“Should you still learn Chinese?”

“Should you still learn Chinese?” – American YouTuber and expert level Mandarin speaker LeLe Farley poses this question in one of his newest videos. His answer is long, personal and includes many political detours. My own answer hasn’t really changed, how about yours?

Chinese is not as popular as it was 15 years ago?

In an earlier post, I discussed the relations between politics and the motivation to learn Chinese, more in particular the impact of the mainly negative media coverage of China (e.g. Hongkong, Tibet, Xinjiang, Covid-19 etc.) has on us who are trying to learn Mandarin as a foreign language. It’s a sensitive topic, but I can’t see why it shouldn’t be discussed openly. It simply seems that Chinese is not as popular as it was 15 years ago. And the increasingly negative image of China and the political developments addressed by LeLe Farley in his video do play a role in this. At least in the eyes of many westerners.

Who is this YouTuber anyway?

The video in question: “Should you still learn Chinese?”

For those who aren’t familiar with LeLe Farley the first thing you have to know about him is that he spent 12 years perfecting his Chinese. He was one his way to become a laowai celebrity in China, but his personal ethics and political views got in the way, eventually leading to LeLe being banned from China.

Lele uploaded a video of him imitating He Who Must Not Be Named in a Winnie the Pooh costume. Less than a day after the sketch was uploaded to YouTube, LeLe’s name was blocked on the Chinese internet. He was completely erased 1984-style, just like he had never existed in China.

A taboo topic

We’re all learning Chinese, why don’t we speak openly about this? I can see two reasons:

  • People in the field of teaching Chinese as a foreign language usually don’t have any incentive to discuss sensitive political questions as it’s bad for business and “social harmony”. A publisher, for example, won’t risk raising issues like Hongkong or Xinjiang in learning materials, because this can have serious consequences.
  • International learning community naturally tend to block out information that damage their motivation to learn Chinese.

Should you still learn Chinese?

LeLe’s take on this question is highly political and arguably somewhat one-sided, but relevant nonetheless, after all he studied Chinese for more than a decade, had real opportunities in China, but eventually chose ethics over career (in China). The way he poses the question – Should you still learn Chinese? – suggests that something has changed fundamentally:

Should you still learn Chinese? This “still” is essential because 10 plus years ago learning Chinese was the fashionable thing to do. Yes, back then there were both pros and cons, but the pros typically outweighed the cons, because most people thought China was the next global powerhouse with a burgeoning middle class pushing the country towards democratization. Hell, even China’s premier Li Keqiang said so as recently as 2013. But now XJP has cancelled presidential term limits, centralized power, crushed dissent and stoked the flames of nationalism all in an attempt to divert attention from him and his party’s failures.

YouTube: XJP & China’s New Cultural Revolution: Should You STILL Learn Chinese? (23 Mar 2021)

Chinese (and China) not as “fashionable” as it used to be?

I’m not judging his assessment of the political situation in China, because this is a language blog. But his statement that learning Chinese is not as “hot” as it used to be, has some truth to it. The Google search data seems to indicate this as well for example. This decline of interest for the Chinese language probably relates to the increasingly negative views people have about China. If you look at these charts, you can see China’s popularity has dropped drastically in recent years:

Increasingly negative eveluations of China across advanced economies. This survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that China's international image has been suffering over the previous decade.
This survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that China’s international image has been suffering over the previous decade. Does this somehow correlate to people’s willingness to learn Chinese? If so, how big is the negative impact? PS. Keep in mind that they only used data from 14,276 adults in 14 different “advanced economies”, so this survey shows an overall trend in the respective countries at best.

The better your Chinese gets, the more you hate the CCP?

One of his main points in the video is that the better your Chinese gets, the better you understand China and the Chinese and the harder it becomes to ignore the negative impact of China’s political leadership. In his own words:

Trust me, from my personal experience, I can tell you if you want to become China-famous, learning Chinese will only hold you back. As is true with any language: the better you get, the more you’ll understand the culture. But Chinese fluency enables you to see the profoundly negative impact the CCP has on China and the Chinese people. You become a witness in the lost potential of what could be magnificent.

YouTube: Xi Jinping & China’s New Cultural Revolution: Should You STILL Learn Chinese? (23 Mar 2021)

Becoming “China-famous”

“If you want to become China-famous, learning Chinese will only hold you back.” This statement reflects LeLe’s own story, joining auditions for Chinese TV-shows, but failing due to “political incorrectness”. I don’t think many people take on the challenge of mastering the Chinese language hoping to achieve fame on Chinese television though.

