10 things I wish I knew before starting to learn Mandarin

Learning Mandarin can be a loooong-term endeavor. Looking back on at least 8 years of learning Mandarin, there are a lot of things I wish I could have worked out earlier. I’ll share them with you, hoping that some of these points are helpful.

01. Surround yourself with motivated learners and people who want you to succeed

More often than not, people in your social environment won’t care about your passion for Mandarin. They might even completely fail to understand your motivations to learn this language. I’m not telling anything new when I say that staying motivated is much easier when you’re surrounded by other motivated people. People who share the same goals and care about your success.

The good news is that being surrounded by the right people is not purely a matter of luck. It’s actually up to you to create a better learning environment for yourself. For example by joining learning groups on Facebook and online communities like Quora and Reddit. In general, you will find like-minded people and more experienced learners to team up and share your goals with. Some of them may be preparing for the same HSK exam as you are. Also forums like Chinese Stack Exchange and Chinese Forums allow you to connect to other learners, ask for advice and share knowledge. The bottom line is that teaming up with other motivated individuals (and native speakers!) makes learning Mandarin easier, more fun and rewarding.

02. Don’t trust your teacher to tell you everything you need to know about Mandarin

Everyone has heard of “never trust a doctor”, but how about “never trust a teacher”? How can there be a transfer of skills and knowledge without trust?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t trust your teacher. I’ve had some excellent teachers that felt responsible for my progress and did more to support me than I could reasonably expect from them. But teachers tend to have their own routines and agendas. They like to follow their coursebooks and measure their students’ improvements mainly by test results. Most importantly, they lack the time to give you the support you need, answer your questions and point out personal areas for improvement.

In many cases, they are unaware of useful tools and resources. My Chinese teachers never told me about the existence of essential apps like Pleco, Skritter and Anki for instance. They never told me that my pronunciation had serious flaws. They never told me how to increase my reading speed and deal with other practical problems.

I don’t blame them. I’m thankful for all the support they gave me. At the end of the day, we ourselves are responsible for our learning success. No one else. Gotta problem? Chinese class too slow, too fast, boring, not what you were looking for? I know it’s not always as easy and straightforward, but don’t wait till someone else presents the solution to you. To find it yourself and grow in the process is much more rewarding. Find answers on Chinese learning forums or blogs for example. I found that almost every issue I encountered while learning Chinese, somebody else experienced before me.

03. Invest in learning tools

Language learning is not like ten years ago. Online tools and apps become increasingly important and reshape the learning journey. When you seriously start learning Mandarin, you probably want to spend some money not just on books but also on tools and apps.

The English-Chinese dictionary app Pleco (or alternatively Hanping) is an absolutely essential learning tool – with lots of add-ons that include flashcards and graded readers. Anki and Memrise are popular apps for flashcard learning. They allow you to create your own series of flashcards and track your learning progress. DuoLingo, LingoDeer and HelloChinese are more gamified apps to study new characters, sentence patterns and more.

It’s up to you which apps you want to reward with your trust and money. Obviously, apps aren’t the solution to everything. In most cases, they can’t replace qualified teachers and tutors. However, they can be a valuable extension of your learning. It all depends on your language goals, learning style and time schedule. For instance, if writing Hanzi isn’t that vital to you, you probably don’t want to pay $14.99 for a monthly subscription to Skritter. If, on the other hand, you’re serious about improving your reading skills, apps like The Chairman’s Bao or Du Chinese might be worth paying $45 – $55 for a half a year of tailor-made reading content. If you know which app to pick to work on a certain language skill, you can speed up your progress in unexpected ways. Although you might want to know what you can get for free first:

Learning Mandarin the low budget way - learning resources that you can get for free

04. Finish Pinyin base camp before moving on to Hanzi

Many people ask what’s the right time to start learning Chinese characters, because they can’t wait to dive into them. In my modest experience, there’s no optimal moment. However, I know all too well how easy it is to waste precious time on Hanzi when your Pinyin basis is still sloppy. That includes the grasp of the four tones and frequent tone pairs. Yes, Pinyin isn’t the real deal and you’re practically illiterate if you can’t read Hanzi – that’s true -, but in the long run, investing enough time into a solid Pinyin foundation is worth the slow start.

Learning Pinyin is actually quite fun, because while working on understanding the phonetic system and improving your pronunciation, you can expand your vocabulary without worrying about Chinese characters. Plus, it’s good to know that the number of syllables in Pinyin (for Standard Chinese about 413) is manageable and much less intimidating than the vast amount of Chinese characters.

05. You need to keep working on Pinyin and tones because your teachers won’t

Once you finished Pinyin base camp and can’t bear anymore drills, it’s tempting to close this chapter and never look back. My Chinese teachers seemed to feel the same way, since we would simply hurry on to the next challenge. Less so at my Chinese university: here vocabulary drills and “repeat after me” exercises were common practice. Boring and childish maybe, but useful too if you’re paying attention. Especially since many Mandarin learners seem to think that it’s okay to “speak Mandarin without the tones” or “if you speak fast enough, tones don’t really matter”.

