Women in Shanghai: 上海女子图鉴 (TV series)

  • Year: 2018
  • Duration: 20 episodes X 25 min.
  • Subtitles: Chinese only
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Luo Haiyan has just graduated from university in Shanghai. Like hundred thousands of other fresh graduates, she’s about to enter the Shanghai job market. This is where her climb to the top of society starts. But what if she – as a result – becomes a “leftover woman”? Isn’t the shame of ending up as “剩女” too big to ignore? Can she really fulfill her dream of rising to Shanghai’s top 10 percent?

Why I recommend Women in Shanghai for Chinese learners.

The Shanghai dream

The ingredients of “上海女子图鉴” taste to you like a bowl of boiled rice flour balls covered in caramel sauce? That’s just a sign you are starting to appreciate the Shanghai dream:

Drinking red wine from huge glasses, ordering mocha or coffee americano (美式) instead of hot water. Having your private driver driving you through Shanghai. Living at top locations in the city center. Using Apple products only. Wearing the right handbag. Always be dressed in the newest fashion.

The Shanghai dream is never questioned. The viewer is simply expected to share the dream. How could you desire anything else?

Luo Haiyan

Luo Haiyan is just an average girl from some Chinese cow town. There is nothing special about her. No traumatic events in her past make her stand out. No character traits that separate her from the masses. She’s an average girl, however, she for some reason wins the favor of her female boss and then success comes rolling in.

Putting off marriage

But the spectrum of options, even for a young and attractive woman of the emerging middle-class, remains limited in Chinese society. The recurring question is – of course – who will she marry?

The handsome neighbor guy, her responsible colleague, the ambitious entrepreneur, the elder billionaire? The more successful she becomes, the pickier she gets. Her mentor Scarlet reminds her that true freedom means never to become depend on any man.

Is this series any good as learning resource?

For our purposes here, let me just give a few points why Women in Shanghai is suitable learning material:

  • Short episodes
  • The rather thin plot is not too difficult to follow, even if you don’t understand every conversation
  • Mostly putonghua with a taste of business Chinese
  • Gives a feeling of modern life in Shanghai (the idealized, glamor version, that is)

Similar series

Should you for whatever reason not be very interested in Shanghai: similar series have been made. Same concept, different city!

The Beijing version seems to have slightly better plot and even contains touches of irony here and there. Like the scene where the main actress pukes into her Gucci hand bag (or whatever brand, I forgot) that she finally could afford to purchase.

Women in Beijing

Women in Tokyo (the original series from Japan in Japanese)

Women in Shanghai: 上海女子图鉴, episode 1
The end credits song of the series is quite a catchy tune about ever hectic working life in Shanghai. She needs to get up, catch the tube, buy her meal of rice balls, but most of all smile and endure. Hoping that one day she will arrive.

Do you have a TV-series that you would recommend for learning Chinese? Feel free to leave a comment below.

“Dutch Mandarin” Robert van Gulik

Today it’s been exactly 52 years since the Dutch writer and diplomat Robert van Gulik (1910 – 1967) passed away. Best known for his Chinese detective novels, Van Gulik also was a respected scholar, chain-smoker and gibbon admirer. He spent most of his life, however, serving the Dutch government in diplomatic service.

Career

After his studies in Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese in 1935, Robert van Gulik joined the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Although he made a career as a diplomat, van Gulik devoted most of his spare time to his books, writing and musical instruments.

The duty to his country brought him to unusual places: He lived and worked in China, India and Lebanon. In 1958 he became ambassador to Kuala Lumpur and in 1965 his appointment as ambassador to Tokyo followed.

It’s been said about Van Gulik that he was “a westerner with an eastern heart”. Looking back, Van Gulik wrote that his childhood in Indonesia played a crucial role in this:

In 1914, four years old, I left with my parents from my hometown of Zutphen to Java and attended primary school in Surabaya in Batavia. In 1923, we returned to the Netherlands for good and my father settled in Nijmegen where I went to the Stedelijk Gymnasium. My childhood in Java, however, had made a deep impression on me, and it were these memories which would determine my future path: the Chinese banners in Glodok aroused my interest in Chinese writing, and wajang performances gave me a preference for the eastern story that I never quite forgot. The nostalgic memories of my early childhood made me decide in my high school years to return to the East as soon as possible. That happened immediately after my promotion to a doctorate in Eastern literature, in Utrecht in the year 1935; be it then that the east turned out to be China, Japan, India and Malaya, and not Java where I have never been back.

