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

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

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

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

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

日落后 最美的
时光已溜走
日落后 最美的 已溜走

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

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

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


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

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

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

Zhao Lei’s “outdated views about women”

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 The critics believe that the lyrics reflect the singer’s outdated and one-sided views about women.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

Source: Baidu Wiki

The leftover woman horror scenario

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

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

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

Comment on YouTube

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

What do Chinese really thing about “leftover women”?

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

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

Learning Chinese characters: my top 7 of horrible advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

My teacher would sometimes write new characters on the blackboard and then – annoyingly – say something along the lines of “see how easy?”, making us feel like a bunch of kids instructed to cook some exquisite dish, even though we’d never even washed salad or boiled an egg before. At least knowing the difference between semantic and phonetic components could have made a big difference. Not all teachers take the time to focus on such essential details. They cover Chinese characters as they come along and think you’ll figure out by yourself. At least my teachers mostly did. They didn’t have a step-by-step approach that starts with A, moves on to B and C etc. (Maybe this complete guide to learning Hanzi doesn’t exist (yet)!)

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

Most of my teachers never gave me a clear goal. Should I learn 5, 10 or 20 every day? How many a week? How do I still remember 200 characters by the end of the month? Is 200 a reasonable number or is 100 more realistic? The closest I ever came to a realistic goal was during my semester in China: 40 new characters every week and dictation every Thursday. That actually worked quite well, although I would have forgotten how to write most of them after two weeks.

Wrong advice NR. 3: Hanzi are like pictures!

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

Actual pictograms! (Source screenshot: wikipedia)

But this one doesn’t:

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong advice NR. 5: Learn the radicals!

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

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

Wrong advice NR. 6: forget about digital tools!

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

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

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

Final words

That’s for all the methods that from my personal experience don’t work. You’re welcome to disagree with me or share methods that do work! To end on a positive note: I’m pretty sure smart minds will improve the way we learn and think of Chinese characters in the time to come.

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

G.E.M.鄧紫棋 – 差不多姑娘 (2019)

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

差不多姑娘 – MISS SIMILAR

With Chinese-English subtitles

差不多的姑娘
追逐差不多的漂亮
她们差不多的愿望
牵着她们鼻子方向

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

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

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

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

差不多的姑娘
追逐差不多的漂亮
她们差不多的愿望
牵着她们鼻子方向

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

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

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

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

差不多的姑娘
追逐差不多的漂亮
她们差不多的愿望
牵着她们鼻子方向

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

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

崔健 – 一无所有 (1986)

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

一无所有 (1986)

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

噢… 你何时跟我走
噢…你何时跟我走

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

噢…你何时跟我走
噢…你何时跟我走

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

噢…你这就跟我走
噢…你这就跟我走

(English translation and interpretation)

Understanding China and Mandarin with 7 Chinese film classics

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

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

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

Included on my list:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hibiscus town – 芙蓉镇 (1986)

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

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

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

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

To Live – 活着 (1994)

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

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

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

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

Coming home – 归来 (2014)

Full movie available here

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

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

Yellow Earth – 黄土地 (1984)

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

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

The Story of Qiu Ju – 秋菊打官司 (1992)

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

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

Blind Shaft – (盲井) 2003

Rating: 8 out of 10.

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

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

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

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

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

崔健 – 花房姑娘 (1989)

花房姑娘 (1989)

我独自走过你身旁
并没有话要对你讲
我不敢抬头看着你的
噢……脸庞

你问我要去向何方
我指着大海的方向
你的惊奇像是给我
噢……赞扬


你问我要去向何方
我指着大海的方向
你问我要去向何方
我指着大海的方向

你带我走进你的花房
我无法逃脱花的迷香
我不知不觉忘记了
噢……方向


你说我世上最坚强
我说你世上最善良
我不知不觉已和花儿
噢……一样


你说我世上最坚强
我说你世上最善良
你说我世上最坚强
我说你世上最善良


你要我留在这地方
你要我和它们一样
我看着你默默地说
噢……不能这样


我想要回到老地方
我想要走在老路上
只是我再也离不开你
噢……姑娘


我就要回到老地方
我就要走在老路上
你明知我已离不开你
噢……姑娘


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


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


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

How much Mandarin can you listen to in one month?

