Slow listening: boost your vocabulary with Mandarin Corner

You’re at intermediate level and want to improve your listening skills, but you haven’t found the right materials yet? Mandarin Corner is a good option for learners that have entered the intermediate stage: no explaining in English, no dumbing down. And because their podcasts are completely subtitled, they’re ideal for slow listening!

Mandarin Corner for intermediate learning

I already mentioned on this blog that I’m a fan of Mandarin Corner and even listed them first in my top 10 of YouTube channels for learning Mandarin. Why I recommend Mandarin Corner to intermediate learners:

  • They discuss interesting topics that appeal to an international audience
  • They are one of the few channels that mainly produce content suitable for the higher HSK levels (4 – 6)
  • They provide free flowing conversations you can actually understand
  • Their videos are completely subtitled (Hanzi, Pinyin, English)
  • Scripts and audio can be downloaded if you make a one-time donation

Listening modes

You’ve probably heard of different listening modes and developed your own listening strategy. By the way, I distinguish these four listening modes:

  • Passive listening: play Chinese audio while you’re doing the dishes, fixing your bike or working out. You don’t take in every word, every sentence, but enough to grasp the general topic and some keywords.
  • Active listening: You turn your full attention towards whatever you’re listening, trying to understand and retain as much as you can.
  • Slow listening: You listen attentively, playing the audio at a lower speed or stopping the audio from time to time to break down sentences and discover details. You can even pause the audio to study the script.
  • Re-listening: You keep listening to the same content over a period of time to the point you get so familiar with it you know what the person is going to say next.

It’s actually not a bad strategy to apply the different modes above in this particular order, from passive to more active and then repeating the cycle. It’s what I used to do with a new dialogue or chapter from a textbook. I’d just put the track on repeat while doing other stuff, before turning my full attention towards it and studying each and every sentence. It’s kind of like a mental warming-up, making the training itself a little less tough.

Slow listening with Mandarin Corner

I applied these listening techniques while enjoying the Mandarin Corner podcasts. Not because I’m so cool, but because that’s how things “work out”. Finding time (and using that time!) to listen to comprehensive Mandarin audio comes first – that’s a daily struggle. So if I do manage to make that choice for Mandarin, even if it’s just for 10 minutes, I pat myself on the back. That’s why how I listen comes second. Sometimes I do background listening, sometimes I’m able to be fully focused on the audio content.

In this case, I opened my laptop for some slow listening, studying the subtitles and singling out a bunch of keywords and some vocabulary I was less familiar with. While I was at it, I decided to add a little introduction to each of the five videos as well. I hope you enjoy the discussions in the videos. Here we go:

Mandarin Corner: China’s alarming divorce rate

Main questions: Why is China’s divorce rate so alarmingly high? What are the main reasons for people in China to get divorced?

My thoughts: People from my generation (90’s) seem to think you shouldn’t marry before you’re at least 35 of age and have gained “experience”. And even then it’s probably a stupid thing to do, because you’ll never be free again. But does this lead to a lower divorce rate? It doesn’t look like it. So is the Chinese divorce rate really that high? Do we have reliable Chinese and international statistics to make a solid comparison?

The reasons for Chinese marriages not working out are manifold: some are universal, some are more related to Chinese culture and modern Chinese society like the pressure to marry early (25, 26), if need be with the help of a matchmaker (so the soon to be wed hardly know each other). Other reasons mentioned in this podcast include long-distance marriages, the financial pressure on young couples (家庭压力 – jiātíng yālì), conflicts produced by the couple living together with the (grand)parents and last but not least higher expectations towards marriage, especially by financially independent women.

China’s divorce rate has been increasing since 2003; in 2019, more than 4 million couples decided to end their marriages. These numbers are interpreted as a sign of gradually improving gender equality: Women are becoming more financially independent, and the social views on marriage have changed as China became more and more economically developed in the last two decades.

