The classic Chinese text that Ivanka Trump’s kids recited for Xi Jinping was long banned in China

Wives sitting by their husbands’ sides.
Wives sitting by their husbands’ sides.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When Donald Trump hosted his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida last week, the US president’s grandchildren conducted a major charm offensive during the summit. Before a sit-down dinner, which wrapped up with US airstrikes on Syria and a “beautiful piece of chocolate cake,” Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner introduced their two older kids, Arabella and Joseph, to Xi and his wife. The kids then performed in front of a full house of politicians and journalists.

“We want to make you feel at home,” Ivanka Trump told their Chinese guests in a video that she later posted on Twitter and Instagram. In the video 5-year-old Arabella is seen singing Chinese folk song “Jasmine Flower,” while her 3-year-old brother shies away from the scene and catches hold of his father’s legs.

According to Chinese state media (link in Chinese), Arabella and Joseph also recited some ancient Chinese poems, as well as a classic text called Sanzijingor the Three Character Classic, a sophisticated but controversial  Chinese text.

Sanzijing, a book made up of three-character verses, was written about eight centuries ago to teach children about everything from morality to astronomy and Chinese history. It has over 1,000 characters in total. Some verses, for example “People at birth, are naturally good” at the very beginning, are at the core of Confucianism, a system of social and ethical philosophy that emphasizes stability and obedience; but others advocate hierarchical norms associated with feudal times, including praising wives who subordinate themselves to their husbands, and ministers who show absolute loyalty to their emperor.

For decades, Sanzijing had been banned from all public kindergartens and schools in China as the Communist regime cracked down on non-socialist ideas. In recent times, China’s rulers have softened in their attitude (paywall) to these kinds of older texts. In 2004 local authorities in several Chinese cities reintroduced Sanzijing to public schools, state media China Daily reported at the time. But still, Chinese schools have adopted different approaches to the classic.

In 2011 education authorities in northeastern Shandong province banned the full recitation (link in Chinese) of Sanzijing in public schools, citing the “corruption of minds” of students. Yet in February the government in southern Zhangzhou city launched a campaign to promote Sanzijing and another Confucian classic for kids called Dizigui, or Students’ Rules, in primary and secondary schools. The two classic texts are the embodiment of “centuries of philosophy and wisdom of the Chinese nation” that will help cultivate students’ moral and ethics, said an official document (link in Chinese). But teachers must not “promote content with feudal color” and students must ”assimilate the essence and discard the dregs,” it added.

Ivanka Trump, who credits her children’s Chinese nanny for their Mandarin skills, also took Arabella to the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C in February to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year.

When Arabella was a little over three-years-old, her mother uploaded a video on Instagram of her reciting a nursery rhyme called “The little white rabbit is so white,” a recording made during a “Sunday morning Chinese lesson” at home.

In celebration of 2015’s Chinese New Year, Arabella was seen in a video dressed in the lucky color red, reciting Chinese ancient poems about peasants and geese. Both clips went viral on the Chinese internet.