Real immersion: Learning Chinese at Keats in Kunming

One of the best ways to learn Chinese is to join a Chinese language program in China. One of the key players in this field is Keats School in Kunming. They facilitate Chinese classes, accommodation, events and much more. I talked to the co-founder of Keats School Zier Liu (刘子尔) and asked her why students keep returning every year and how Keats adepts to the present Covid-situation.

In the realm of Chinese language education Keats is a household name. How did you start out?  

Keats School was founded in 2004 in Kunming. At that time, there was no Chinese language school in Kunming. Many foreign friends wanted to learn Chinese but had no luck to study at a professional language school. The founder Mrs. Xue Feng used to be a doctor in the First Provincial Hospital of Yunnan and then quit her job to start Keats School. I joined her in 2013, after I competed my bachelor studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The biggest challenge we had was how to create efficient methods for westerners to learn Chinese in an easy and fun way. Many students are intimidated when learning Chinese as they tend to think it is the most difficult language in the world. After years of research and development, we finally got what we want. Many students like our interactive and efficient ways of teaching and they keep coming back to Keats every year.

There are many Chinese language programs for foreigners in China. What does make Keats stand out?

Keats School has the most professional Chinese teaching team in Kunming. We also have developed our own in-house Learn-Repeat-Recognize-Produce (known as LRRP) learning methodology, which includes many methods that help students learn practical Chinese fast.

All of our Chinese classes are carefully prepared and delivered by certified Chinese teachers. The teaching team will review the learning content and collect feedback from students on a regular basis. This ensures that every student can enjoy the Chinese class at a comfortable pace and learn efficiently.

In terms of operation scale, as of 2021, our headquarters in Kunming owns 53 single dorm rooms with private bathrooms, gym, cafeteria, and 60 classrooms with computers in the school building.

We believe that students not only need professional Chinese teachers but also a Chinese language immersion environment. Therefore, we organize all kinds of activities with Chinese people outside of classrooms, so that you can practice your Chinese with your Chinese language partners.

What sort of qualifications do your teachers require?

When we select teachers, the teachers must have either 教师资格证 (teacher license required at a public school issued by the government) or 国际汉语教师资格证 (Certificate for Teachers of Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages issued by the Confucius Institute). This is just the very basic and intro requirement for the interview. If one passes the interview, the candidate has to take the training at Keats and learn to use Keats methods. Only by passing the training selection, the candidate can officially become a Keats teacher. The teachers will also be evaluated by the students to make sure that the student is satisfied with the progress made.

Kunming is probably not on top of the list for most people who want to join a Chinese language program in China. Why should learners of Chinese come to Kunming?

Kunming is the capital city of Yunnan province. Reputable as the “Eternal Spring City”, Kunming has the mildest climate in China, allowing you to escape the scorching heat during summer and the bitter coldness in winter. There are countless cultural and natural touring attractions for you to experience after your Chinese classes or during the weekends and holiday.

Unlike other major Chinese cities, Kunming is a city where you enjoy a slow-paced life while maintaining modern convenience. Since it is a less well-known Chinese city with fewer international people, Kunming offers more chances for language learners to practice speaking Chinese with locals during their stay.

Though Kunming is not as developed as Beijing and Shanghai, it is still easy to reach in terms of transportation. Kunming is already considered the transportation hub of Southwest China and is working hard to become the international transportation hub of Southeast Asia too. Kunming boasts the fifth largest international airport in China, making it convenient to fly in and out from this lovely city to different corners of the world.

Famous for the diversity of plants and animals, Kunming is the home for The Conference of the Parties (COP 15), which is a United Nations environment program.

Kunming has cleaner air than Beijing and Shanghai and is an ideal place for a comfortable stay.

Due to the pandemic visiting China from abroad can be difficult. What do people who want to come Kunming and join one of your Chinese language programs need to know?

The Chinese border is only partially open to international people at the moment. We’re still waiting for a policy-update regarding international students. We would suggest to pay close attention to the updates from your local Chinese Embassy to find out when you can hand in a student visa application. We would be happy to provide the invitation letter and other required documents to facilitate your visa application. We also post regular updates on our blog.

Since last year, Chinese people have pretty much been living a normal life and are back to work. Vaccination programs are proceeding here as well and it is estimated that 80% of the Chinese population will complete their COVID-19 vaccination by the end of this year. All Keats teachers and staffs have completed their COVID-19 vaccinations and only a few infections cases have been reported in Kunming in the past half year, so you don’t have to worry about your safety when learning in Kunming. Keats School has also prepared an emergency plan to take care of the students in case that there is a breakout or lockdown.

