In case you have never heard of Douyin: it’s a Chinese short-video app with over 200 million daily active users in China. Or so they say. Can you use Douyin – the Chinese version of TikTok – as a tool for learning Chinese?
The ByteDance family
The company behind it (ByteDance) is still spectacularly unknown, although that may be about to change. Since its app TikTok has come under suspicion of political censorship in China’s national interest. Outside of China, ByteDance is best known for TikTok. This app could be called the global version of Douyin: same features, different users.
What makes Douyin so popular in China? One thing works really well: Douyin’s self-learning algorithm “personalizes” your feed. It does so based on your viewing behavior (interaction, viewing time etc.). It adapts almost immediately. The more you engage with the app, the more it’ll show that kind of content Douyin thinks you want to see. That’s why when my friend from Russia opens his app, he only sees half-naked women dancing around.
If you want to know more about China and learn Mandarin, could Douyin with it’s massive Chinese user base be a useful tool?
Well, potentially yes, and here’s why:
Content: On Douyin you’ll find a broad variety of content: singing, dancing, cooking, sports, animals and sightseeing. There’s also a lot random everyday, normal life stuff going on from all over China which usually is more interesting than the more fancy “premium” kind of videos. This makes Douyin an endless source of raw and local content.
Your personal feed: It’ll give you what the algorithm thinks you want to see. Whether you want to watch squirrels climb up trees or prefer watching people eating turtles and snakes, the app will figure it out for you. (Or actually content moderators who label all those videos accordingly and feed the right categories to the algorithm…)
Interact, get famous: you can create your own content, make duets, comment and engage with the community 24/7. If you stand out from the crowd, you might even get a lot of views. With the right mindset, you can get very big on Douyin. But don’t say anything wrong.
As for learning: not everybody speaks Standard Mandarin, some post stuff in their local dialect which is fun for other Chinese, but hard to understand for foreigners. I do see a lot of potential to interact with native speakers.
Interact with Chinese people? BUT AT WHAT COST?
Here we go:
Douyin and data protection are antipoles. Douyin’s data privacy equals almost zero. The moment you’ll install it on your phone, it will absorb everything like a black hole. From your contacts and numbers to your fitness data. Even if you customize your privacy settings: where and how they store your data, with whom they share it and for what purposes, I really couldn’t tell. Also the practice of fingerprinting is a major concern.
Douyin drains your battery and uses a lot of storage. Even when it’s only running in the background, it’ll constantly be updating and inviting you back in.
Commercial crap: Advertising! Apart from gathering your personal data, they run advertisements. No, let me rephrase that: they gather your personal data, so people who sell stuff like to advertise on Douyin. So be prepared for commercial content or run away while you still can! You can’t always differentiate between ‘normal’ and commercial content, because everything’s in the same Douyin format.
Favorite hangout for pedophiles: Since Douyin doesn’t take age restrictions very seriously, Douyin and its overseas equivalent TikTok have become very popular among people who like to watch and contact little children using the chat function.
Douyin addiction: The app is very addictive and time-consuming. It’s designed to keep you on the app for as long as possible. An Indian kid was reported to have fallen from a roof while watching videos on TikTok. It can turn people into walking zombies whose only concern is the number of likes on their videos…
The kind of stuff people do for likes: if you have spent some time on these apps, it all becomes too obvious. Girls start to wear sexy outfits and hang their boobs into the camera. Why? Because it works. And people copy each other.
No politics or “controversial” content: no, I wouldn’t do that. Unless you want to get banned or worse. Douyin is for “fun” only, so if you happen to have an opinion about Hongkong or Xinjiang: be prepared to be banned permanently. This we know from the TikTok moderation guidelines that got leaked.
Maybe I’m going to regret this, but I can’t even get to that level of thinking with [TikTok],” Huffman said at the event, “because I look at that app as so fundamentally parasitic, that it’s always listening, the fingerprinting technology they use is truly terrifying, and I could not bring myself to install an app like that on my phone.
Douyin might be fun (like facebook used to be cool and fun once), but it comes at a high price. I can’t recommend an app which I cannot trust. I can’t recommend an app that shares my personal information with … I don’t know who or when and for what reasons. I can’t recommend an app that might be using the faces of its users for facial recognition software. I don’t want to be a slave of another big data company which claims to create value, but only throws an addictive toy at the masses to get people’s personal data.
The big news was shared on the HSK Official Twitter account, the wording rather cryptic. Apparently the new HSK will consist of 9 levels instead of 6:
But as for all the other details, even now three weeks later, I couldn’t find any news concerning the HSK reform on their official website (and still can’t (21-8-2020)). The link they shared in the above tweet strangely enough seems to have nothing to do with the planned changes. Instead it talks about the language requirements for overseas students in China who study medicine in English university programs. I couldn’t care less!
