DuShu: a powerful reading tool for Mandarin Chinese

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Bored of reading the same Chinese textbooks, but Chinese newspapers and other texts are still too difficult? DuShu is a reader app that will take any Chinese text and turn it into a learning resource. Challenging texts become readable in an instant. I recommend DuShu especially to upper intermediate and advanced learners who want to improve their reading speed and comprehension. Here’s why.

Chinese reader DuShu

Chinese reader DuShu: 1800+ reviews on Google app store.
DuShu’s score in the Google app store

When I started preparing for HSK 5 back in 2017, I discovered my main obstacle to passing the test was reading speed. I simply wasn’t reading fast enough. The only thing do about that was to read more! More extensively and more frequently. But where to begin?

DuShu is only one of many options. It’s somewhat similar to the Pleco dictionary’s clipboard reader which allows you to copy-paste a random text and translate characters by tapping on them. Except that DuShu is really a reading tool in its own right. The Chinese reader breaks down any text in readable parts. It adds Pinyin, underlines and tone colors if needed and generates super helpful vocabulary lists which you can export to other apps and devices (premium feature though).

The app (size: 56 MB) runs on Android devices only and has some other paid features. In this review, I’ll introduce DuShu’s main features and share my experiences with this Chinese reader.

DuShu app logo

DuShu’s main features   

Unlike other paid apps (take Skritter for example) DuShu’s basic functions actually offer much more than just a demo-version of the app. You practically can enjoy all features, but some – like sentence translation – can be used only a limited number of times. Not a big issue in my opinion.

  • Copy & paste Chinese texts: Just copy & paste any text into DuShu, save it and the text will be added to your reading list.
  • Text info: DuShu will tell you the difficulty level of the text you are about to read. For more details you can go to text info in the upper right menu. It will show you the text’s statistics and give you a detailed difficulty rating with percentages.  
  • Start reading: DuShu offers two kinds of reading modes: you can read sentence by sentence or in full page mode. DuShu supports your reading by underlining words, so you know exactly which characters belong together. It will also point out conjunctions and particles with a purely grammatical function that otherwise might confuse you. You can personalize these settings to your own needs.
  • Translation: both manual (for HSK sentences) and automatic translations for everything else. (Free users get translations for the first 10 sentences they read per day)
  • HSK-friendly: DuShu generates a vocabulary list for each text. It shows you the HSK level of the character(s). It will tell you for example that 毕业 is HSK 4 vocabulary. This allows you to focus on your target level and ignore any words that are less relevant for your current goals.
  • Pronunciation: Any sentence can be read out loud if you want to listen to what you are reading. Also the tones are marked with different colors.
  • Exercises and flashcards: randomly generates exercises from any text for vocabulary learning. (Free users get 300 trial flashcards and 100 trial exercises)
  • Links: access to hundreds of texts from the links-section. (Free users can read 10 trial texts).
  • List of character components for reference included

What I like about DuShu

Read whatever you want

I’ve been using DuShu for over a year now, reading with DuShu everyday for 20 to 30 minutes, mostly “checking” the news in Chinese. I simply picked any news article that sounded interesting to me, copied the content and saved it in DuShu. The reading list shows you the number of characters, your progress (36 % read) and difficulty level for each text, so you don’t get lost.

No big deal translations are limited

I found that reading with DuShu is a lot of fun. Even without the translations from Google that are limited to 10 per day. For more you must upgrade to the premium version. Vocabulary still gets translated individually though, so it’s not the end of the world.

Exercises and flashcards

Finished reading? Don’t forget to have a look at the automatically generated exercises. They are pretty helpful, although they may seem rather random and basic at first. Open settings and do some fine-tuning to make them fit your level, otherwise you’re likely to get random vocabulary thrown at you. For flashcards select Don’t show words at or below HSK 4 for example.

DuShu – how it looks on my tablet

Note that you can remove the tone colors if they bother you (tone colors never worked for me). The same goes for the Pinyin and the underscores. Also note that the prices shown here aren’t up-to-date anymore. Tip: mark words while reading and 复习 (repeat) them the next day and/or make flashcards for them.