Tong Tong — Het enige Indische blad ter wereld 8e jaargang, nummer 12, december 1963, p. 9
Quellbild anzeigen
Robert van Gulik playing the guqin in his study

Throughout his life, Van Gulik was admired for his deep understanding of Chinese culture. His identification with the culture was deep-seated and reached a level where he seemed almost more Chinese in his ways and thinking than Dutch, although this last point was denied by people who knew him well. This is how a former colleague remembers Van Gulik:

Knowledge of Eastern languages and insight into foreign civilizations can be mastered by Westerners to a certain extent, but a complete identification with them remains rare. Van Gulik was such an exceptional appearance, as a result of which he had already become a legendary figure in China and beyond during his life. His complete command of language and culture preferably led him into areas of scientific work that others had recoiled from or were too peculiar to be approached by a Westerner.

H.N. Boon (in Voorpost, tijdschrift voor de buitenl. dienst), in newsletter nr. 102 (rechtertie.nl).

He served three years in China (1943 – 1946) as first secretary of the Dutch delegation during particularly turbulent times and was located in Chongqing, the provisional capital of the Republic of China under Chiang Kai-Shek.

One anecdote from this era has survived. When asked by his government for a political assessment of Mao Zedong, he was grievously mistaken and more or less assumed thousands of years of tradition would prevail over current turmoil. Van Gulik saw Mao as a “temporary figure, a phenomenon of limited duration”.

Introduction to the documentary “On the Track of Robert van Gulik

Intellectual and artist

Van Gulik always found time for his intellectual and artistic pursuits and published on Chinese ink stones, painting, music and gibbons, his favorite animals. He himself was a highly skilled calligrapher. Playing the guqin, the qin (琴), was another of Van Gulik’s passions. Of his scientific works, his studies of sexual behavior in Chinese antiquity is most renowned. In China, he is know as 高罗佩 (Gāo luō pèi):

As Chinese rendering of my name I chose KAO LO-P’EI, KAO representing the GU in van Gulik, and LO-P’EI being a phonetic rendering of my personal name Robert. To this name I have stuck throughout the years, and it is by this name that I am known in the Far East.

Robert van Gulik
Van Gulik with his wife and children

“I am Judge Dee and Jugde Dee is me”

Van Gulik’s best-known works, however, are the sixteen Judge Dee detective novels. These he wrote in English and were later edited into Dutch by himself. He also illustrated these stories with his own Chinese-style drawings.

The character of Judge Dee is based on a historical figure who lived in the Tang Dynasty. Van Gulik was inspired by ancient Chinese detective stories which he adapted and made accessible for non-Chinese readers. Reading the novels, you get a taste of ancient Chinese society, its judicial system, Confucianism, Taoism, superstition and elite culture:

His novels accessibly deal with aspects of Chinese history and culture. Judge Dee, the main character of the novel Dee Goong An, was based on the judge/ official and detective Di Renjie, who lived in the 7th century (during the Tang Dynasty). The classic 18th century version of Dee Goong An, with the name The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee was first translated into English by Robert van Gulik. This became a success and Van Gulik decided to continue his writing and to create his own original judge Dee stories. There are many interesting differences between the traditional 18th century version of the classic 18th century novel and the version written by Van Gulik. He mixed styles of Western detective novels into traditional Chinese stories with an eye to modern Western readers.

Rechtertie.nl newsletter 83, Interview with researcher 施晔 (Shīyè) from Shanghai Normal University

Van Gulik’s detective novels have been translated into 29 languages and published in 38 countries. They continue to promote Chinese culture all over the world.

Even in China itself.

That’s why Robert van Gulik is still remembered today as the Dutch Mandarin.

In this episode of the China History Podcast Laszlo Montgomery speaks about the life and works of Robert van Gulik

More reading

Article in Shanghai Daily

Short biography

Radio program about Robert van Gulik (1996)

Judge Dee homepage

5 Things we tell ourselves that keep us from studying Chinese

We sent people to the moon. We created touchscreens and video streaming. We discovered water on Mars. We developed robotic body parts. We can clone humans and grow new organs.

We excel in innovation.

What strikes me as odd though, WHY – at the same time – it’s so hard to get OUT of our COMFORT ZONE and take things to the next level.

This post is dedicated to this underrated capability of ours to come up with reasons that justify staying in our comfort zone just a little longer…

Especially, when we learn new skills OR LANGUAGES like Mandarin that are considered hard beyond belief.

Nr. 1: “I suck at foreign languages”

Many people worry about missing the mysterious language gene or think they generally lack the talent to learn a new language, especially a “hard language” like Mandarin. The idea that they could reach a certain level of proficiency in Chinese seems as likely to them as climbing Mount Everest without oxygen.