The Diplomat, 03.06.2020

Vocabulary

离婚líhūnto divorce
离婚人数líhūn rénshùnumber of divorced people
离婚率líhūn lǜdivorce rate
出轨chūguǐto cheat / have an affair
家暴jiā bàodomestic violence
感情不和gǎnqíng bù héfeelings don’t match
家丑不外扬jiāchǒu bù wàiyángDon’t hang out the dirty laundry
外遇wàiyùaffair
调查diàochásurvey
异地婚姻yìdì hūnyīnlong-distance marriage
夫妻fūqīcouple
很多夫妻hěnduō fūqīa lot of couples
夫妻关系fūqī guānxìrelations between wife and husband
无性婚姻wúxìng hūnyīnmarriage without sex
独生子女dúshēngzǐnǚonly son / daughter
赡养老人shànyǎng lǎorénsupport the elderly
养儿防老yǎng er fánglǎoto bring up children for the purpose of being looked after in old age
婆媳关系póxí guānxìrelation between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law
妈宝男mā bǎo nánmama’s boy
自我的性格zìwǒ dì xìnggéself-centered character
宠爱chǒng’àito spoil
公主病gōngzhǔ bìngprincess syndrome
闪婚闪离shǎnhūn shǎnlíflash wedding, flash divorce
催婚cuī hūnto be urged to marry soon
妥协tuǒxiéto compromise
相亲结婚xiāngqīn jiéhūnmatchmaker / blind date marriage
对婚姻的观念duì hūnyīn de guānniànviews about marriage
对婚姻的期望duì hūnyīn de qīwàngexpectations towards marriage

Mandarin Corner: Why is getting a wife so expensive for Chinese men?

Main questions: Why is getting a wife so expensive for Chinese men? When it comes to finding the right husband, why do most Chinese value financials over personal qualities? How can China’s young men live up to these high standards (buy a house, car, wedding gift, take care of their parents etc.)? How do they deal with the pressure?

My thoughts: Even though gender roles in Chinese society have changed (with more and more working woman becoming financially independent), the dominating ideas about marriage are still very old-fashioned and materialistic. Parents and grandparents have a lot to say in this. Men are traditionally expected to provide a house, car and other things. For the average Chinese guy these things are not easy to come by, so it’s not that hard to imagine that such expectations put immense financial and psychological pressure on even the strongest marriage.

China’s never been short of people, but under such harsh conditions I do have sympathy for those who decide that it’s better not to marry and have children – or at least not rush into it, just because their parents married when they were 23 and think that’s not the only right thing to do. I notice younger generations in the big cities of China having more western, individualistic ideas about marriage and life in general. But in a way these ideas get rolled over by harsh economic realities:

At the same time (2003 – 2019), China’s birth rate fell to the lowest point in seven decades in 2019. While Chinese authorities have attempted several measures in the last decade to ease its one-child policy, established in 1979, including officially announcing an end to the policy in 2015, the country’s birth rate did not see any signs of recovery. The increasingly high cost of raising children, lack of legislation in protecting women’s rights in the workplace, and lack of government-funded family support all contributed to China’s low birth rate and the country’s increasingly imminent issues in taking care of its aging population.

The Diplomat, 03.06.2020

Vocabulary

结婚jiéhūnto marry
嫁个有钱的人jià gè yǒu qián de rénmarry a rich guy
经济要求jīngjì yāoqiúfinancial requirements
彩礼cǎilǐbride price
物质wùzhímaterial things, materialistic
缺乏物质quēfá wùzhílack basic necessities
生存shēngcúnsurvival, to survive
发达你的爱好fādá nǐ de àihàoto ‘develop’ your hobbies
不务正业bùwùzhèngyèto not attend one’s proper duties
内涵nèiháninner qualities
总结一下zǒngjié yīxiàlet’s summarize
赡养父母shànyǎng fùmǔto provide support for one’s parents
单身汉dānshēnhànbachelor / single
配偶pèi’ǒupartner / spouse
剩男shèngnán“leftover men”
原谅yuánliàngto forgive
贫庸pín yōngcommon
哄女人hōng nǚrénto seduce a girl (?)
有潜力yǒu qiánlìshowing potential
容忍对方róngrěn duìfāngto tolerate the other
法律程序fǎlǜ chéngxùjudicial procedures
仇视chóushìto hate, look down upon
看不上kàn bù shàngto look down upon
吸引力xīyǐnlìattractiveness, attractive force

