人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life

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Recently I started watching a fairly new documentary series called “人生第一次” or “The Firsts in Life” which is very popular in China. Here’s why I think it’s a good resource for learning Mandarin – even though it has one problem.

人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life” is a highly rated 12-episode documentary series planned and released by CCTV. It captures 12 “first time ever” moments that are of great significance to Chinese society, running through different stages of life such as birth, school, family, career, and old-age care. At the beginning of each episode, a “storyteller” will lead the narration.

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - Score on Douban
“人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life” was well received on the Chinese movie database Douban.

5 Reasons to use “人生第一次” to improve your Mandarin

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The firsts in life - 5 reasons to watch the documentary series
  • Year: 2020
  • Duration: 12 episodes X 30 min.
  • Subtitles: Mandarin / English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

For our purposes here, let me just give a few points why The Firsts in Life is suitable learning material:

  • Popular series with short yet moving episodes
  • Potential conversation starter
  • Mandarin and English subtitles
  • Universal topics everyone can relate to
  • Study vocabulary by topic (birth, school, army, office etc.)
  • Revealing glimpses of Chinese society and ideals presented by Chinese state television

And here comes the problem: although the main language is Standard Chinese, on several occasions people speak the local dialect. That makes it hard to follow every now and then, especially in the final episodes that focus on the elderly, but the subtitles help a lot.

人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life – the 12 episodes

  1. 第一集: 出生 – birth
  2. 第二集: 上学 – go to school
  3. 第三集: 长大 – growing up
  4. 第四集: 当兵 – join the army
  5. 第五集: 上班 – go to work
  6. 第六集: 结婚 – to marry
  7. 第七集: 进城 – move to the city
  8. 第八集: 买房 – buy a house
  9. 第九集: 相守 – take care of each other
  10. 第十集: 退休 – to retire
  11. 第十一集: 养老 – enjoy life in retirement
  12. 第十二集: 告别 – farewell

Episode One: “Birth”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 1

The first episode offers a glimpse of what it means to give birth in present-day China or rather – important detail – in the Red House Hospital in Shanghai, which is affiliated to the Fudan University and one of the highest rated hospitals in China. If you’ve never witnessed a birth before, this might prove an “in your face” viewing experience.

Episode 2: “Going to School”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 2

This episode focuses on the first school day ever for group of children in one of China’s first tier cities. Choosing the right school is a major decision for Chinese parents as they don’t want their kids “to lose at the starting line”.

Episode 3: “Growing Up”

人生第一次 -ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 3

In a mountain village somewhere in Yunnan Province kids receive unusual lessons: they are taught to write poetry. Life in the mountains is hard, with parents often working far away from home to support the family. One 12-year-old girl even lives on her own, video-calling her mom late at night when she is done working. These kids suffer many hardships, but they never lack inspiration to write poetry, resulting in a kind of primitive and pure art created by children.

Episode 4: “Being a Soldier”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci -The Firsts in Life - episode 4

Have you ever wondered what’s it like to join the Chinese army? These young recruits join a special unit of Chinese paratroopers and receive their first training. In a matter of weeks they will be ready to make their first jump from a real airplane. The viewer witnesses this highly interesting transformation from school boys who just said goodbye to mama to hard-boiled soldiers serving in the Chinese army.

Episode 5: “Go to Work”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 5

I thought this was going to be an episode about people entering the labor market and starting some kind of office or factory job. And actually I wasn’t completely off the mark, except the people in question have an extremely hard time getting any job at all, because they are physically disabled. If it wasn’t for Wang Shaojun who – sitting in a wheelchair himself – started an employment training center for disabled people, they’ll probably still at home suffering, invisible for society. Wang Shaojun’s training enables them to work as customer service agents and earn their own money. But it’s more than a training center: this is a place where people become friends for life.

Episode 6: “Marriage”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci -The Firsts in Life - episode 6

Marriage is a huge thing in China and weddings are still amazingly traditional – even in futuristic Shanghai. We witness some young couples marrying in the Pudong marriage registration office in Shanghai. They are all eager to receive their marriage certificate which bears similarity to a passport. How do modern, hardworking Shanghainese see marriage?

Episode 7: “Entering the City”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 7

The migrant worker. China’s economy couldn’t run without millions of migrant workers. To get rid of poverty, the government established a labor service station that recruits workers from poor villages in Yunnan. The tragedy of almost every migrant worker is the same: they leave their family and loved ones behind to make money in the big city.