Unfortunately, they matter everything. Just to give one example what can happen if you turn a third tone into a fourth. Instead of saying “Wǒ yǐqián zhù zài Hélán de běifāng” (I used to live in the north of the Netherlands), I said “Wǒ yǐqián zhù zài Hélán de Bèifāng“, which caused my conversation partner to think I used to live in a place in Holland called “Beifang” in Chinese.

It’s also very easy to say that you study Korean (Wǒ xuéxí Hányǔ) instead of Mandarin (Wǒ xuéxí Hànyǔ). A good way to mend such mistakes is by mimicking native speakers and recording your own speech or reading. Don’t hesitate to ask Chinese friends to check your pronunciation (not the whole time of course) and point out mistakes.

06. Drills are actually not that bad

Drills seem to be mostly regarded as a lame and outdated method to learn a foreign language. Many language learners view drills as an outright insult to the intelligent learner who doesn’t gain anything from blindly repeating words and sentences.

I used to feel that way myself. Drills can be effective though, particularly for a language as remote as Mandarin where most newcomers have to start from zero without any point of reference. They help drilling in key vocabulary, sentence patterns and grammar points so that you can not only understand, but also actively use them in real life situations. “Passively knowing something” is not enough, you want to know exactly how to say it and when to say it. Drills pull what you’re learning from the “passive corner” in your brain over to the active corner – so to speak.

There’s no shame in putting such drill exercises on repeat while working out or doing some cleaning. It’s relatively effortless and good for retention. Besides, you can’t hardly do enough listening, even simple stuff like “X 在不在”?or “X 在吗?”. It all adds up eventually and becomes usable. You’re intellectual ego protests? Don’t listen, it really works!

07. Read more on your level

I used to limit my reading to relatively complicated texts from my textbook. In other words, I focused on intensive reading above my level as a means to acquire new vocabulary and learn grammar points. Important, yes, but I noticed a strange thing during my first HSK test: my reading was surprisingly slow! Often I’d get characters mixed up or I’d know the meaning, but couldn’t pronounce the character. At the time, I was a pretty dedicated student who spent up to 8 hours a day studying Chinese, so how was that possible?

Well, maybe it wasn’t so much lack of reading, but the fact that I was mostly reading above my level, always rushing to the next chapter to devour new vocab. Instead, I could have been reading a broader variety of texts on my level (98 percent know words) to improve my reading fluency.

A solution to this are free reading resources like:

Or graded readers that allow you to read more on your level. This is a great way of building up reading fluency and while you’re discovering the story, you’ll learn new words far more naturally than when studying a text.

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.

08. The power of reviewing is undervalued

Spaced Repetition - retention curve

If you’re serious about learning Mandarin, you need some kind of reviewing system to keep track of everything (or rather the most important stuff). It’s easy to fill notebooks with new vocabulary and sentences, but somehow it’s much harder to re-read and memorize them on a regular basis. If you don’t review however, what’s the point of making notes? In fact, when people talk about language learning, they hardly ever mention reviewing routines.

SRS flashcard apps like Anki, Memrize or Pleco’s flashcard add-on probably are the best solution for the more “analytic” type of learner. Their basic function is to help you remember before you forget. But it should also be said, that “overdoing flashcards” has the opposite effect. Because the more vocabulary you add to your decks, the longer it takes to empty your daily queues. In short, the whole scheme loses its effectiveness. Flashcards should never “tyrannize” your studying. A daily, ten to twenty minutes flashcard session is enough.

At the end of the day, your reviewing method depends on your learning style. For people like me who tend towards a more fluid approach, tons of flashcards somewhat take the fun out of the whole thing. After all, people aren’t machines. But that doesn’t mean regular reviewing doesn’t have real benefits.

09. Listen, listen, listen (it takes a long time to understand a normal conversation in Chinese)

For most learners it takes an awful lot of time to be able to follow an average Chinese conversation. The best remedy against this is listening practice. Especially when you’re not in China, Taiwan or any other Chinese speaking environment, probably the next best thing you can do is creating your own digital, immersive environment and listen to as much (comprehensible) Chinese as you can.

The good news is that as long if you have time and internet, you find an endless amount of resources waiting for you. Just enter 听书 on YouTube and be amazed. Listening is probably what you should be doing when you have a bad day, aren’t motivated or can’t focus. Join other motivated learners in a listening challenge to see how many hours a month you can immerse yourself – a fun way to cultivate a healthy listening habit.