Mandarin Corner: Stereotypes Chinese have of foreigners

Main question: What are some common stereotypes Chinese have about foreigners?

My thoughts: How do Chinese people view “us”? What stunned me: when Chinese people talk about waiguoren, they usually mean “westerners with a white skin”, so they exclude pretty much everyone else, except for white people from America, Canada, Australia, New-Zealand and Europe. Aren’t Koreans and Japanese (to name just a few) foreigners too? Apparently not! Does this mean they’re sort of like China? Or that they are not important enough to be included like Africa? A conversation about stereotypes and ignorance.

Vocabulary

内向的人nèixiàng de rén introverted people
擅长运动shàncháng yùndòngto be good at sports
跟我的印象不符的地方gēn wǒ de yìnxiàng bùfú de dìfāngaspects that don’t match my impression
对外国人的了解比较少duì wàiguó rén de liǎojiě bǐjiào shǎoknowledge about foreigners is small
刻板印象kèbǎn yìnxiàngstereotypes
单一民族的国家dānyī mínzú de guójiāhomogeneous nation
自然而然zìrán’érránnaturally, automatically
符合中国的传统审美fúhé zhōngguó de chuántǒng shěnměimatch Chinese aesthetic standards
中央帝国zhōngyāng dìguócentral empire
以前留下来的印象yǐqián liú xiàlái de yìnxiàngan impression from the past
促进文化交流cùjìn wénhuà jiāoliúto promote cultural exchange
总体的趋势zǒngtǐ de qūshìoverall trend
开放kāifàng tolerant
保守bǎoshǒuconservative
接受不了jiēshòu bùliǎocan’t accept
道德禁忌dàodé jìnjìmoral taboo
同性恋tóngxìngliànhomosexuality

Mandarin Corner: 6 cultural aspects you must consider when doing business in China

Main question: What intercultural differences do you need to understand when doing business in China?

My thoughts: I love discussing cultural concepts like guanxi and mianzi! You can talk about them endlessly. To me they are key concepts to understand Chinese culture. A key phrase in this podcast: “Understanding them is one thing, accepting them is another”. Yes, that’s the hard part! Imagine your lazy co-worker getting promoted for maintaining the better guanxi with the top-level management, while you, the hard-working fellow, come out empty-handed. This can happen in a Chinese company. How do you adopt? Are you willing to adopt? Anyway, watch and learn.

Vocabulary

认可rènkěto approve, approval
自身zìshēnoneself
泼冷水pōlěngshuǐto dampen one’s enthusiasm
kuāto praise (to boast)
途径tújìngway, channel
资源zīyuánresource
评价píngjiàto evaluate, assess
虚荣心xūróng xīnvanity
摆设bǎishèto arrange, decorate (decoration)
当面拒绝dāngmiàn jùjuéreject somebody face to face
错失机会cuòshī jīhuìto miss an opportunity
产生误解chǎnshēng wùjiěto lead to / produce misunderstandings
表示尊称biǎoshì zūnchēngto express respect by referring to somebody’s title
级别jíbiérank, level
职称zhíchēngjob title
职场中zhíchǎng zhōngin the workplace
通过别的方式tōngguò bié de fāngshìby other means
给我发难gěi wǒ fànángive me trouble
得罪我了dézuì wǒ leoffended me
关系guānxìrelations
虚拟社交货币xūnǐ shèjiāo huòbìvirtual social currency
一个网络yīgè wǎngluòa network
关系网guānxì wǎngnetwork of relations
建立关系jiànlì guānxìestablish a relation

Mandarin Corner: the 996 work culture

Main question: Are Chinese workaholics?