Looking beyond the here and now of politics

Thankfully, LeLe Farley is able to look beyond politics and all the negative distractions:

So if this is all true, then why why do I continue to learn Chinese? Simply put, because Chinese is fucking dope! Sharing nothing in common with Indo-European languages, Chinese builds you a completely unique frame of thinking through which to perceive the world. Characters represent ideas more than concrete words, giving rise to centuries of brilliant poetry, 20 character Tang-dynasty poems require pages of English translation and even then you still feel like something’s missing. And as your ears begin to discern between the tones of Mandarin you can enjoy the melodic cadence professional orators work years to perfect. You can feel the relaxed nature of a Chengdu accent, exude from the local speech. You can embrace the irreverent boldness of a Beijing accent getting drunk on rice wine with a bunch of old men, while chilling in the labyrinth of ancient alleyways. You can befriend enthusiastic locals that don’t speak a word of English yet remain tremendously curious about you and the outside world. You can even channel your frustrations with the communist party through satire. Try to reach out to those trapped within the great firewall and tell them you are not alone. You can try and be a force for the change that you want to see in the world. So if you’re looking to experience a wild roller coaster ride of a life, then hell yeah you should learn Chinese.

YouTube: Xi Jinping & China’s New Cultural Revolution: Should You STILL Learn Chinese? (23 Mar 2021)

Conclusion: “Should you still learn Chinese?”

It’s your decision

My personal answer is definitely yes, but most important of all: it’s your choice. We are all free to have your own motivations and ideas, as well as likes and dislikes. At the end of the day, it’s your call, nobody can decide for you. Not even a 100 percent fluent Mandarin speaker like LeLe Farley, let alone a simple blogger like me.

I personally value LeLe Farley’s courage and energy, but ultimately, this video provides his subjective account and (naturally) reflects his own experiences. In fact, I think that most people don’t care that much about the political stuff. I’m also not that sure a higher knowledge level of Chinese inevitably leads to an anti-CCP point of view (I’m not saying that the better you get, the more you’re going to fall in love with the party either). A more nuanced, multi-faceted point of view maybe. I do agree with LeLe that China (and the rest of the world) looked different 10, 15 years ago. I’m not without hope that things still can change for the better.

There are so many reasons to learn Chinese!

However, all this has very little to do with why most people develop an interest for the Chinese language. There are plenty of reasons to start learning Mandarin and most of them have nothing to do with politics. Just ask people in online learning communities what their motivations to learn Chinese are and you’ll see a wide variety of reasons:

  • “I like their literature and want to read them in Chinese one day.”
  • “Because I think Chinese will be as important as English”
  • “To communicate well with Chinese company for smooth business development”
  • “Because I like Chinese dramas”
  • “I want to further my studies in China”
  • “Because of my in-laws”
  • “Cause never stopped to put challenges in my life”
  • “We have a saying in our native language that translates to “one who thinks in different tongues (languages), thinks more rationally”.”

People have all kind of motivations to learn Chinese. They don’t need to be serious or thought through the end. This is a very personal matter – just like LeLe’s own story shows.

Learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor

I’ve written before that the world of politics is a day-to-day, month-to-month thing, where as learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor. Serious learners will acknowledge that you have to invest a huge amount of time and energy, so – if possible – your learning success shouldn’t be depending on any of that. Although I have to admit that this is easier said than done. I think the present Covid-situation illustrates that external factors can sometimes “explode in your face”.

Bottom line: The study of languages should be located above politics. And that doesn’t mean you don’t care or lack interest. There will always be value in mastering the Chinese language. We create that value ourselves. We decide what is meaningful. At any rate, if LeLe’s assessment of the situation is true and we’re in a new Cold War, then we’ll need people with a deep understanding of the Chinsese language, history and culture more than ever. In the meanwhile, LeLe Farley’s story should be told and his voice should be heard. You can support him on Patreon.

That’s it from my side. “Should you still learn Chinese?” Feel free to let me know what you think about this question. Does politics influence your motivation to learn Chinese in any way, positive or negatively?

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Learning Chinese becoming less popular?

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Not so very long ago, probably around January this year, I was working on an article with the cheap yet upbeat title “10 reasons to learn Chinese in 2020”. Then 2020 came along, bulldozed my plan and the article died an early death. What bothered me the most though: I simply couldn’t think of any convincing reasons why 2020 should be the year to study Mandarin!

Was it just me? Or maybe studying Mandarin is just not as popular as it was before? I had to find out and looked at some data from trends.google.com that I want to share with you in this post. This website plots the popularity of any given search term on Google over time. The results were shocking.

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline

Search term “learn Chinese”

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Global search volume for "learn Chinese" on Google.
Global search volume for “learn Chinese” on Google ( 2004 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

I simply entered “learn Chinese”. What we see on the whole is a more or less steady decline, starting from 2005 (!), with a little peak at the beginning 2020 due to the Covid-19-pandemic. But could it really be that in 2005 studying Mandarin was more popular than say 2015? I had to have another try with a less vague search term.

Search term “learn Chinese for beginners”

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Global search volume for "learn Chinese for beginners" on Google ( 2004 - 2020)
Global search volume for “learn Chinese for beginners” on Google ( 2004 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

What I got was more or less the same picture, the line dropping with ups and downs until 2013, then climbing up a little and then almost stabilizing on a low level. To get a more complete impression, I consulted the data for YouTube as well.