Hacking Chinese listening challenge
These “challenges” are organized by Olle Linge (HackingChinese.com)

By the way, I don’t see why listening shouldn’t include watching. Here are some suggestions and more can be found here:

TV Series

  • 外国人在中国 – CCTV docuseries about foreigners living in China
  • 爱情保卫战 – Mainland Chinese live-show where couples fight out their problems on stage (2010)
  • Happy Chinese – educational melodrama produced by the Chinese TV channel CCTV to teach Mandarin to foreigners (2009)
  • 新葫蘆兄弟 – newer adaptation of the Chinese cartoon “Huluwa” (2016)
  • 惹上冷殿下 – Mainland Chinese “idol drama” called “Accidentally in Love” (2018)
  • 绅探 – Detective series set in Shanghai in the 30s called “Detective L” (2019)

Streaming platforms

  • youku.com – Mainland Chinese online video and streaming service platform similar to YouTube with its own streaming services for TV shows and movies. [free / $$$]
  • tv.cctv.com/live – Watch live Mainland Chinese television just like you’re in China. [free]
  • iQiyi – Mainland Chinese video platform based in Beijing. [free / $$$]
  • Tencent Video – Mainland Chinese video streaming website, also available in English. [free / $$$]
  • ifvod.tv – Movies, series, documentaries and more, usually lacking English subtitles for Chinese. Many “non-Chinese” content with Mandarin subtitles. [free]

YouTube Chinese learning channels

09. Use HSK as actionable goal and benchmark, but don’t focus too much on it

HSK is the standardized test for non-native speakers. It consists of six levels (version 2.0) which compose the main frame of reference for Chinese language proficiency. Mandarin learners focus on passing HSK exams and sometimes come to identify with their HSK level in a way that’s out of sync with reality.

In my opinion, HSK mainly prepares you for HSK, not for real life. After taking the HSK 4 and 5 exams, I found that writing HSK basically is a skill that can be trained. Meaning: a major part of HSK prep is studying the exam and not the language. Moreover, HSK (2.0) doesn’t assess oral fluency – arguably the most important language skill in real life.

Although HSK is doubtless an important certificate, actionable goal and benchmark, I’ve never been a fan of HSK-focused learning. Focus on real life communication skills instead and take HSK for what it is: merely a test.

10. You might reach your goals, but you’re never finished

When I started learning Chinese, HSK 4 (which is supposed to equal upper intermediate level) was my ultimate goal. HSK 4 would be sufficient to have conversations with my Chinese family and friends, survive on the streets of China and so on. If I could only accomplish this goal, I’d be satisfied and move on with my life.

After two years of serious studying, I passed HSK 4 with 287 points, but was I “done”?

Although by this time, I was fluent enough for conversations with my Chinese family and friends, the expected feeling of satisfaction never came. Instead, I realized that I had just entered the great realm of the Chinese language and that I was still nowhere near almost-native speakers to be admired on YouTube.

Don’t get me wrong: you can achieve a lot in two years and it’s worth it – but it seems there’s always some greater goal ahead.

Conclusion – you’ll never be the same

If I could start from zero, would I do things differently? Yes – firstly, I probably would join a serious language program much earlier, instead of starting out on my own. Self-studying Mandarin is not impossible, but you have to know what you’re doing. Self-studying becomes more rewarding when you at least have acquired some basics. Secondly, I would stay at least a year in China to get that daily practice and input which is hard to get elsewhere.

To wrap it up here, these ten points only reflect my personal experience. Everybody’s different and there’s no ideal way to learn Mandarin. As with most things in life, you have to find your own way and figure out what works best for you. Oh and by the way, others may not understand, but once you start to think and speak Chinese, you’ll never be the same.

Thanks for visiting my blog! I hope you enjoyed this article. Do you have any language learning advice you wished someone had told you earlier? Feel free to leave a comment down below.

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.

Other posts on Kaohongshu

Slow listening: boost your vocabulary with Mandarin Corner

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

Mandarin Corner for intermediate learning

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

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

Listening modes

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

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

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

Slow listening with Mandarin Corner

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

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

Mandarin Corner: China’s alarming divorce rate

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

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

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

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

The Diplomat, 03.06.2020

Vocabulary

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Diplomat, 03.06.2020

Vocabulary

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

Mandarin Corner: Stereotypes Chinese have of foreigners

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

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

Vocabulary

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

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

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

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

Vocabulary

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

Mandarin Corner: the 996 work culture

Main question: Are Chinese workaholics?

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

Vocabulary

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

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

Affiliate links

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Chinese short stories for beginners
Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system
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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

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My 2021 overview of resources for Mandarin Chinese

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Looking for a more or less comprehensive overview of learning resources for Mandarin Chinese? I hope this list can help you to find the tools you need or try out something new. It’s the product of my own experience learning Chinese and blogging here on Kaohongshu.

PS. Of course this list isn’t complete and it probably never will be. Please let me know if any relevant Mandarin Chinese resources are missing or if I should correct any information provided here.

Mandarin Chinese resources

Table Of Contents

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post 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.