Episode 8: “Buying a House”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 8

In China renting is for losers. In the long run every family is supposed to buy its own apartment, even when this means becoming a mortgage slave. Finding and financing their own apartment is one of the biggest challenges young Chinese face today. This episode focuses on a real estate agent in Beijing who tries to close a deal between two families, all the while hoping that one day he’ll be able to afford his own house.

Episode 9: “Look after each other”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci -  The Firsts in Life - episode 9

Next to Jiangxi Nanchang Cancer Hospital, Aunt Xiong and her husband run a shared kitchen. Aunt Xiong’s small kitchen is the source of many heart-warming stories. Family members of patients come here every day to cook a simple meal, because even in difficult times, says Aunt Xiong, a person has to eat. It takes only 1 yuan to fry a vegetarian dish. These low prices are more than welcome, since cancer treatment is extremely expensive.

Episode 10: “Retirement”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 10

It always struck me that whereas working people in China usually slug their guts out to make a living and hardly have any spare time, retired people have plenty of time to dedicate to all kind of leisure activities like dancing, singing and calligraphy. Many seniors retire early – the standard retirement age in Germany for example is currently 67 – and have a rich social life. This episode focuses on the Sichuan University for the Elderly in Chengdu. Many enrolled students are in their sixties and go to university for the first time. The goal is not so much to leave the university with a degree, but rather to enjoy and cultivate arts with their peers.

Episode 11: “Elderly Care”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 11

Elderly care in China: in this episode an old lady from Shanghai decides to leave her home behind to live in a retirement community. Another older gentleman doesn’t want to make the same move, even if that will lead to someday becoming “a burden” to his family.

Episode 12: “Farewell”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 12

In China, nearly 70 percent of wills are invalid each year. Why does a seemingly simple piece of paper fail to play its due role? How can conflicts and disputes arising from wills be avoided and resolved to the greatest extent? Is it necessary to make a will? Shooting at the Chinese Wills Library in Beijing, CCTV recorded the story of people coming to make a will for the first time. Like Chao Wenzhen, 73 years old, who comes to make a will in name of his wife.

Closing remarks…

“人生第一次” has a touch of social realism to it: sending out the “artists” to capture the life of ordinary people – not raw, but in a stylized way, with a narrator giving his or her interpretation. I don’t mean that in a negative way: most of the stories are genuinely touching. “人生第一次” has been conceived for a Mainland Chinese audience, so it gives an inside perspective on the topics at hand and doesn’t at any occasion call China’s “normality” into question. That makes it extra interesting when you put your anthropology glasses on.

For study purposes or just as Mandarin input I recommend the series, although I have to admit that the regional varieties (mostly Shanghai dialect) are a complication.

Chinese dreams (2019): must-watch China doc

In short: You take a Dutch guy who wants to become a professional photographer. You put him in China with a camera team and he starts making an incredible portrait of present-day China. Since these three documentaries are almost unknown outside of Holland, I decided to share them here.

How the Dutch filmmaker Ruben Terlou ended up in China

After finishing high school in the Netherlands, Ruben Terlou went to China to make a living as a photographer. A rather unusual step for a young Dutchman, but Ruben was convinced that China was the place to be for him.

Settling down in Kunming and learning Chinese, he fell in love with the country and the people. He became fluent in Mandarin. But after two years of trying his luck as a professional photographer, he returned to Holland, allegedly broke and disappointed.

He than began studying medicine instead, putting photography second, but still visiting places like Afghanistan to shoot material. He finished his studies cum laude, yet he never became an actual doctor.

All in all, I have spent around four to five years in China, I guess. I appreciate the honesty of the people the most. Chinese people are very open about their emotions and can reflect well. The country is and remains fascinating because it is constantly and massively in motion.

The filmmaker Ruben Terlou in Dutch newspaper Trouw

Ruben Terlou: Holland’s unappointed China ambassador

Ruben’s China documentaries became an instant hit in the Netherlands. In every discussion about China people would mention his name.