My thoughts: Yes, people in China work long hours without complaining. It’s funny, like mentioned in this podcast, that only after some computer programmers (highly qualified workers) started bitching about their long working hours, 996 work culture suddenly became an intensely debated topic. (As if the local laoban selling vegetables doesn’t work 72 hours a week!). I remember working with a Chinese IT-team stationed in Beijing that our side, the European team, would stick to the eight hour working day and complain about any overtime work, while the Beijing people would show up an hour early and even spend their free evenings working in the office. Well, yes “working”, nobody can be productive the whole day. But it was obvious, that we were dealing with completely different work cultures. We’d still have life outside of work, where as our Chinese colleagues practically dedicated all their time to their company jobs. Did they feel “996” is a privilege for young people like Jack Ma said? Are they thankful to have this opportunity? I doubt they have much time to ponder this question…

Vocabulary

996
jiǔjiǔliùwork from nine to nine, six days a week
加班文化jiābān wénhuàworking overtime culture
工作制度gōngzuò zhìdùwork culture
争议点zhēngyì diǎncontroversial point
邪恶资本家xié’è zīběnjiāevil capitalist
巨大的福气jùdà de fúqia major blessing
拼搏pīnbóto struggle,
朝九晚五cháo jiǔ wǎn wǔwork normal office hours (09:00-17:00)
不满的情绪bùmǎn de qíngxùdissatisfied state of mind
高新的职业gāoxīn de zhíyèhigh-paying profession
潜规则qián guīzéunspoken rules
常态chángtàinormal state
理所当然的事情lǐsuǒdāngrán de shìqínga thing that is regarded as normal
道德谴责dàodé qiǎnzémoral condemnation
通宵加班tōngxiāo jiābānwork (overtime) throughout the night
重复性的工作chóngfù xìng de gōngzuòrepetitive work
往大了一点说wǎng dàle yīdiǎn shuōto speak more generally
经济压力jīngjì yālìeconomic pressure
生活状态shēnghuó zhuàngtàiliving conditions
紧张的状态jǐnzhāng de zhuàngtàitense, strained state / condition
线上加班xiàn shàng jiābānwork overtime online

That’s it! I hope my notes are not too bad. By the way, if you want better quality notes: the scripts for each podcast can be downloaded if you make a one-time donation. I want to thank Mandarin Corner for creating these great videos and hope that more content will follow in the years to come.

Affiliate links

Mandarin Chinese Picture Dictionary: Learn 1,500 Key Chinese Words and Phrases
Chinese short stories for beginners
Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system
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.

Chineasy vs Uncle Hanzi: two radical approaches to Chinese characters

3

The biggest obstacle to mastering Mandarin for many people is its writing system. In a previous post, I focused on deep-rooted bad practices surrounding the study of Chinese characters. A relevant topic, but there was no light at the end of the tunnel. So what does work? In my own quest to improve my command of Hanzi, I found two interesting approaches: one is the well-known “Chineasy method”, the other is the “Uncle Hanzi way”. This is what you can learn from them.

The “Chineasy Method”

Visual mnemonics

Shaolan’s elevator pitch-like introduction to Chineasy (TED talk, 2013)

The Chineasy approach is to put Hanzi into a visual context and memorize them with the help of illustrations that depict the character’s meaning. Shaolan Hsueh, the entrepreneur behind Chineasy, managed to exploit this idea commercially better than anyone else. Chineasy’s impressive design and Shaolan’s smart marketing campaign even helped popularizing Mandarin and Hanzi abroad. For the first time, it seemed, someone had come up with an unique method for Chinese characters that makes them learnable for almost anyone.

Chineasy – a serious learning resource?