Best Mandarin Chinese Learning Resources for Tones

“Speaking Chinese but without the tones”? Just kidding. If you’re working on your pronunciation, these links can help.

  • Hacking Chinese – A practical guide to Pinyin by Mandarin expert and teacher Olle Linge, explaining common traps and pitfalls. [free]
  • Chinese Pronunciation Wiki – Online resource for pronunciation, tones, and Pinyin sorted by language level (A1, A2, B1). Extensive resource that is still growing. [free]
  • Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills – Progressive method that helps elementary and intermediate students practice tone pairs, designed by John Pasden. [free]
  • Yoyo Chinese Introduction to Mandarin tones and tone pairs [free]
  • Mandarin Tone Trainer – Online exercises to train recognition and pronunciation of Mandarin tones. [free / $$$]
  • ViewVoice – Chinese app that allows you to record your voice and compare your pronunciation to that of native speakers. [free / $$$]
  • Pinyin Master – Gamified app that helps improve pronunciation and listening skills by comparing similar sounding words which are easily mistaken. [free]
  • SpeakGoodChinese – Browser application to train Mandarin tones, offers instant visual feedback and tips for your pronunciation. Voice settings can be problematic. [free]

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Listening Material

The good news: there’s an overabundance of Chinese spoken audio. The bad news: it’s hard to find “comprehensible input” that fits your interests and language level. Here’s an overview of podcasts, Chinese music and audiobooks.

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Podcasts

Mandarin Chinese podcasts for beginners

  • ChinesePod – An enormous library of podcasts [free / $$$]
  • Coffee Break Chinese: partly free content, Chinese-English [free / $$$]
  • I love learning Chinese – Out-of-date website but lots of audio material with transcript and vocabulary list. Not only for beginners [free]

Mandarin Chinese podcasts for intermediate learners

Mandarin Chinese podcasts for advanced learners

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Music

Music is probably the most pleasant form of language immersion. Tastes differ though, here are some random suggestions.

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Audiobooks

Here’s an overview of Mandarin spoken audiobook websites. Most audiobooks found here definitely qualify for advanced listening. For learners that haven’t reached that level yet listening to the audio of graded readers might proof a better choice.

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese with TV & Video

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Chinese TV & video platforms

The following video platforms offer an overload of Mandarin content, their websites mostly are Hanzi-only.

  • youku.com – Mainland Chinese online video and streaming service platform similar to YouTube with its own streaming services for TV shows and movies. [free / $$$]
  • tv.cctv.com/live – Watch live Mainland Chinese television just like you’re in China. [free]
  • iQiyi – Mainland Chinese video platform based in Beijing. [free / $$$]
  • Tencent Video – Mainland Chinese video streaming website, also available in English. [free / $$$]
  • viki.com – American video streaming website that specializes on Asian TV shows and movies, with English subtitles. [free / $$$]
  • tv.sohu.com – Mainland Chinese video platform based in Beijing. [free / $$$]
  • ifvod.tv – Movies, series, documentaries and more, usually lacking English subtitles for Chinese. Many “non-Chinese” content with Mandarin subtitles. [free]
  • PPTV – Mainland Chinese video streaming website. [free / $$$]
  • 56.com and Tudou – Mainland Chinese video sharing websites, both headquartered in Shanghai, where users can upload, view and share video clips. [free]

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: TV shows and series

This is my selection of some commonly recommended Mandarin spoken TV shows and series.

Mandarin Chinese TV shows and series for beginners

Mandarin Chinese TV shows and series for intermediate learners

  • 外国人在中国 – CCTV docuseries about foreigners living in China
  • 爱情保卫战 – Mainland Chinese live-show where couples fight out their problems on stage (2010)
  • Happy Chinese – educational melodrama produced by the Chinese TV channel CCTV to teach Mandarin to foreigners (2009)
  • 新葫蘆兄弟 – newer adaptation of the Chinese cartoon “Huluwa” (2016)
  • 惹上冷殿下 – Mainland Chinese “idol drama” called “Accidentally in Love” (2018)
  • 绅探 – Detective series set in Shanghai in the 30s called “Detective L” (2019)
  • 我的前半生 – Mainland Chinese drama series called “The First Half of my Life” (2017)
  • 欢乐颂 – A Mainland Chinese drama about five women who live on the 22nd floor of an apartment complex in Shanghai called “Ode To Joy” (2016)
  • 爱情公寓 – a sitcom from Mainland China called “iPartment” (2009)
  • 下一站是幸福 – Mainland Chinese television series about a love story between an accomplished career woman and a younger man, English title: “Find yourself” (2020)
  • 我只喜欢你 – Mainland Chinese TV-series called “Le Coup De Foudre” (2019)
  • 世界青年说 – Mainland Chinese talk-show that hosts a panel of foreigners living in China, holding discussions in Mandarin on various topics and issues called “A Bright World” (2015)
  • 奔跑吧兄弟 – Mainland Chinese reality game show called “Running Man” (2014-2016)

