Reading Game of Thrones in Chinese: “it’ll be fun, they said”

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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 relevant 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. I knew it could be done though and I gradually picked up speed, combining and switching between two reading styles: Intensive reading for detail, extensive reading for speed and breadth. I still progressed rather slowly. I do envy those who can read Chinese as fast as their native language, but you gotta start somewhere and nobody said it was going to be easy. 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.

Ideology in Chinese textbooks

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

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

Screenshot from the Karate Kid

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

Ideology and politics

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

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

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

The Chinese Reader (1972, Beijing)

The Chinese Reader series, 1972, Beijing

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

Sacrifices for a socialist future

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

Dong Cunrui – a true warrior

Dong Cunrui, a Chinese warrior hero?

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

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

Kim Jong-Un

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

Liu Hulan, a Chinese hero?

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

“敌人把刘胡兰带到了一座庙里,匪军连长恶狠狠地问 : “你叫刘胡兰?”

“刘胡兰回答 我就是刘胡兰!”

“你跟八路军哪些人走联系?”

“和谁也没联系!”

“没联系? 有人已经供出你是共产党员了!”

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

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

Revolutionary vocabulary

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

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

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

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

Jordan Peterson

Ideology-free learning?

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

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

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

Flashcards: Anki vs Pleco

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Both apps have been around, but which one is the best spaced repetition vocabulary trainer and why? The ongoing debate about the best flashcard system for learning Mandarin seems to point towards the dictionary app Pleco.

What both Anki and Pleco deliver

  • Organize and review vocabulary with less effort
  • Relieve your brain with spaced repetition software that helps you to remember large quantities of words, while allowing you to focus on new or hard words
  • Download or import ready to use flashcard decks
  • Review “whenever, wherever”
  • Customize decks to your needs

What makes Pleco different

  • It’s Pleco’s built-in flashcard system. If you’re already using the dictionary, it’s sort of natural to build your own flashcard lists and use Pleco as a all-in-one solution for learning vocabulary.
  • Can be combined with the Pleco reader: it allows you to directly create flashcards from any given text
  • The flashcard contains the complete dictionary entry, including example sentences.
  • Sound is integrated
  • Ready-made lists of HSK-flashcards
  • Lists can be imported and exported between different users and devices
  • The current US-price is $9.99 for Android and iOS

What makes Anki unique

  • Is a flashcard system that’s not limited to Chinese. It can be used for different languages and subjects.
  • You can create your own flashcards. You want to make a set of Chinese grammar points with example sentences? No problem. You want to make a set of the 52 taiji moves you’re currently practicing? No problem. You can make whatever set you want.
  • You can import lists from the Anki community which offers a lot for Chinese learners. More than just HSK-lists by the way and in different languages. There is one “but”: they are not always free of mistakes.
  • Sound can be included (you can add or record your own sound), but not all sets have sound.
  • The desktop- and android- version of the software are free, the iOS-version costs 27,99€. Anki used to be considered a desktop-based application.

The limitations of Anki and Pleco

Both won’t solve all your life problems. They won’t be of much help learning completely new words for example or improving your listening skills. That’s not their purpose.

For what purpose they should be used

However, Anki and Pleco are powerful tools to organize your reviewing and keep track of things, especially when you’re starting to feel lost and new vocabulary just keeps adding up. Create the decks you need and both apps will support you to structure the reviewing process. “Difficult” cards will resurface again and again, while “the easy ones” won’t bother you for days.

That’s where both apps are most helpful. Reviewing with spaced repetition software is a healthy habit to cultivate, but it should never be your main focus, since there is no such thing as reviewing for the sake of reviewing. As a rule of thumb, it shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes everyday.

Which to pick?

Both apps take some getting used to and have their pros and cons. Much depends on which devices you are using and how much money you want to spend.

Why many people prefer Pleco is because they are already using it as a dictionary. When you are looking up words for homework or when watching a Chinese TV-show, it’s only a small step (or sum) to create flashcards and review what you are learning. This learner actually used both apps and at the end clearly preferred Pleco:

I started out using Anki because I had heard of it first, and also because it was free (and I was a poor student). It was fine when I was just using one of the ready-made downloadable decks. But when I started learning words other than from decks, I found it too much of a hassle to add all those new words into Anki manually. Pleco let me add words much more easily, and I usually had to look those words up on Pleco first anyway, to get the meaning right. (Incidentally, Pleco does have a function that allows you to export your flashcards so that you can use them in Anki, but they don’t look as nice with the tones and don’t come with the pronunciation.)  So if you’re still deciding between the two and you’re serious about wanting to learn Chinese, my advice is – spend the US$10-15 and buy Pleco’s flashcard program. It’s easily the best money I’ve spent on learning Chinese so far.

https://discoverchinese.tumblr.com/post/63902496202/which-flashcard-program-pleco-vs-anki (October 13, 2013)

While other learners may prefer Anki for the many options it offers. Maybe you want to create your own deck of grammar points or make a set of particular phrases to prepare for your Chinese oral exam. Maybe you prefer your own examples to those Pleco offers. Maybe you want to use your personal notes. Once you’ve discovered how to make proper use of Anki, you can make any deck you want:

Other programs may have functions Anki lack (such as creating flashcards directly from dictionaries or automatically adding sentences), but no other program beats Anki when it comes to versatility. You can use it for anything you like, you can customize anything you like and if you aren’t a programming maven yourself, there will be others who might have already written the plugin providing the extra features you require.

https://www.hackingchinese.com/anki-a-friendly-intelligent-spaced-learning-system/ (January 8, 2011)

Which app is most popular?

I have noticed though that in this ongoing debate the Pleconians have gained the upper hand. The main argument is convenience. Like I said before, Pleco is the “all-in-one solution”. Many people value the fact they can update their flashcards and review characters they looked up yesterday when they are on the bus or whenever they have time to kill. The Pleco flashcard system is straightforward, whereas Anki can be a bit overwhelming for first time users.

Anyway, let me know what you think about Pleco or Anki. Have you tried other apps that work just as well? Please comment below.