But is Chineasy really a “language learning system” as it says on Wikipedia? To what extent does it teach you to read and write Hanzi? It’s hard to ignore that some Mandarin teachers and other experts have pointed out some serious flaws:

The Chineasy approach: visual mnemonics
Source: Chineasy on Amazon
  • Chineasy teaches all characters as if they were pictographs. Pictographs are easy to explain (my teachers have been guilty of this kind of cherry-picking too), but unfortunately they only make up around 5% of all characters. This is misleading.
  • These characters don’t necessarily match the most frequently used characters which is unpractical for learners.
  • Chineasy mixes traditional and simplified characters for convenience. This is not best practice. Especially for beginners, it’s much less confusing to stick with either simplified or traditional characters.
  • Chineasy overreaches when it calls itself a “learning method” or “system”. It’s not a system, it’s rather a learning technique put into practice. It reaches its limits pretty soon though.

Visual mnemonics can be helpful

That being said, the visual approach exemplified by Chineasy can be useful. Associating a certain image with a character or its individual components makes memorizing Hanzi less of a struggle. It all boils down to this: Chinese characters have to make sense when you learn them. Yes, Chineasy’s approach is quite random at large and disregards the composition and history of the character, but applying some form of visual mnemonics is much more effective than blindly memorizing meaning and stroke order, especially when you’ve just started out.

The “Uncle Hanzi Way”

Richard Sears – also known as 汉字叔叔: “I found that almost all Chinese had learned to read and write by absolute blind memorization and almost no one had a clue where the characters actually came from.

Obsessed with the origin and history of Chinese characters

In the long run though, we shouldn’t stick with random images and stories. Instead, we should try to get the characters “right”. That means caring about their origin and history. Let’s discuss the second approach.

“Uncle Hanzi” is the nickname of Richard Sears, an American physicist, who has been obsessed with the origin and history of Chinese characters for most of his life. He created an online database of more than 96.000 ancient Chinese characters called hanziyuan.net.

In his own words: “At age 40, I got the idea that I needed to computerize the origins of Chinese characters so that I could sort out the crap from the truth. I started researching but did not get started actually doing it. At age 44 I had a near-fatal heart attack and after recovering, but not knowing when I might die, I decided I must get started.” At hanziyuan.net you can trace back the composition and meaning of almost any character to its origins as far as they are known. Take 家 (house) for example:

Hanziyuan: Input single Chinese character for etymology
The search results from hanziyuan.net for 家

Getting back to the source

“Uncle Hanzi” is an extremely interesting case, because he doesn’t come from the field of sinology and seems to be a lone wolf fueled by a hardcore obsession with Hanzi. (Just imagine a sociologist investing 30 years of his life into die-hard quantum mechanics research). Sears obviously wasn’t satisfied with blindly memorizing characters or Chineasy-style mnemonics. He wanted to grasp the “logic” and understand the origins. After all, the ancient Chinese didn’t just “make them up” as they went along according to Sears.

He also argues that practically all the first characters would have been pictographs which evolved and became more abstract over time. In other words, what today seems abstract, used to represent something concrete which we should try to understand to make our lives easier. The case of 家 (a pig under a roof) illustrates this.

Of course, it’s going to slow us down when we take a history tour for each new character, but I’m convinced that the more solid our foundations are the easier it becomes to add new layers. But how to put the “Uncle Hanzi Method” into practice?

How Pleco and Outlier Linguistics can help

Pleco breaks down each character into its components

The dictionary app Pleco (partly) supports this learning method by breaking down each character into its components. That’s good for a start, but doesn’t give you the full story like the example of 名 shows. Its components don’t add up to its meaning (name), so there must be more to tell here.

For those who want to gain insight into the etymology of Chinese characters, there’s a practical solution called Outlier Linguistics. Their dictionaries help you understand the history of Chinese characters that most Mandarin teachers fail to explain. You don’t need to install another dictionary app by the way, because they come as add-ons for Pleco in a “Mini” and “Essentials” edition. For most people this is probably overkill, but for serious Hanzi learners quick access to etymological basics might well be the key to progress. This is how I see it: the more profound your understanding of Hanzi, the easier it becomes to grasp and memorize new characters. They’ll start to make sense.

