HSK 6 Chinese graded reader review: The Art of War

HSK 6 Graded Chinese Reader - The Art of War

Who doesn’t want to be able to say “I read The Art of War in Chinese”? Reading classics in their original language is cool. Graded readers are supposed to simplify this process. The HSK Academy’s graded reader version of The Art of War completely fails in this respect. Here’s my review!

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 (5000 words level): The Art of War (Sun Tzu)

First some basic information about this graded reader:

  • Publisher: Self-published
  • Level: far beyond HSK 6 (classical Chinese)
  • Audio: no
  • Pages: 114
  • Vocabulary list: no
  • Characters: simplified
  • Pinyin: yes
  • English: yes

Difficulty

Based on the famous “Art of War” from Sun Tzu (5th century BC), this bilingual graded reader is designed for the most advanced learners of Mandarin Chinese as well as for the HSK test candidates. Its vocabulary comes from some of the 5,000 most common Chinese words, and also from rarer ones which are grayed out in the text to help you focus solely on the characters and words that matter to your level.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 (5000 words level): The Art of War (Sun Tzu) – Foreword

Although the title and foreword state differently, this graded reader is definitely not suitable for HSK 6. This is the unabridged version of the classical text by Sun Tzu which requires knowledge of classical Chinese to read and understand. The difficulty lies not so much in the variety of characters used (most of which I can read), but in the interpretation of the classical prose which is very different from Modern Chinese.

How to read it?

This book offers Chinese simplified characters, pinyin and English translation one after the other for each line of text or dialogue. As this book is for the most advanced in Chinese, the translation is a classical one, rather than a literal one. You can also find at the end the full text in Chinese characters (hanzi), in pinyin, and its English translation.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 – Reader’s note

I have to admit that I’m completely at a loss as to how to read this ancient text. The reader includes pinyin and the English translation (by Lionel Giles), rare characters are grayed out, but apart from that, the book offers no guidance or help. To give you a small taste of the text:

怒而挠之,卑而骄之 Nù ér náo zhī, bēi ér jiāo zhī Anger and scratch, humble and arrogant (Google translate) If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. (Lionel Giles)

First Chapter, Laying Plans (page 10)

This is not like anything I’ve read in Chinese before. It is striking how compact the Chinese text is (8 characters) compared to the English translation (20 words). I’m sure this text can be understood somehow, but I’m afraid I’m going to need more than pinyin and the English translation…

This somehow reminds me of studying Latin as a student. It took months of preparation to be able to read even the simplest, ancient text in Latin, but even then, we’d first read some kind of short introduction and there would be lots of footnotes, explaining details that otherwise would go unnoticed – highlighting sentence patterns, peculiarities, grammar structures and the like. This graded reader doesn’t provide any of these things. As a reader without knowledge of classical Chinese I’m completely left in the dark. Surely I can enjoy the English translation, but that’s not the point of a Chinese graded reader.

What about the story?

The book contains a detailed explanation and analysis of the Chinese military, from weapons and strategy to rank and discipline. Sun also stresses the importance of intelligence operatives and espionage to the war effort. Because Sun has long been considered to be one of history’s finest military tacticians and analysts, his teachings and strategies formed the basis of advanced military training for millennia to come.

Wikipedia – The Art of War

Like most people, I had heard of this classic text, but never read it, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The only similar book I’ve read is the samurai warrior code known by the name Hagakure. The Art of War, however, is all about strategy and how to defeat your enemies. In any case, this is non-fiction, so you won’t find a story with a main character in the conventional sense. The text is divided into 13 relatively short chapters, each containing a series of strategems:

  •  始計 – Laying Plans
  •  作戰 – Waging War
  •  謀攻 – Attack by Stratagem
  •  軍形 – Tactical Dispositions
  •  兵勢 – Energy
  •  虛實 – Weak Points and Strong
  •  軍爭 – Maneuvering
  •  九變 – Variation in Tactics
  •  行軍 – The Army on the March
  •  地形 – Terrain
  •  九地 – The Nine Situations
  •  火攻 – The Attack by Fire
  •  用間 – The Use of Spies

Lay-out

Considering the price for this self-published paperback book, the lay-out, binding, paper quality are reasonable. The cover looks serious. Here you can see for yourself:

Publisher

HSK Academy is the ground-breaking educational platform dedicated to the Chinese language and HSK proficiency tests. Our team creates resources tailored to your needs, providing simplicity and offering an actionable knowledge for better and faster progress in Mandarin Chinese.