Mandarin Chinese TV shows and series for advanced learners

  • 锵锵三人行 – Famous talk show produced in Hongkong (1998 – 2017)
  • 铁齿铜牙纪晓岚 – This Mainland Chinese historical television series is about philosopher-politician Ji Xiaolan and based on events during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor in the Qing dynasty. English title: “The Eloquent Ji Xiaolan” (2002 – 2010)
  • 雍正王朝 – Mainland Chinese historical television series called “Yongzheng Dynasty” (1999)
  • 走向共和 – Mainland Chinese historical television series about the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China called “For the Sake of the Republic” (2003)
  • 人民的名义 – Mainland Chinese TV drama series about government corruption, considered as the Chinese version of House of Cards. English title: “In the Name of the People” (2017)
  • 精英律师 – Mainland Chinese drama series called “The Gold Medal Lawyer” (2019)
  • 都挺好 – Mainland Chinese family called “All is well” (2019)

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese on YouTube

Chinese lessons on YouTube

These YouTube channels offer Mandarin video lessons and are worth checking out. Difficulty level, use of English, teaching experience, teaching style and pace vary. In my personal YouTube top 10 I discuss them in more detail.

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Textbooks

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Books about learning Mandarin

Best Mandarin Chinese Learning Resources: Chinese learning forums

Chinese learning forums: here you can ask questions, share knowledge and connect with other learners. You got a particular Mandarin learning problem you’re struggling with? You need help with a translation? Here you’ll probably find the right answer and the help you need.

  • Chinese Forums – Longstanding forum for learners of the Chinese language. It’s hard to find a Mandarin-related topic that hasn’t been covered on this forum.
  • Chinese Stack Exchange – Another longstanding forum for students, teachers, and linguists discussing the ins and outs of the Chinese language. Extensive list of topics and questions.
  • Pleco Software Forum – Online community of Pleco dictionary users.
  • Reddit’s r/ChineseLanguage – Questions and answers on almost any topic related to Mandarin.
  • WordReference.com – For any linguistic questions related to Mandarin and translations between Chinese and any other language.
  • Duolingo Chinese Forum – Online community of Duolingo Mandarin learners.

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Dictionaries

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Dictionary apps

  • Pleco – Dictionary app with handwriting recognition, Hanzi stroke animations, audio pronunciation, document reader, flashcard system (premium feature), full-screen handwriting input and live camera-based character search (premium feature) and other features. [free / $$$]
  • Hanping Chinese Dictionary Lite – Dictionary app with Chinese handwriting recognition, Hanzi stroke animations, audio pronunciation, soundboard for Pinyin and other features [free] or Hanping Chinese Dictionary Pro with even more Hanzi stoke animations, AnkiDroid Flashcards support and additional premium features. [$$$]

Related posts

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Popup dictionaries for browsers

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Web dictionaries for Mandarin Chinese

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Grammar

Yes, Mandarin Chinese does have grammar.

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Reading Material 

When it comes to improving your reading skills in Mandarin the main challenge is to find proper texts that suit your level and needs. Paid online resources tend to offer a wider range of materials and additional features. Below I listed some free and paid resources with an indication of their difficulty level.

Mandarin Chinese reading resources: Free online resources

Mandarin Chinese reading resources: Non-free online resources

  • The Chairman’s Bao – Comprehensive news-based graded reader for students of Chinese, lots of new articles added weekly (all levels)
  • Du Chinese – Popular Mandarin reading app, intuitive and practical interface, includes English translations (all levels)
  • Decipher Chinese – Reading app with engaging articles written for learners (all levels)

Mandarin Chinese reading resources: Graded readers and more

One thing that cannot be stressed enough is the importance of reading when learning Mandarin, especially so-called extensive reading, which is basically reading as broadly as you can within your level. Not just for more advanced learners, but for beginners too! That’s where graded readers come in. They help your brain to adapt to Hanzi, speed up your reading and – perhaps most importantly – to grow your vocabulary.

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Flashcards & Vocabulary Training

The following apps operate with a spaced repetition system to help you handle large quantities of new vocabulary. Each has its unique features:

  • Pleco – Its built-in flashcard system allows you to create flashcards quickly based on dictionary entries. Very comfortable if Pleco is already your dictionary of choice. The flashcard feature is a paid add-on module that includes HSK word lists. [$$$]
  • Skritter – Skritter (for Android and iOS) also provides a built-in flashcard system and lots of pre-made word lists to choose from. The app does a good job on introducing new vocabulary with examples too. Skritter’s “core business” is improving Hanzi writing skills though. [$$$]
  • Anki – Supposedly less user-friendly, but very effective flashcard tool once you know how this free computer software works. Plenty of shared decks for Chinese provided by other learners you can profit from. Anki is also available as app for Android (free) and iOS ($$$).
  • Daily Chinese – Simple & effective vocabulary trainer providing helpful ready-made word lists for intermediate and advanced learners who want to expand their vocabulary in specific areas, from economics to sports and computer software. [free / $$$]
  • Chinese Flash Cards Kit for HSK Levels 1 & 2 – Actual flashcards for Mandarin learners who prefer the old-school way (which is completely fine).