The Outlier Essentials Edition should get you a long way:

  • 2700+ characters as of newest update (plus regular updates until they reach 4000)
  • Simplified and Traditional characters
  • Detailed explanation for every character
  • Stroke order for all 4000 characters
  • Meaning tree for every character showing how different meanings relate to each other
  • Ancient forms for all semantic components

The dictionary (meaning add-on for Pleco) looks like this:

Conclusion

The “Chineasy method” and “Uncle Hanzi’s approach” both have their merits. Putting characters into a visual context does help, just like developing a basic understanding of their origin and history does.

Actually, to zoom out for a moment: we’re not really talking about methods, but learning techniques linked to different levels of understanding and experience. Mandarin expert Olle Linge came up with 5 different levels of understanding Chinese characters which gives us something to hang on to. I added Chineasy and Uncle Hanzi in brackets. Most of us are somewhere in the middle of this scale:

  1. Inventing pictures that disregard composition and structure of characters (Chineasy)
  2. Creating stories and associations that obscure functional components
  3. Using superficial pictures while being aware of functional components
  4. Using superficial pictures and encoding functional components
  5. Etymologically correct mnemonics with no shortcuts (Uncle Hanzi)

I’d label myself with level 3, although it differs from case to case. I know I’m nowhere as good as I could be with serious studying. Taking some inspiration from Uncle Hanzi, I keep aiming for level 5. I do hope though that it won’t take me 30 years to get there!

好好学习,天天向上!

What’s your take on Chineasy? Does it work for you? Do you think Chinese characters have logic like that can be understood if you study them long enough? Please feel free to leave a comment down below.


Further reading

Affiliate links

Heisig: Remembering simplified Hanzi
The first 100 Chinese characters
Chinese short stories for beginners
Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system

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.


More from Kaohongshu

趙雷 – 三十岁的女人 (2014)

Some love this song, some absolutely hate it. Mainly because the singer Zhao Lei sings about “leftover women”, the so-called “剩女” which is a big issue in China. My opinion: the song is innocent, Chinese society is guilty. Let’s have a closer look.

三十岁的女人 – 30 year old woman

她是个三十岁 至今还没有结婚的女人

笑脸中眼旁已有几道波纹
三十岁了光芒和激情已被岁月打磨
是不是一个人的生活 比两个人更快活

我喜欢 三十岁女人特有的温柔
我知道 深夜里的寂寞难以忍受
你说工作中忙的太久
不觉间已三十个年头
挑剔着 轮换着 你再三选择

她是个三十岁 身材还没有走形的女人
这样的女人可否留有当年的一丝清纯
可是这个世界有时候外表决定一切
可再灿烂的容貌都扛不住衰老

我听到 孤单的跟鞋声和你的笑
你可以 随便找个人依靠
那么寒冬后 炎夏前
谁会给你春一样的爱恋
日落后 最美的
时光已溜走

工作中 忙的太久
不觉间 已三十个年头
挑剔着 轮换着 你再三选择
那么寒冬后 炎夏前
谁会给你春一样的爱恋

日落后 最美的
时光已溜走
日落后 最美的 已溜走

She is a 30-year-old woman who is still unmarried
There are a few wrinkles in her smiling face beside her eyes
Thirty years old, light and passion have been polished by the years
Is the life of one person faster than two people

I like the gentleness of a thirty-year-old woman
I know the loneliness in the middle of the night is unbearable
You said you have been busy at work for too long
It’s been thirty years without realizing it
Picky, take turns, you choose again and again

She is a thirty-year-old woman who is still in shape
Can such a woman retain the purity of the year?
But in this world sometimes appearance decides everything
But no matter how splendid looks can’t hold back aging