Difficulty levels in DuShu

DuShu screens each text automatically on difficulty. With a solid HSK 4 basis you can have a go at intermediate up to upper intermediate texts, but the advanced texts – for me at least – were mostly overkill. It does make a difference if you’re familiar with the topic of course. I personally like reading texts that are a little bit out of my league, the gap shouldn’t be too wide though. In my opinion, it’s best to avoid texts where you have to look up every second word.

What could make DuShu even better…

Doing some research on the app, I noticed some people having issues with the audio function: Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I sometimes have this problem too.

Integrated graded readers as premium feature – like the ones Pleco offers – would also be welcomed, because finding the right texts on the internet is not always as easy as one would expect. The same goes for a spaced repetition flashcard system, but maybe this is too much to ask for. You can export vocabulary lists (premium feature) to other apps like Anki by the way.

Fun would be to add an element of a competition. Like competing with friends or other learners on reading “distance” or speed and checking the leader board to see how you’re keeping up. This could be combined with some other parameters and testing options to track your progress.

Conclusion

To wrap up this review: DuShu is a reading app that focuses on the essentials and delivers what it set out to do: helping learners to improve their Chinese reading skills. The app technically supports you to read and understand the latest news from China or any other text in Mandarin. Equally important, DuShu makes reading Mandarin interesting enough to keep doing it on a daily basis – at least that’s been my experience. The daily DuShu routine allowed me – without exaggerating – to gradually speed up my reading and expand my vocabulary. The ultimate goal being not relying on any tool to read advanced Chinese texts.

This blog-post was updated and rewritten in October 2020.

What helps you to improve your Chinese reading skills? Any experience with DuShu or other Chinese readers? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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Love defense wars: 爱情保卫战

Aiqing baowei zhan is one of the first Chinese shows that I managed to understand and enjoy. While the series may not be the most intellectual TV-show ever produced, watching Chinese people bitching you still will learn a lot. The more mundane, the better. Here’s why!

Short description

  • Year: Since 2010
  • Duration: 2 x 25 min.
  • Nr. of episodes: 1000+
  • Subtitles: Chinese only
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Why watch 爱情保卫战?

  • Develop listening skills: the invited guests speak normal everyday Chinese and talk about very, very mundane problems we’re all familiar with: relationships.
  • It provides almost endless listening material, over a thousand episodes have been made of this Tianjin TV show.
  • Enhance cultural understanding: I’m always surprised by the kind of uniform and functional approach Chinese have to love and marriage. It seems most people just adapt themselves to the expectations of others, start dating someone cause that’s the proper thing to do and then when things don’t work out, they are completely at a loss. This is where TV-therapy with a live audience comes in and judgement is passed! Anyway, the viewer does get an impression of what can be expected from both sides in a relationship, what’s a healthy relationship and what’s not. The expert’s panel will point out mistakes and confront the lovers with their wrongdoings.

Same procedure, different episode

The first stage of the show
1: The show starts with a short introduction of the couple. As far as I know, it’s always a young, unmarried couple. Here you get presented the basic ingredients of the lower-middle-class drama. Both sides will outline their part of the story.
The second stage of the show
2: Then the moderator interviews them both live on stage to find out what’s not working between them. Sometimes, if he’s not careful, things can get out of hand and the lovers just start yelling accusations at each other. The audience adores this. However, the moderator usually does a good job at keeping the conversation civilized.
3: In the third and final stage, the panel of experts will grant their advice. Most prominently starring 涂老师 (Tu laoshi) who has been observing the couple with his sharp eyes and now offers his invaluable opinion. At the end of the show, a final countdown will be held during which the couple decides if they stay together or break up.