For most Dutch people China used to be a far away place. Little did they know about the people who live there and their daily lives. Ruben’s China series made a change, focusing on a broad variety of topics and letting Chinese locals tell their own story. He showed that Chinese are not incomprehensible strangers, but fellow human beings. Not an easy task, especially under growing political tensions:

It would be nice if my work touches the audience. Because with all that news about the Chinese trade war, misunderstanding towards the superpower is growing. “What a horrible country, that China,” many people say. I want to remove that distrust, hope to paint a balanced and human image of China.

Ruben Terlou in Dutch newspaper Trouw

Not the usual biased approach

Many China documentaries made by westerners fail insofar that they are deep-rooted in prejudices (and often ignorance) and choose the moral high ground. Most importantly, they don’t bring any new insights.

Ruben Terlou cannot help but see China through the eyes of a westerner, but at least he makes a serious effort of leaving judgement to the viewers. But there’s more that makes him stand out from journalists and filmmakers that cover China:

  • He holds back his opinion and allows people to tell their stories
  • He’s not looking for cheap sensation
  • People open up to him and tell him very personal things
  • He’s a keen observer and a brilliant listener. He knows what to ask at the right moment.
  • Not only his Mandarin is fluent, he also knows a lot about Chinese history and culture. This is demonstrated in his interviews as well as in his selection of topics and filming areas.
  • He captures unusual places, people and situations like hospitals, circus artists and vanishing minorities.

China is the ideal laboratory for story telling. Had I made the same series in Belgium, or even in India, my conversations would affect the audience less. Those countries are closer to us. Precisely because China is strange to us, I can expose the essence of mankind. Do you understand? China is linguistically and culturally so different from us that it serves as a mirror.

Ruben Terlou in Trouw

Three times China

Three different series of Ruben’s China adventures have been produced. The main language is Mandarin Chinese with Dutch moderation and – most important – English subtitles. Starting with season 1:

Along the banks of the Yangtze (2016)

The six episodes

Along the banks of the Yangtze, langs de oevers van de Yangtze, Ruben Terlou, TV-series (2016), aflevering 1 - 3

Along the banks of the Yangtze, langs de oevers van de Yangtze, Ruben Terlou, TV-series (2016), aflevering 4 - 6

  • Year: 2016
  • Duration: 6 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Through the heart of China (2018)

The seven episodes

Through the heart of China (2018), door het hart van China, Ruben Terlou, documentary, Aflevering 1 - 4

Through the heart of China (2018), door het hart van China, Ruben Terlou, documentary, Aflevering 4 - 7

  • Year: 2018
  • Duration: 7 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Chinese dreams (2019)

Episode 3: Ruben wonders how it is possible that each year nearly five million marriages go on the rocks in China. He travels with a judge across the countryside, attends divorce cases in a court, and joins a so-called “mistress hunter”. In a “love hospital” in the mega city of Shanghai, he witnesses a relationship therapist in action.
  • Year: 2019
  • Duration: 4 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: Dutch
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Chinese like any other language ultimately is a tool for communication. Ruben mastered the language and moved on to use his wits and talents to do great things. What’s your dream? What do you think about his China doc? Please feel free to leave a comment.

Sixteen China podcasts to listen during lockdown

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Tired of listening to endless corona-updates and Covid-discussions? Here’s some China-focused listening material for you sorted by topic.

The general idea here: When learning a language, having some topics that really interest you, can be very motivating to keep pursuing your goals.

One of my personal favorites is definitely The China Africa Project Podcast. If you are into politics and want to broaden your views about China’s engagement in Africa, you will love the show. Another favorite of mine is China Tech Talk for insights into the Chinese tech-start-up scene.

If you are looking for a podcast about learning Chinese, check out the you can learn Chinese podcast. You find some great discussions and inspiring interviews here by the makers of the Mandarin Companion.

Current affairs

The ChinaPower Podcast covers critical issues underpinning China’s emergence as a global power and brings together the leading experts on China and international politics. Host Bonnie S. Glaser offers her listeners critical insights into the challenges and opportunities presented by China’s rise.

Carnegie-Tsinghua Podcast discusses China’s relations with the rest of the world and is hosted by Paul Haenle, Director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center based in Beijing, China.

The Little Red Podcast offers interviews and chat celebrating China beyond the Beijing beltway. Hosted by Graeme Smith, China studies academic at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs and Louisa Lim, former China correspondent for the BBC and NPR, now with the Centre for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University.