I hear the sound of lonely heels and your smile
You can find someone to rely on
So after the cold winter, before the hot summer
Who will give you the same love as spring
The most beautiful after sunset
Time has slipped away

Busy at work for too long
Unconsciously, it’s been thirty years
Picky, take turns, you choose again and again
So after the cold winter, before the hot summer
Who will give you the same love as spring

The most beautiful after sunset
Time has slipped away
The most beautiful after sunset has slipped away

Zhao Lei’s “outdated views about women”

After Zhao Lei sang the song on Hunan Satellite TV’s music program “歌手” (singer), the lyrics of the song caused much controversy. The critics believe that the lyrics reflect the singer’s outdated and one-sided views about women. He has only two ways of judging women, one is appearance and the other is marriage. This is actually the most backward view of women. This gave Zhao Lei the reputation of a defender of “straight male chauvinism”. An entertainment marketing account issued an article from a female standpoint, accusing him of blatantly discriminating against older unmarried young women.

Source: Baidu Wiki

The leftover woman horror scenario

The melancholy song indeed deals with the “typical leftover woman scenario”: a 30-year-old woman, “still” unmarried, her youth is slowly passing away, becoming more and more lonely, since all her friends are gradually getting married and having children. Horrible, right?

The problem is not the song itself, but the societal phenomenon it tries to address. Reading the Chinese comments, I found that some people can’t stand the song and the singer, simply because they can’t stand the stigmatization of unmarried women (which I can’t stand neither). For them the song says “快点结婚吧” or “time to get married”. They didn’t ask for Zhao Lei’s pity for unmarried women and refuse to be put in the 剩女-box. They want to live their own lives, shape their own destinies.

As a 20-year-old single woman, I am not without a suitor. Zhao Lei’s song really voices my inner fears, I am very touched by it. The song is close to my heart. I really don’t feel discriminated against or pitied by at all. Instead, I feel that “三十岁的女人is just comforting us and giving us a bit of strength. I wonder if it’s because of his lyrics. I was so moved because of him singing “picky” [挑剔], but I think he uses the right word, we have been “picky”: waiting for the best love and the best marriage in our hearts. The lyrics “So after the cold winter, before the hot summer, who will give you love like spring” are really beautiful, I really feel that my heart is healed while listening.

Comment on YouTube

In the western world, most people indeed would ask why this situation (30+, woman, unmarried) poses a problem. After all, it’s not too late to find a suitable partner (if that’s what she wants to do). But unfortunately this seems to be a problem for the majority of people in China. From the age of 30, not being married, puts women under a lot of psychological pressure. As if soon it all will be too late for them, they failed and their whole life will have been in vain.

What do Chinese really thing about “leftover women”?

If you want to find out what young people in China think about “leftover women”, have a look at this video by Mandarin Corner. You may discover that their thinking is much more individualistic and less traditional than the older generation.

That’s my simplistic take on 三十岁的女人 by Zhao Lei. Let me know what you think. Like this post? Feel free to give it a thumbs up.

Learning Chinese characters: 7 bad practices you should avoid

6

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.

Affiliate links

Heisig: Remembering simplified Hanzi
The first 100 Chinese characters
Chinese short stories for beginners
Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system

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G.E.M.鄧紫棋 – 差不多姑娘 (2019)

Looking for something to explain the rich meaning of the Chinese expression 差不多 I came across this videoclip by G.E.M.鄧紫棋 who raps about what she calls “差不多 girls”. The song 差不多姑娘 was published as part of the album City Zoo and is the only rap song on it. It seems the 差不多 in the lyrics has the meaning similar as in hard to keep apart. To better understand the lyrics you need to be familiar with Chinese internet slang and some other expressions that aren’t part of the standard HSK vocabulary. The combination of rhythm and rhyme do make things easier though…