What’s the best time to come to Kunming?

Many students choose to study at our school during summer and winter vacations. It is mainly due to the mild climate weather of Kunming. Besides the weather elements, many students choose to study at our school during touring season as well (from June to September, December to next May).

Yunnan province, where Kunming is located, is the most popular touring destination in China. Not only for its amazing landscapes, varying from tropical forests to snow-capped mountains, but also for its abundant ethnic minority group cultures.  All these destinations can be reached conveniently from Kunming.

Yunnan is a large province that is home to 25 different ethnic minority groups. Therefore, the ethnic minority festivals time – Songkran Festival for example – is also a very popular period of learning. Many students choose to study at Keats before the festival and fly from Kunming to Xishuangbanna to enjoy the water celebration.

What about the local Kunming dialect? Is it very different from Standard Mandarin?

The Kunming dialect, which belongs to the northern dialect family, is quite similar to Mandarin. China is a vast country where you will hear various dialects from north to south. But Kunming dialect is definitely simple to understand. Most people you meet in Kunming can speak standard Mandarin: excellent for practicing Mandarin on the street or in a restaurant.

You offer courses not only in Kunming but in several locations. Can you tell me more about that?

Keats School has set up a few branch schools in different locations such as Lijiang, Dali, Xishuangbanna, Jingmai Tea Mountain, Jianshui, Yuanyang, Tengchong and Puzhehei. Our students can combine different locations in one program to experience different parts of Yunnan.

Which Chinese programs do you offer?

We have 8 major Chinese programs available currently:

Which program is the most popular and why?

The Intensive one-on-one Chinese Classes, the Small Group Chinese Class, the HSK Test Preparation Course and Online Chinese lessons have been the most popular ones since 2004, because by following these programs students can really boost their Chinese proficiency.

The Intensive one-on-one Chinese Classes offer the most immersive Chinese language experience. You can choose to study one-on-one with a certified Mandarin teacher for 4 hours per day or 6 hours per day. The course content will be completely customized according to your level and your goals. It is the fastest way to improve your Chinese.

If you are looking for a budget-friendly program in China, then the Small Group Chinese Classes at Keats is the best option. The price is low, but you can still enjoy personal attention in class with no more than 5 students. The Small Group Chinese Classes are lasting for 4 hours per day, with levels from new HSK 1 to new HSK 9.

As Chinese language is getting popular, we have seen a huge increase in the need of taking the HSK test. It is required to enter a Chinese university and to work for Chinese companies. By doing research in helping students pass the HSK test led by Keats head teachers, Keats maintains a 94% passing rate with 42% of all Keats students taking the HSK Test Preparation Course.

What about online courses?

Because of the pandemic more and more students start to take online Chinese lessons with Keats. The added value is that you can learn Chinese anytime and anywhere. We offer online Chinese lessons 24/7 to fit your schedule. You can decide when to take the lessons and how many hours of lessons you would like to buy. You can even start with a 5-hour package. At this moment, the online lessons are delivered one-on-one. The small group online lessons are coming soon.

Which Chinese language level do I need if I want to join one of your programs? What if I’m a (almost) complete beginner?

There is no minimal requirement of language level for enrolling in Keats Language programs. No matter which level you are in, beginner or advanced learner, we can always provide an appropriate learning schedule for you, based on your current language level and learning goals.

If you’re a complete beginner, your teacher will start with basic content such as Pinyin and standard pronunciation to help you lay a solid foundation before you can move to the next stage.

What does a typical study week look like?

According to your learning plan, you will attend Chinese classes from Monday to Friday, 4 to 6 hours per day. Aside from the Chinese class, you will enjoy a series of Chinese cultural activities and events organized by Keats School.

Free language exchange will be held on Monday and Wednesday evening (only offered in Kunming). You will be able to practice what you have learned in the classroom in real-life situations with native speakers.

Every Tuesday is movie night or drama night at Keats; Every Thursday, a cultural night will be organized with cultural activities or DIY classes such as Chinese mahjong, Chinese tea tasting, dumplings making, Chinese paper cutting, Chinese painting, etc.

Every Friday night is snack night where you and your Chinese friends will try local snacks.

On weekends, you can sign up for the free Saturday excursion with a Keats Chinese teacher and your Chinese language partners. By joining the excursion, you can make the most out of your time by sightseeing and learning at the same time.

You mentioned Chinese language partners…?

