Learning Chinese becoming less popular?

4

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.

5 apps that help you to understand and write Chinese characters

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 relatively 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. Even in this decade of the 21st century, lots of people continue to “binch-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 up 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 intro kind of sounds like affiliate marketing, but this 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’d 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.

Learning Chinese characters: my top 7 of horrible advice

3

Learning to write Chinese characters: my personal list of disastrous advice and practices that are a complete waste of time and oxygen.

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. BUT – a blogpost by Olle Linge from Hacking Chinese at least helped me understand why I haven’t been particularly successful at writing characters. I’ll be honest with you, I wasted a lot of time studying Hanzi. 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 and 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 mostly frustrating effort. Some practices and commonly given advice make it even harder though, harder than it needs to be.

Olle Linge 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 and you’ll understand!

This is where I started: I was supposed to learn my first list 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. They cover Chinese characters as they come along and 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.

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:

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.

Final words

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! 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.

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.

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

(English translation and interpretation)

Understanding China and Mandarin with 7 Chinese film classics

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 totalitarians 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.

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 : )

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.

How much Mandarin can you listen to in one month?

1

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.

Hacking Chinese listening challenge, personal record

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.

Hacking Chinese listening challenge, performance chart
My performance chart: my goal was to do at least 25 hours of Mandarin-listening

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.

Hacking Chinese listening challenge, leaderboard

It worked

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.

That’s why I am really grateful to Olle Linge from Hacking Chinese for organizing this Mandarin adventure. If you’re interested in participating, you can check the upcoming challenges.

How hard is HSK 6?

10

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.

The exam

HSK 6 consists of three parts and lasts about 140 minutes:

Listening

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.

Reading

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.

Writing

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.

HSK 6, reading comprehension, grammar questions
Two examples from the HSK 6 reading section: find the grammatically incorrect sentence (语病). I’ll write the answers in the comments below.

A Mainland Chinese speaker wrote the following about his experience taking the HSK 6 mock exam:

  1. I can pass this test without any effort. (get 180 in 300)
  2. If I want to get a high mark (>290), I must prick up my ears to listen and pay full attention to every question.
  3. Even if I tried my best, I couldn’t get a full mark.
  4. 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.

Source: Melody from Indonesia on Quora

How hard is HSK 6?

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.

More on Kaohongshu