Isn’t it odd to officially announce a big reform that will happen this year and then share a link to some b*llshit article that offers zero explanation?
“Three Stages and Nine Levels”
This is what the new HSK system looks like. Each “stage” is divided into three levels:
What does this mean?
The best article I could dig up so far was published in The Beijinger which apparently was able to win some inside info. Since I’m not sure about the source, I think it’s still too early to go into the details of the new system. Many questions remain to be answered: Will an oral examination be mandatory for the higher levels? How will the progression between the levels be? Will HSK 9 more or less match the current HSK 6 or will it be harder?
Concerning this last question the article does give an answer, but honestly I don’t yet know what to make of it. It says the difficulty between the different test levels will increase more gradually, reducing the gaps between the levels to some extent:
Compared to the current standards for HSK 1 to 6, it is not hard to see how the new system will alter the overall difficulty curve. For example, the current HSK 6 requires takers to master cumulative 5,000 words, half of which are new, and 2,663 characters, 978 of which are new. In HSK 3.0 [Kaohongshu: the new system] though, students need to memorize 5,456 words in total, 1,140 of which haven’t previously appeared, while the number of characters needed has been reduced to 1,800, 1,500 of which should already be familiar. That’s good, right? Not so fast.
All those words have to go somewhere, in this case, they’ve been divided among the lower levels: the threshold to pass HSK levels 1 to 4 have now all increased, with the word list for each expanding drastically, by a multiple of three or four. Let’s take HSK 1 for example. Whereas 150 words is currently sufficient for someone to pass, that number will rise to 500 words in HSK 3.0. No word list has yet to be released for any of the levels.
New HSK requirements for international students in China
What does this mean for people who want to study in China? Which HSK level is required? We don’t know yet:
There has also been no word on what these changes will mean for graduation requirements for international students in China. Until now, foreign students who study in Chinese are required to pass the HSK 6 test prior to graduation, while a HSK 4-5 certificate is usually sufficient for students taught in foreign languages to pursue graduate or higher-level degrees. If you major in medicine or a related field, an additional Medical Chinese Test (MCT) may be required.
One major problem of the HSK levels in the past was that they were supposed to correspond directly to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, except they didn’t, meaning that HSK 6 was nowhere near the “almost-native” C2 level, HSK 4 by now means matched B2 and so on. To me at this point it’s not at all clear if the reform’s intention is to eradicate this flaw and bring HSK closer to the European Framework. Will the higher levels go beyond the “old” HSK 6? Will they alter the structure of the exams? What’s the reasoning behind the reform?
Two things I would welcome: a more gradual progression between each level and a closer correlation to the European Framework. On that I agree with The Beijinger:
While the changes seem intimidating at first, we’re all for the levels being rebalanced to better reflect an individual’s proficiency. For too long, levels 1-3 have felt little more than token certificates, too easy to pass with a little effort and making the jump to HSK 4 and up too substantial. Finally, adjusting the test to better reflect the CEFR system should help give the HSK improved weighting and caliber on the international stage.
But will that be what we’ll get? I hope we receive an update soon. Then we’ll know what Hanban, the organization behind HSK, has in mind with the new HSK system. Maybe the changes won’t be that radical after all. Only time (and vocabulary lists and mock exams) will tell.
Update, June 2, 2020 from the Chinese Testing InternationalBarcelona:
Lately, news such as “HSK will have 9 levels! The Chinese level 3.0 test will be coming soon” have attracted a lot of attention inside and outside China. The concerns and inquiries of Chinese students and teachers who are dedicated to the international teaching of this language come one after another, which excites us and shows unprecedented support. In order to answer the main concerns, the “Standards of the Chinese level in international education”, the Chinese proficiency test (HSK) and the relationship between the two will be explained.
With the development of the teaching of the Chinese language and the changes in the global needs of teaching and learning the Chinese language, it is necessary to adjust the “International Standards of Proficiency in Chinese” (published by the headquarters of the Confucius Institute in 2007), to Continuously improve the international teaching and learning of Chinese. In 2017, we began research and development of a new standard, namely “Chinese level standards in international education” (hereinafter referred to as “Level standards”). This research has already been completed and will therefore be launched in the second half of the year.
“Level Standards” is based on the essence of Chinese language and writing, and has been nurtured by the strengths of other language standards in the world, inheriting the experience of teaching Chinese as a foreign language and the international teaching of Chinese. . From this base, divide the Chinese level of non-native speakers into three categories: beginner, medium and high, and each category is subdivided into three levels, that is, three categories with nine levels. Each level description includes three parts: verbal communication skills, content of thematic tasks and quantitative indicators of the language, and describes each level from five aspects according to their abilities to listen, speak, read, write and translate. “Level Standards” is an open and inclusive professional standard system that, after launch, will lead all international fields of Chinese language learning, teaching, testing and assessment, and will become an important indicator of reform and development of international Chinese teaching.