Popularity of learning Chinese on YouTube

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Global search volume for "learn Mandarin" on YouTube (2008 - 2020)
Global search volume for “learn Mandarin” on YouTube (2008 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

As everybody knows YouTube has developed into an important platform for language learning, Mandarin Chinese being no exception. The YouTube data surprisingly shows a different picture. Between 2009 and 2017, the number of people looking for content to learn Chinese fluctuates on a relatively high level. Then the frequency of the search term suddenly drops in July 2017 with no sign of recovery. The exact same thing we get for the search term “learn Chinese”:

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Search volume for "learn Chinese" on YouTube (2008 - 2020)
Search volume for “learn Chinese” on YouTube (2008 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

Just to double check, I entered the search term “living in China”, only to discover the same “crash” in July 2017:

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Search volume for "Living in China" on YouTube (2008 - 2020)
Search volume for “Living in China” on YouTube (2008 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

What happened in 2017?

The YouTube data clearly indicates a downward trend that sets in from July 2017 and continues until this day. What happened in 2017 that had such on impact? My best guess is that Trump and the Sino-American Trade War happened, leading to much insecurity.

What about individual countries?

I chose to examine Google’s “global data” using English search terms. How about individual countries though?

To my surprise, the general trend in these six countries is very similar. All charts indicate that the popularity of Mandarin is in decline.

Validity of data from Google Trends

I’m still not completely sure if the data give an accurate picture of the situation. It could for example well be that people’s search behavior on Google has become more sophisticated over time, which would (partly) explain the decreasing popularity of a search term “learn Chinese”. The YouTube data is probably more significant, but we still require more indicators to satisfyingly answer the question. HSK statistics revealing how many people have been taking the standard Mainland Chinese test over the last decade could be insightful for example. Let’s have a quick look.

HSK exam growing in popularity

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any up-to-date numbers, but the overall trend points towards growing popularity of the HSK exam:

HSK test takers statistics: how many people took the HSK test from 2009 to 2012.

This China Daily article even mentions 6.8 million test takers in 2018:

The HSK exams, a test of Chinese language proficiency organized by the Confucius Institute Headquarters, or Hanban, were taken 6.8 million times in 2018, up 4.6 percent from a year earlier, the Ministry of Education said on Friday.

China Daily (31.05.2019)

These HSK statistics obviously contradict the data I found and are somewhat reassuring, since it’s only logical that the language of a growing superpower has increasing significance in the world. And even though the interest in Mandarin may be waning in some parts of the world, this doesn’t necessarily mean that this a global trend. Take a look at African countries like Zambia for example where starting from 2020, Mandarin Chinese will form part of the Zambian high school curriculum.

Learning Mandarin becoming less popular – so what?

To end on a positive note here: even if it is true that fewer people are interested in studying Mandarin, why should we care? After all, when Mandarin skills and Chinese cultural competence are becoming more rare, people who do possess them become even more valuable. We need people who are proficient in the language and understand China’s culture and history. We have lots of challenges still ahead.

Is studying Mandarin becoming less popular? What do you think? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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5 apps that help you to understand and write Chinese characters

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From the great number of apps that claim to boost your Mandarin skills only a few focus specifically on understanding and writing Chinese characters. I tested five of them and only one application really convinced me. Here’s my top 5 of apps for learning Hanzi.

Learning Chinese characters is difficult. In my view, it’s not so much the ancient writing system itself that poses a problem, but primarily the teaching and study methods we use for Hanzi which can be awful. Even in this decade of the 21st century, lots of people continue to “binge-write” Hanzi (for example write the character 爱 30 times) hoping that this somehow is enough for our brain. There’s nothing wrong with diligence, is this really the best method we got though?

Let’s imagine for one second that our best teaching methods and study practices can flow into an app that makes learning Hanzi easier, more efficient and fun, both for beginners and more experienced learners. Which apps can meet these straightforward qualifications?

5. Daily Mandarin

Daily Mandarin Hanzi practice for iOS
88.8 MB, iOS only

Daily Mandarin is a very basic app designed to practice writing all level HSK characters and uhm.. that’s about it. You simply open one of the six well-known HSK-vocabulary lists in the app, select a character you want to practice and the app will show the stroke order and play the audio. If you feel you’re getting the hang of it, hide the stroke order. Additionally, you can look up characters with the search function. The app is completely free.

Unlike Scripts, Daily Mandarin is not very practical in terms of daily use. Where to start with 5000 characters to learn? How to memorize them all? These questions need answering, but Daily Mandarin doesn’t give any clues, let alone any form of spaced repetition. It’s pretty much like being handed a dictionary. This reveals a lack of didactic considerations on the side of the developers. Besides, they could have made the character writing smoother.

Bottom line: Daily Mandarin is a potentially helpful app, but how to properly use it remains unclear.

4. Scripts

"Scripts by Drops": Learn Chinese characters, the Korean alphabet or the Japanese writing system with illustrations and mini games.
31 MB, Android and iOS

Scripts by Drops is a popular app for introducing you to new writing systems, Chinese Hanzi being one of them. It’s designed for a gamified learning experience, making the first steps into the world of Hanzi as amusing and colorful as possible.