  • Host: Graeme Smith
  • Frequency: Monthly
  • Duration: 40-50 min.
  • Since: 2016
  • For more information click here

The MERICS podcast discusses and analyzes developments and current affairs in China: What is behind the Belt and Road Initiative? What kind of leader is Xi Jinping? How should we assess China’s climate change policies? How does the Chinese government use social media to its own ends? In addition to MERICS’s own staff, other experts on China and guest speakers at MERICS also take part in the interviews.

The China Africa Project Podcast was launched in 2010 and focuses on China’s engagement in Africa.

  • Host: Eric Olander, Cobus van Staden
  • Frequency: Weekly
  • Duration: 45 min.
  • Since: 2010
  • Organization: The China Africa Project

History

China History podcast covers 5000 years of Chinese history and is hosted by Laszlo Montgomery. Topics include PRC history and leaders like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, US-Chinese history, but also the Chinese dynasties, history of tea and even Chinese philosophy.

  • Host: Laszlo Montgomery
  • Frequency: irregular
  • Duration: 40-60              
  • Since: 2010
  • Organization: Teacup Media 2017

Investing in China

CHINA MONEY NETWORK Podcast covers all the news headlines in the China venture and tech sector on a weekly basis live from Hongkong.

  • Host: Eudora Wang       
  • Frequency: Weekly        
  • Duration: 10 min.
  • Organization: CHINA MONEY NETWORK

The Harbinger China Podcast is a monthly Q&A with China’s top venture investors and tech company founders.

  • Host: Tim Chen
  • Frequency: Monthly
  • Duration: 40 min.
  • Since: 2017
  • Organization: The harbinger China

Tech

Techbuzz China is a bi-weekly technology podcast about China’s Innovation and (tech-related) cultural trends.

  • Host: Ying-Ying Lu, Rui Ma
  • Frequency: Bi-weekly
  • Duration: 30 min.
  • Since: 2018
  • Organization: Techbuzz China is a part of Pandaily.com and powered by the Sinica Podcast network

Digitally China is a bi-weekly podcast from RADII hosted by Tom Xiong and Eva Xiao, and produced by Jacob Loven. On each episode, the team will tackle a different timely tech-related topic, providing key insights on all you need to know about the fast-changing nature of innovation in China.

  • Host: Tom Xiong and Eva Xiao
  • Frequency: Bi-weekly
  • Duration: 30 min.           
  • Since: 2018
  • Organization: RADII

China Tech Talk is an almost weekly discussion of the most important issues in China’s tech. From IPOs to fake data, from the role of WeChat to Apple’s waning influence, hosts John Artman and Matthew Brennan interview experts and discuss the trends shaping China’s tech industry.

  • Host: John Artman, Matthew Brennan                 
  • Frequency: Weekly
  • Duration: 60 min.
  • Since: 2016
  • Organization: Technode

Culture and people

Wǒ Men Podcast is produced and hosted by Yajun Zhang and Jingjing Zhang, who discuss a variety of topics and share a diversity of voices from on the ground inside contemporary China.

  • Host: Yajun Zhang and Jingjing Zhang
  • Frequency: Bi-weekly
  • Duration: 40-50 min.
  • Since: 2017
  • Organization: RADII

Bottled in China brings you into Asia’s food and drink scene through conversations with the some of the most happening personalities. Hosted by Emilie Steckenborn, the show is your one spot for all things food, beer, wine and spirits from across the world.

Middle Earth Podcast brings you first-hand insights into China’s cultural industry and hosts guests who work in China’s marketing, gaming, movie and virtual reality industries.

Ta for Ta is a new biweekly podcast, which captures the narratives of women from Greater China at the top of their professional game. “Ta for Ta” is a play on the Chinese spoken language that demonstrates equality between the sexes. Tā 他 is the word for “he”; tā 她 is also the word for “she.”

  • Host: Juliana Batista
  • Frequency: Bi-Weekly
  • Duration: 60 min.
  • Since: 2017
  • Organization: SupChina

Top 10 YouTube channels for learning Mandarin

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You want to improve your Mandarin skills? For some of the greatest online resources for Chinese you don’t have to look far: they can be found on YouTube. But where to start? Like so many others I greatly benefited from watching online lessons on this video-sharing platform. This is my personal top 10 of YouTube channels for learning Chinese.