Language learning is a skill, however, that can be learned like so many things in life. If you weren’t particularly good at it at school, doesn’t mean you cannot do it. It probably just means at that time and place, in that particular setting, you couldn’t perform at the best of your ability. And is Chinese really that hard to learn?

Nr. 2. “Chinese is too difficult for me”

Is Chinese harder than Arabic, Icelandic or Spanish?

It depends for whom of course!

For Vietnamese people for example, Chinese is not completely outside their frame of reference. Many elements look and sound familiar:

I think this really comes down to how close your language is to Chinese. I, for example, am from Vietnam, my only mother tongue is Vietnamese and I’ve been learning English for roughly 10 years now and Chinese for more than 1 year. To me, English is definitely the harder one since its grammar and vocabulary are completely foreign, it took me like 5-6 years to be able to hold a normal conversation and to be able to listen and understand what others are speaking.

Nguyen Nguyen (YouTube nickname), commented the question if Chinese is the hardest language on earth.

Chinese generally has four main challenges as a foreign language:

  1. The writing system
  2. The tones and pronunciation
  3. The vocabulary (the lack of loanwords and other recognizable elements)
  4. Short phrases (idioms) linked to Chinese culture and history

Reading and writing Chinese is time consuming. No doubt about that. On the other hand: Chinese grammar is relatively easy. Compared to German for example, you don’t have to worry about different tenses, pluralization, cases, genus, articles and what have you.

Which means that basic communication can start from an early level, without the grammatical obstacles typical for German, English, Polish and other languages. Learning Chinese for daily survival is not as hard as many people think. Chinese people usually won’t hesitate to show you their admiration.

Nr. 3: “I don’t have time”

If you are a managing director with a family at home, you might well have too much on your plate already. You won’t be able to focus on yet another task, neither during the evening nor on weekends. You are either too tired or too occupied with work, family and the other 89 things on your to-do list.

What’s more, – I noticed this with management people I used to teach – if you cannot be good at it, you start to hate it. Therefore, without the proper time resources, any learning process is set up for failure.

On the other side of the spectrum, I used to know people men who worked a normal office job, were single and spent most of their leisure time playing Xbox and drinking beer.

Either way, time is a limited resource. That’s why we MAKE time for things (or people) we value.

The crucial thing for learning any new language is daily practice. Even 10 minutes every day amounts to 70 minutes a week, 280 minutes a month.

You can even do it on your way to work. If you “waste” a lot of time commuting every week, this is “hidden potential” you can tap into.

The hours normally wasted in the Berlin S-Bahn turned into a completely different experience when I started listening to audiobooks and courses in history and philosophy. Average traveling time per week: 10 hours. Around 480 hours per year! Why not invest some of that time in something more useful?

If you ever took driving lessons: it’s the same idea. Regular practice does the trick.

Imagine what you can achieve in a year if you spend two hours every week on learning something new?

Nr. 4: “I’m not in China. How can I learn Chinese?”

It’s a common belief that you have to be immersed in the language to make progress. Although not all immersion leads to proficiency, in general, language learners do boost their abilities significantly during their stay in the target language country. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way.

Whatever you do, you should always prepare yourself for the real thing. If you are not in China right now, maybe you are planning to go their at some point and you’ll prepare yourself for that as good as you can.

If you cannot go to China: consider digital immersion and meeting up with local Chinese. The internet offers so many possibilities to communicate that Marco Polo would wish he had had. Chat with Chinese people, find Chinese teachers online, watch Chinese TV-series. There’s a surplus of options.

Nr. 5: “I’ll never understand Chinese culture anyway”

This is what a friend said to me after somewhat unfortunate first experiences with Chinese culture, working for a Chinese company. She never felt very sympathetic towards Chinese culture, but after being part of a Chinese company she completely lost all interest and felt she’d never understand “Chinese mentality” and their “indirect way of communicating” anyway.

“Never again”, she said to me, which I could understand, from her point of view. I just felt she gave up too early and let one bad experience waste everything. The road to understanding was from now on was blocked. By herself.

The obvious point here: If you don’t have any positive feeling towards a culture or language, learning their language becomes a struggle, cause you cannot develop any interest towards it.

This is where I’ve seen many people fail, because they couldn’t identify with their target language on any level.

Needles to say, studying the “Chinese mentality” and “indirect way of communicating” does serve as a mirror that could have prevented some of her hard feelings or at least questioned the universality of her own communication principles.

And Chinese culture envelops much more than the corporate culture of some Chinese enterprise entering the global market. The challenge here is to find some area of interest you can positively identify with.