The main change to the next “Level Standard” consists of three new advanced levels 7-9. A higher level of the Chinese language requires students to understand complex subjects in various fields and genres, carry out in-depth exchanges and discussions; are able to express themselves on complex issues of social, professional, daily activities, academic research, etc., have a flexible and effective organization of language, with a clear logic, a rigorous structure, a coherent and reasonable speech, and can communicate decently in various situations; Be flexible in using various communication strategies and resources to complete communication tasks, gain a deep understanding of Chinese cultural knowledge, and possess an international vision and intercultural communication skills.
To this end, we will expand the levels by developing the Advanced HSK exam (levels 7-9), with the premise of guaranteeing the stability of HSK levels 1-6. The advanced exam is mainly for foreign students who specialize in Chinese language and literature, as well as for students from other majors with Chinese proficiency who come to China to study and for Sinology researchers abroad. A single exam will be implemented in the levels 7-9 test for the three levels, which means that only one exam will be added and will be determined by the score if the level 7, 8 or 9 is obtained. The Advanced HSK exam (Level 7-9) is scheduled to be released in the first half of next year.
This text is a translation of the Chinese original and is for informational purposes only.
Skritter published the below overview on their YouTube channel showing the new levels and vocabulary requirements from “HSK 3.0”. If this information is correct, there will be three new levels on top of HSK 6. The current sixth level will be downgraded to a more appropriate intermediate level. Only those passing the seventh level will be able to call themselves “advanced”. The vocabulary for the advanced levels will be significantly increased (or actually this is true for all levels).
On the whole, “HSK 3.0” will be more difficult and – according to this information – the new levels will correspond more closely to the European Framework (someone who masters HSK 9 in the new system would truly have C2 proficiency for example). But we can’t really be sure until an official statement with more details has been issued by Hanban.
Please feel free to let me know your thoughts on the HSK reform or share any updates in the comments below.
For one month I digitally teamed up with like-minded spirits for a Mandarin learning challenge. This is what I learned.
Hacking Chinese challenges
Maybe the biggest problem of self-studying a language in the long run is to keep the flame of motivation burning. Especially if you’re not perceiving any clear sign of progress – no matter how hard you are pushing forward – and no one of your friends shows any particular interest in your “hobby”…
The truth is most people can’t relate to language learning as an activity to voluntarily engage yourself in. To stop feeling that you’re completely wasting your time, it’s worth looking for like-minded spirits who share your passion. They can also support you to tackle another issue: to set achievable goals and make you see light at the end of the tunnel.
This is where the Hacking Chinese challenges come in. The basic idea is to digitally team up with other motivated people for – what could be called – a Mandarin learning competition focused on one of the four language skills. You set a personal goal, make it public and give it what you got.
The June 2020 challenge was all about listening, an activity which is (arguably) more laid-back than writing, reading and speaking, since all you have to do is sponge up spoken words.
Set a goal and share it
I updated my personal goal twice: from a modest 15 hours to 20, up to a more ambitious 25 hours eventually, cause I wasn’t sure how much time I could find to effectively listen between work and family duties.
How high you set your goal doesn’t really matter, as long as it is reasonable and challenging at the same time, which is easier said than done. Listening about an hour everyday, I reached my goal of 25 listening hours surprisingly smoothly – that equals more than one day of quality Mandarin input. It was the perfect excuse to spend more time on YouTube. Other participants managed 30 or even 50 hours.
Finding suitable listening materials
Finding the right stuff to listen to was a challenge in itself. For an intermediate learner like me randomly tuning in to a Chinese radio station or listening to some podcast I’ve never heard of before doesn’t cut it. The Chinese audiobook called “十年徒步中国” I tried proved to be too difficult to enjoy. I missed major information about Lei Diansheng’s hiking adventure and pretty soon lost track of the supposedly simple story line.
The popular YouTube Channel Mandarin Corner worked best for me. I really enjoyed all the Mandarin subtitled interviews with taxi drivers, tattoo artists and the like. Very authentic and perfect when you’re not yet ready for non-subtitled, high speed Chinese radio and podcasts.
A little more challenging were the speeches from TEDxTaipei with a great variety of topics and (mostly Taiwanese) speakers to choose from.
One of the bests things of teaming up with others is that you can share ideas and resources: Popup Chinese and Learning Chinese through Stories are podcasts I hadn’t checked out before. The same goes for the Chinese podcast websites Qingting.fm and lizhi.fm. There’s definitely no lack of Chinese audio materials. It’s just where to find something that matches your level and interests.
Check your progress and the leaderboard
We live in a KPI-obsessed world. That’s not always a bad thing. The performance chart keeps track of your progress, so you know if you’re on schedule or not. I’d normally never do this kind of thing, but I realized it does help to stay focused on your goal. Plus, it feels reassuring to know you’re on schedule and delivering a solid performance.
