Reading is key to expanding your vocabulary. I finally felt ready for reading a serious work of fiction in Chinese. Not an abridged version, not a children’s edition, but the real thing. This is how it went…
Some thoughts on reading in Chinese
Not at your level
Most of the content you find free available on the web isn’t at your particular level and doesn’t necessarily fit in with the vocabulary and sentence patterns you’ve covered so far. Graded readers are the best solution, but their pricey – you want to read more than just one – and chiefly written for beginners and lower intermediates. So once you’re past that level, there’s practically everything and nothing you could pick to read.
Don’t read about the southward expansion during the Qin Dynasty…
If you do wish to continue reading, best pick a topic you’re familiar with. If it’s a book, choose one you know by heart. I’ve been looking for The Hobbit in Mandarin for example. Since I’ve read it in Dutch and English, I’m already familiar with the names, places and storyline. I merely have to get used to Gandalf speaking Mandarin to Bilbo and the dwarfs.
Weixin DuShu – 微信读书
I used the app called Weixin DuShu, produced by Tencent and somewhat similar to Amazon’s Kindle. It’s usually linked to a WeChat account and not that well-known outside of China. It’s main attraction: it gives access to a great number of Chinese books.
Tencent, by the way, was the company that released a mobile game titled “Clap for Xi Jinping: An Awesome Speech“, in which players have 19 seconds to generate as many claps as possible for Xi. Another interesting fact is that they got this big mainly by piracy or like Jack Ma of Alibaba Group stated, “The problem with Tencent is the lack of innovation; all of their products are copies.” Worst of all, the Chinese company plays a major role in mass surveillance and implementing censorship in China.
The app itself
Weixin DuShu is not optimized for language learning, but it does allow you to look up words in a Chinese-Chinese dictionary or underline certain characters. It’s not completely free. You enjoy unlimited access to the Weixin library for about a month, than you have to pay to read on. This can be avoided if others send you a book invitation and it seems you then can keep on reading for “free” more or less permanently.
Some features I find useful:
- Change the font size: reading slightly larger characters can make reading a lot more comfortable.
- Search the Chinese-Chinese dictionary or search the web: unfortunately, no English translation included.
- Listening: the AI voice isn’t even that bad! You can listen entire chapters conveniently on your phone or tablet.
- Offline-mode: continue reading when you’re offline.
- Comment function: Nobody likes library books with little scribbles all over, but in this app everybody can comment on a word or passage. Not essential, but nice anyway.
Reading Game of Thrones in Chinese
Now to the book itself. Reading the first volume of the series proofed more difficult than I thought. Except for graded readers I’d never read a whole novel written in Mandarin before. Here’s what I struggled with:
It’s words like usurper (篡夺者), lord (贵族), bastard (私生子女), armor (甲胄), queen mother (母后) that are new to me. The same goes for vocabulary like loot (洗劫), heir (继承人), the king slayer (弑君者), pray (祝祷) and many other less frequently used words.
Chengyu or Chinese idioms
If you’re familiar with the mostly four character idioms: great. If you aren’t, you’re left to guess. Sometimes they could just mean anything! Here’s a selection of the chengyu I encountered while reading the first chapters:
- 措手不及 – be caught unprepared
- 大失所望 – to one’s great disappointment
- 摇摇摆摆 – swaggering
- 视如无睹 – take no notice of what one sees
- 口无遮拦 – have a loose tongue
- 自然而然 – naturally
- 甜言蜜语 – sweet words and honeyed phrases
- 野心勃勃 – be overweeningly ambitious
- 名垂青史 – go down in history
- 忠心耿耿 – loyal and devoted
Although compared to J.R.R. Tolkien George R.R. Martin’s novels are written more straightforwardly and the narration flows much quicker, the author does have lots of heroes and history to introduce to get the story going. Martin takes his time describing swords and the history and mindset of the royal houses. Sometimes minor details contain important clues about places, characters or events. This doesn’t make for easy reading.
With every royal house having its own family history, the story shifting back and forth between different places and protagonists, remembering all the names is tricky enough, even in English. But in Chinese the who-is-who turns into a guessing game of a whole different category. Sometimes you don’t even recognize the characters at hand as a name. Judging from the sound of the Pinyin you may connect “Nai de” to “Ned” and “Shi ta ke” to “Stark” or – more likely – you don’t and wonder who the hell “Qiong en Xue nuo” is (it’s Jon Snow) and why a person named “Robb” should be called “Luo bai” and so on.
Like others before me I don’t get the “system” behind the translations, but I accept them. A few more examples:
A longer list you can find here. I’ll put out the English names in the comments later on.
For an upper intermediate learner like me (HSK 5 / 6 – for what it’s worth) who has watched the entire series the novel is still astonishingly tough to read in Mandarin and I didn’t make it all the way through. I did manage to pick up some speed (still 10 times slower than me reading in English), combining and switching between two reading styles: Intensive reading for detail, extensive reading for speed and breadth. It still took me ages to finish the first five chapters, so I guess I have to admit that this novel is above my level still. The experiment was enjoyable though. I did learn lots of new details that somehow didn’t make it into the series, not to mention words like bastard (私生子女!) and king slayer (弑君者!) in Chinese.
Do you have any thoughts on reading in Chinese? Please feel free to leave a comment below.