Yes, we also facilitate language exchanges and can match you up with a native Chinese speaker. Keats has an English school which has many English learners who are eager to learn English and make friends with foreigners. We organize language exchange activities every week.

If I were to plan a two-month study visit in Kunming and maybe some of the other locations you offer, what would the costs be (rough estimation)?

Taking the Intensive one-on-one Chinese classes as example, the price of a 8-week study varies in different locations. The prices listed below include one-on-one lessons and accommodation for your reference:

  • Kunming USD 5,700
  • Dali USD 8,178
  • Lijiang USD 8,178
  • Jianshui USD 8,178
  • Tengchong USD 8,550
  • Puzhehei USD 8,550
  • Yuanyang USD 8,550
  • Xishuangbanna USD 8,798
  • Jiangmai Tea Mountain USD 8,798

How can you combine different locations in one program to experience different parts of Yunnan? Can I change location every week for example?

The multi-location option is currently only offered for the intensive one-on-one Chinese program. You can choose to study at different locations with a duration that fits your schedule.

For example, you are planning to study at Keats for 8 weeks, you can study in Kunming for 4 weeks and study in Dali for 2 weeks, and study in Lijiang for 2 weeks or even spend 1 week at each location. You can decide how many weeks you want to spend at each location and then combine them together.

It is completely customized and flexible. You can let us know which locations you’re interested in and what cultural activities or classes you would like to join. We will also recommend to you the best time of visiting and duration of staying at different locations. Aside from learning, if you need any assistance with a local touring trip, we would be happy to arrange it for you as well. 

What do students value the most about their experience with Keats?

Keats welcomes 40% returning students each year and many of them come to study at Keats every year. What keeps them coming back? It must be the Chinese course quality and school facilities. The Keats teaching team is always dedicated to delivering the best Chinese class for students. No matter what level you have and what your learning goals are, Keats School will accommodate the learning schedule to help you achieve them. Well-furnished dorm room and well-organized school facilities bring every Keats students the warmth of home. Keats Team also provides thoughtful service and assistance for students in both aspects of study and life. This ensures that you will enjoy a hassle-free learning time at Keats School.

I noticed that one of your former students is Ruben Terlou who made several, successful documentaries about China. Are there other “famous” ex-Keats students?

Yes, Ruben studied at Keats and we admire his films as well. I think we do have many great students. Each year, Keats attracts a lot of top-level people in their fields. Most Keats students are gap-year students, university students, PhDs, lawyers, doctors, professors, entrepreneurs, teachers, tour guides, managers, IT developers, scientists, government clerks, photographers and artists etc. The language environment at Keats is not only immersive but also academic. All students who come to study at Keats are really serious about learning Chinese and their progress, so they want to spend their time in a professional Chinese school. But they are all low-key people and very humble.

What are your plans for the future?

Keats School will keep working hard on providing the best Chinese language and culture programs for our students. Now the NEW HSK has been launched, we have redesigned our HSK Test preparation course accordingly as well. To offer more destinations in China as options for learning, we will set up more branch locations in other Chinese cities where students can enjoy relaxing cultural immersion and also efficient Chinese courses. At Keats School, we aim not only to help students learn the Chinese language, but also to help students find their potential for the Chinese language and Chinese culture.

Everyone has a dream, Keats also has a dream. Keats’ core value is to make your dream come true, so Keats offers the most affordable immersion Chinese language programs. Every student is a milestone to Keats because we are one step closer to make our dream come true.

Where can people who are interested read reviews and find out more about you?

You are welcome to find more about Keats School and other students’ stories and experience in Kunming on our website. You can learn about other students’ experience with the Intensive One-on-one Chinese course here or here (for students’ experience with the Small Group Chinese Classes) or simply contact us directly.

I hoped you enjoyed this interview with 刘子尔 from Keats school! If you have any thoughts or questions feel free to leave a comment down below.

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More from Kaohongshu

What are the pros and cons of learning Chinese?

Are you considering to learn Chinese? What speaks in favor, what speaks against learning one of the most difficult languages in the world? This is what the Mandarin learning community has to say about it.

The pros of learning Chinese

Cultural reasons

  • Learning Chinese will allow you to communicate with about a billion native speakers and other learners all around the world.
  • Learning Chinese opens doors to an ancient history and culture that are fascinating.
  • Learning Chinese is the key to understand present-day China and the Chinese people.
  • Learning Chinese makes traveling through China even more valuable as it allows you to connect with the locals.
  • Learning Chinese helps you enter the world of Chinese painting, film, literature, calligraphy and music and see the world through different eyes.