Tips for listening

  • Understanding: Don’t think less of your self because you don’t understand everything at once. It’s not about “understanding everything”, every sentence, every word.
  • Conversation speed: They’re speaking too fast? Try lowering the speed to 0.75. It does alter the voice quality, but this will give your brain more time to listen, read the subtitles and take in the meaning of what is being communicated.
  • Repetition: Listen a second and even a third time and you’ll notice your understanding will increase every time.
  • Active listening: Give yourself a task like looking up the meaning of 10 words. If you do so, listen first and use your dictionary only in the second round. By then you’ll have a feeling which words really stand out and are important to understand the conversation.
  • Summarize: Try to summarize the main problem(s) of the couple’s relationship and (even harder) the advice they were given by the “expert panel”.
This guy feels he’s wronged, because his girlfriend turns out to be a 女汉子, a masculine woman, who gets furious if she doesn’t get what she wants. She even broke his fishing rod! This gives you a taste of what’s 爱情保卫战 all about.

What’s your opinion about 爱情保卫战? Feel to free to comment.

Flashcards: Anki vs Pleco

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Both apps have been around, but which one is the best spaced repetition vocabulary trainer and why? The ongoing debate about the best flashcard system for learning Mandarin seems to point towards the dictionary app Pleco.

What both Anki and Pleco deliver

  • Organize and review vocabulary with less effort
  • Relieve your brain with spaced repetition software that helps you to remember large quantities of words, while allowing you to focus on new or hard words
  • Download or import ready to use flashcard decks
  • Review “whenever, wherever”
  • Customize decks to your needs

What makes Pleco different

  • It’s Pleco’s built-in flashcard system. If you’re already using the dictionary, it’s sort of natural to build your own flashcard lists and use Pleco as a all-in-one solution for learning vocabulary.
  • Can be combined with the Pleco reader: it allows you to directly create flashcards from any given text.
  • The flashcard contains the complete dictionary entry, including example sentences.
  • Sound is integrated.
  • Ready-made lists of HSK-flashcards.
  • Lists can be imported and exported between different users and devices.
  • The current US-price is $9.99 for Android and iOS.

What makes Anki unique

  • Is a flashcard system that’s not limited to Chinese. It can be used for different languages and subjects.
  • You can create your own flashcards. You want to make a set of Chinese grammar points with example sentences? No problem. You want to make a set of the 52 taiji moves you’re currently practicing? No problem. You can make whatever set you want.
  • You can import lists from the Anki community which has a lot to offer to Chinese learners. More than just HSK-lists by the way and translations in numerous languages. There is one “but”: they are not always free of mistakes.
  • Sound can be included (you can add or record your own sound), but not all sets have sound.
  • The desktop- and android- version of the software are free, the iOS-version costs 27,99€. Anki used to be considered a desktop-based application.

The limitations of Anki and Pleco

Both won’t solve all your life problems. They won’t be of much help learning completely new words for example or improving your listening skills. That’s not their purpose.

For what purpose they should be used

However, Anki and Pleco are powerful tools to organize your reviewing and keep track of things, especially when you’re starting to feel lost and new vocabulary just keeps adding up. Create the decks you need and both apps will support you to structure the reviewing process. “Difficult” cards will resurface again and again, while “the easy ones” won’t bother you for days.

That’s where both apps are most helpful. Reviewing with spaced repetition software is a healthy habit to cultivate, but it should never be your main focus, since there is no such thing as reviewing for the sake of reviewing. As a rule of thumb, it shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes everyday.

Which to pick?

Both apps take some getting used to and have their pros and cons. Much depends on which devices you are using and how much money you want to spend.

Why many people prefer Pleco is because they are already using it as a dictionary. When you are looking up words for homework or when watching a Chinese TV-show, it’s only a small step (or sum) to create flashcards and review what you are learning. This learner actually used both apps and at the end clearly preferred Pleco:

I started out using Anki because I had heard of it first, and also because it was free (and I was a poor student). It was fine when I was just using one of the ready-made downloadable decks. But when I started learning words other than from decks, I found it too much of a hassle to add all those new words into Anki manually. Pleco let me add words much more easily, and I usually had to look those words up on Pleco first anyway, to get the meaning right. (Incidentally, Pleco does have a function that allows you to export your flashcards so that you can use them in Anki, but they don’t look as nice with the tones and don’t come with the pronunciation.)  So if you’re still deciding between the two and you’re serious about wanting to learn Chinese, my advice is – spend the US$10-15 and buy Pleco’s flashcard program. It’s easily the best money I’ve spent on learning Chinese so far.