Self-description on Amazon

Contrary to what you might think, HSK Academy doesn’t represent the organization behind the standardized Chinese test HSK (Hanban) in any way. They acknowledge this fact on the back of the title page. They published three other graded readers (HSK 1, HSK 2, HSK 4) and a number of HSK vocabulary lists. With regard to graded readers, HSK Academy is doing what Hanban could be doing if they were a commercial entity, that is selling HSK readers and other learning materials with the “official” HSK stamp on them. HSK Academy is capitalizing on the “HSK-brand” quite successfully: it has its own Facebook channel with almost 100.000 followers and even sells HSK Academy t-shirts. Most people probably (mistakenly) think that HSK Academy is linked to the HSK test…

Opportunities for improvement

I do see some area’s for improvement:

  • The book presents a 1500 years old, Chinese classic but doesn’t provide any guidance for the reader. This isn’t the kind of text that explains itself. It requires a proper introduction and additional, page-to-page explanations. If you ask me, selling it in this form is irresponsible to interested readers.
  • Another major shortcoming is the fact that a vocabulary list isn’t included.
  • Since this is supposed to be a HSK 6 graded reader, it would be helpful if the vocabulary for this level would be highlighted in some way.
  • The audio version of the text isn’t included. This audio could even include an introduction and explanations, after all, there are plenty of Chinese materials on this classic to be found. Takes some effort, but would be worth it. I found an audiobook version right here by the way.

Conclusion

In short, this self-published book provides the reader with an affordable, Chinese-English version of the classic The Art of War. It should be added that both the translation and original text are in the public domain and can be found on the internet. Be careful: this is not an abridged or simplified version like Pleco’s graded reader Journey to the West! That’s why I think it’s wrong to pitch this book as a graded reader. It simply is not. Moreover, the “HSK Academy-label” wrongly suggests this is official HSK material which – again – it is not. In my opinion, potential readers deserve more transparency.

That being said, I’d recommend this book only to those studying classical Chinese with the serious constraint that it completely lacks an historical introduction, footnotes etc. If you’re preparing for HSK 6 or expecting to receive some kind of simplified, adapted version for Chinese learners, you probably are going to be disappointed by this book like I was.

Thanks for reading this review! Do you have any Chinese graded readers or other books to recommend or maybe you completely disagree with me? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.

Affiliate links

The Art of War Collection: Deluxe 7-Volume Box Set Edition (Arcturus Collector's Classics) (Englisch)
The Art of War (Englisch)
The Art of War: The Essential Translation of the Classic Book of Life (Penguin Classics) (Englisch)
Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners (English and Chinese Edition)
The Oxford Handbook of Classical Chinese Literature: (1000BCE-900CE) (OXFORD HANDBOOKS SERIES) (Englisch)
Classical Chinese Primer (Reader + Workbook) (Englisch)
A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese (Englisch)
Du's Handbook of Classical Chinese Grammar (Englisch) Paperback edition

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.

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HSK 6 Chinese Graded reader review: The New Housekeeper

HSK Chinese Graded Reader - The New Housekeeper - Front 2

Finding suitable HSK 5 – 6 reading material is still surprisingly hard. That’s why I purchased a copy of Edmund Chua’s and Ranny Ran’s Graded Chinese Reader for HSK 6 called “The New Housekeeper”. I’d only recommend it to a specific group.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 (5000 words level): The New Housekeeper

Here’s some basic information about this graded reader:

  • Publisher: Self-published
  • Level: HSK 6 (5000 words)
  • Audio: no
  • Pages: 172
  • Vocabulary list: no
  • Characters: simplified
  • Pinyin: yes
  • English: yes

Difficulty

This book is for all learners of Chinese, especially learners planning to take the HSK exams. Most of the vocabulary used in the stories come from the 5000 words required to pass the HSK Level 6 Exams. I have kept the use of words outside HSK Level 6 Exam word list to the minimum.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 – Reader’s note

Like the authors suggest, the reader is suitable for HSK level 6, but definitely not for “all learners of Chinese”. Reading should be enjoyable, not a struggle, so I wouldn’t recommend this book to beginners or even lower intermediate readers. In fact, it could be labeled as “HSK 6 only”.

How to read it?