Film tip: My Ferry / 我的渡口

我的渡口” or “My Ferry” struck me as a rather slow and silent movie, conversations between country people being of the minimalist kind with many things left unsaid. The main reason to watch – apart from the scenic beauty of the Hubei river landscape – is probably to get a taste of traditional, rural China which is so completely different from modern Chinese society.

  • Year: 2013
  • Duration: 92 minutes
  • Subtitles: Chinese only
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Story line

The story about a father and son can be outlined in a few sentences. Laotian has been working as a ferryman on a small rowing boat for all his life. His wife has died and recently his health has been declining, but he doesn’t want to give up his trade. His only son, Xiaotian, who has been jobbing downtown, now has returned to spend his holidays with his father. Xiaotian, who has been struggling as a migrant worker to survive in the big city, loves his father, but doesn’t have a high opinion of his trade and his stubborn ways. His father never accepts any money, the villagers leave some cabbages or potatoes instead. Xiaotian’s feelings change however, when he starts rowing the ferry himself in order to support his old man.

The ferryman

Tradition and modernity

Basically, it’s a story about father and son and the conflict between the old and the new. Can a fourth generation take over the small ferry business? How to react to the changing circumstances? How to respect tradition and still survive without becoming a stick in the mud?

Filial piety

From a cultural perspective, “My Ferry” is a striking display of “filial piety”. Xiaotian may disagree with his father’s plain view of the world, but he would never openly disrespect him and make him loose face in front of others. It’s really compelling to watch these traditional Chinese family relations where feelings for each other are usually expressed in an indirect way. In other words, no hugging, no “I love you, dad”, no “goodbye, son, I’ll miss you” and so on.

When no one wants to cross the river, you wait.

The ferryman

When we look deeper, we also find the archetypal figure of the ferryman who appears in many cultures. He typically is a solitary and silent figure, not very well liked by the people and transcendent in the sense that he isn’t really part of this world, but forever in between. Laotian, still very concerned with the practical world and his local community, could be seen as a Chinese manifestation of this archetypal figure. There’s wisdom in his simplicity.

Important vocabulary

  • 爹 – die1 – (father, dad)
  • 娘 – niáng – (mother, mam)
  • 划船 – huáchuán – ( to row a boat)

Follow the link to watch the movie.

“How to learn any language in six months”

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Human learning capability is tremendous, but can you really learn ANY LANGUAGE in 180 days?

The man who makes this bold claim is Chris Lonsdale. He is a New Zealand psychologist, linguist and educator who adopted the Chinese name 龙飞虎 or “flying dragon tiger” (or something like that).

The title of his TED talk sounds like some shady language school’s advertising pitch. Then again, he did manage to catch people’s attention (over 18 million views on YouTube).

Here’s a summary of his speech:

Things that don’t matter in language learning

  • Talent
  • Immersion (per se)

Why immersion isn’t a necessary factor: “A drowning man cannot learn to swim.”

What does matter is Language modeling

  • Attention
  • Meaning
  • Relevance
  • Memory

Five Principles of Rapid Language Acquisition


1. Focus on language content that is relevant to you.
We master tools by using tools; we learn tools fastest when they are relevant to us.
2. Use your New Language as a Tool to Communicate, right from Day 1.
3. When you first understand the message, you unconsciously acquire the language. “Comprehensible input”; comprehension works; comprehension is key. Language learning is not about accumulating lots of knowledge. In many ways it is about
4. Physiological Training. “If you can’t hear it, you won’t understand it, and if you don’t understand it, you are not going to learn it. You have to be able to hear the sounds… Speaking requires muscle; if your face is hurting you are doing it right.”
5. Psycho-physiological states matter, and you need to be tolerant of ambiguity.

Seven Actions for Rapid Language Acquisition


Action 1: Listen a lot. “Brain Soaking”
Action 2: Focus on the meaning first. Get the meaning first before you get the words. Use body language. (Understanding through comprehensible input.)
Action 3: Start mixing. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to work.”
Action 4: Focus on the core (high frequency content). For English, 1000 words is 85% of anything you are going to say in daily communication; 3000 words gives you 98% of anything you are going to say in daily conversation.
Week 1 Tool Box (in the target language):
– What is this?
– How do you say?
– I don’t understand…
– What does that mean?
– Repeat that please.
Week 2-3 Pronouns, Common Verbs, Simple Nouns
Week 4 Glue Words: and, but, therefore, even though
Action 5: Get a Language Parent. Language parent creates a comprehensible input environment.
1. Works hard to understand what you are saying
2. Does not correct mistakes
3. Confirms understanding by using correct language (feedback)
4. Uses words the learner knows
Action 6: Copy the Face
Action 7: “Direct Connect” to Mental Images

Some side notes on flying squirrels

First, Lonsdale delivers a great speech on what he thinks is the best strategy to learn ANY language and he deserves credit for motivating and inspiring people as well as for offering practicable advice.