10. eChineseLearning

  • Followers: 110K
  • Since: 2010
  • Nr. of videos: 500 – 1000
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate

eChineseLearning is a longstanding channel to which many online teachers contribute, so you find loads of useful material here – if you know where to look, cause the channel seems to be organized rather randomly. With so many people creating content, it’s hard to discover one connecting approach or style.

Positives

  • Some useful content for beginners and intermediates
  • Native speakers from China
  • Covering the Mandarin basics and more

Negatives

9. Learn Chinese with ChineseClass101.com

  • Followers: 313K
  • Since: 2009
  • Nr. of videos: 500 – 1000
  • Language level: Beginner

Learn Chinese with ChineseClass101.com is one of the most longstanding Chinese learning channels on YouTube. It focuses mainly on beginners and covers all sorts of Mandarin basics. And more on the meta level: they also support learners with Chinese learning strategies and tips.

The teachers in the videos use a lot of English, to the degree of word by word translating every Chinese sentence into English, even though the videos are fully subtitled. That’s convenient and may attract more viewers, but in terms of teaching it’s not best practice.

Positives

  • Great quantity of helpful videos, mainly for beginners
  • Native speakers from China
  • Learning advice

Negatives

  • Too much English

8. Fragrant Mandarin 香橘子

  • Followers: 1,7K
  • Since: 2019
  • Nr. of videos: 0 – 50
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate

Fragrant Mandarin 香橘子 is a fairly new channel which is not so much about classic teaching, but about online language immersion. The content I’ve seen so far looks promising.

Positives

  • Authentic and high quality content from a charming couple in Guangxi Provence, China.
  • Original approach to Mandarin learning

7. Chinesewith-Xiaolu

  • Followers: 0,5K
  • Since: 2019
  • Nr. of videos: 0 – 50
  • Language level: Beginner to upper intermediate

Chinesewith-Xiaolu is a rather fresh channel covering basic Chinese. What got me interested is the fact that Xiaolu evaluates the Mandarin skills of Laowai vloggers. Her comments on news and current affairs are also worthwhile.

Positives

  • Original and fun content
  • Professionally edited videos

Negatives

6. ChineseEddieG汉语艾迪

  • Followers: 4,3K
  • Since: 2014
  • Nr. of videos: 100 – 200
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate / Upper intermediate

ChineseEddieG汉语艾迪 is a young charismatic guy with a talent for teaching.

Positives

  • Interesting content for beginners as well as more advanced learners
  • Native speaker from China who covers original topics like religions, internet slang, Chinese car brands and swear words

5. Chinese Zero To Hero

  • Followers: 32K
  • Since: 2016
  • Nr. of videos: 200 – 300
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate / Advanced

Chinese Zero To Hero‘s YouTube channel is a very HSK-focused channel. They actually cover all levels, but on the whole and compared to other channels, they offer more content for intermediate and advanced learners. In an earlier post I recommended their website, but recently it seems to have a security problem and my browser doesn’t allow me the visit their webpage anymore. But from what I can tell, these guys from Mainland China are really committed to improve the world of Chinese learning with solid video content, learning resources and strategies.

Positives

  • Useful if you are preparing for HSK
  • Interesting content for higher levels
  • Well organized channel

Negatives

  • Using more English than they have to

4. ChinesePod

  • Followers: 178K
  • Since: 2014
  • Nr. of videos: 300 – 400
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate / Upper intermediate

ChinesePod is a popular learning website for Mandarin Chinese where you can find over 4000 video and audio lessons. Their YouTube channel “shares just a taste” of all this content, so to get full access to all the material – similar to Mandarin Corner – you have to sign up.

What makes ChinesePod stand out is the abundance of quality content for all levels, their bilingual approach and their years of experience.

What I’m not a big fan of though is the fact they are using so much English. From a teaching point of view that’s less than optimal. I know many learners, especially people new to the language, appreciate all the explaining in English, BUT – in the long run it’s actually not that helpful.

Positives

  • Great variation of content for all levels between complete beginners and upper intermediate learners
  • The channel is neatly organized
  • It’s easy to find the kind of video’s or playlist(s) you are looking for
  • Bilingual Chinese-American teachers who bridge the gap between the two cultures really well and understand the needs of non-Chinese students
  • Team of charming teachers

Negatives

  • A lot of explaining in English

3. Yoyo Chinese

  • Followers: 284K
  • Since: 2006
  • Nr. of videos: 400 – 500
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate / Upper intermediate

Yoyo Chinese is probably the first and most well-known Chinese learning video channel, founded by Yangyang Cheng, a former Chinese TV host. If you look at some of the first uploads, you’ll discover she actually started out teaching English to Chinese people. It’s a pleasure to watch her teach: very passionate and upbeat. Newer content is mainly done by junior staff members.