Every sentence comes in simplified Chinese, pinyin and its English translation. Start by reading the English translation to understand the story. Then, read each Chinese word or phrase using its pinyin. You may choose to read the simplified Chinese characters instead. After you can read each word or phrase, read the entire sentence. Finally, read the story by paragraph.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 – Reader’s note

A good Chinese graded reader should come with some hints for the reader as for how to use the book and provide a short introduction to the story. The authors Edmund Chua and Ranny Ran offer some reading hints, but miss the chance to provide more background information about the story (e.g. author, year, why this story etc.). That’s a pity, cause I like to know what I’m reading.

What strikes me as odd though – considering this being a graded reader for HSK 6 – is the instruction to first read the English translation and the pinyin and only then read the characters. “Start by reading the English translation to understand the story.” Really? Isn’t that spoiling all the fun?

That’s a peculiar instruction coming from experienced Chinese teachers. In my opinion, upper intermediate learners can do without pinyin, not to mention English translations. The reason is this: once I’ve read the English translation, there’s no need for me to “crack” the Chinese text. My brain already processed all the information I need. The suspense of seeing the story unfold is destroyed.

What about the story?

Wu Xiao Ping became the new housekeeper for an old lady. She worked hard and managed to please the old lady. The old lady then assigned her a new task. This task would change her forever.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 – Synopsis

A graded reader may be primarily for reading practice, but the story should still captivate the reader. In this case, not only the plot – and I very much wish it was different – is thin and artificial, but also the main characters remain shallow and stereotyped. It pains me to write so, but the story reminds me of the kind of cheap novelettes that are sold in supermarkets, except that the quality of the story telling is actually below that standard. After all, even a silly and sentimental story can be told in a fashion that convinces me as a reader. “The New Housekeeper” however, doesn’t pull it off.

Language issues – fitting in as many HSK 6 words as possible?

It seems this graded reader has been written focusing on HSK 6 vocabulary. In a way, that’s excellent and very useful, here comes the ‘but’ though: some HSK 6 words are being used “wrong” or out of context. Since it’s hard for me to judge, I asked a native speaker (who happens to be my wife^^) to have a look. She helped me to find examples of words that seem out of place. They all happen to be HSK 6 vocabulary, so I guess the idea was to fit in as many HSK 6 words as possible or even come up with a story based on the HSK 6 vocabulary.

Here are some examples:

  • 捍卫自己的权利 (page 7) – This sounds a little over the top for a simple housekeeper, because “捍卫” means defending or safeguarding (like defending one’s motherland, defending national sovereignty, national interests etc.). “捍卫” is normally used in formal contexts where something abstract has to be defended (Example: 每个公民都要捍卫自己的公民权).
  • 对此,朋友遭到其他室友的批判 (page 69) – Again, “批判” (criticize, critique) is a formal word that doesn’t fit here very well. (An example from the Line dictionary: 她批判贵族,站在低层阶级一方)
  • 她们当场达成协议 (page 76) – This is very solemn way to state that two parties reach an agreement. In this case, an uneducated girl and an old woman agree on something. (Dictionary example: 如能达成协议,欧盟必须开放其市场).
  • 今天肯定要收到老夫人的谴责 (page 140) – “谴责” means condemning someone or something (like condemning violence for example: 我们谴责暴力和屠杀的循环,谴责过分使用武力). I understand what “谴责” is supposed to mean here (the old woman will tell her that she’s not satisfied with her), but this is not how the word is commonly used.
  • 妈妈要网上创立了一家低成本的小公司,贩卖风味独特的小吃 (page 155) – “贩卖” means so much as “dealing in” (e.g. art work, drugs, weapons, slaves). Here “妈妈” is selling local snacks online, but she doesn’t “deal” in them. (Dictionary example: 他两个月前因为贩卖毒品而被捕).

Lay-out

Considering the price for this self-published book, the lay-out, binding, paper quality are reasonable. The drawings are a bit childish, but I can live with that. Have a look yourself:

Opportunities for improvement

Here’s some things that could be improved:

  • I already pointed out that the pinyin and English translation aren’t necessary for this particular level (or could at least be printed considerably smaller). They occupy too much space – or to put it bluntly – they are a waste of paper. The actual story covers about 30 to 40 pages. That’s something to remember if you consider buying this book.
  • There’s also no need to first print the text in short paragraphs (with pinyin and English) and another time in longer paragraphs (with pinyin and English). It’s (again) a waste of paper and gives a wrong impression of the story’s length.
  • The provided vocabulary lists are too short and should at least include all “literary expressions”, idioms and less frequent words.
  • Since the text is packed with HSK 6 vocabulary, it would be great to highlight them or make them more visible in some way (or even include them on the vocabulary list).
  • The graded reader should have audio, so reading and listening can be combined.