A question I had straight from the start though, is what does he mean exactly by ”learning any language”? What level of proficiency is he speaking of? Which language skills is he talking about? Is he referring to the highest achievable level? According to the Common European Framework that would include the following:

C1
Effective operational proficiency or advanced
Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning. Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
C2
Mastery or proficiency
Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

And for that you would need to study at least 1000 hours or at least 8 hours a day in six months…

I also couldn’t help noticing the contradiction that he learnt Chinese (I don’t know up to which level) by immersion. Doesn’t he tell the story that he stayed in China, “soaked his brain” in Chinese and gradually started making sense of the language? Basically, he is telling us that this combination of immersion and “survival” from day one worked out pretty well for him.

This leads to the question if you can apply the same principle when you are not “immersed” and not in “survival mode”, say you are learning Chinese in Brazil or Canada. Can you really recreate that kind of experience?

I guess his message is that we should try.

Chris Lonsdale on how to learn any language in six months…

Let me know what your thoughts are on this topic. Can you be fluent in Chinese in only six months? Please leave a comment below.

Subtitled Chinese videos: Get the transcript

Did you know Youtube allows you to search for subbed videos and get the transcript?

The method is still imperfect but can be helpful if you want to get a closer look at the spoken text, which then can be copied and translated.

How to search for subtitled videos on Youtube and get the video transcript

The problem is that not all subtitles are in Chinese and not all subtitled content contains a transcript. You can try some random Chinese keywords like “为什么” and autosearch will offer you suggestions.

Add a comment below, if you get lucky or have any suggestions.

The 6 biggest DON’TS mastering Chinese

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A reader asked me if there were any things I’d do differently today if I’d have to re-climb Hanyu mountain all the way from base camp number one. Based on my own experience and what I know from others, here’s my list.

Don’t skip the basics of Pinyin, tones and pronunciation

Pinyin, tones and pronunciation build the first layer of your Chinese language pyramid. This foundation needs to be as strong as possible in order not to subside once you progress. This does not mean perfection, but you have to cover the basics:

  • Write basic Chinese sentences in Pinyin, also from dictation
  • Speak and recognize the four tones
  • Read Pinyin fluently and correctly (standard pronunciation)

You can practice on your own (which I did for an extensive period), but probably the best way to do it is to join a “Pinyin boot camp” or intensive Pinyin elementary course. When I started studying Mandarin, I had no choice but to undergo a two-week Pinyin brainwash with our devoted Chinese teacher. We would go through all the Pinyin syllables and enjoyed prolonged drill sessions with our inexhaustible laoshi to the point where we would be haunted by shreds of chu, qu, chang, qiang, nü and nu in our dreams. But is was worth the effort and far more effective than self-studying Pinyin without anyone correcting you.

Don’t ignore Hanzi

Can you learn Chinese without Chinese characters? This is an intensely debated question. It all depends on your personal goals: what degree of proficiency do you want to reach? Which language skills matter to you?

I won’t pretend to have the only valid answer.

You can learn basic level Chinese without understanding Hanzi, BUT… Pinyin in the long run cannot replace Hanzi. The thing is that the Chinese writing system is so crucial to Chinese culture that without it, you’ll stay “illiterate” not just in the direct sense but also in terms of Chinese culture. Without the characters, your learning curve will flatten in an earlier stage, because the fact that more and more vocabulary sounds and looks the same to you becomes a real handicap.

Here is an example:

Same in sound (homophone), but different in meaning. The part you miss when you can’t read Hanzi.

To illustrate this in more detail: When you ignore the four tones, standard Chinese has about 400 different syllables. Not a very high number compared to German, English, Russian or most other languages. The result of this small phonetic inventory is a high level of similar sounding words or homophony. But this relatively small amount of syllables does match a far greater number of commonly used characters. The official list numbers about 7000 common Hanzi. You get pretty far though, when you know the thousand most frequently used characters.

Here you can see how HSK levels match (or do not match) the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and the number of characters needed for each level with A1 meaning “beginner” and C2 “almost native”. It’s interesting to see that HSK6 according to German estimations equals only B2, which is upper intermediate, whereas according to Hanban, HSK6 matches the “almost-native” C2 level.