https://discoverchinese.tumblr.com/post/63902496202/which-flashcard-program-pleco-vs-anki (October 13, 2013)

While other learners may prefer Anki for the many options it offers. Maybe you want to create your own deck of grammar points or make a set of particular phrases to prepare for your Chinese oral exam. Maybe you prefer your own examples to those Pleco offers. Maybe you want to use your personal notes. Once you’ve discovered how to make proper use of Anki, you can make any deck you want:

Other programs may have functions Anki lack (such as creating flashcards directly from dictionaries or automatically adding sentences), but no other program beats Anki when it comes to versatility. You can use it for anything you like, you can customize anything you like and if you aren’t a programming maven yourself, there will be others who might have already written the plugin providing the extra features you require.

https://www.hackingchinese.com/anki-a-friendly-intelligent-spaced-learning-system/ (January 8, 2011)

Which app is most popular?

I have noticed though that in this ongoing debate the Pleconians have gained the upper hand. The main argument is convenience. Like I said before, Pleco is the “all-in-one solution”. Many people value the fact they can update their flashcards and review characters they looked up yesterday when they are on the bus or whenever they have time to kill. The Pleco flashcard system is straightforward, whereas Anki can be a bit overwhelming for first-time users.

Anyway, let me know what you think about Pleco or Anki. Have you tried other apps that work just as well? Please comment below.

PRC turns 70: Xi Jinping’s top 10 most used words

Chinese flag

This blog doesn’t discuss politics of any kind and that’s not going to change, but on the first of October something strange happened on my WeChat feed. Without warning all the more or less harmless content turned red!

The East is Red

Instead of the usual bourgeois pictures of food, cats and traveling, an endless stream of Chinese national symbols and fervent “birthday wishes” dominated my WeChat moments: from kids dancing and waving the Chinese flag, to “Xi dada” inspecting the military parade and greeting the soldiers.

Not that it’s any of my business, but all of a sudden Xi Jinping and the party were allover the place! And people who normally don’t involve themselves in politics on any level, now wrote messages in the most patriotic tones, celebrating the 70th birthday of the PRC. I even saw people making selfies in front of their televisions, showing the world that they weren’t missing a single word of their benevolent leader’s speech.

学习强国: “Study Xi and strengthen the nation”

Which reminded me of this Chinese app “xuexi qiangguothat a Chinese friend showed to me not so long ago. It’s an app designed to study Xi Jinping’s thoughts and ideas by watching video’s and reading texts. Of course, you can earn points and are competing against other people. The higher your score, the higher your position in this online Xi JP study club.

Needless to say, all your activity on the app can be tracked and is (probably) linked to your ID, at least if you work for the Chinese government. It’s the updated version of Mao’s little red book which in the craziest days of the cultural revolution Chinese people had to carry around everywhere they went and cite from memory.

But here is the good news: resourceful people invented a cheat tool that does all this hard work for you. Simply install the app and the software will “read” and scroll through articles automatically which boosts your score and obviously saves a lot of time.

Running the speech through a text analyzer

But anyway, my main concern here is to answer the question which level of proficiency you need to reach to understand Xi Jinping’s PRC anniversary speech, held on Chinese National Day (01.10.2019), before he drove past the military in an open car, greeting and thanking the soldiers.

Listening to it myself, I understood more than I expected, not least because the Chinese president spoke slowly and clearly in Standard Mandarin.

Although I recognized many familiar words and phrases and could grasp the meaning of most that was said, when I ran Xi’s speech through a Chinese text analyzer, the statistics told a different story, even revealing an “advanced” difficulty rating. “Advanced” meaning that the text is way beyond intermediate level and not an easy read.

Taking a closer look at the vocabulary and the idioms used, the speech indeed is rather difficult and contains many subtleties of CPC political language that – I guess – only insiders and experts can fully apprehend. The main message though is clear: “China is back, we’re strong and we’re here to stay”.