Career opportunities

  • Learning Chinese is an investment for your future and career that acknowledges the economic shift towards East-Asia. China is on its way to become the largest economy in the world and expected to surpass the US around 2030. This means that there are more and more opportunities for foreigners working in China or dealing with Chinese companies allover the world.
  • More and more businesses prefer to hire multilingual employees with Mandarin skills as marketers, communication experts and other positions.
  • When working in China, having at least a basic understanding of Chinese shows that you are committed to doing business and that you’re taking your Chinese partners seriously.
  • Before Covid tourism from China was on the rise. In the future, hotels, restaurants, bars, museums will want staff that can speak Chinese to cater to the growing number of Chinese tourists.
  • When working for big international organizations Chinese is a big plus. Chinese is one of the official languages at the U.N. and becoming increasingly important in international negotiations.
  • Stand out of the crowd with Chinese on your CV: It shows you’re not afraid of challenging tasks and possess long-term commitment.

Mental health & personal development

  • Learning Chinese exercises your brain in a unique way. Mastering Chinese characters and the four tones trains your cognitive abilities and benefits your mental health.
  • Learning Chinese will change you and your view on the world. You’ll learn to think in a different language and see things from a new perspective. You’ll become more open-minded and understanding towards different cultures and mentalities. You’ll start to question your own background and cultural habits (in a positive way).
  • Learning a new language like Chinese is the perfect opportunity for self-improvement and cultivating healthy life and study habits. It’s also the perfect time to rethink how you learn and what truly motivates you (on the long term).

The cons of learning Chinese

Linguistic reasons

  • Chinese is one of the most difficult and time-consuming languages to learn, especially when your own language(s) is completely unrelated to Chinese; meaning there’s no linguistic overlap to profit from like between Italian, French and Spanish for instance.
  • The writing system is highly complex. To be able to fluently read a news article you’ll have to learn at least 2000 characters, but in most cases a lot more. Knowing the words more often than not doesn’t cut it: understanding texts written for adults also requires developing reading comprehension through experience. This mean practice and practice means time.
  • Writing characters is another major obstacle. Every word has its own unique graphic representation. I can’t give a solid estimation of how much time it takes to master writing the first 1000 basic Chinese characters. But imagine studying (and reviewing) the stroke order, components and meaning for each character and writing each one at least 40 times. Then multiply that by a thousand. Isn’t mastering Pinyin, the romanization system for Chinese, sufficient? Well, not in the long run. Pinyin transfers the pronunciation, but not the meaning in most cases. This is because Chinese is a tonal language with a relatively small number of basic syllables. Many words sound similar but are represented by (completely) different characters. This means that for serious learners learning Chinese characters is mandatory.
  • The Chinese tones are both hard to differentiate and to reproduce correctly in active communication.

Career opportunities?

  • For a career-oriented person learning Mandarin might seem like an inefficient use of resources. Mastering the Chinese language or even learning it to a useful level takes years, whereas learning a programming language like Python can be done in months. Studying Mandarin in many cases means taking yourself of the job market for some years. The pay-off at the end is by no means set in stone.
  • The Chinese economy is not as booming and dynamic as before and China’s general outlook is bleaker than previously expected: “Our longer term outlook remains that economic growth will slow significantly in China (to 4% by 2025). As we recently argued (here), China is facing an ageing population (which is actually projected to start shrinking from 2030 onwards, according to US Census data), a very high debt load (335% of GDP), increasing tensions with several countries (which will hurt exports as well as limit needed imports) and weak productivity growth.” (Source: Rabobank April 2021)

Conclusion

It’s reasonable to consider the pros and the cons before you’re starting a big project and investing your time and money into it, although I’m pretty sure this is not how must people start learning Mandarin! In the end, it really boils down to the question if the glass is half empty or half full. And that’s up to you, my friends!

Personal note: the author of this article never thought about all of this when I started learning Chinese. My main motivation to learn Chinese was to be able to speak with my Chinese family and improve my opportunities for the future in a general sense. For me learning Chinese had not automatically lead to finding the best job ever, though it would have been nice. I look at it this way: Sometimes we’re drawn to do certain things. Some things have uncertain outcomes. I don’t use my Chinese skills in my present job. Can this change in the future? Sure, why not?

In the end, learning Chinese is an adventure. You can’t be fully sure where the journey leads, nor should you want to be. But you definitely should invest in yourself and learning new skills for the future! Nobody but you can decide if Mandarin is going to be included in that skill package.