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For one month I digitally teamed up with like-minded spirits for a Mandarin learning challenge. This is what I learned.

Hacking Chinese challenges

Maybe the biggest problem of self-studying a language in the long run is to keep the flame of motivation burning. Especially if you’re not perceiving any clear sign of progress – no matter how hard you are pushing forward – and no one of your friends shows any particular interest in your “hobby”…

The truth is most people can’t relate to language learning as an activity to voluntarily engage yourself in. To stop feeling that you’re completely wasting your time, it’s worth looking for like-minded spirits who share your passion. They can also support you to tackle another issue: to set achievable goals and make you see light at the end of the tunnel.

This is where the Hacking Chinese challenges come in. The basic idea is to digitally team up with other motivated people for – what could be called – a Mandarin learning competition focused on one of the four language skills. You set a personal goal, make it public and give it what you got.

The June 2020 challenge was all about listening, an activity which is (arguably) more laid-back than writing, reading and speaking, since all you have to do is sponge up spoken words.

Set a goal and share it

I updated my personal goal twice: from a modest 15 hours to 20, up to a more ambitious 25 hours eventually, cause I wasn’t sure how much time I could find to effectively listen between work and family duties.

How high you set your goal doesn’t really matter, as long as it is reasonable and challenging at the same time, which is easier said than done. Listening about an hour everyday, I reached my goal of 25 listening hours surprisingly smoothly – that equals more than one day of quality Mandarin input. It was the perfect excuse to spend more time on YouTube. Other participants managed 30 or even 50 hours.

Finding suitable listening materials

Finding the right stuff to listen to was a challenge in itself. For an intermediate learner like me randomly tuning in to a Chinese radio station or listening to some podcast I’ve never heard of before doesn’t cut it. The Chinese audiobook called “十年徒步中国” I tried proved to be too difficult to enjoy. I missed major information about Lei Diansheng’s hiking adventure and pretty soon lost track of the supposedly simple story line.

Hacking Chinese listening challenge, personal record

The popular YouTube Channel Mandarin Corner worked best for me. I really enjoyed all the Mandarin subtitled interviews with taxi drivers, tattoo artists and the like. Very authentic and perfect when you’re not yet ready for non-subtitled, high speed Chinese radio and podcasts.

A little more challenging were the speeches from TEDxTaipei with a great variety of topics and (mostly Taiwanese) speakers to choose from.

One of the bests things of teaming up with others is that you can share ideas and resources: Popup Chinese and Learning Chinese through Stories are podcasts I hadn’t checked out before. The same goes for the Chinese podcast websites Qingting.fm and lizhi.fm. There’s definitely no lack of Chinese audio materials. It’s just where to find something that matches your level and interests.

Check your progress and the leaderboard

We live in a KPI-obsessed world. That’s not always a bad thing. The performance chart keeps track of your progress, so you know if you’re on schedule or not. I’d normally never do this kind of thing, but I realized it does help to stay focused on your goal. Plus, it feels reassuring to know you’re on schedule and delivering a solid performance.

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

There’s an element of competition to it as well. Open the leaderboard and see how you have been performing compared to the others, with the score standing for hours spent listening. It’s not about being the best of course. Far more important is to motivate yourself and others. As you can see everybody did quite well.

Hacking Chinese listening challenge, leaderboard

It worked

By joining this Mandarin Challenge, I studied far more productively than I could have done on my own. I know I can be goal-orientated and self-motivated to a certain degree, but being a part of a group of enthusiastic people with a shared objective felt like shifting gears. It was also refreshing to focus on one language skill for an entire month.

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

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.