The free version allows you to learn the most common radicals, including stroke order, visualized meaning and pronunciation, for five minutes. After this 5-minute session you have to wait for ten hours to have another go. Why? Well, to quote the app developers:

Limiting learning time may sound counter-intuitive but it makes Drops Scripts incredibly addictive. And that’s a good thing in terms of language learning. The obstacles standing in your way of finally starting to read and write in a new language are made obsolete. No excuses: you ALWAYS have 5 minutes!

Addiction in this particular case indeed isn’t a bad thing. Being limited to 5-minute sessions is though. The only solution – you guessed it – is to upgrade to the premium version which offers you:

  • Access to BOTH Scripts and Drops Premium
  • Unlimited practice session times
  • More topics
  • No ads and offline access

Which – to be honest – is not that spectacular – assuming we’re only interested in writing Hanzi (Scripts) and less in learning vocabulary (Drops). Browsing the free version of Scripts I merely noticed the usual list of Hanzi radicals which you can find almost anywhere. What’s more, study all of them is not necessary for beginners – apart from being pretty dull – since most radicals are character components, not actual characters that you use on a daily basis! Moreover, you first have to know a substantial number of Chinese characters to grasp and appreciate the actual use of (all) radicals. So for me to purchase the premium version I’d definitely need to see a broader variety of content first.

Apart from this lack of vocabulary, the biggest downside is – as we now know – intended: the 5-minute session limit. This makes the free version almost useless for beginners, because 5 minutes simply isn’t enough. Going premium currently costs €5/month (yearly subscription) or € 8.49 (monthly subscription).

3. Kangxi

KangXi: learn characters by their radicals
Size 12,9 MB, free, iOS only

Kangxi is a fun app which focuses on radicals. Basically it’s a game in which you match characters with the same radical as quick as you can. There are five HSK levels to choose from, audio and traditional characters included. It’s a quick and painless method to boost your knowledge of radicals and certainly worth a try.

The only issue I have with the Kangxi app is that in some cases knowing the radical isn’t very advantageous. The developer arguably could have picked more ‘meaningful’ semantic components instead, but then the app wouldn’t be called Kangxi, I suppose.

2. Hanzi Study

Size 11 MB, Android only

This app should be called HSK Hanzi Study, since it ‘only’ contains the 2600 characters from the HSK-test (2.0). Hanzi study provides you with a self-paced learning structure that breaks down all that vocabulary into manageable bits, namely 6 grades with a X number of lessons.

HSK 1 consists of 9 lessons teaching you 20 words each for example. The characters in each lesson seem to be randomly put together, which in my opinion is just as good or bad as alphabetic order. You get a short “briefing” for each new character, showing:

  • Example sentences
  • Stroke order and stroke count
  • Radical of each character
  • Frequency

That’s nice! Here comes the ‘but’:

  • Upgrade needed for the test function (€2.09)
  • No audio in the free version
  • Example sentences are too difficult for beginners
  • Can’t remove Pinyin during test, no traditional characters

The app isn’t complete without the test / flashcard function. Without it, you’re only able to preview the lessons, but can’t track or indeed test your progress.

1. Skritter

Size 30 MB, for Android and iOS

Yes, yes. Skritter. For anybody serious about mastering writing Chinese characters Skritter is the best app I’ve used so far, but also one of the most expensive (monthly subscription $14.99, yearly subscription $99.99). But if you’re really invested in Mandarin and thinking long-term, Skritter probably is the number-one tool for writing Hanzi and vocabulary training.

I know this introduction has an affiliate marketing tone to it, but that’s how I feel about Skritter. It’s worth checking Skritter’s browser version and especially the app. The free version naturally only offers a small taste of Skritter’s functions, where as premium subscribers get the full deal:

  • Learn to write Chinese characters and deepen your understanding of Hanzi (radicals, semantic components, stroke order)
  • Lots of content (HSK, commonly used textbooks and decks created by users)
  • Learning history and progress tracking
  • Master characters in three steps: learn, test and review with spaced repetition (this order is actually pedagogically responsible which can’t be said for all learning tools)
  • Skritter’s little game ‘Time Attack’: test your writing skills in a race against time (lots of fun, even for natives who want to refresh their handwriting)

It’s the kind of language tool I wished I had discovered earlier, because – let’s be honest here – I wasted insane amounts of time studying Hanzi with old-fashioned methods, writing, rewriting and then forgetting them again. I believe Skritter – when used properly – can ‘professionalize’ this whole process and make it more efficient and rewarding.

You not only save, but you also win time, since you can use Skritter to study anywhere and anytime you feel like it. Skritter’s SRS also makes it much harder to forget what you learned. SRS is never perfect, but it’s much better than studying at whim and more efficient in the long run. Furthermore, the app allows you to keep track of your progress, so you know exactly where you’re at and what you’ve been learning.

Does Skritter have to be so expensive? Well, I don’t know, but as far as I can tell it’s the only serious tool for writing Chinese characters on the market. Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself if Skritter works for you and whether or not is its money’s worth.