There’s an element of competition to it as well. Open the leaderboard and see how you have been performing compared to the others, with the score standing for hours spent listening. It’s not about being the best of course. Far more important is to motivate yourself and others. As you can see everybody did quite well.
By joining this Mandarin Challenge, I studied far more productively than I could have done on my own. I know I can be goal-orientated and self-motivated to a certain degree, but being a part of a group of enthusiastic people with a shared objective felt like shifting gears. It was also refreshing to focus on one language skill for an entire month.
Recently I’ve been thinking about taking the HSK 6 Chinese test and started doing some research: how painstakingly difficult is the HSK 6 exam really?And what do native speakers have to say about it?
A quick overview
Vocabulary: for HSK 6 you need to master 2500 words on top of the 2500 you’re supposed to know by now. That’s sounds like a lot, but many of them are “variations” of words you’re already familiar with like 出路 (a way out)，出卖 (to sell)， 出身 (to come from) and 出息 (to profit) . Others you’ve probably come across by now like 用户 (user)，祖国 (motherland) or 火箭 (rocket). Not all are that easy to remember though.
Chengyu or “idioms”: According to this list HSK 6 contains 111 so-called chengyu, usually 4-character combinations. They can be really annoying. From the positive side: if you’ve come this far, you probably already know a bunch of them. Plus, it’s sufficient to know them passively. In some cases their meaning can be guessed from the context.
Grammar points: I couldn’t find a complete overview. ChineseGrammarwiki doesn’t include all HSK 6 grammar points, but it’s good for a start. From what I can tell they are numerous and require special attention, especially the conjunctions and sentence patterns are crucial for comprehension and reading speed.
HSK 6 consists of three parts and lasts about 140 minutes:
35 Minutes: The listening section shouldn’t contain any surprises, since it’s entirely based on the HSK 6 basic vocabulary. If you expected the HSK end boss showing up in the final level, you’ll be disappointed. In fact, it’s more of the same. You listen either to a short text or dialogue, spoken slower and clearer than any native speaker in normal life will ever speak to you – unless it happens to be a CCTV news anchor. If you’ve done your share of mock exams, you know the drill. Insider’s tip: read the answers first.
50 Minutes: The reading comprehension section is more tricky. Not so much because of the difficulty level of the texts and questions: it’s rather the amount of characters you have to plough trough. You need to process the information fast. If you’re not used to that or your reading is still shaky, you run into problems (and out of time). Many test candidates skip the grammar questions completely (meaning answer them randomly) just to win time. It is said even many native speakers have serious trouble answering those.
45 Minutes: The writing section is not that challenging. Again, if you’d expected to write 3000-character piece on the bureaucratic reforms during the Ming-dynasty, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. What you get is an article of about 1000 characters which you more or less have to rewrite. This means you don’t have to write Hanzi purely from memory which makes things a lot easier for most participants. With some basic writing fluency and composition skills you should be fine.
What do native speakers think about the HSK 6 exam?
Reading some threads on Reddit and Quora, I found that most native Chinese speakers don’t think HSK 6 very hard at all, especially compared to the proficiency levels required for IELTS. They only seemed to be taken a little aback by the grammar questions for which you have to point out the grammatically incorrect sentence. This of course has little to do with the reality of spoken Mandarin where sentence patterns are extremely flexible.
A Mainland Chinese speaker wrote the following about his experience taking the HSK 6 mock exam:
I can pass this test without any effort. (get 180 in 300)
If I want to get a high mark (>290), I must prick up my ears to listen and pay full attention to every question.
Even if I tried my best, I couldn’t get a full mark.
This test requires a relatively high knowledge level (at least high school graduate). I guess it is really hard for those native speakers who haven’t received a good education. (Source: Quora)
Interestingly, not all native Chinese speakers agree. In particular those who grew up overseas, in an non-Chinese language environment:
Well it depends. As an Indonesian Chinese who grew up in a non-Mandarin speaking society, I think HSK 6 is hard. In Indonesia, only few people passed HSK 6.
I passed HSK 5 last year and am currently studying for HSK 6. I realized that the vocabulary in HSK 5 and 6 are almost the same. It just the question model which is different. They make it a bit more difficult.
Actually it is not that hard if you have plenty of time to do it, especially the reading section. However, due to the very limited time given during the real exam, I might say it is almost impossible for an Indonesian Chinese to finish reading all the question before the time end.
On the other hand, maybe other overseas Chinese who speak mandarin in their daily life like Malaysian Chinese would think that HSK 6 is a piece of cake.
To wrap it up here: it’s hard to give a definite answer to this question. We should also ask for whom and with which level of preparation. If you’re starting from scratch and planning to take the exam in one or even two years, you have some intensive studying ahead of you and you’d most likely have to go to China and take classes to receive all the input you need. Most people need more time though.
