My 2020 overview of resources for Mandarin Chinese

3

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 resources are missing or if I should correct any information provided here.

Table Of Contents

  • Tones
  • Listening Material (podcasts, music, audiobooks)
  • TV & Video
  • YouTube channels
  • Textbooks for Mandarin
  • Books about learning Mandarin
  • Dictionaries
  • Grammar
  • Reading Material (graded readers)
  • Flashcards & Vocabulary Training
  • Writing Characters
  • Apps for Mandarin Chinese
  • Online Tutors and Language Partners
  • HSK

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.

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]
  • 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]

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.

Podcasts

Beginner

  • 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 just for beginners [free]

Intermediate

Advanced

Music

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

Audiobooks

Here’s an overview of Mandarin spoken audiobooks. Most of them 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 in most cases.

TV & Video

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]

List of TV shows and series

This is a very random selection of Mandarin spoken TV shows and series.

Beginner

Intermediate

  • 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)

Advanced

  • 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)

YouTube channels

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.

Textbooks for Mandarin

Books about learning Mandarin

Dictionaries

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 / $$$]
  • Hanping Chinese Dictionary Lite – Dictionary app with Chinese handwriting recognition, Hanzi stroke animations, audio pronunciation, soundboard for Pinyin and other features [free] or Hanping Chinese Dictionary Pro with even more Hanzi stoke animations, AnkiDroid Flashcards support and additional premium features. [$$$]

Relevant posts

Popup dictionaries for browsers

Web dictionaries for Mandarin Chinese

Grammar

Yes, Mandarin Chinese does have grammar.

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.

Free online resources

Non-free online resources

  • The Chairman’s Bao – Comprehensive news-based graded reader for students of Chinese (all levels)
  • Du Chinese – Popular Mandarin reading app (all levels)
  • Decipher Chinese – Reading app with engaging articles written for learners (all levels)

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.

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).

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]

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 / $$$]
  • Infinite Chinese – A learning app based on interactive mini-games. [free]
  • Super Chinese – A gamified learning app with animated videos and thematic lessons. [free / $$$]

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]

HSK

5 apps that help you to understand and write Chinese characters

From the great number of apps that claim to boost your Mandarin skills only a few focus specifically on understanding and writing Chinese characters. I tested five of them and only one application really convinced me. Here’s my top 5 of apps for learning Hanzi.

Learning Chinese characters is relatively difficult. In my view, it’s not so much the ancient writing system itself that poses a problem, but primarily the teaching and study methods we use for Hanzi. Even in this decade of the 21st century, lots of people continue to “binch-write” Hanzi (for example write the character 爱 30 times) hoping that this somehow is enough for our brain. There’s nothing wrong with diligence, is this really the best method we got though?

Let’s imagine for one second that our best teaching methods and study practices can flow into an app that makes learning Hanzi easier, more efficient and fun, both for beginners and more experienced learners. Which apps can meet these straightforward qualifications?

5. Daily Mandarin

Daily Mandarin Hanzi practice for iOS
88.8 MB, iOS only

Daily Mandarin is a very basic app designed to practice writing all level HSK characters and uhm.. that’s about it. You simply open one of the six well-known HSK-vocabulary lists in the app, select a character you want to practice and the app will show the stroke order and play the audio. If you feel you’re getting the hang of it, hide the stroke order. Additionally, you can look up characters with the search function. The app is completely free.

Unlike Scripts, Daily Mandarin is not very practical in terms of daily use. Where to start with 5000 characters to learn? How to memorize them all? These questions need answering, but Daily Mandarin doesn’t give any clues, let alone any form of spaced repetition. It’s pretty much like being handed a dictionary. This reveals a lack of didactic considerations on the side of the developers. Besides, they could have made the character writing smoother.

Bottom line: Daily Mandarin is a potentially helpful app, but how to properly use it remains unclear.

4. Scripts

"Scripts by Drops": Learn Chinese characters, the Korean alphabet or the Japanese writing system with illustrations and mini games.
31 MB, Android and iOS

Scripts by Drops is a popular app for introducing you to new writing systems, Chinese Hanzi being one of them. It’s designed for a gamified learning experience, making the first steps into the world of Hanzi as amusing and colorful as possible.

The free version allows you to learn the most common radicals, including stroke order, visualized meaning and pronunciation, for five minutes. After this 5-minute session you have to wait for ten hours to have another go. Why? Well, to quote the app developers:

Limiting learning time may sound counter-intuitive but it makes Drops Scripts incredibly addictive. And that’s a good thing in terms of language learning. The obstacles standing in your way of finally starting to read and write in a new language are made obsolete. No excuses: you ALWAYS have 5 minutes!

