Zazi 雜字 "Miscellaneous words" is a type of literature written for primary education. The texts of this genre assemble the most important words and characters to make sure that young students learn the most basic characters of the Chinese script. For the sake of easy learning, the text is written in verses with rhymes.
Many zazi texts are written in six-syllable verses (liuyan zazi 六言雜字), others in four-syllable verses (siyan zazi 四言雜字), and have a corresponding title, like the 19th-century book Nongcun siyan zazi 農村四言雜字. Primers were very useful and therefore found wide popularity, some were even translated into the languages of foreign dynasties, like Tangutan (the language of the Western Xia dynasty 西夏, 1038-1227) or Manchu (the language of the Qing dynasty 清, 1644-1911).
The term zazi is derived from the oldest text of this genre, the Zazi 雜字 written by Zhang Yi 張揖 (dates unknown) from the Wei period 曹魏 (220-265). Another early text was Guo Xianqing's 郭顯卿 (dates unknown) Zazi zhi 雜字指 from the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE). Both are only preserved in fragments, collected in Ma Guohan's 馬國翰 reprint series Yuhanshanfang jiyi shu 玉函山房輯佚書.
The oldest preserved zazi text is the famous "thousand-character text" Qianziwen 千字文 that was produced during the Southern and Northern dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600). The Qianziwen and the Baijiaxing 百家姓 "The hundred family names" were both texts used for primary education in village schools during the Song period 宋 (960-1279).
From then on a large number of zazi texts was written. Most of them were authored by persons whose name is not transmitted, and were often circulating only in certain regions, and not in others. With the progress of the printing technique during the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing periods primers became ever more widespread. The local character of these texts is the reason why they are rarely found in bibliographies.
Exceptions are the very widespread texts Qianziwen, Baijiaxing and Sanzijing 三字經 "Three-characters classic" that are known under the name San-bai-qian 三百千.
Many zazi primers included words and sayings that were related to the daily life of the peasantry, and were therefore seen as very useful for the rural population, even during the Republican period (1911-1949), when a new school system was introduced and school attendance compulsive. The new curricula were criticized as very impractical, while the Qianziwen or Sanzijing sufficed to learn sufficient characters in a relatively short period of time. This was enough to read, to write letters, read and sign contracts, or to write spring festival couplets (chunlian 春聯).
The linguist Zhang Zhigong 張志公 (1918-1997) discerns four types of zazi texts, namely cihui 詞彙 "lexicon", yunyu 韻語 "rhymed sayings", zayan yunwen 雜言韻文 "rhymed texts of miscellaneous words", and zazi yunwen 雜字韻文 "rhymed texts of miscellaneous characters".
The themes covered by zazi texts are manifold. The oldest and most famous, Sanzijing and Qianziwen, belong to the category of qimeng 啓蒙 "enlightenment", i.e. primary education, and therefore treat all aspects of the universe, the world, plants and animals, human life, social relationships and the state. The text Baijaxing is a kind of enumeration of family names. All three have the purpose to provide the most basic knowledge of life and society, and at the same time are written with the most important characters that are learned simultaneously with the content.
Yet not all zazi texts were written for young persons. Quite a number of them also served for adults in the villages that had enjoyed no or only a basic kind of education. Because the main recipient of the texts were people from the villages, farming was a central theme of many zazi texts, but trade, commerce and craftsmanship also played a certain role, like the Shanxi zazi bidu 山西雜字必讀. Some zazi texts were especially written for girls and instructed them in the female way of conduct, like the Funü zazi 婦女雜字.
While many texts for primary education were heavily influenced by Neo-Confucian thinking and accordingly included a lot of cosmological theories, zazi texts were much more practical and only concerned with matters of daily life.
It can be assumed that most texts of this genre were compiled by teachers in rural schools who had a clear picture of what the people of the countryside did know and had to learn as a measure to master their daily lives. It is interesting to see that many zazi texts included local expressions from the place where they wree written. Zazi texts are written in a very simple language that can easily be understood also by people with a narrow intellectual horizon. An example for an excellent text describing the live of a farmer is Ma Yizhu's 馬益著 (early 18th cent.) Nongzhuang riyong zazi 農莊日用雜字. For many farmers it was not possible to finance the years-long studies to prepare for the state examinations, or even to attend schools through the whole year. In many villages it was therefore common that the children of peasants only attended school during the wintertime (dongxue 冬學 "winter school"). The short winter months were only a short chance to learn, and therefore they concentrated on basic texts that gave them the most necessary knowledge. No other type of textbook was more appropriate for this kind of learning than the zazi texts.