So this is something to consider when you are starting out or have that feeling that Pinyin brought you a long way but making progress becomes harder and harder. That’s why each Pinyin-only learning method is OK for first steps, but probably won’t get you to an intermediate or advanced level.

Don’t forget to make Chinese friends

Learning Chinese becomes much more real and fun when you can communicate with Chinese people. If you happen not to be somewhere withing Greater China, local tandem programs and language exchange facebook groups (or Scrabbin or interpals) can be an excellent starting point. It doesn’t always work out the first time. When you are lucky, you find a nice tandem partner to chat with.

Don’t worry if you “still don’t understand anything”

Chinese is unlike Italian or French so different from almost all languages that hardly any word sounds familiar. Especially when you are not in a Chinese speaking region and immersed in the language, developing adequate listening skills takes time and is really difficult, so don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s quite normal. Concentrate on what you know and build on that. When you have got time, watch Chinese movies and listen Chinese songs and keep a steady level of Chinese input.

Don’t expect apps to solve all your problems

Apps will shape the future of language learning and have been a major step forward, but the learner still has to make time and deliver the effort to climb up the hill. What’s just as important: how to use online learning applications in the right way. App developers don’t know your goals and motivation or indeed what’s best for you. That’s why apps usually don’t provide much guidance and for instance don’t tell you how, when, how often and with which expectations to use them.

Don’t think children’s books are easy

When I knew a couple of hundred characters, I reckoned it was time to read “红红的柿子树” (“honghong de shizishu”/ “red persimmon tree”), a children’s book a Chinese friend gave me.

It had Pinyin and pictures and I could recognize several characters, but I had a hard time making sense of the story. For two reasons: 1.) It was too hard for me. 2.) I couldn’t really relate to “little piggy looking for a friend” and all the other exciting animal characters in the book. This was demotivating to me.

Reading “Xiao wangzi” the hard way. This is an example of what the pages looked like after I went over them.

Reading “The Little Prince” in Chinese (with Pinyin) was even worse. It’s a great book: nice pictures, short chapters, Pinyin included. However it proofed almost impossible to understand for me, without translating word by word, which I tried for some time, but is not something I would recommend. Try Chinese textbooks and graded readers instead.

That’s my list. If you have any thoughts or ideas about this topic, please leave a comment below.

The best pop-up dictionaries for learning Chinese

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If you are learning Chinese and use either Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox to surf the web, this browser extension will make your life a little easier.

Chrome and Mozilla browser extensions to translate and learn Chinese

For Chrome browsers follow this link. This is what the description says about the Zhongwen pop-up dictionary:

  • Look up more than 100,000 words an expressions while reading
  • Chinese web sites just by pointing at the words with your mouse
  • Includes links to grammar and usage notes for more than 400 keywords
  • Skritter users can add new words to their study list with a simple keystroke
  • Save words to a built-in word list
  • Create Anki flashcards by importing the text file exported from the built-in word list

The Zhongwen Chinese-English Dictionary is also available for Mozilla Firefox.

The definition will show up automatically (Zhongwen pop-up dictionary)

Save your word list

You can actually save words you translated by pressing “r” when you hoover over the character(s) and the dictionary screen appears. It allows you to save your world list and import it into Anki and other apps to learn the new vocabulary.

It’s an useful extension, though Pleco‘s clipboard reader allows you to do the same on your mobile phone which is and will continue to be the most popular way to surf the internet. Just copy the text, read and look up words as you go along.

Other opinions

This what other people think about the pop-up dictionary:

I use this add on with my language studies to help quite a lot. It’s really helpful. Thanks a bunch for it!

Firefox-user

This add-on is quite handy for language learners trying to navigate the Internet in Chinese. I appreciate that there are options for both traditional and simplified characters, as well as different ways of rendering Mandarin pinyin. And it just got handier; I’m excited to see that support for Cantonese has been added in version 2.1!

Firefox-user

If you want to test the extension for yourself on some of the most visited Chinese websites, have a look at this top 50 of popular Chinese websites. It can make booking a Chinese train ticket or online shopping on Taobao a lot easier.

Upgrading your reading skills: online vs offline reading

I have a confession to make here: I’m an old-fashioned guy who likes to read the old-fashioned way and believes firmly in the paper brain and deep reading. When it comes to reading Chinese texts though, the advantages of online-reading are simply overwhelming. How to make the best out of both worlds?

Online reading

What makes online reading great?