On the other hand, considering this is the highest level of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, it could be a hell of a lot harder. HSK 6 is definitely not the top of the mountain. There’s still a whole world beyond it. A fact many people who took the exam notice as soon they take up a job or do business in China.
Feel free to let me know what you think about HSK 6.
Many people taking the HSK exams share the same experience. When they’ve reached HSK 4 level, they think they’ve arrived. But once they turn on the Chinese news, they still don’t understand what’s being said. So what do HSK exams really tell about your proficiency in Mandarin?
The HSK merry-go-round
The story doesn’t stop with HSK 4. Because as soon as people realize they’re not as proficient as they thought, they more often than not sign up for the next level. HSK 5 is supposed to get you to “professional proficiency”:
Test takers who are able to pass the HSK (Level V) can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, enjoy Chinese films and plays, and give a full-length speech in Chinese.
(HSK 5 language skills description)
But can they really? I passed HSK 5 in 2017 with 208 points (out of 300) and even though my score could have been worse, I didn’t doubt one second that I had passed the test only by the skin of my teeth. I could hardly read a Chinese newspaper, let alone “give a full-length speech”.
HSK 5 is supposed to equal C1 language proficiency which is almost native-like fluency. It’s surprising how many people who come this “far” actually feel their grasp of the language is insufficient.
So what else to do than prepare for the “final stage”? HSK 6 is officially the highest language level you can achieve in Mandarin, so formally speaking it’s the end of the line. There’s nothing beyond that.
How come then that many people who passed HSK 6 come to feel that the highest HSK level still isn’t that “special” and isn’t actually “enough”?
Beating HSK vs real life Mandarin skills
Then I spent this year reaching HSK 6 level which is pretty much where I am now. And to be honest I still feel like my Chinese is not good enough.
Experienced learner after passing the HSK 6 exam
The funny thing with HSK is that you can completely crush the higher level exams and still do relatively poor at real life communication. For example, you might be a master at the HSK listening part, but you still don’t get a single word of the taxi driver talking to you, because he speaks relatively fast and with a slight accent.
It reminds me of Chinese students who got the highest grades on their English tests, but can’t use the language at all in the real world. They for example can’t keep up with a real conversation and answer “yes” to open questions – BUT they’re very successful at passing the exams.
HSK prepares you for HSK
Writing HSK is a skill on its own I’ve written before. One thing is essential to understand: The HSK is tailored to the classical classroom style of teaching still very common in China. In a typical HSK preparation class the teacher will focus on vocabulary and grammar points and use 95% of the speaking time hammering in vital HSK stuff. The rest of the class is usually dedicated to making as many mock exams as possible – to get you fit for the exam. NOT FOR REAL LIFE.
What does your HSK level tell about your Mandarin proficiency?
On the other hand, I don’t want to trivialize HSK. Most people who pass the national standardized test – especially the higher levels – have come a long way, others never make it. In my eyes, HSK 6 is impressive. It means you can read complex Chinese texts and write a great number of characters to compose an essay.
But there’s a problem with being HSK-focused only. The reason is this: studying (solely) for HSK will only make you a star at taking the HSK exams, while in fact you could be spending your time far more effectively.
Developing real life Mandarin skills involves a lot more. Like learning to cope with regional accents, slang, formal and informal language. Or learning to deal with different “genres” of Chinese – comedies, modern and classic literature, poetry, newspaper articles, scientific articles, emails and bureaucratic documents. HSK only provides a basic framework which proves insufficient once outside the classroom more often than not.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try…
So if you don’t need the certificate, should you still take the exam? It all depends on your situation. You should probably spare yourself the trouble, but then again, why not give it a try to see where you’re at. Especially when your self-studying and you don’t have any other points of reference. Maybe you do better than you guess!
Although by now it’s obvious I’m not a big HSK-fan and try to see HSK for what it is, I gotta admit I’ve been tempted to take the HSK 6 exam myself. Mainly to have a goal to focus on and test my progress since I took HSK 5, three years ago. Back then my biggest problem was reading speed. My reading was so slow that I couldn’t finish the questions in time. I’ve been working on that by reading more often and more extensively, but will it be enough to survive the HSK 6 reading part?
You only know if you try.
What are your thoughts on taking HSK exams? How does your HSK level relate to your actual Mandarin skills? Feel free to leave a comment below.
Recently I started watching a fairly new documentary series called “人生第一次” or “The Firsts in Life”whichis very popular in China. Here’s why I think it’s a good resource for learning Mandarin – even though it has one problem.
“人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life” is a highly rated 12-episode documentary series planned and released by CCTV. It captures 12 “first time ever” moments that are of great significance to Chinese society, running through different stages of life such as birth, school, family, career, and old-age care. At the beginning of each episode, a “storyteller” will lead the narration.