Of course this is list is far from complete. Which apps have been particularly helpful to your Hanzi adventure? Any apps that should be included in this list? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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Learning Chinese characters: 7 bad practices you should avoid

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Is learning to write Chinese characters an uphill battle to you? No problem, it’s normal to rethink your approach to Hanzi. And while you’re at it, you might want to exclude these 7 bad practices from your personal learning habits.

“Do you really have to be able to write Chinese characters? Like all of them?”

I’ll be honest with you, I wasted a lot of time studying Hanzi. It took me a long time to figure out that in most cases it’s really the sound and meaning component that count. Sound for pronunciation, meaning for understanding.

So far on this blog I haven’t covered the topic of learning to write Chinese characters. The reason for this is simple: I don’t have a practical and effective method for memorizing Hanzi that I can share (if there is one). BUT – a blogpost by Olle Linge from Hacking Chinese at least helped me understand why I haven’t been particularly successful at writing characters. This is my list of bad practices and terrible advice I was personally exposed to.

Just to be clear: learning to write characters from a writing system that evolved over thousands of years clearly can’t be done in a day. For a large part we have to take it for what is: hard, interesting but also largely frustrating effort. Some practices and commonly given advice make it even harder though, harder than it needs to be.

Olle already made it clear that this isn’t about bashing teachers or the education system they operate in. This is about what doesn’t work and shouldn’t be part of your Hanzi learning strategy.

Wrong advice NR. 1: Just learn them by rote and you’ll understand!

I guess I started as helpless as almost everybody else: I was supposed to learn my first set of characters, but no one told me what’s the best (or worst) way to go about it. Almost as if learning to write Hanzi is a self-explanatory practice. Just do it and you’ll discover the logic, cause logic is what ties the Chinese writing system together, right?

My teacher would sometimes write new characters on the blackboard and then – annoyingly – say something along the lines of “see how easy?”, making us feel like a bunch of kids instructed to cook some exquisite dish, even though we’d never even washed salad or boiled an egg before. At least knowing the difference between semantic and phonetic components could have made a big difference.

Not all teachers take the time to focus on such essential details or they do once or twice and then never mention them again. They think you’ll figure out by yourself. At least my teachers mostly did. They didn’t have a step-by-step approach that starts with A, moves on to B and C etc. (Maybe this complete guide to learning Hanzi doesn’t exist (yet)!)

Wrong advice NR. 2: Learn as many new characters as you can every day!

Most of my teachers never gave me a clear goal. Should I learn 5, 10 or 20 every day? How many a week? How do I still remember 200 characters by the end of the month? Is 200 a reasonable number or is 100 more realistic? The closest I ever came to a realistic goal was during my semester in China: 40 new characters every week and dictation every Thursday.

That actually worked quite well, although I would have forgotten how to write most of them after two weeks. Why? I didn’t understand enough about the semantic and phonetic components. My understanding was too shallow. To effectively memorize Hanzi, they have to be meaningful to you in some way. That can mean inventing little stories about how their components play together OR (in the long run) knowing the components’ actual meaning.

Wrong advice NR. 3: Hanzi are like pictures!

This is my favorite advice which I heard many, many times; even from teachers who should know better, but are tempted by the convenience of this idea. The “Chineasy method” is also based on this claim. Here’s what’s wrong with it: pictograms are highly stylized and simplified pictures of material objects, but only a small minority of characters actually falls into this category. Most of them don’t work this way. These three do:

Chinese characters: example of pictograms
Actual pictograms! (Source screenshot: wikipedia)

But this one doesn’t:

Complex character that isn't a pictogram
Biáng, a kind of noodle in Shaanxi

And that goes for most of them. They are too complex to be reduced to a simple picture. That’s why this advice is well-intended, but extremely misleading. Let me know if you had different experiences.

Wrong advice NR. 4: Write every new character a 100 times!

Practicing Hanzi by writing them over and over.
Writing each new character over and over

Yes, my teachers told me this too. The number always varied. According to one teacher, writing each new character 30 to 50 times would do the trick. The next time, this laoshi told me, my hand would write out the character automatically. Just like playing a song on the guitar from memory (after practicing it over and over), it would come out naturally. Well, for me this method only resulted in (temporarily) losing all interest for Hanzi. It’s particularly useless when you have to memorize a whole bunch of new characters in one session like on the page above. I would often mix up elements from the previous ones and create entirely new characters.

Wrong advice NR. 5: Learn the radicals!

Chinese character "ma" with the radical in highlighted in red

My teachers used to stress the importance of learning the radicals to me. From all the bad advice listed here, this one is probably the least useless. But it’s a little confusing: In the not so distant past, when people still used paper dictionaries, you’d look up a character by its radical, because dictionaries were sorted that way. Therefore it made sense to single out the radical in each character. Nowadays (almost) no one cares about them any more, unless you are actually talking about semantic components. It does make sense to look for the main semantic component in a character to discover its meaning.

Wrong advice NR. 6: forget about digital tools!