Most videos are meant for beginners. Yoyo Chinese covers the whole spectrum to get you started: from Pinyin, tones to basic grammar and essential vocabulary. And Yangyang does a great job at this.

Positives

  • Great for beginners and English speakers
  • Passion for teaching + longtime experience
  • Innovation

Negatives

  • For such a longstanding channel the content is not that well ordered: only a couple of playlists, most videos are not categorized, but then again Yangyang’s username is “sloppycheng”

2. Everyday Chinese

  • Followers: 160K
  • Since: 2017
  • Nr. of videos: 200 – 300
  • Language level: Beginner to upper Intermediate

The Everyday Chinese channel has grown quite popular in only a few years time. Young teachers from Mainland China do a good job on creating new and original content. It seems to me they take their inspiration directly from the classroom as they cover lots of topics people learning Mandarin genuinely struggle with.

Positives

  • Great content for beginners and intermediate learners
  • Good understanding of the needs of students, thinking from the learner’s perspective
  • Covering Mandarin basics and HSK levels 1 – 4
  • Nice street interviews and real life dialogues
  • Chinese-English subtitled + Pinyin

Negatives

  • Some videos only show slides with text and grammar which is OK, but a little static

1. Mandarin Corner

  • Followers: 54K
  • Since: 2017
  • Nr. of videos: 200 – 300
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate / Upper intermediate

Mandarin Corner is centered around Eileen Xu and still seems to be a rather underrated channel. Not only does Eileen create original and authentic content, she does so with using as little English as possible. That means you get to hear a lot more of the language than in most other Chinese learning videos. Mandarin Corner’s content is typically English-Chinese subtitled and – very important – also includes Pinyin, which makes the videos accessible for beginners too.

As for the more basic stuff: Mandarin Corner covers HSK levels 1 to 5 and provides loads of tips to improve your overall fluency. But what you can’t hardly find elsewhere – or not in the same quality – are the street interviews Eileen does, asking random people in her city about topics like “leftover women“, Japan, South-Korea and foreigners in general. Very interesting to watch, even if you are not in the least interested in learning Mandarin, but simply want to hear the opinions of average Chinese people.

Eileen has a very personal approach to creating videos. She takes you on a bicycle ride downtown, showing you around, and she even gives a tour of her old hometown. She also interviews extraordinary people like tattoo artists and rock climbers.

To get full access to all the content and materials you need to sign up.

Positives

  • Highly original and authentic content from Mainland China for beginners up to upper intermediate learners
  • Covering the Mandarin basics
  • Interesting topics for people interested in China and Chinese society
  • Personal and innovative approach to online learning
  • Using a minimum quantity of English to explain. Subtitles: English, Chinese and Pinyin

Negatives

  • The channel is not that frequently being updated

That’s my top 10 of YouTube channels for learning Mandarin. I know there are many more – I just couldn’t include all. For this post, I only looked at the video channels, not at the websites and teaching companies that stand behind it. My main interest is simply to see what these channels have to offer to people learning Mandarin. I do very much admire all the work online teachers put into their videos, especially those who work more or less on solo-projects and who produce great results with limited means.

What are your favorite YouTube channels? Feel free to let me know which one(s) helped you to get to the next level.

Ideology in Chinese textbooks

Chinese learning materials have improved a lot over the last 50 years, however more often than not the Chinese learner gets that feeling of being stuck in an artificial world while the real thing – authentic communication – is being kept away from him. But what happens when this artificial world is an ideological world?

Every learner of Mandarin is familiar with it: dialogues that are written just to present grammar patterns and a bunch of key vocabulary; fictional characters that talk like robots, exchanging bits of information nobody cares about. Some new stuff is introduced, then everything gets explained with multiple examples, exceptions and little footnotes. The learner is supposed to do a number of exercises and after all that he should be able to reproduce most of that on his own and then move on to the next chapter. Furthermore, he’s expected to progress at an ever steady pace, at the end of the book reaching the language level it says on the cover.