What are your thoughts about the pros and cons of learning Chinese? Did I miss any major points that you’d like me to include? Please feel free to leave a comment down below! : )

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Related posts

10 tips for learning Chinese in China

Chinese has gained popularity among language learners owing to the rapid economic growth of China. Many students would like to study Chinese in China as communicating with native Chinese speakers on a regular basis is one of the most effective ways for them to improve their Chinese. Well, if you want to make the most of your learning experience in China, we are here to offer you some tips that might help you make your Chinese learning more productive.

This is a guest article by That’s Mandarin

Improve Your Pronunciation

If you would like to quickly improve your listening comprehension and spoken Chinese, you will need to pay great attention to your pronunciation. Even a slight mistake in pronouncing the tones (there are four tones in the Chinese language) can lead to misunderstanding. Therefore, a good knowledge of the Chinese phonetic system will certainly allow you and your Chinese friends to better understand each other during a conversation.

Make Some Chinese Friends

If you are studying Chinese in China, it’ll be a good idea to make some Chinese friends. Nowadays young people in China are curious about different cultures, and they are also happy to introduce Chinese culture to foreigners. What you can benefit from making friends with Chinese people is that in addition to learning the Chinese language, you will also have the opportunity to know more about Chinese people’s daily lives. Exploring the local people’s lifestyle is quite interesting and can turn out to be an enjoyable experience on your Chinese learning journey.

Find Yourself a Learning Partner

More and more people in China have started to realize how important it is to have a good command of English as it’s the prerequisite of finding a decent job. If you are a native English speaker, it’ll be easy for you to find a language exchange partner in that many Chinese people are actually looking for foreigners to help them improve their English. Moreover, studying Chinese with a learning partner is considered a mutually-beneficial process that will make your Chinese learning more effective.

Attend Chinese Classes

Attending Chinese classes is an ideal choice for you to improve your Chinese language skills. Chinese language schools offering different types of courses can be found in major cities across China. The main advantage of studying Chinese at a Chinese language school is that you will be able to make gradual progress in Chinese under the instruction of a professional Chinese teacher. On top of that, you will have the chance to make friends from different cultural backgrounds if you choose to sign up for group classes.

Participate in Cultural Activities

In addition to Chinese courses, most Chinese language schools organize cultural activities like watching Chinese operas or making Chinese dumplings on a weekly/monthly basis. Participating in cultural activities would provide you with the opportunity to have an insight into Chinese culture and traditions, which could more or less stimulate your interest in learning the Chinese language.

Develop a Hobby

If you would like to gain a deeper understanding of the quintessence of Chinese culture, it’ll be helpful if you would be interested in developing a hobby such as calligraphy or paper-cutting. Even if you think it’s a bit hard for you to create nice “art works”, it’s still fascinating to, for instance, admire some of the greatest calligraphy masterpieces of ancient China so that you can experience the authentic traditional Chinese culture for yourself.

Visit Local Chinese Restaurants

China is famous for its rich food culture, and you definitely wouldn’t like to miss the chance to visit local Chinese restaurants when you’re in China. Despite the fact that local restaurants in China usually don’t provide English menus, pictures of most of the dishes are available, which means you’ll still be able to choose the dishes that you like based on what you see. Sometimes you will come across some traditional homemade dishes that are not on offer in those fancy restaurants, which is exactly what some passionate Chinese learners are looking for in order to have a clearer idea of what ordinary people in China like to eat.

Watch Chinese TV Series

If you are interested in knowing more about some of the social problems that can be observed in China at the moment, watching Chinese TV series could be a good option. The plots of most Chinese TV series are based on some typical problems that people encounter in their daily lives. For example, there are several popular TV series that are devoted to the stressful situation where young parents have to work extremely hard to provide their children with the best education. Therefore, if you consider yourself an advanced learner, it’ll be a good idea to spend some time watching Chinese soap operas to know more about what Chinese people really want from life.

Here are two famous Chinese TV dramas that may help you improve your Chinese language skills:

家有儿女 (Jiā yǒu Érnǚ): Home with Kids

家有儿女 (Jiā yǒu Érnǚ): Home with Kids
家有儿女

This TV drama is ideal for intermediate and advanced Chinese learners to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese people’s daily lives. The main idea about this TV show is centered on an ordinary Chinese family, in which a remarried couple and their three kids strive to enhance mutual understanding between each other. This TV drama contains a large number of episodes, with each of them representing a separate story.