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Writing Characters

Learn to write Chinese characters by using “old-fashioned” books or an app like Skritter that instantly corrects every wrong stroke or dot (and more beyond):

  • Skritter – Probably is the number-one application for writing and understanding Chinese characters, also well-known for its spaced repetition supported vocabulary training. [free / $$$]
  • Reading and Writing Chinese (2,349 Chinese Characters and 5,000+ Compounds) – Guide to reading and writing Chinese characters, both simplified and traditional, study book as well as resource for reference. [$$$]
  • Scripts by Drops – A popular app that introduces Chinese characters and radicals, offering a gamified learning experience for visual learners. [free / $$$]
  • Daily Mandarin – A very basic app, designed to practice writing all level HSK characters. [free]
  • Kangxi – A game-based app that helps you group characters by their radicals. [free]

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Apps for Mandarin Chinese

A selection of popular and less popular apps that give a taste of the language and help expand your Mandarin skills in an entertaining way.

  • HelloChinese – A gamified learning app for absolute beginners with many free lessons. [free / $$$]
  • LingoDeer – Language learning app that offers a solid introduction to beginners, many features behind paywall, similar to Duolingo. [free / $$$]
  • NinChanese – A gamified learning platform that is based on the HSK curriculum. [free / $$$]
  • Pandanese – Vocabulary training platform, browser-only, with free trial. [free / $$$]
  • Drops – Learn vocabulary through mini-games and mnemonics, free version is limited to one 5-minute session per day. [free / $$$]
  • Memrise A gamified flashcard app that uses spaced repetition to support your vocabulary learning. [free / $$$]
  • Learn Chinese – ChineseSkill – A learning app for Mandarin Chinese beginners offering a variety of mini-lessons. [free / $$$]
  • Infinite Chinese – A learning app based on interactive mini-games. [free]
  • Super Chinese – A gamified learning app with animated videos and thematic lessons. [free / $$$]

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Online Tutors and Language Partners

Tutoring platforms help to match teachers to students who want to learn a new language. They allow you to book classes directly with a (Chinese) teacher. Usually, these lessons are more like complementary learning sessions than a structured, step-by-step course.

  • Italki – An online tutoring platform with probably the biggest range of teachers to choose from. [$$$]
  • Verbling – An online tutoring platform similar to Italki. [$$$]
  • Preply – Find native speakers and certified private tutors. [$$$]
  • Amazingtalker – An online tutoring platform that connects students with language teachers. [$$$]
  • HelloTalk – Phone app for finding language tandem partners. [free]
  • Instant Mandarin – A 1-to-1 online Chinese learning platform with certified Chinese tutors [$$$]

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: HSK

More on Kaohongshu

趙雷 – 三十岁的女人 (2014)

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

三十岁的女人 – 30 year old woman

她是个三十岁 至今还没有结婚的女人

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

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

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

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

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

日落后 最美的
时光已溜走
日落后 最美的 已溜走

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

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

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


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

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

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

Zhao Lei’s “outdated views about women”

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

Source: Baidu Wiki

The leftover woman horror scenario

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

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

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

Comment on YouTube

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

What do Chinese really thing about “leftover women”?

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

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

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

Getting fluent in Mandarin: Underestimating the four tones

3

In the process of Mandarin learning you’re never “done”. That’s especially true for the four tones. This video by Mandarin expert LeLe Farley reminded me that the mā-má-mǎ-màway people typically think of the four tones is wrong. LeLe reveals some other interesting things as well.

Mastering the tones

In this first episode of LeLe Linguistics, LeLe Farley walks you through “the first step” to achieving fluency in Chinese: mastering the tones.

LeLe Farley is a rising star on YouTube. What he has to say about learning Mandarin should be taken quite seriously, since his fluency in Mandarin and accurate pronunciation are outstanding and he doesn’t beat around the bush as to how he got there.

Who is LeLe Farley? In his own words: “Grew up in Texas, college in ATL, post grad in Beijing. Now, I’ve come to LaLaLand to try and make a name for myself as a Chinese English bilingual rapper and comedian. Banned in the PRC, but hope to return one day.”

He’s an interesting and wildly creative guy. Let’s examine his take on the four tones in Mandarin Chinese. He starts off debunking a common “misunderstanding” about them…

1. “Don’t think tones aren’t important”

YouTube comment: "I always loved those people who said they speak Chinese without the tones"

LeLe notes that many learners of Mandarin seem to think that tones aren’t that crucial to becoming fluent or that 差不多 (“almost right”) is good enough. Don’t believe Chinese people who complement you on your excellent 中文, he adds, most of the time they are just being polite – they might hardly understand what you’re saying.

