa phương;
    Đậu Yên Sơn was a man of high moral character.

    There is a lot of context in this one line, but there was no need to write a lot about the subject matter.  After all, EVERYONE knew who this Đậu Yên Sơn dude was.  Right?

    No?  Well, for starters, he lived a long, long time ago–really, really long time ago, somewhere between 907 and 979 AD.  It was between that short interval that the story of Đậu Yên Sơn began.

    The first 30 years of his life was unimpressive, to put it kindly.  Back in that old decrepit time, girls didn’t count as anything worthy to have, because as you know, the really worthy families had boys.  The more the better.

    This dude was so unworthy, he was already a wealthy middle-aged married dude but all he ever managed to beget were a bunch of good-for-nothing girls, that’s how unworthy he was.
    One night, Đậu Yên Sơn had a dream, where his long-deceased father came to him, stating that he had to do some good deeds in order to have boys.  When he woke up, the fear of not having any boys lit a fire under his feet.  Thereafter, he started doing good deeds, and pretty soon, guess what?

    He got five boys.

    Ha!  Đáng đời.


  4. 教五子,名俱揚
    Giáo ngũ tử, danh câu dương.
    He taught all five of his children to become great and famous.

    In time, Đậu Yên Sơn managed to teach all five of his sons to become highly educated, erudite men of great learning.  Hmm… highly educated, erudite, men of great learning…that’s all the same thing, isn’t it?  Back then, it was all anyone ever hoped for.  Lots of learning.  End game only happened when one has finished school and passed all the exams.  After that, game over.  

    If that was all there was to passages 3 and 4, I’d be rather disappointed, but there really is something to take away from this sexist, male-centric writing, and that is parental responsibility.

    The entirety of these four passages (a grand total of 24 words) stress the vital importance of the role of parents in educating their offspring.  In fact, the education of the child is placed solely in the hands of the parents.  Notice that there is no mention of blaming teachers or school systems for the growth and development of the child.  Both parents hold and wield in entirety, the responsibility for the growth and development of the child.  This is a sacred duty, if one were to accept the responsibility of having children.

    Honestly, if I had been taught this as a young kid, I’d be like:  No thanks.  No kids for me.  Too much work.  I have none, but it wasn’t because of this book.  I have my hands full just trying to learn how to be a decent human being.

2 thoughts on “Tam Tự Kinh: Three-Word Book: 1:2

  1. Hi Noychoh. It’s really difficult for me to translate this book. I can’t read Chinese, so I have to translate every single word into ancient Vietnamese, and then, I have to translate again, from ancient Vietnamese to modern Vietnamese. It’s seriously a lot of work. I will try to do a few more pages as I have time. thank you for your interest.


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