5 Reasons to use “人生第一次” to improve your Mandarin
Duration: 12 episodes X 30 min.
Subtitles: Mandarin / English
Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate
For our purposes here, let me just give a few points why The Firsts in Life is suitable learning material:
Popular series with short yet moving episodes
Potential conversation starter
Mandarin and English subtitles
Universal topics everyone can relate to
Study vocabulary by topic (birth, school, army, office etc.)
Revealing glimpses of Chinese society and ideals presented by Chinese state television
And here comes the problem: although the main language is Standard Chinese, on several occasions people speak the local dialect. That makes it hard to follow every now and then, especially in the final episodes that focus on the elderly, but the subtitles help a lot.
人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life – the 12 episodes
第一集: 出生 – birth
第二集: 上学 – go to school
第三集: 长大 – growing up
第四集: 当兵 – join the army
第五集: 上班 – go to work
第六集: 结婚 – to marry
第七集: 进城 – move to the city
第八集: 买房 – buy a house
第九集: 相守 – take care of each other
第十集: 退休 – to retire
第十一集: 养老 – enjoy life in retirement
第十二集: 告别 – farewell
Episode One: “Birth”
The first episode offers a glimpse of what it means to give birth in present-day China or rather – important detail – in the Red House Hospital in Shanghai, which is affiliated to the Fudan University and one of the highest rated hospitals in China. If you’ve never witnessed a birth before, this might prove an “in your face” viewing experience.
Episode 2: “Going to School”
This episode focuses on the first school day ever for group of children in one of China’s first tier cities. Choosing the right school is a major decision for Chinese parents as they don’t want their kids “to lose at the starting line”.
Episode 3: “Growing Up”
In a mountain village somewhere in Yunnan Province kids receive unusual lessons: they are taught to write poetry. Life in the mountains is hard, with parents often working far away from home to support the family. One 12-year-old girl even lives on her own, video-calling her mom late at night when she is done working. These kids suffer many hardships, but they never lack inspiration to write poetry, resulting in a kind of primitive and pure art created by children.
Episode 4: “Being a Soldier”
Have you ever wondered what’s it like to join the Chinese army? These young recruits join a special unit of Chinese paratroopers and receive their first training. In a matter of weeks they will be ready to make their first jump from a real airplane. The viewer witnesses this highly interesting transformation from school boys who just said goodbye to mama to hard-boiled soldiers serving in the Chinese army.
Episode 5: “Go to Work”
I thought this was going to be an episode about people entering the labor market and starting some kind of office or factory job. And actually I wasn’t completely off the mark, except the people in question have an extremely hard time getting any job at all, because they are physically disabled. If it wasn’t for Wang Shaojun who – sitting in a wheelchair himself – started an employment training center for disabled people, they’ll probably still at home suffering, invisible for society. Wang Shaojun’s training enables them to work as customer service agents and earn their own money. But it’s more than a training center: this is a place where people become friends for life.
Episode 6: “Marriage”
Marriage is a huge thing in China and weddings are still amazingly traditional – even in futuristic Shanghai. We witness some young couples marrying in the Pudong marriage registration office in Shanghai. They are all eager to receive their marriage certificate which bears similarity to a passport. How do modern, hardworking Shanghainese see marriage?
Episode 7: “Entering the City”
The migrant worker. China’s economy couldn’t run without millions of migrant workers. To get rid of poverty, the government established a labor service station that recruits workers from poor villages in Yunnan. The tragedy of almost every migrant worker is the same: they leave their family and loved ones behind to make money in the big city.
Episode 8: “Buying a House”
In China renting is for losers. In the long run every family is supposed to buy its own apartment, even when this means becoming a mortgage slave. Finding and financing their own apartment is one of the biggest challenges young Chinese face today. This episode focuses on a real estate agent in Beijing who tries to close a deal between two families, all the while hoping that one day he’ll be able to afford his own house.
Episode 9: “Look after each other”
Next to Jiangxi Nanchang Cancer Hospital, Aunt Xiong and her husband run a shared kitchen. Aunt Xiong’s small kitchen is the source of many heart-warming stories. Family members of patients come here every day to cook a simple meal, because even in difficult times, says Aunt Xiong, a person has to eat. It takes only 1 yuan to fry a vegetarian dish. These low prices are more than welcome, since cancer treatment is extremely expensive.
Episode 10: “Retirement”
It always struck me that whereas working people in China usually slug their guts out to make a living and hardly have any spare time, retired people have plenty of time to dedicate to all kind of leisure activities like dancing, singing and calligraphy. Many seniors retire early – the standard retirement age in Germany for example is currently 67 – and have a rich social life. This episode focuses on the Sichuan University for the Elderly in Chengdu. Many enrolled students are in their sixties and go to university for the first time. The goal is not so much to leave the university with a degree, but rather to enjoy and cultivate arts with their peers.