Text statistics Xi Jinping speech (2019.10.01)

Top ten of most used words

In the top 10 of most used words, we only find common characters. In his 8-minute speech Xi used the word 人民 (people) twenty times and 中国 (China) fourteen times. This is followed by the adjective 伟大 (great, magnificent) which Xi mainly combines with 祖国 (motherland), but also with the following words:

  • 中华人民共和国 (People’s Republic of China)
  • 中国共产党 (Chinese Communist party)
  • 中国人民 (Chinese nation or Chinese people(s))
  • 复兴 (Renaissance (of the Chinese nation))

The Chinese president used the word 世界 (world) to point out China’s growing strength and global meaning and urged the Chinese people to stay on the path of steady and peaceful 发展 (development), telling them to 坚持 (persevere) and keep pursuing socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Here is the top 10 of his most used words:

  1. 人民 rénmín (20X)
  2. 中国 zhōngguó (14X)
  3. 伟大 wěidà (10X)
  4. 中华 zhōnghuá (9X)
  5. 我们 wǒmen (8X)
  6. 全国 quánguó (6X)
  7. 世界 shìjiè (5X)
  8. 发展 fāzhǎn (5X)
  9. 共和国 gònghéguó (5X)
  10. 坚持 jiānchí (5X)

There is still much to be said, but then again, this is not a political blog. This blog post just goes to show that sometimes politics in China is hard to ignore, even if you are “just trying to learn the language”. In particular on Chinese National Day.

Back in the days of Mao Zedong, one could hardly open a Chinese textbook that wasn’t full of revolutionary slogans and communist role models who sacrificed themselves for the socialist cause.

I think we all agree that political ideology should never be the main focus or even a major part of a language study, unless your interest in politics and state affairs is the reason you study Chinese (which is OK!). Please feel free to comment your thoughts about this topic down below.

Why I don’t believe in Chinese character tests

Studying new characters everyday, you have to keep track of your progress somehow. People always like to hear exact numbers. Stating you have mastered over 2000 characters sounds impressive, but how can you be sure? You can find several online tests to check the number of characters you already know. But can they be trusted? I’m skeptical. Have a look at my test results and understand why.

I tried three different tests. All three tests are free – you don’t have to sign up – and take only a few minutes. I answered as honestly as possible. These are the tests:

The results blew me away, because they varied from 1600 to 3434 characters! How can the gap be so wide? Which test should I believe? Feel free to have a closer look:

Hanzitest

Hanzitest Chinese characters
Hanzitest gave me the lowest estimation. It says their set of characters is derived “from a mix of contemporary non-fiction, fiction and movies”. I think I can do much better than that.

Wordswing test

Wordswing test Chinese characters
The wordswing test showed me the highest number which I can live with for now, since I passed HSK 5, but still have a long way to go to HSK 6.

Hanzishan

Hanzishan Chinese character test
And the results from Hanzishan lay somewhere in between. The good thing: As you can see, this test lets you review the characters you didn’t know.

Which test is the best?

Personally, I can’t say which test is most reliable. The main complication I see with all three tests is that most learners of Chinese as a foreign language would typically use the HSK levels and vocabulary to orientate. Or, alternatively, the Chinese textbooks they use in class. No matter which books and methods, all focus on the most commonly used vocabulary as opposed to less frequent ones like these from the Hanzishan test which I couldn’t even find among the HSK characters (!):

missed character list
Excerpt from my missed character list (Hanzishan)

So that’s a problem. Grabbing a Chinese novel, opening a random page and pointing your finger blindly at some character could lead to the same result. Or so it seems to me, due to the randomness of the list above.

As a HSK-student, you would probably get a higher score testing HSK characters, but then again, Chinese texts don’t necessarily stick to HSK-vocab just to make your life easier.

As a testing method, I can’t recommend any of these tests, unfortunately.

Anyway, I could be wrong. If you want to feel the same frustration, give these Chinese character tests a try and feel free to comment your score down below.