爱情公寓 (Àiqíng Gōngyù): iPartment

爱情公寓 (Àiqíng Gōngyù): iPartment
爱情公寓

This is a very popular TV drama among young people in China, and it’s all about the hilarious things that happen to seven people who share the same apartment. This TV show is more or less similar to the famous American comedy Friends, which means it would allow students to gradually improve their Chinese skills in a relaxing and enjoyable way.

Learn Chinese Characters

Learning Chinese characters is required for intermediate and advanced students in that they are expected to be able to read Chinese articles. Many Chinese learners think it’s very hard to master Chinese characters as some of them look really complicated. However, there is usually a logic behind a Chinese character based on its shape or meaning, which would make the learning process pretty interesting. Take the character “飞 (fēi)” as an example, it means “to fly” and it does look like a bird which is flapping its wings.

Read Chinese Newspapers

This final tip is for advanced Chinese learners who are interested in politics and would like to have a deeper understanding of China’s role in the international arena. If you want to carry out research on China, it’s indispensable that you understand contemporary Chinese politics. Moreover, it might come in handy even when it comes to job-hunting in China. Therefore, developing the habit of reading Chinese newspapers can be helpful for you to improve your Chinese language skills and develop your career in China.

I hope you enjoyed this guest article by That’s Mandarin and found their tips helpful. Here’s a short self-introduction from That’s Mandarin: “Founded in 2005, That’s Mandarin has been delivering excellence in Chinese teaching for over 15 years to more than 50,000 students of different nationalities. That’s Mandarin has excellent teachers with both online and offline courses on offer, and their various types of classes will suit all your needs for Mandarin learning.”

Reading Chinese novels: To Live《活着》

1

“The little chickens will grow to be ducks, the ducks will become geese, and the geese will become oxen, and tomorrow will be better”. That’s a central passage from the famous novel and movie《活着》or To Live by the Chinese author Yu Hua. Is it any good as a Chinese learning resource? How difficult is the text and who should read it?

Difficulty

Unlike most Chinese literary products “To Live” is an amazingly readable novel. I’d estimate it requires HSK 4 or 5 level to be read and HSK 6 to be enjoyed. This is just an indication. As it has more to do with your overall Chinese reading experience than any particular HSK level. For one thing, you’ll still find plenty of words “outside of HSK”. If you’re like me not reading Chinese novels on a daily basis, it’s main difficulty most likely is its length (The English version counts roughly 250 pages). Here’s a text sample that should give a taste of the text’s difficulty:

 到那时我还没怎么把家珍的病放在心上,我心想家珍自从嫁给我以后,就没过上好日子,现在年纪大了,也该让她歇一歇了。谁知过了一个来月,家珍的病一下子重了,那晚上我们一家守着那汽油桶煮钢铁,家珍病倒了,我才吓一跳,才想到要送家珍去城里医院看看。

To Live, Chapter 6

The complete Chinese text can be found here. I printed it for some good old offline reading:

Why read it?

You can’t understand present-day China without looking into China’s history. That includes recent history. Even when most Chinese people I’ve met are eager to move away from the Mao years (1949-1976), they are still relevant. The author Yu Hua manages to give an honest account of how poor village people – that’s most people – have experienced the turmoils during the first decades of the PRC (almost without ever mentioning the people responsible).

Yu Hua grew up in a small village in Shandong province. What makes his writing stand out is that it’s very close to how the village people described by him actually speak and think. This not only makes the novel very authentic but also more accessible for Chinese learners. An anonymous reader sums it all up:

“To Live” is an amazing novel, which takes you through the 20th century history of China while being at the same time amazingly written. This is one of the greatest novels I have read in a long time. The story of a family through three generations, with one character at its center, his highs and lows, and Chinese politics. This is a tour de force. The writing is vivid, concise, yet so beautiful and moving. If you can’t read it in Chinese, read it in English, it has been translated many times, and I guarantee you will remember this story for many years to come. And for those with an interest in China, this is a must.

Source: Reader on Amazon

Story

To Live tells the story of Fugui, the son of a rich land owner. The young Fugui enjoys two things more than everything else: the first is gambling, the second whoring. Before long he manages to lose his father’s entire estate. He has no other choice left than make a living as a poor farmer and is forced to fight in the Chinese Civil War. The rest of the story tells how Fugui, his wife and two children survive Mao’s new China and its mass movements. The loss of his family estate proves lifesaving, but his troubles are far from over.