Episode 11: “Elderly Care”
Elderly care in China: in this episode an old lady from Shanghai decides to leave her home behind to live in a retirement community. Another older gentleman doesn’t want to make the same move, even if that will lead to someday becoming “a burden” to his family.
Episode 12: “Farewell”
In China, nearly 70 percent of wills are invalid each year. Why does a seemingly simple piece of paper fail to play its due role? How can conflicts and disputes arising from wills be avoided and resolved to the greatest extent? Is it necessary to make a will? Shooting at the Chinese Wills Library in Beijing, CCTV recorded the story of people coming to make a will for the first time. Like Chao Wenzhen, 73 years old, who comes to make a will in name of his wife.
“人生第一次” has a touch of social realism to it: sending out the “artists” to capture the life of ordinary people – not raw, but in a stylized way, with a narrator giving his or her interpretation. I don’t mean that in a negative way: most of the stories are genuinely touching. “人生第一次” has been conceived for a Mainland Chinese audience, so it gives an inside perspective on the topics at hand and doesn’t at any occasion call China’s “normality” into question. That makes it extra interesting when you put your anthropology glasses on.
For study purposes or just as Mandarin input I recommend the series, although I have to admit that the regional varieties (mostly Shanghai dialect) are a complication.
In short: You take a Dutch guy who wants to become a professional photographer. You put him in China with a camera team and he starts making an incredible portrait of present-day China. Since these three documentaries are almost unknown outside of Holland, I decided to share them here.
How the Dutch filmmaker Ruben Terlou ended up in China
After finishing high school in the Netherlands, Ruben Terlou went to China to make a living as a photographer. A rather unusual step for a young Dutchman, but Ruben was convinced that China was the place to be for him.
Settling down in Kunming and learning Chinese, he fell in love with the country and the people. He became fluent in Mandarin. But after two years of trying his luck as a professional photographer, he returned to Holland, allegedly broke and disappointed.
He than began studying medicine instead, putting photography second, but still visiting places like Afghanistan to shoot material. He finished his studies cum laude, yet he never became an actual doctor.
All in all, I have spent around four to five years in China, I guess. I appreciate the honesty of the people the most. Chinese people are very open about their emotions and can reflect well. The country is and remains fascinating because it is constantly and massively in motion.
The filmmaker Ruben Terlou in Dutch newspaper Trouw
Ruben Terlou: Holland’s unappointed China ambassador
Ruben’s China documentaries became an instant hit in the Netherlands. In every discussion about China people would mention his name.
For most Dutch people China used to be a far away place. Little did they know about the people who live there and their daily lives. Ruben’s China series made a change, focusing on a broad variety of topics and letting Chinese locals tell their own story. He showed that Chinese are not incomprehensible strangers, but fellow human beings. Not an easy task, especially under growing political tensions:
It would be nice if my work touches the audience. Because with all that news about the Chinese trade war, misunderstanding towards the superpower is growing. “What a horrible country, that China,” many people say. I want to remove that distrust, hope to paint a balanced and human image of China.
Many China documentaries made by westerners fail insofar that they are deep-rooted in prejudices (and often ignorance) and choose the moral high ground. Most importantly, they don’t bring any new insights.
Ruben Terlou cannot help but see China through the eyes of a westerner, but at least he makes a serious effort of leaving judgement to the viewers. But there’s more that makes him stand out from journalists and filmmakers that cover China:
He holds back his opinion and allows people to tell their stories
He’s not looking for cheap sensation
People open up to him and tell him very personal things
He’s a keen observerand a brilliant listener. He knows what to ask at the right moment.
Not only his Mandarin is fluent, he also knows a lot about Chinese history and culture. This is demonstrated in his interviews as well as in his selection of topics and filming areas.
He captures unusual places, people and situations like hospitals, circus artists and vanishing minorities.
China is the ideal laboratory for story telling. Had I made the same series in Belgium, or even in India, my conversations would affect the audience less. Those countries are closer to us. Precisely because China is strange to us, I can expose the essence of mankind. Do you understand? China is linguistically and culturally so different from us that it serves as a mirror.
Chinese like any other language ultimately is a tool for communication. Ruben mastered the language and moved on to use his wits and talents to do great things. What’s your dream? What do you think about his China doc? Please feel free to leave a comment.
Tired of listening to endless corona-updates and Covid-discussions? Here’s some China-focused listening material for you sorted by topic.
The general idea here: When learning a language, having some topics that really interest you, can be very motivating to keep pursuing your goals.
One of my personal favorites is definitely The China Africa Project Podcast. If you are into politics and want to broaden your views about China’s engagement in Africa, you will love the show. Another favorite of mine is China Tech Talk for insights into the Chinese tech-start-up scene.