Screenshot from the Karate Kid

Now we all want to master Mandarin and speak with native-like fluency. What we don’t want is to linger in this artificial realm where non-existing people have endless minimalist conversations like “ni shi Jianadaren ma? wo bu shi Jianadaren, wo shi Meiguoren.” and so on. We don’t want to be children in our target language, we want to be treated like adults from the start. Like in the movie The Karate Kid the black belt is our goal, but we’d like to skip the part with the hard work and suffering.

Ideology and politics

But there is something far worse. Learning materials thankfully have evolved away from that, though not completely. And you could even argue that it’s impossible for any foreign language textbooks to be completely “clean” of it. Older learners who started learning Chinese in Mainland China way back still remember in particular. It’s the presence of ideology and politics in textbooks.

Although this probably has to do less with didactic aspects than it has to do with the simple fact that back in the time of Mao everything was about ideology and politics. Whoever wanted to understand China had to read Mao and the founding stories of that era. Everything referred to that particular set of beliefs and principles of Mao’s political system and the party. You just couldn’t escape it.

In fact, all that was very relevant. Let’s not forget the communists had kicked all foreigners out of the country. Those few foreigners who did come from abroad to visit the People’s Republic of China had good reasons to know their deal about Maoist China and it’s main narrative. After all they had to know how to behave diplomatically in the New China and not to hurt anybody’s feelings.

The Chinese Reader (1972, Beijing)

The Chinese Reader series, 1972, Beijing

This Chinese reader published in Beijing in 1972 is a perfect example of how politics infiltrated the study of Mandarin on every level. This series of readers was developed for intermediate learners. And in some ways I’m surprised by its quality. The chapters are well arranged, the characters nice and clear to read. Black and white drawings visualize what you’re reading. There’s even one color picture of the Great Wall. You’d expect that 50 years later the books would be falling apart, but clearly they refuse to do so.

Sacrifices for a socialist future

The first book starts out with the founding of the PRC, looks back on the Second Sino-Japanese war and shares many “educational” stories about the Mao-era, like the student girl from Shanghai who is sent to the countryside to learn from the poor peasants. It also contains a speech from the Chairman where he urges his countrymen to make sacrifices for the great cause, even to die if need be. It’s rather heavy stuff that would repel any present-day learner who’ll probably ask what all this propaganda is doing there in the first place. Let’s say it’s a different experience…

Dong Cunrui – a true warrior

Dong Cunrui, a Chinese warrior hero?

But it doesn’t stop there. We also meet the great war hero Dong Cunrui in the first book. It’s a short meeting, since he decides to blow himself up with dynamite to destroy a Japanese bunker, shouting “for a new China!”. There is no way to effectively place the explosives so he chooses to support the bomb with his hand, thus loosing his life. From what I hear the story of Dong Cunrui is still being told in Chinese schools today. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

A revolutionary party is, in its essence, the party of its leader that carries out his ideology and cause, and the main thing in its building is to ensure the unitary character and inheritance of his ideology and leadership.

Kim Jong-Un

Liu Hulan – “A great life, a glorious death”

Liu Hulan, a Chinese hero?

Where you mention Dong Cunrui, we should also not forget the Liu Hulan. She was a local communist youth leader in a village in Shanxi Province. One winter day in 1947, the Kuomintang surrounded the village and forced the whole village to gather in a temple. The nationalists started arresting several communists, including Liu Hulan. I’ll quote a fragment of the textbook here:

“敌人把刘胡兰带到了一座庙里,匪军连长恶狠狠地问 : “你叫刘胡兰?”

“刘胡兰回答 我就是刘胡兰!”

“你跟八路军哪些人走联系?”

“和谁也没联系!”

“没联系? 有人已经供出你是共产党员了!”

The army officer urges her to point out her fellow communists to them, but she refuses, saying not even for a mountain of gold would she betray them. Then she states in front of them all that she doesn’t fear death. That being said the nationalists kill her. Chairman Mao, so we continue to read, remembered her with the words: “A great life, a glorious death”. She died at the age of 14.

The English Wikipedia tells the same story in more detail. The article is surprisingly subjective and quotes only a few sources. This is how the death of the young girl is described: “During the interrogation, the Kuomintang tried every possible method to induce Liu Hulan to betray her allies. Liu Hulan refused to obey and died heroically.” It seems the story of Liu Hulan still lives on today, not least on Wikipedia.