Bottom line: hitting the tones right is essential for comprehension. You may not hear the difference, but they do. I don’t think LeLe means to say that you have to hit EVERY single tone a 100 percent right, but rather that you should put some real effort into it.

2. “Tones are not for beginners only…”

YouTube comment: "98 % of the foreigners learning Chinese can't get their tones right"

I argued in earlier post that it’s best practice to get the tones right from the start in drill-like fashion, meaning repeating nothing but tones and Pinyin for at least two weeks. While I still think that’s extremely helpful and necessary, it’s just as important, as LeLe explains in his video, to keep at it. Instead of gradually lowering “tone quality standards” once you’ve finished base camp. I couldn’t agree more with his message that if tones don’t come natural to you, you have to learn them the hard way. A long-term endeavor that will involve getting your ego hurt from time to time again. This of course is not something that learners want to hear, but it’s the truth anyway.

3. “Don’t learn tones, learn tone combinations instead”

YouTube comment: "You just taught me more about the tones than my mainland Chinese teachers"
(16 tones = tone combinations)

LeLe emphasizes you shouldn’t just learn the four tones in isolation, but learn their frequent combinations. As most words in Mandarin consist of two syllables, this makes a lot of sense. These “basic units” keep coming back.

Although I don’t like this kind of diagrams much – they remind me of similar ones for German grammar – , the point is to memorize these tone patterns and – over time – store them as little soundbites in your brain. New vocabulary can be shaped and pronounced accordingly.

Mandarin tone patterns 16 + 4

The next step to sound even more native-like would be to put these words in a sentence, since they too typically exist in a larger unit.

4. “The third tone is the tricky one”

LeLe explains why the third tone and the 3-2-combo in particular is the nastiest one to most learners. Even many Chinese teachers seem to be confused about the exact pronunciation of the third tone. They may pronounce it correctly; explaining how it changes in certain combinations can be a problem though. As a student you probably don’t get the relevance of this at first. That’s why you have to keep at it while you advance, record yourself and mimic native speakers.

Further reading

The way the four tones are being taught is evolving as are the linguistics behind it. Equally important, in my opinion, are intonation, stress and rhythm which determine for a large part whether you sound “native” or not (imagine a foreigner speaking Mandarin with a French intonation). How much time did your teacher(s) spend explaining these “musical qualities”?

By the way, LeLe Farley is not the first to come up with all this:

Learn tone patterns on YouTube

Good for practicing: In this video not merely the 4 tones are introduced, but the 16 frequent tone combinations are also covered at some length.

I hope you enjoyed this short article. Feel free to let me know your take on the four tones in the comments.

Affiliate links

Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system
Mandarin Chinese Picture Dictionary: Learn 1,500 Key Chinese Words and Phrases
Chinese short stories for beginners
Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners (English and Chinese Edition)
Chinese For Dummies
Essential Mandarin Chinese Grammar: Write and Speak Chinese Like a Native
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
Chinese Flash Cards Kit Volume 1: HSK Levels 1 & 2 Elementary Level: Characters 1-349

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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 totalitarian 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.

The film was based on the novel by Yu Hua, the excellent (Chinese) audiobook of which can be found on YouTube. The novel differs in some critical points from the movie. On the whole, the novel is even more dramatic.

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 : )

Affiliate links

Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system
Mandarin Chinese Picture Dictionary: Learn 1,500 Key Chinese Words and Phrases
Chinese short stories for beginners
Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners (English and Chinese Edition)
Chinese For Dummies
Essential Mandarin Chinese Grammar: Write and Speak Chinese Like a Native
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
Chinese Flash Cards Kit Volume 1: HSK Levels 1 & 2 Elementary Level: Characters 1-349

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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

Reading above your level: Game of Thrones in Chinese

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Reading is key to expanding your vocabulary. I finally felt ready for reading a serious work of fiction in Chinese. Not an abridged version, not a children’s edition, but the real thing. This is how it went…

Some thoughts on reading in Chinese

Not at your level

Most of the content you find free available on the web isn’t at your particular level and doesn’t necessarily fit in with the vocabulary and sentence patterns you’ve covered so far. Graded readers are the best solution, but their pricey – you want to read more than just one – and chiefly written for beginners and lower intermediates. So once you’re past that level, there’s practically everything and nothing you could pick to read.

Don’t read about the southward expansion during the Qin Dynasty

If you do wish to continue reading, best pick a topic you’re familiar with. If it’s a book, choose one you know by heart. I’ve been looking for The Hobbit in Mandarin for example. Since I’ve read it in Dutch and English, I’m already familiar with the names, places and storyline. I merely have to get used to Gandalf speaking Mandarin to Bilbo and the dwarfs.