Conclusion

Long story short: I’d only recommend this book if you’re preparing for the HSK 6 exam and want to brush up on your HSK vocab. If you aren’t put off by excessive use of pinyin and English, this graded reader is perfect for just that. Ask your Chinese friends what they think about the text, if it feels “unnatural” to them, which words seem out of place and why… In this way, the reader can be used to spark a discussion.

If you’re looking for a good story, however, one that is really enjoyable to read, and don’t care so much about HSK stuff, this graded reader is probably going to disappoint you. The story is mainly a carrier rocket for HSK vocab and unfortunately doesn’t have much to offer beyond that.

Thanks for reading this review. Do you have any Chinese graded readers or other books to recommend? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.

Affiliate links

Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-stories
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
The Rise of the Monkey King: A Story in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin 600 Word Vocabulary Level
The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Graded Chinese Reader 3000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories

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.

Chineasy vs Uncle Hanzi: two radical approaches to Chinese characters

5

The biggest obstacle to mastering Mandarin for many people is its writing system. In a previous post, I focused on deep-rooted bad practices surrounding the study of Chinese characters. A relevant topic, but there was no light at the end of the tunnel. So what does work? In my own quest to improve my command of Hanzi, I found two interesting approaches: one is the well-known “Chineasy method”, the other is the “Uncle Hanzi way”. This is what you can learn from them.

The “Chineasy Method”

Visual mnemonics

Shaolan’s elevator pitch-like introduction to Chineasy (TED talk, 2013)

The Chineasy approach is to put Hanzi into a visual context and memorize them with the help of illustrations that depict the character’s meaning. Shaolan Hsueh, the entrepreneur behind Chineasy, managed to exploit this idea commercially better than anyone else. Chineasy’s impressive design and Shaolan’s smart marketing campaign even helped popularizing Mandarin and Hanzi abroad. For the first time, it seemed, someone had come up with an unique method for Chinese characters that makes them learnable for almost anyone.

Chineasy – a serious learning resource?

But is Chineasy really a “language learning system” as it says on Wikipedia? To what extent does it teach you to read and write Hanzi? It’s hard to ignore that some Mandarin teachers and other experts have pointed out some serious flaws:

The Chineasy approach: visual mnemonics
Source: Chineasy on Amazon
  • Chineasy teaches all characters as if they were pictographs. Pictographs are easy to explain (my teachers have been guilty of this kind of cherry-picking too), but unfortunately they only make up around 5% of all characters. This is misleading.
  • These characters don’t necessarily match the most frequently used characters which is unpractical for learners.
  • Chineasy mixes traditional and simplified characters for convenience. This is not best practice. Especially for beginners, it’s much less confusing to stick with either simplified or traditional characters.
  • Chineasy overreaches when it calls itself a “learning method” or “system”. It’s not a system, it’s rather a learning technique put into practice. It reaches its limits pretty soon though.

Visual mnemonics can be helpful

That being said, the visual approach exemplified by Chineasy can be useful. Associating a certain image with a character or its individual components makes memorizing Hanzi less of a struggle. It all boils down to this: Chinese characters have to make sense when you learn them. Yes, Chineasy’s approach is quite random at large and disregards the composition and history of the character, but applying some form of visual mnemonics is much more effective than blindly memorizing meaning and stroke order, especially when you’ve just started out.

The “Uncle Hanzi Way”

Richard Sears – also known as 汉字叔叔: “I found that almost all Chinese had learned to read and write by absolute blind memorization and almost no one had a clue where the characters actually came from.

Obsessed with the origin and history of Chinese characters

In the long run though, we shouldn’t stick with random images and stories. Instead, we should try to get the characters “right”. That means caring about their origin and history. Let’s discuss the second approach.

“Uncle Hanzi” is the nickname of Richard Sears, an American physicist, who has been obsessed with the origin and history of Chinese characters for most of his life. He created an online database of more than 96.000 ancient Chinese characters called hanziyuan.net.