New words

Here’s some interesting words I came across:

  • 孽子 – unfilial son; unworthy descendant
  • 败家子 – wastrel
  • 二流子 – loafer; idler; bum
  • 光耀祖宗 – to honor forefathers
  • 鬼混 – lead an aimless or irregular existence; fool around
  • 闹腾 – to amuse oneself
  • 嫖 – to visit prostitutes; go whoring; frequent brothels
  • 胡闹 – run wild; make trouble
  • 牲畜 – livestock; domestic animals
  • 庄稼 – crops
  • 左思右想 – to think over from different angles
  • 骰子 – dice
  • 赊账 – system of buying or selling on credit; have outstanding bills
  • 踏实 – steady and sure; dependable; free from anxiety; having peace of mind

Conclusion

To Live has a lot to offer: a good story, Chinese history and culture. What makes it interesting as a learning resource is its availability as film (Zhang Yimou, 1994) and audiobook, both great works of art in their own right. You can pick one of these formats or even combine them. Don’t read it if you’re not interested in the Mao era or don’t want to read about extreme poverty and the hardships of rural life. This story should be told to the world though.

Thanks for dropping by on Kaohongshu. If you have any thoughts or comments for me, feel to write them down below.

PS. If you want to know about the rise of communism in China, CCP power politics, Mao’s cult of personality and the like, you can check these lectures:

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“Should you still learn Chinese?”

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

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

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

Who is this YouTuber anyway?

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

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

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

A taboo topic

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

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

Should you still learn Chinese?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming “China-famous”

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

Looking beyond the here and now of politics

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

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

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

Conclusion: “Should you still learn Chinese?”

It’s your decision

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

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

There are so many reasons to learn Chinese!

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

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

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

Learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor

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

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

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

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10 Chinese audiobooks for advanced Mandarin learners

2

Once you’ve reached a certain level, listening to Chinese audiobooks helps to get the more advanced language input you need to keep upgrading your Chinese skills. But where do you find Chinese audiobooks that are interesting, high quality and not hidden behind a paywall?

Why listen to Chinese audiobooks?

Once you’ve reached a certain level, making significant progress becomes harder and slower. The good news: you’re finally ready to listen more advanced stuff, especially audiobooks. Listening to Chinese audiobooks can be an attractive option, for instance if:

  • You love books, but lack the time to sit down and read
  • You’d like to study more actively, but somehow can’t or don’t
  • You’re not in a Chinese speaking environment (anymore), but want to get as much Chinese input as possible
  • You want to expand your active and passive vocabulary and improve your overall listening comprehension

Tips for listening

  • If you’re serious about this, why not set a goal (15 hours a month for example) and share it with people who care about your progress
  • Spend some time listening everyday – this can in between activities, while commuting, running, eating, before going to sleep – whatever you like
  • If you have some free time during the day opt for listening Chinese
  • If the choice is between Netflix (or a non-Chinese podcast) and listening Chinese, opt for listening Chinese

Where can you find Chinese audiobooks?

Well, there’s a number of mostly Mainland Chinese websites where you can find loads of Chinese audiobooks. You should definitely have a look:

10 Chinese audiobooks for advanced Mandarin learners

The main challenge is finding something that suits your level and is exciting enough to keep listening to. That’s also the reason for this post: making this process a little easier by giving some suggestions. The Chinese audiobooks I want to share with you are mostly classics or international bestsellers. For each I provided a short introduction with a link (in the picture) to the recording. Enjoy!

The Little Prince (1943) – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Chinese audiobooks - The Little Prince

The fantasy tale follows a young prince who visits various planets in space, including Earth. Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince is usually seen as a children’s book but that’s somewhat shortsighted. One of the main themes is the narrow-mindedness of adults compared to the curiosity and open world view of children: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly: what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) – Yuval Noah Harari

Chinese audiobooks - Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

This is one of the most popular books in the category of universal (or pop) history. It’s not filled with minor details about rulers and kings, but draws the bigger picture about how we humans started out in this world and which ideas powered human development. Harari’s history of humankind is thought-provoking, but also highly speculative. That being said, Sapiens is a great book that will probably change the way you think about humankind.

The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European (1943) – Stefan Zweig

Chinese audiobooks - The World of Yesterday

This autobiography by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig is one of the best books about European history I’ve read. In the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most widely translated and most popular writers in the world. In 1934, seeing the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, Zweig emigrated to England and then, in 1940, moved briefly to New York and eventually ended up in Brazil. There he committed suicide shortly after ending this book. One of the questions Zweig keeps asking himself is how the civilized nation of Germany could fall into the abyss of Nazi barbarism.