  • Texts tend to be up to date! I mean who wants to read some Mao Zedong poem if you could be reading what is happening in China right now or for that matter any other content that is relevant to you.
  • Never ending supply of free online resources (Intermediate and advanced learners can check out the Mandarin version of the New York Times or read Chinese news from Deutsche Welle for example)
  • You can find topics that naturally interest you instead of reading the usual random stuff from your textbook.
  • Most important: You can use reader apps to track your progress, create your own system of flashcards and vocabulary lists. Reader apps can tell you the difficulty level of a given text.

But there are some risks as well…

  • The texts won’t always match your reading level. If they are too hard for you, you can loose interest easily. This is why people invented graded readers for Chinese.
  • Some people say you are more easily distracted reading online (pop-ups, other content appearing, chat messages and what have you). This depends on your situation, but I somewhat agree.
  • When I read online-texts or use an app like Pleco or DuShu, I have an urge to check every unknown character. This is not a good way to read texts, because the learning effect is very limited. I have forgotten most new characters the day after. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as clicking or tapping your way to fluency. Skill comes with practice. And practice in this case means daily brain gymnastics without (too much) cribbing.

Reading like the monkey king or Non-linear reading

Neuroscience, in fact, has revealed that humans use different parts of the brain when reading from a piece of paper or from a screen. So the more you read on screens, the more your mind shifts towards “non-linear” reading — a practice that involves things like skimming a screen or having your eyes dart around a web page. 

Your paper brain and your Kindle brain aren’t the same thing

Offline reading

Merits of reading the old-fashioned way

  • I personally like the focus of the physical object in front of me. In others words, I get out my book and will put any other stuff that will distract me away, so it’s just me and the text I’m reading. This is called deep reading or slow reading and involves a higher level of concentration.
  • I also have this nasty habit of making markings, notes and drawings when I’m studying a text. Of course, you can do that online as well and may even have more editing options available, but still! Old habits die hard. I cannot help preferring to “physically” work my way through a text.
  • If you are reading a Chinese textbook like the New Practical Chinese Reader, chapters follow a well thought out progression and cover a variety of general topics. Most of which even proofed quite useful in China, though I didn’t really like those texts much when studying, I have to admit. The point this kind of offline reading really helps you laying the foundation for basic proficiency.

Deep reading is the active process of thoughtful and deliberate reading carried out to enhance one’s comprehension and enjoyment of a text. Contrast with skimming or superficial reading. Also called slow reading.

A Guide to Deep Reading
Outdated Chinese reader from the Mao-Era

What’s less attractive…

  • This has always been a major issue: most textbooks take so much time to conceive, write and publish that by the time they are released, they are already outdated. When time goes by, they just grow increasingly odd and silly. To take an extreme example: I have a Chinese reader which is filled with stories about communist wartime heroes and speeches of Mao. Apart from being historically interesting (if you dig language didactics), this reader has lost its relevance.
  • Or to counter this effect, readers become just so timelessly boring, containing only classical texts or content-free reading material that fails to be relevant on any level.
  • Mostly you look in vain for any “hot topics” like new trends in Chinese social media or currently the Sino-US tradewar that you might want to be able to discuss with your Chinese friends.
  • Many textbooks come with audio, but certainly not all. This problem is easier to solve online.

So to come to a conclusion here: Offline reading still has got its merits. The key issue being FOCUS which allows us to comprehend and appreciate what we read on a deeper level. It shouldn’t be impossible to integrate that into our online reading routine though. The possibilities of online reading are just too good to ignore. For now, I stick with a healthy mix of both: online reading can definitely complement old-fashioned, offline reading in a powerful way.

Three character traits you need to improve your Chinese skills

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Someone asked me which “character traits” you need to be successful at learning Chinese. “Character traits”? I had to think about that. Finally, I came up with three things which I think are important to have or develop.

But let’s go back a little bit. For the sake of clarity, I’ll just take the basic meaning of the word “character”. It generally refers to the particular combination of qualities in a person or place that makes them different from others. The “character traits” are those qualities that make us “different from others”.  

The five-factor model (FFM) has become very popular. It describes human character (or personality) by focusing on these 5 factors:

  • Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
  • Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless)
  • Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
  • Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached)
  • Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident)

It’s a scaled approach which can be really helpful to understand how you are wired up. You can also ask yourself who you want to be.

Anyway. Looking back on my experiences as a language student and teacher, here’s what I came up with:

  1. Openness and curiosity
  2. Creativity and self-awareness
  3. Discipline

You can of course argue if these three are really character traits in the traditional sense.

Openness and curiosity

In the five-factor model “openness” is described as follows:

Openness is a general appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and variety of experience. People who are open to experience are intellectually curious, open to emotion, sensitive to beauty and willing to try new things. They tend to be, when compared to closed people, more creative and more aware of their feelings.