Addiction in this particular case indeed isn’t a bad thing. Being limited to 5-minute sessions is though. The only solution – you guessed it – is to upgrade to the premium version which offers you:

  • Access to BOTH Scripts and Drops Premium
  • Unlimited practice session times
  • More topics
  • No ads and offline access

Which – to be honest – is not that spectacular – assuming we’re only interested in writing Hanzi (Scripts) and less in learning vocabulary (Drops). Browsing the free version of Scripts I merely noticed the usual list of Hanzi radicals which you can find almost anywhere. What’s more, study up all of them is not necessary for beginners – apart from being pretty dull – since most radicals are character components, not actual characters that you use on a daily basis! Moreover, you first have to know a substantial number of Chinese characters to grasp and appreciate the actual use of (all) radicals. So for me to purchase the premium version I’d definitely need to see a broader variety of content first.

Apart from this lack of vocabulary, the biggest downside is – as we now know – intended: the 5-minute session limit. This makes the free version almost useless for beginners, because 5 minutes simply isn’t enough. Going premium currently costs €5/month (yearly subscription) or € 8.49 (monthly subscription).

3. Kangxi

KangXi: learn characters by their radicals
Size 12,9 MB, free, iOS only

Kangxi is a fun app which focuses on radicals. Basically it’s a game in which you match characters with the same radical as quick as you can. There are five HSK levels to choose from, audio and traditional characters included. It’s a quick and painless method to boost your knowledge of radicals and certainly worth a try.

The only issue I have with the Kangxi app is that in some cases knowing the radical isn’t very advantageous. The developer arguably could have picked more ‘meaningful’ semantic components instead, but then the app wouldn’t be called Kangxi, I suppose.

2. Hanzi Study

Size 11 MB, Android only

This app should be called HSK Hanzi Study, since it ‘only’ contains the 2600 characters from the HSK-test (2.0). Hanzi study provides you with a self-paced learning structure that breaks down all that vocabulary into manageable bits, namely 6 grades with a X number of lessons.

HSK 1 consists of 9 lessons teaching you 20 words each for example. The characters in each lesson seem to be randomly put together, which in my opinion is just as good or bad as alphabetic order. You get a short “briefing” for each new character, showing:

  • Example sentences
  • Stroke order and stroke count
  • Radical of each character
  • Frequency

That’s nice! Here comes the ‘but’:

  • Upgrade needed for the test function (€2.09)
  • No audio in the free version
  • Example sentences are too difficult for beginners
  • Can’t remove Pinyin during test, no traditional characters

The app isn’t complete without the test / flashcard function. Without it, you’re only able to preview the lessons, but can’t track or indeed test your progress.

1. Skritter

Size 30 MB, for Android and iOS

Yes, yes. Skritter. For anybody serious about mastering writing Chinese characters Skritter is the best app I’ve used so far, but also one of the most expensive (monthly subscription $14.99, yearly subscription $99.99). But if you’re really invested in Mandarin and thinking long-term, Skritter probably is the number-one tool for writing Hanzi and vocabulary training.

I know this intro kind of sounds like affiliate marketing, but this how I feel about Skritter. It’s worth checking Skritter’s browser version and especially the app. The free version naturally only offers a small taste of Skritter’s functions, where as premium subscribers get the full deal:

  • Learn to write Chinese characters and deepen your understanding of Hanzi (radicals, semantic components, stroke order)
  • Lots of content (HSK, commonly used textbooks and decks created by users)
  • Learning history and progress tracking
  • Master characters in three steps: learn, test and review with spaced repetition (this order is actually pedagogically responsible which can’t be said for all learning tools)
  • Skritter’s little game ‘Time Attack’: test your writing skills in a race against time (lots of fun, even for natives who want to refresh their handwriting)

It’s the kind of language tool I wished I’d discovered earlier, because – let’s be honest here – I wasted insane amounts of time studying Hanzi with old-fashioned methods, writing, rewriting and then forgetting them again. I believe Skritter – when used properly – can ‘professionalize’ this whole process and make it more efficient and rewarding.

You not only save, but you also win time, since you can use Skritter to study anywhere and anytime you feel like it. Skritter’s SRS also makes it much harder to forget what you learned. SRS is never perfect, but it’s much better than studying at whim and more efficient in the long run. Furthermore, the app allows you to keep track of your progress, so you know exactly where you’re at and what you’ve been learning.

Does Skritter have to be so expensive? Well, I don’t know, but as far as I can tell it’s the only serious tool for writing Chinese characters on the market. Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself if Skritter works for you and whether or not is its money’s worth.

Of course this is list is far from complete. Which apps have been particularly helpful to your Hanzi adventure? Any apps that should be included in this list? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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

2

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

8

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 has a lot to offer to Chinese learners. More than just HSK-lists by the way and translations in numerous 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.