Revolutionary vocabulary

The vocabulary which we learn in this book is probably not like anything you’ve seen before, unless you’ve been – let’s say – “politically trained” the Comintern way. It’s been said that after you read Marx, Engels and thinkers like Gramsci, Adorno, Marcuse and so on you’ll never be quite the same.

But this is something different. This book is supposed to teach you a foreign language. It comes however, with a totalitarian world view that separates friend from foe and good from evil. It tells you everything you need to know to function in this new society that Mao is building, even though the Chinese reader obviously is aimed at foreigners. Let’s take a look at some randomly selected vocabulary from the book:

  • 反动派 – reactionary faction (in other words everyone against communism)
  • 帝国主义 – imperialism (those nations who brought humiliation upon China by claiming parts of it)
  • 机枪 – machine gun (power comes from the barrel of a gun, right?)
  • 机械化 – mechanize (remember the Great Leap Forward?)
  • 进攻 – to attack
  • 开国 – the founding of a country
  • 叛徒 – traitor
  • 破坏 – to destroy
  • 强迫 – to force
  • 手榴弹 – hand grenade
  • 牺牲 – to sacrifice (one’s life) (this seems to be the main message in most of the chapters)

To me, ideology is corrupt; it’s a parasite on religious structures. To be an ideologue is to have all of the terrible things that are associated with religious certainty and none of the utility. If you’re an ideologue, you believe everything that you think. If you’re religious, there’s a mystery left there.

Jordan Peterson

Ideology-free learning?

Mao's red bible being sold on a street market in Kaifeng
Mao’s red bible being sold on a street market in Kaifeng near the Henan University

I know the example I brought here is a rather extreme one, but then again, Marx, Lenin and Mao still play a major part in the education of Chinese children today. However nowadays Mao’s red book is sold on the streets for little money and people don’t seem to care so much. Nobody will blame you if you don’t know your Mao-bible by heart or – for that matter – decide to sell it. Western tourists pay good money for it. But does that mean the end of ideology in Chinese textbooks for non-native learners? Have we really moved on? It actually made me think of the deeper question whether it’s possible to learn a foreign language WITHOUT absorbing (some of) its values…

What are your thoughts on this topic? Would you say your Chinese books are ideology-free? Please feel free to comment below.

大张伟 – 葫芦娃 (2018)

Wowkie Zhang – Calabash brothers (2018)

葫芦娃 葫芦娃
一根藤上七个瓜
风吹雨打都不怕
啦啦啦啦
葫芦娃 葫芦娃
一根藤上七个瓜
风吹雨打都不怕
啦啦啦啦
叮当当咚咚当当 葫芦娃
叮当当咚咚当当 本领大
葫芦娃 葫芦娃 本领大

妖精 放了我爷爷!

The original theme song from the cartoon

趙傳 – 我是一只小小鸟 (1990)

I’m a little bird (1990)

有时候我觉得自己像一只小小鸟
想要飞却怎么样也飞不高
也许有一天我栖上枝头
却成为猎人的目标
我飞上了青天才发现自己
从此无依无靠

每次到了夜深人静的时候 我总是睡不着
我怀疑是不是只有我的明天没有变得更好
未来会怎样
究竟有谁会知道
幸福是否只是一种传说
我永远都找不到


我是一只小小小小鸟
想要飞呀飞却飞也飞不高
我寻寻觅觅寻寻觅觅一个温暖的怀抱
这样的要求算不算太高
我是一只小小小小鸟
想要飞呀飞却飞也飞不高
我寻寻觅觅寻寻觅觅一个温暖的怀抱
这样的要求算不算太高


所有知道我的名字的人呐
你们好不好
世界时如此的小
我们注定无处可逃
当我尝尽人情冷暖
当你决定为了你的理想燃烧
活的压力生命的尊严
哪一个重要


我是一只小小小小鸟
想要飞呀飞却飞也飞不高
我寻寻觅觅寻寻觅觅一个温暖的怀抱
这样的要求算不算太高
我是一只小小小小鸟
想要飞呀飞却飞也飞不高
我寻寻觅觅寻寻觅觅一个温暖的怀抱
这样的要求算不算太高


我是一只小小小小鸟
想要飞呀飞却飞也飞不高
我寻寻觅觅寻寻觅觅一个温暖的怀抱
这样的要求算不算太高
这样的要求算不算太高