In his own words: “At age 40, I got the idea that I needed to computerize the origins of Chinese characters so that I could sort out the crap from the truth. I started researching but did not get started actually doing it. At age 44 I had a near-fatal heart attack and after recovering, but not knowing when I might die, I decided I must get started.” At hanziyuan.net you can trace back the composition and meaning of almost any character to its origins as far as they are known. Take 家 (house) for example:

Hanziyuan: Input single Chinese character for etymology
The search results from hanziyuan.net for 家

Getting back to the source

“Uncle Hanzi” is an extremely interesting case, because he doesn’t come from the field of sinology and seems to be a lone wolf fueled by a hardcore obsession with Hanzi. (Just imagine a sociologist investing 30 years of his life into die-hard quantum mechanics research). Sears obviously wasn’t satisfied with blindly memorizing characters or Chineasy-style mnemonics. He wanted to grasp the “logic” and understand the origins. After all, the ancient Chinese didn’t just “make them up” as they went along according to Sears.

He also argues that practically all the first characters would have been pictographs which evolved and became more abstract over time. In other words, what today seems abstract, used to represent something concrete which we should try to understand to make our lives easier. The case of 家 (a pig under a roof) illustrates this.

Of course, it’s going to slow us down when we take a history tour for each new character, but I’m convinced that the more solid our foundations are the easier it becomes to add new layers. But how to put the “Uncle Hanzi Method” into practice?

How Pleco and Outlier Linguistics can help

Pleco breaks down each character into its components

The dictionary app Pleco (partly) supports this learning method by breaking down each character into its components. That’s good for a start, but doesn’t give you the full story like the example of 名 shows. Its components don’t add up to its meaning (name), so there must be more to tell here.

For those who want to gain insight into the etymology of Chinese characters, there’s a practical solution called Outlier Linguistics. Their dictionaries help you understand the history of Chinese characters that most Mandarin teachers fail to explain. You don’t need to install another dictionary app by the way, because they come as add-ons for Pleco in a “Mini” and “Essentials” edition. For most people this is probably overkill, but for serious Hanzi learners quick access to etymological basics might well be the key to progress. This is how I see it: the more profound your understanding of Hanzi, the easier it becomes to grasp and memorize new characters. They’ll start to make sense.

The Outlier Essentials Edition should get you a long way:

  • 2700+ characters as of newest update (plus regular updates until they reach 4000)
  • Simplified and Traditional characters
  • Detailed explanation for every character
  • Stroke order for all 4000 characters
  • Meaning tree for every character showing how different meanings relate to each other
  • Ancient forms for all semantic components

The dictionary (meaning add-on for Pleco) looks like this:

Conclusion

The “Chineasy method” and “Uncle Hanzi’s approach” both have their merits. Putting characters into a visual context does help, just like developing a basic understanding of their origin and history does.

Actually, to zoom out for a moment: we’re not really talking about methods, but learning techniques linked to different levels of understanding and experience. Mandarin expert Olle Linge came up with 5 different levels of understanding Chinese characters which gives us something to hang on to. I added Chineasy and Uncle Hanzi in brackets. Most of us are somewhere in the middle of this scale:

  1. Inventing pictures that disregard composition and structure of characters (Chineasy)
  2. Creating stories and associations that obscure functional components
  3. Using superficial pictures while being aware of functional components
  4. Using superficial pictures and encoding functional components
  5. Etymologically correct mnemonics with no shortcuts (Uncle Hanzi)

I’d label myself with level 3, although it differs from case to case. I know I’m nowhere as good as I could be with serious studying. Taking some inspiration from Uncle Hanzi, I keep aiming for level 5. I do hope though that it won’t take me 30 years to get there!

好好学习,天天向上!

What’s your take on Chineasy? Does it work for you? Do you think Chinese characters have logic like that can be understood if you study them long enough? Please feel free to leave a comment down below.


Further reading

Affiliate links

Heisig: Remembering simplified Hanzi
The first 100 Chinese characters
Chinese short stories for beginners
Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system

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.


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5 apps that help you to understand and write Chinese characters

2

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 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 which can be awful. Even in this decade of the 21st century, lots of people continue to “binge-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 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 introduction has an affiliate marketing tone to it, but that’s 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 had 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.

Affiliate links

Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-stories
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
The Rise of the Monkey King: A Story in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin 600 Word Vocabulary Level
The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Graded Chinese Reader 3000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories

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.

Related posts

Learning Chinese characters: 7 bad practices you should avoid

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Is learning to write Chinese characters an uphill battle to you? No problem, it’s normal to rethink your approach to Hanzi. And while you’re at it, you might want to exclude these 7 bad practices from your personal learning habits.