Weixin Dushu app by Tencent
The app Weixin DuShu by Tencent

Weixin DuShu – 微信读书

I used the app called Weixin DuShu, produced by Tencent and somewhat similar to Amazon’s Kindle. It’s usually linked to a WeChat account and not that well-known outside of China. It’s main attraction: it gives access to a great number of Chinese books.

Tencent…?

Tencent, by the way, was the company that released a mobile game titled “Clap for Xi Jinping: An Awesome Speech“, in which players have 19 seconds to generate as many claps as possible for Xi. Another interesting fact is that they got this big mainly by piracy or like Jack Ma of Alibaba Group stated, “The problem with Tencent is the lack of innovation; all of their products are copies.” Worst of all, the Chinese company plays a major role in mass surveillance and implementing censorship in China.

The app itself

Weixin DuShu is not optimized for language learning, but it does allow you to look up words in a Chinese-Chinese dictionary or underline certain characters. It’s not completely free. You enjoy unlimited access to the Weixin library for about a month, than you have to pay to read on. This can be avoided if others send you a book invitation and it seems you then can keep on reading for “free” more or less permanently.

Some features I find useful:

  • Change the font size: reading slightly larger characters can make reading a lot more comfortable.
  • Search the Chinese-Chinese dictionary or search the web: unfortunately, no English translation included.
  • Listening: the AI voice isn’t even that bad! You can listen entire chapters conveniently on your phone or tablet.
  • Offline-mode: continue reading when you’re offline.
  • Comment function: Nobody likes library books with little scribbles all over, but in this app everybody can comment on a word or passage. Not essential, but nice anyway.

Reading Game of Thrones in Chinese

Now to the book itself. Reading the first volume of the series proofed more difficult than I thought. Except for graded readers I’d never read a whole novel written in Mandarin before. Here’s what I struggled with:

Unknown vocabulary…

It’s words like usurper (篡夺者), lord (贵族), bastard (私生子女), armor (甲胄), queen mother (母后) that are new to me. The same goes for vocabulary like loot (洗劫), heir (继承人), the king slayer (弑君者), pray (祝祷) and many other less frequently used words.

Chengyu or Chinese idioms

If you’re familiar with the mostly four character idioms: great. If you aren’t, you’re left to guess. Sometimes they could just mean anything! Here’s a selection of the chengyu I encountered while reading the first chapters:

  • 措手不及 – be caught unprepared
  • 大失所望 – to one’s great disappointment
  • 摇摇摆摆 – swaggering
  • 视如无睹 – take no notice of what one sees
  • 口无遮拦 – have a loose tongue
  • 自然而然 – naturally
  • 甜言蜜语 – sweet words and honeyed phrases
  • 野心勃勃 – be overweeningly ambitious
  • 名垂青史 – go down in history
  • 忠心耿耿 – loyal and devoted

Much description…

Although compared to J.R.R. Tolkien George R.R. Martin’s novels are written more straightforwardly and the narration flows much quicker, the author does have lots of heroes and history to introduce to get the story going. Martin takes his time describing swords and the history and mindset of the royal houses. Sometimes minor details contain important clues about places, characters or events. This doesn’t make for easy reading.

The names…

With every royal house having its own family history, the story shifting back and forth between different places and protagonists, remembering all the names is tricky enough, even in English. But in Chinese the who-is-who turns into a guessing game of a whole different category. Sometimes you don’t even recognize the characters at hand as a name. Judging from the sound of the Pinyin you may connect “Nai de” to “Ned” and “Shi ta ke” to “Stark” or – more likely – you don’t and wonder who the hell “Qiong en Xue nuo” is (it’s Jon Snow) and why a person named “Robb” should be called “Luo bai” and so on.

Like others before me I don’t get the “system” behind the translations, but I accept them. A few more examples:

  • 艾德·史塔克
  • 凱特琳·史塔克
  • 羅柏·史塔克
  • 珊莎·史塔克
  • 艾莉亞·史塔克
  • 布蘭·史塔克
  • 席恩·葛雷喬伊
  • 瓊恩·雪諾
  • 提利昂·蘭尼斯特
  • 詹姆·蘭尼斯特
  • 瑟曦·蘭尼斯特

A longer list you can find here. I’ll put out the English names in the comments later on.

Overall difficulty

For an upper intermediate learner like me (HSK 5 / 6 – for what it’s worth) who has watched the entire series the novel is still astonishingly tough to read in Mandarin and I didn’t make it all the way through. I did manage to pick up some speed (still 10 times slower than me reading in English), combining and switching between two reading styles: Intensive reading for detail, extensive reading for speed and breadth. It still took me ages to finish the first five chapters, so I guess I have to admit that this novel is above my level still. The experiment was enjoyable though. I did learn lots of new details that somehow didn’t make it into the series, not to mention words like bastard (私生子女!) and king slayer (弑君者!) in Chinese.

Do you have any thoughts on reading in Chinese? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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.