Can you imagine that not any of my Chinese teachers ever mentioned apps like Pleco, Hanping, Anki or Skritter to me? It was a fellow student who back in the day introduced me to Skritter and Pleco. Unfortunately, my Chinese teachers had rather old-fashioned notions about learning Hanzi, almost as if there’s only one valid way: the traditional Chinese way! That’s how we learned writing characters when we were young. That worked for millennia, so why shouldn’t it work for you? They didn’t encourage the use of apps. I doubt that they ever tested Pleco and the like.

Wrong advice NR. 7: Write every new character you encounter!

I remember a teacher telling us that we should be able to write every character from that day’s text. That was already bad enough, but every new character you see on the page? What a complete waste of time. I’m glad I never did that.

So what does work?

That’s for all the methods that from my personal experience don’t work. You’re welcome to disagree with me or share methods that do work! Let’s have a try:

  1. First concentrate on Pinyin, pronunciation and tones (plus basic vocabulary). Don’t start with Chinese characters right away.
  2. Learn characters in context, learn frequent combinations and practice sentence mining.
  3. Start reading graded readers from an early stage to grow your vocabulary and reading fluency (practice extensive reading instead intensive reading (textbooks)).
  4. Understand that most characters consist of a meaning and sound component.
  5. Gradually deepen your understanding of functional components.
  6. Install a tool like Skritter if you’re serious about writing Chinese characters.

To end on a positive note: I’m pretty sure smart minds will improve the way we learn and think of Chinese characters in the time to come.

Please feel free to comment your least (or most) effective Hanzi study method.

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The first 100 Chinese characters
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How long does it take to get HSK 6?

In a previous post I tried to answer the question how difficult the current HSK 6 exam is. Now I want to find out how long it takes to get to that level.

Obviously, the duration of the climb towards HSK 6 depends on many factors I don’t want to go into here, but for example: what’s your starting point? How much experience do you have learning foreign languages and different writing systems? Can you immerse yourself in the target language? What I want to do here is take a look at some practical cases. I found five test candidates who passed the HSK 6 exam, let’s see how much time they needed to beat the test.

HSK 6 in one year

Took 1 year: This is extremely fast! One year to reach HSK 4 is already extraordinary, but HSK 6? I have no doubt that this German girl, who spent her gap year in China, is highly intelligent and hardworking. In addition, she was immersed in various Chinese speaking environments (Beijing, Chengde, Shanghai) during that year and had private tutors to assist her. What’s striking though is that she speaks Mandarin well, but does not seem super fluent (yet): she speaks rather slow and uses basic phrases. Needless to say that doesn’t diminish her excellent achievement, but it could be a sign of an imbalance in her Mandarin skills. (Plus, it’s a reminder HSK is just a test).

HSK 6 in “two years of part-time study”

Took 2 years of part-time study: Wait a minute, HSK 6 in “two years of part-time study”?! I have a hard time believing that. It might not be completely impossible, but his story sounds more like some kind of elevator pitch to me, an awe-striking from struggling to completely fluent in just two years kind of story – without any real effort (like learning more or less 40 hours a week for example). It just sounds too good to be true. I’m not saying these guys haven’t got a good thing going (looks like they run a language school in Chengdu for expats), but I don’t buy into their one-size-fits-all solution, success guaranteed kind of thing. And in my experience, it’s very difficult to learn a language from scratch in your spare-time, even when you’re already living in “the right country”. And you could argue that once you’re living and working in China and joining a Chinese language program, you’re in fact learning full-time, since you more or less receive 24 hours input.

HSK 6 in four years

Took 4 years: Now here’s someone who took four years and is actually fluent, sounds local and gets her tones right (as far I can judge), but also is aware she still has to improve her pronunciation (she’s communicating to a Chinese audience). It’s clear she spent more than one year in China. Well done!

HSK 6 in four and a half years

Took 4 and a half year: another interesting experience. 1.5 years of studying in Finland, 3 years in China, eventually passing HSK 6 with 238 points out of 300. She writes: “If I could get to this level in 4,5 years, you can do even better if you live in China the whole time or/and work harder than I do!

HSK 6 in six years

Took 6 years: unfortunately she doesn’t reveal how she did it exactly and how much time she spent in China, but what I get from her words is that she studied Mandarin at least three years (full-time, I assume). I’m sure there are plenty of people who take even longer, but aren’t very eager to admit it. I don’t think there’s any shame in taking six years. After all, Mandarin is a difficult language and not everybody is good at taking tests.

The official HSK recommendation?

Is there an official recommendation how long you should take to get to the sixth HSK level? I couldn’t find any such information, but others claim they have:

According to the Hanban (汉办), HSK tests should reflect distinct stages in the Chinese acquisition journey. They designed the HSK 6 to be reflective of someone who has reached what they consider to be the highest level of proficiency in Chinese that can be expected of a second language learner. Unsurprisingly, it’s a challenging test. They estimate that you must have four years of full-time study before you can pass the HSK 6.