差不多姑娘 – MISS SIMILAR

With Chinese-English subtitles

差不多的姑娘
追逐差不多的漂亮
她们差不多的愿望
牵着她们鼻子方向

我回到差不多的家 躺在差不多的沙发
微博差不多的刷 都吃著差不多的瓜
那标题差不多的炸 八著差不多的卦
网友差不多的嘴弄脏了差不多的话

一条差不多的事业线 抓差不多的眼
看着差不多的留言 都是差不多的贱
到处差不多的Baby 比著差不多的基尼
举著差不多的V 挤著差不多的D

在差不多的街头 摆着差不多的Pose
跟差不多的潮流 整了差不多的Nose
交差不多的男友 走得差不多的Close
供差不多的楼 送差不多的Rose

跳着差不多的舞 扭著差不多的屁股
差不多的思路 嫌差不多的腿粗
看差不多的脸书 人差不多都想哭
女孩差不多的路 都差不多无助

差不多的姑娘
追逐差不多的漂亮
她们差不多的愿望
牵着她们鼻子方向

都露著差不多的腰 Fake著差不多的微笑
撒著差不多的娇 关系差不多的靠
抱 差不多的大腿 语气差不多的骚
靠 差不多的方法 买了差不多的包

都逞著差不多的强 所以讲话差不多的呛
差不多思想 都有着差不多狭窄审美观
差不多的弹 差不多的赞
为差不多的闪光 差不多的忙

喝差不多的红酒 啃著差不多的肉
对差不多的镜头 演着差不多的秀
图差不多的修 修得差不多的瘦
身边差不多的密友 都是差不多的Low

OH 差不多的优越感 写在差不多的脸上
在差不多的机场 走差不多红的地毯
差不多的妆 差不多的浪
裙子差不多的短 家里差不多的脏

差不多的姑娘
追逐差不多的漂亮
她们差不多的愿望
牵着她们鼻子方向

差不多的你 差不多的我
差不多的她 差不多的傻
听着差不多的废话
差不多的那些乌鸦 又嘻嘻哈哈
吱吱又喳喳 都差不多的瞎
差不多姑娘 都土生土长 在有毒的土壤
差不多都曾对镜子里的自己失望
差不多都遗忘 没有武装的模样
这差不多的症状 夸张

而现在各位姑娘 这里我要分享
曾经的我都一样 有差不多的忧伤
差不多两个礼拜没有吃饭
差不多我就把命给送上
数不尽的差不多 都差不多
差不多 人生真的不该这么过
像我唱的那首歌 差不多的虚荣如果能够看破
只是差不多的那个 泡沫

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.

Affiliate links

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.

崔健 – 花房姑娘 (1989)

花房姑娘 (1989)

我独自走过你身旁
并没有话要对你讲
我不敢抬头看着你的
噢……脸庞

你问我要去向何方
我指着大海的方向
你的惊奇像是给我
噢……赞扬


你问我要去向何方
我指着大海的方向
你问我要去向何方
我指着大海的方向

你带我走进你的花房
我无法逃脱花的迷香
我不知不觉忘记了
噢……方向


你说我世上最坚强
我说你世上最善良
我不知不觉已和花儿
噢……一样


你说我世上最坚强
我说你世上最善良
你说我世上最坚强
我说你世上最善良


你要我留在这地方
你要我和它们一样
我看着你默默地说
噢……不能这样


我想要回到老地方
我想要走在老路上
只是我再也离不开你
噢……姑娘


我就要回到老地方
我就要走在老路上
你明知我已离不开你
噢……姑娘


我就要回到老地方
我就要回到老地方
我就要走在老路上
我就要走在老路上
我明知我已离不开你
噢……姑娘


我就要回到老地方
我就要回到老地方
我就要走在老路上
我就要走在老路上
我明知我已离不开你
我明知我已离不开你
噢……姑娘


我就要回到老地方
我就要回到老地方
我就要走在老路上
我就要走在老路上
我明知我已离不开
我明知我已离不开你
噢……姑娘

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.