The ChinaPower Podcast covers critical issues underpinning China’s emergence as a global power and brings together the leading experts on China and international politics. Host Bonnie S. Glaser offers her listeners critical insights into the challenges and opportunities presented by China’s rise.
The Little Red Podcast offers interviews and chat celebrating China beyond the Beijing beltway. Hosted by Graeme Smith, China studies academic at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs and Louisa Lim, former China correspondent for the BBC and NPR, now with the Centre for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University.
The MERICS podcast discusses and analyzes developments and current affairs in China: What is behind the Belt and Road Initiative? What kind of leader is Xi Jinping? How should we assess China’s climate change policies? How does the Chinese government use social media to its own ends? In addition to MERICS’s own staff, other experts on China and guest speakers at MERICS also take part in the interviews.
Host: Rutch Kirchner, Kerstin Lohse-Friedrich, Frank Pieke and other MERICS experts
China History podcast covers 5000 years of Chinese history and is hosted by Laszlo Montgomery. Topics include PRC history and leaders like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, US-Chinese history, but also the Chinese dynasties, history of tea and even Chinese philosophy.
Organization: Techbuzz China is a part of Pandaily.com and powered by the Sinica Podcast network
Digitally China is a bi-weekly podcast from RADII hosted by Tom Xiong and Eva Xiao, and produced by Jacob Loven. On each episode, the team will tackle a different timely tech-related topic, providing key insights on all you need to know about the fast-changing nature of innovation in China.
China Tech Talk is an almost weekly discussion of the most important issues in China’s tech. From IPOs to fake data, from the role of WeChat to Apple’s waning influence, hosts John Artman and Matthew Brennan interview experts and discuss the trends shaping China’s tech industry.
Bottled in China brings you into Asia’s food and drink scene through conversations with the some of the most happening personalities. Hosted by Emilie Steckenborn, the show is your one spot for all things food, beer, wine and spirits from across the world.
Ta for Ta is a new biweekly podcast, which captures the narratives of women from Greater China at the top of their professional game. “Ta for Ta” is a play on the Chinese spoken language that demonstrates equality between the sexes. Tā 他 is the word for “he”; tā 她 is also the word for “she.”
For my previous post I did some research on YouTube Channels for Mandarin learning and I came across the fairlynew account of Xiaolu 晓露, who does something very interesting in her videos: she evaluates the Chinese of expats in China.
How fluent is fluent?
Not just random foreigners in the Middle Kingdom, but popular YouTubers like 杰里德Jared, Thomas阿福 and others who speak Mandarin in their videos with native-like fluency – or so it seems to the average viewer. But how well – after spending many years in China – do they actually speak the language? Does their Mandarin have any flaws at all? That’s what Xiaolu sets out to ascertain.
Testing the Laowai YouTube Elite
And when you watch her videos, you wonder why nobody got this idea before her, since everybody has apparently been waiting for a native speaker – preferably a teacher like Xiaolu – to take a critical look at the Mandarin skills of the laowai YouTube elite. Although Xiaolu’s channel is still rather unknown, people quickly started commenting suggestions which candidate to “analyze” next. So more content is to come and maybe other online teachers will hear the call too.
A BRIGHT WORLD – 世界青年说
Xiaolu doesn’t “judge” her laowai vlogger colleagues in a nasty way, she isn’t out to bash a bunch of expats trying to speak Chinese – that would be a cheap strategy to attract more views. On the contrary, her approach is friendly and constructive, doing some casual explaining on the side, both useful and enjoyable.
Test results and grading system
Xiaolu’s chosen format works well, even though I think it is not completely fair to judge someone’s Chinese skills based on one video. We should keep in mind that listening, reading and writing skills should be added to the picture too.
Another thing to consider is the difference between someone holding a monologue – which can be prepared – and actual communication with locals – which is harder to fake.
I’m also pretty sure that the gap between Afu’s and XiaoMa’s (referring to the embedded videos above) Chinese skills is bigger than Xiaolu’s grades reflect, giving the impression that both are more or less on the same level which – from what I’ve seen so far – they are not. So Xiaolu might reconsider her grading system a little.
Anyway, this is excellent and original content. I hope Xiaolu keeps up the good work. Here’s the link to her account.
Only a couple of days after this short review was posted, I got the following reaction from Xiaolu, explaining the difficulties of accurate and fair grading:
Thanks for the review. I love it😍. Some thoughts of my own: I did consider to get rid of the grades part. Because I don’t want people taking offense. But some of my subscribers actually quite like it. I just want people to learn Chinese in a different and fun way. And I never intended to criticize in anyway. I agree with you there is a fairly large gap between xiaoma and afu. The grade is only based on my personal view and I do get more strict with advanced learners. Xiaoma is the second online influencer I analyzed. I do feel his overall Chinese is below the score I gave to him. But I get frustrated sometimes between telling the truth and not hurting people, also hopefully encouraging them at the same time🥺