When they say “full-time,” they mean approximately 40 hours per week during university semesters. In China, the winter & summer holidays from a university add up to approximately 16 weeks of the year. With that in mind, we can glean that “four years of full-time study” means 36 weeks a year (52 weeks in a year – 16 weeks of holiday) at 40 hours per week on average.

With this in mind, they estimate that you need 5,760 hours of study to reach HSK 6 level (36 weeks in a year * 4 years= 144 weeks, 40 hours a week * 144 weeks = 5,760 hours.)

Mandarinblueprint

Conclusion

I think this rough estimation of 4 years full-time study or +5000 hours of study is reasonable. In reality it might be more of a 3 – 6 years range. Some are slower, some are faster, some are more accomplished at structured learning and test taking. Others lack the time and resources for full-time language learning – if you’re a student of sinology, you probably pass the test within 4 years, but if you aren’t and have other obligations like work and family, things are likely to take more time. Some may even outgrow the need to write the HSK 6 test completely. At the end of the day, it’s just a test.

Another thing I noticed: easy come is easy go, super quick learners tend to have less stable foundations. Plus, spending time in China or at least in Chinese speaking areas and really soak up the language does seem the key to success for our five test candidates.

Any thoughts on HSK 6? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system
Mandarin Chinese Picture Dictionary: Learn 1,500 Key Chinese Words and Phrases
Chinese short stories for beginners
Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners (English and Chinese Edition)
Chinese For Dummies
Essential Mandarin Chinese Grammar: Write and Speak Chinese Like a Native
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
Chinese Flash Cards Kit Volume 1: HSK Levels 1 & 2 Elementary Level: Characters 1-349

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崔健 – 一无所有 (1986)

Today the father of Chinese rock, Cui Jian, turns 59! His song Nothing to my name is widely considered his most famous and important work, a political sensation at the time.

一无所有 (1986)

我曾经问个不休
你何时跟我走
可你却总是笑我
一无所有
我要给你我的追求 
还有我的自由
可你却总是笑我
一无所有

噢… 你何时跟我走
噢…你何时跟我走

脚下的地在走
身边的水在流
可你却总是笑我
一无所有
为何你总笑个没够
为何我总要追求
难道在你面前
我永远是一无所有

噢…你何时跟我走
噢…你何时跟我走

告诉你我等了很久
告诉你我最后的要求
我要抓起你的双手
你这就跟我走
这时你的手在颤抖
这时你的泪在流
莫非你是正在告诉我
你爱我一无所有

噢…你这就跟我走
噢…你这就跟我走

Understanding China and Mandarin with 7 Chinese film classics

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It is said the best art comes from turmoil and hardship. This seems particularly true for Mainland Chinese cinema which for decades had gone practically unnoticed, but reemerged in the relatively liberal eighties and nineties, transforming long years of revolution, war and chaos into internationally acclaimed works of art.

If you’re only into the newest movies from China, you’d best stop reading here. This is a list of mostly older Mainland Chinese movies I’ve come to like and recommend to anyone interested in China.

Although the reality presented in these films may seem very different from the China we see today, these lived experiences continue to shape China. Since this blog is mainly about learning Mandarin I’ve added my estimation of the difficulty level for each film.

Included on my list:

  • Raise the Red Lantern – 大红灯笼高高挂 (1991)
  • To live – 活着 (1994)
  • Coming home – 归来 (2014)
  • Yellow Earth – 黄土地 (1984)
  • The Story of Qiu Ju – 秋菊打官司 (1992)
  • Blind Shaft – (盲井) 2003
  • Hibiscus town – 芙蓉镇 (1986)

Raise the Red Lantern – 大红灯笼高高挂 (1991)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)

Concubines! Set in the 1920s, the film tells the story of a young woman (played by Gong Li) who is forced to become one of the concubines of a wealthy man during the Warlord Era. The four concubines “compete” with each other in order to be the master’s favorite taitai and gain the privileges that come with that status.

The movie can be read in many ways. In my eyes, it’s mainly an condemnation of traditional patriarchal society and capitalism where women are sold as slaves. But Lantern can also be seen as a symbolic depiction of any power system or government that demands absolute of obedience of its subordinates by rewarding those who comply and punishing those who don’t. That’s how the system maintains itself and the master – whose face remains invisible – gets his way. Power and wealth will be shared only if you comply with its rules. North-Korea and other totalitarian regimes come to mind.

The film was directed by China’s most renowned filmmaker Zhang Yimou and has been banned for a certain period in China after it came out.

Hibiscus town – 芙蓉镇 (1986)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: Chinese
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Hibiscus Town was directed by “third generation” Chinese filmmaker Xie Jin and probably the first film to look back upon the upheavals of the cultural revolution. Actually the story – which is set in a small Hunan village about sixty years ago – is still very relevant today as radical ideologies demanding absolute equality have all but disappeared.

Hibiscus Town tells the story about the kindhearted and pretty Hu Yuyin who successfully sells a local variety of bean curd made from rice. She works hard and together with her husband Guigui manages to save enough money to build an impressive new house. During the Four Cleanups Movement of 1964 however, they suddenly see themselves denounced as “new rich peasants” who have to undergo some kind of punishment for their “reactionary” thinking and behavior.

