|For learning Hanja, see: Important 한자 and Category:Hanja|
The Cheonjamun (千字文, Thousand Character Classic in English) is a Chinese poem used as a primer for teaching Chinese characters (hanja to children. It contains exactly one thousand unique characters. It is said that Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty (r. 502-549) made 周興嗣 (Chow Hing-Ji) compose this poem for his prince to practice calligraphy. The original title of the poem was 《次韻王羲之書千字》 and it is sung in the same way in which children learning Latin alphabet writing do with the "alphabet song".
The Thousand Character Classic is composed of 250 phrases of 4 characters each from "天地玄黃" to "焉哉乎也". It was selected among the calligraphies of 王羲之 (Wang Xizhi), one of the finest calligraphers in China, and composed by Zhou Xingsi, who lived from 470 to 521 in the Liang country in the Southern Dynasty period. The characters of the poem were sometimes used to represent the numbers from 1 through 1000 (as the standard numbers could more easily be altered with an extra stroke or two).
Importance in Korea
The Thousand Character Classic was used as a primer for learning Chinese characters for many centuries. It is uncertain when the Thousand Character Classic was introduced to Korea.
The book is noted as a principal force—along with the introduction of Buddhism into Korea—behind the introduction of Chinese characters into the Korean language. Hanja was the sole means of writing Korean until the hangeul script was created under the direction of King Sejong in the 15th century; however, even after the invention of hangeul, most Korean scholars continued to write in Hanja until the early 20th century.
The Thousand Character Classic's use as a writing primer for children began in 1583, when King Seonjo ordered Han Ho (1544-1605) to carve the text into wooden printing blocks.
44 legends from "Cheon" (heaven) to "Su" (water) among "Thousand Character Classic" were inscribed one by one on the reverse of "Sangpyung Tongbo" (a Joseon Dynasty Korean coin).
The Thousand Character Classic has its own form in representing the Chinese characters. For each character, the text shows its meaning (saegim or hun (訓)) and sound (eum (音)). The vocabulary to represent the saegim has remained unchanged in every edition, despite the natural evolution of the Korean language since then. However, in the editions Gwangju Thousand Character Classic and Seokbong Thousand Character Classic, both written in the 16th century, there are some number of different meanings expressed for the same character. The types of changes of saegims in Seokbong Thousand Character Classic into those in Gwangju Thousand Character Classic fall roughly under the following categories:
- Definitions turned more generalized or more concrete when semantic scope of each character had been changed;
- Former definitions were replaced by synonyms; and
- Parts of speech in the definitions were changed.
From these changes, replacements between native Korean and Sino-Korean, etc. can be found. Generally, "rare saegim vocabularies" are presumed to be pre-16th century, for it is thought that they may be a fossilized form of native Korean vocabulary or affected by the influence of a regional dialect in Jeolla Province.