Now we can’t be open for everything all the time, but we can cultivate an open mindset or growth mindset when it comes to learning.

As a language teacher I know how many people only see their limitations and the obstacles down the road. “It’s just too hard for me! I’ll never be able to speak fluently!”. I heard that kind of phrase a lot. I would ask them very bluntly: “Look, if you don’t believe in your own potential, how can you learn anything?” You need to start shouting back at that negative voice inside you. Start shouting back right now if you have to!

It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. (Edmund Hillary)

You need to be keen on learning new things.

The thing with people who score high on openness is that they don’t look before they leap. They just do it. They’ll just start learning some obscure instrument you never heard of or book a course in programming although they never wrote one line of code in their whole life. This is a mentality thing.

As a teacher (and a student) I’d also see many people who just cared about the language certificate they’d receive at the end of the course. They just cared about that, not about actually learning anything beyond the course requirements. The positive thing was that they were very focused on their goal. In the long run though, they are limited by that purely practical mindset. Their learning curve stagnates in an early stage, because they are not interested in the thing itself.

To cultivate that growth mindset, you must believe in your own potential to learn.

Creativity and self-awareness

This next point is not about being a creative genius who invents new apps every other day or writes music or poems and what have you. If you do though, that’s great too.

What I had in mind though, is the ability to discover new ways to learn outside the curriculum you’re in. Typically, you’ll have Chinese class with prescribed books and homework you are expected to finish. You’ll trust your teacher knows what’s best for you. But guess what? Your teacher doesn’t! Your teacher has other stuff to worry about!

The kind of creativity I’m referring to here involves knowing what you need. Just trusting your teacher won’t unleash your full potential. Your teacher probably won’t tell you to paste vocabulary stickers all around your house, although it can be quite useful. I still didn’t remove the 微波炉-sticker from my microwave, and I used to have many other stickers like 门,电脑,雨伞,花盆 and so on pasted around the apartment. It was just an idea and it worked for me.

You have to know what works for YOU. You must get creative in some way.

And this can mean many things. It can mean finding a Chinese tandem partner to chat with or team up with other students to practice. It can even mean inviting your Chinese teacher to dinner or using wechat to fire random questions at people you just learned: 你是哪国人?你今天想做什么?你饿了吗?Again, you have to get active and find out what’s best for you.

Discipline

I use the word “discipline” for lack of a better word. I like to think about “discipline” as the art of developing (and maintaining) good habits. It’s not about making a schedule and sticking to it no matter what (though it does involve effective time management). It’s not about creating a cage around you. It’s more about cultivating positive learning habits and integrating them into your daily routine. This relates to the “conscientiousness” from the five-factor model:

Conscientiousness is a tendency to display self-discipline, act dutifully, and strive for achievement against measures or outside expectations. It is related to the way in which people control, regulate, and direct their impulses. High conscientiousness is often perceived as being stubborn and focused. Low conscientiousness is associated with flexibility and spontaneity, but can also appear as sloppiness and lack of reliability.

Toegel G, Barsoux JL (2012). “How to become a better leader”. MIT Sloan Management Review. 53 (3): 51–60.

Indeed, if you can combine a high degree of openness and curiosity with a form of self-discipline, you are holding the key ingredients for successful learning in your hand.

“20 to 30 minutes every day”

I don’t want to mystify anything here. The kind of “discipline” you need for language learning is really not that special, but you have to be serious about it. It’s like practicing violin. It’s better to play 20 minutes every day instead of two hours every Saturday. By playing every day you’ll develop a feeling for the instrument, your hands will get accustomed to new movements and finger arrangements, you learn new melodies and sound better. Without being aware of it you’re slowly climbing a mountain. Every hour you play is another step on your way up. It’s the same with learning Chinese. To make progress you need daily practice.

Now I know that can be challenging. Time is a valuable resource. Maybe you are looking at your schedule right now and saying that’s not going to work for me. If you don’t have 30 minutes, then take 10 minutes of your day and try that for one week. Check your progress: What did you learn? Were you focused enough? In some cases, you will find out that you need to make more time.

They may not admit it, but every “successful person” I know of practice some way of self-discipline, knows how to set goals, track progress and structure their time in an effective manner.

To wrap it up here, these three character traits I think are very useful:

  1. Openness and curiosity
  2. Creativity and self-awareness
  3. Discipline or the art of cultivating good habits

From my own experience, I don’t see character or personality as static and unchangeable. I also spoke of “mindset” and “mentality” to underline that view. If you possess or cultivate these three traits you will climb higher than most.