The film – typically classified as a “scar drama” – was well received in China when it came out, but internationally still is not that well-known.

To Live – 活着 (1994)

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)

“The little chickens will grow to be ducks, the ducks will become geese, and the geese will become oxen, and tomorrow will be better” – final line of Fugui.

I know of no other movie that gives a more lasting impression of China’s inner turmoil and life-changing revolutions in the past century than To Live. It’s yet another movie by Zhang Yimou. The storyline in one sentence: After Fugui and Jiazhen (played by Gong Li) lose their personal fortunes, they raise a family and survive difficult cultural changes during 1940s to 1970s China.

I was surprised to learn that the film was denied a theatrical release in mainland China by the authorities due to its “critical portrayal” of various policies and campaigns of the Communist government. Beautiful soundtrack by Zhao Jiping.

The film was based on the novel by Yu Hua, the excellent (Chinese) audiobook of which can be found on YouTube. The novel differs in some critical points from the movie. On the whole, the novel is even more dramatic.

Coming home – 归来 (2014)

Full movie available here

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English / Chinese
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)

This is probably the most tragic film about the cultural revolution directed by Zhang Yimou (as if To Live wasn’t heart-wrenching enough). Coming Home is actually a love story, but not a happy one: Lu and Feng (played by Gong Li) are a devoted couple forced to separate when Lu is arrested and sent to a labor camp as a political prisoner during the cultural revolution. He finally returns home only to find that his beloved wife no longer recognizes him! Lu is determined not to give up and desperately tries to reawaken his wife’s memory.

Yellow Earth – 黄土地 (1984)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (Standard Chinese, songs can be difficult to understand, partly a “silent” movie)

This is a rather sombre and slow movie by Chen Kaige, another member of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers. Yellow Earth focuses on the story of a communist soldier who is sent to the countryside to collect folk songs for the Communist Revolution. There he stays with a peasant family and learns that the happy songs he was sent to collect do not exist; the songs he finds are about hardship and suffering. He returns to the army, but promises to come back for the young girl, Cuiqiao, who has been spell-bound by his talk of the freedom women have under communist rule and who wants to join the Communist Army. The story relies on images more than on words.

The Story of Qiu Ju – 秋菊打官司 (1992)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: Chinese only
  • Difficulty: Advanced (partly non-standard Chinese)

Another one by Zhang Yimou starring his favorite actress Gong Li. The film tells the story about a desperate quest for justice. A peasant woman, Qiu Ju, who lives in a rural area of China. When her husband is kicked in the groin by the village head, Qiu Ju, despite her pregnancy, travels to a nearby town, and later a big city to deal with its bureaucrats and find justice. One thing that makes The Story of Qiu Ju stand out is the fact that many of the street scenes were filmed with a hidden camera which gives an authentic picture of daily life during the Deng Xiaoping era – a whole different approach compared to Zhang’s To Live and Raise the Red Lantern.

Blind Shaft – (盲井) 2003

Rating: 8 out of 10.

This rather bleak but internationally well received movie was directed by Li Yang who has been “controversial” in China for addressing China’s social problems in his highly realistic films.

Two Chinese coal miners have hit upon the perfect scam: murder one of their fellow mine workers, make the death look like an accident, and extort money from the boss to keep the incident hushed up. For their latest “mark,” they choose a naive teenager from a small village, and as they prepare to carry out their newest plan, things start to get complicated. The story literally takes place in the underworld where people do the most ruthless and evil things for money.

Maybe not very surprisingly since it highlights a dark side of Chinese society, Blind Shaft has not been approved for release in China.

This is merely short list of Mainland Chinese movies I’ve been wanting to share on my blog for some time. If you have any suggestions for Mainland Chinese films you missed in this list please let me know : )

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Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system
Mandarin Chinese Picture Dictionary: Learn 1,500 Key Chinese Words and Phrases
Chinese short stories for beginners
Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners (English and Chinese Edition)
Chinese For Dummies
Essential Mandarin Chinese Grammar: Write and Speak Chinese Like a Native
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
Chinese Flash Cards Kit Volume 1: HSK Levels 1 & 2 Elementary Level: Characters 1-349

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For more Mainland Chinese films from the 80’s visit this page.

Why you shouldn’t use Douyin (“the Chinese TikTok”) to improve your Mandarin

3

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.

On Mapping China’s Tech Giants (great project btw) you find out all about the company behind it.

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.
Why you shouldn't use Douyin ("TikTok") to improve your Mandarin

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.

Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman

Don’t do it!

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.

Please feel free to comment below.

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Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system
Mandarin Chinese Picture Dictionary: Learn 1,500 Key Chinese Words and Phrases
Chinese short stories for beginners
Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners (English and Chinese Edition)
Chinese For Dummies
Essential Mandarin Chinese Grammar: Write and Speak Chinese Like a Native
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
Chinese Flash Cards Kit Volume 1: HSK Levels 1 & 2 Elementary Level: Characters 1-349

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.