To Live (1993) – Yu Hua

Chinese audiobooks - To Live

The famous movie To Live by Zhang Yimou was based on this novel by Yu Hua who grew up during China’s cultural revolution. To Live is a dramatic story about peasant life and the struggle for daily survival in the days of Mao.

To Live describes the struggles endured by the son of a wealthy land-owner, Fugui, while the Chinese Communist Revolution is deeply changing the nature of Chinese society. Fugui, once a selfish, rich idler, looses everything through gambling. When Mao’s forces takes over, this loss of his family estate proves lifesaving. His troubles are far from over however.

Yu Hua grew up in a small village in Shandong province. What makes his writing stand out is that it’s very close to how the village people described by him actually speak and think. This not only makes the novel very authentic but also more accessible for Chinese learners.

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (1995) – Yu Hua

Chinese audiobooks - Chronicle of a Blood Merchant

Another novel by Yu Hua. This one is about the practice of donating blood in exchange for money which has led to horrible scandals in China. Chronicle of a Blood Merchant is the story of a silk factory worker, Xu Sanguan, who sells his blood to overcome poverty and family crises. The story is set in the late 1940s until the 1980s, from the early years of the People’s Republic of China until after the Cultural Revolution.

Brothers (2005–06) – Yu Hua

Chinese audiobooks - Brothers

Whereas To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant don’t cover present-day China, Brothers by Yu Hua sets out to tell the story of China’s transformation from Maoism to all-out capitalism.

How to Win Friends & Influence People (1936) – Dale Carnegie

Chinese audiobooks - How to Win Friends & Influence People

How to Win Friends and Influence People is a self-help book written by the American writer Dale Carnegie and what you call a longtime bestseller. Carnegie is best known for developing and teaching business courses in self-improvement, public speaking and interpersonal skills. One his core ideas is that it is possible to change other people’s behavior by changing one’s behavior towards them. Starting point for this particular book is Carnegie’s personal observation that the leading business people in any given industry are not those with the most technical know-how, but rather those with the best people skills.

How an Economy Grows and Why it Crashes (2010) – Peter Schiff and Andrew Schiff

Chinese Audiobooks - How an Economy Grows and Why it Crashes

How an Economy Grows and Why it Crashes (2010) is an international bestseller explaining the basics of (macro)economics in a way that people like me can understand. It addresses such questions as:

  • Why can governments spend without ever seeming to run out of money?
  • Why are some countries rich while others are poor?
  • Is spending or saving the best cure for a bad economy?
  • Where does inflation come from?

The Story of Mankind (1921) – Hendrik van Loon

Chinese Audiobooks - The Story of Mankind

The Story of Mankind tells the history of western civilization in short chapters. It begins with primitive man, and then covers the development of writing, art, and architecture, the rise of major religions, and the formation of the modern nation-state. The Dutch-American journalist, professor, and author Van Loon wrote the book for his grandchildren.

Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist (2008) – Roger Lowenstein

Chinese audiobooks - Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist

This is a biography about Warren Buffett, one of the world’s most successful investors and number 4 richest person walking this earth. It is said that he first bought stock at age 11 and first filed taxes at age 13. Even if you’re not particularly interested in the stock market, Buffett is a legend and a genius worth studying.

Thanks for dropping by on Kaohongshu. Hope you enjoyed this article about Chinese audiobooks for more advanced learners. If you have any thoughts or comments for me, feel to write them down below.

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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 – 9)
  • 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 to Mandarin Corner. 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

5

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

Vocabulary

  • 三十岁 – thirty years old (sānshí suì)
  • 笑脸 – smile (xiàoliǎn)
  • 光芒 – radiance (guāngmáng)
  • 波纹 – ripple, wave (bōwén)
  • 激情 – passion (jīqíng)
  • 打磨 – to polish, grind (dǎmó)
  • 温柔 – gentle and soft (wēnróu)
  • 寂寞 – lonely (jìmò)
  • 挑剔着 – picky (tiāotìzhe)
  • 轮换着 – to rotate, pick turns (lúnhuànzhe)
  • 身材没有走走形 – still in shape(shēncái hái méiyǒu zǒu xíng)
  • 一丝清纯 – purity, fresh and pure (yīsī qīngchún)
  • 再灿烂的容貌 – not matter how splendid your looks (zài cànlàn de róngmào)
  • 扛不住 – can’t hold back (káng bù zhù)
  • 衰老 – to age (shuāilǎo)

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.