“Do you really have to be able to write Chinese characters? Like all of them?”

I’ll be honest with you, I wasted a lot of time studying Hanzi. It took me a long time to figure out that in most cases it’s really the sound and meaning component that count. Sound for pronunciation, meaning for understanding.

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

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

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

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

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

My teacher would sometimes write new characters on the blackboard and then – annoyingly – say something along the lines of “see how easy?”, making us feel like a bunch of kids instructed to cook some exquisite dish, even though we’d never even washed salad or boiled an egg before. At least knowing the difference between semantic and phonetic components could have made a big difference.

Not all teachers take the time to focus on such essential details or they do once or twice and then never mention them again. They think you’ll figure out by yourself. At least my teachers mostly did. They didn’t have a step-by-step approach that starts with A, moves on to B and C etc. (Maybe this complete guide to learning Hanzi doesn’t exist (yet)!)

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

Most of my teachers never gave me a clear goal. Should I learn 5, 10 or 20 every day? How many a week? How do I still remember 200 characters by the end of the month? Is 200 a reasonable number or is 100 more realistic? The closest I ever came to a realistic goal was during my semester in China: 40 new characters every week and dictation every Thursday.

That actually worked quite well, although I would have forgotten how to write most of them after two weeks. Why? I didn’t understand enough about the semantic and phonetic components. My understanding was too shallow. To effectively memorize Hanzi, they have to be meaningful to you in some way. That can mean inventing little stories about how their components play together OR (in the long run) knowing the components’ actual meaning.

Wrong advice NR. 3: Hanzi are like pictures!

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

Chinese characters: example of pictograms
Actual pictograms! (Source screenshot: wikipedia)

But this one doesn’t:

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong advice NR. 5: Learn the radicals!

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

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

Wrong advice NR. 6: forget about digital tools!

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

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

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

So what does work?

That’s for all the methods that from my personal experience don’t work. You’re welcome to disagree with me or share methods that do work! Let’s have a try:

  1. First concentrate on Pinyin, pronunciation and tones (plus basic vocabulary). Don’t start with Chinese characters right away.
  2. Learn characters in context, learn frequent combinations and practice sentence mining.
  3. Start reading graded readers from an early stage to grow your vocabulary and reading fluency (practice extensive reading instead intensive reading (textbooks)).
  4. Understand that most characters consist of a meaning and sound component.
  5. Gradually deepen your understanding of functional components.
  6. Install a tool like Skritter if you’re serious about writing Chinese characters.

To end on a positive note: I’m pretty sure smart minds will improve the way we learn and think of Chinese characters in the time to come.

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

Affiliate links

Heisig: Remembering simplified Hanzi
The first 100 Chinese characters
Chinese short stories for beginners
Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system

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.

Why I don’t believe in Chinese character tests

Studying new characters everyday, you have to keep track of your progress somehow. People always like to hear exact numbers. Stating you have mastered over 2000 characters sounds impressive, but how can you be sure? You can find several online tests to check the number of characters you already know. But can they be trusted? I’m skeptical. Have a look at my test results and understand why.

I tried three different tests. All three tests are free – you don’t have to sign up – and take only a few minutes. I answered as honestly as possible. These are the tests:

The results blew me away, because they varied from 1600 to 3434 characters! How can the gap be so wide? Which test should I believe? Feel free to have a closer look:

Hanzitest

Hanzitest Chinese characters
Hanzitest gave me the lowest estimation. It says their set of characters is derived “from a mix of contemporary non-fiction, fiction and movies”. I think I can do much better than that.

Wordswing test

Wordswing test Chinese characters
The wordswing test showed me the highest number which I can live with for now, since I passed HSK 5, but still have a long way to go to HSK 6.

Hanzishan

Hanzishan Chinese character test
And the results from Hanzishan lay somewhere in between. The good thing: As you can see, this test lets you review the characters you didn’t know.

Which test is the best?

Personally, I can’t say which test is most reliable. The main complication I see with all three tests is that most learners of Chinese as a foreign language would typically use the HSK levels and vocabulary to orientate. Or, alternatively, the Chinese textbooks they use in class. No matter which books and methods, all focus on the most commonly used vocabulary as opposed to less frequent ones like these from the Hanzishan test which I couldn’t even find among the HSK characters (!):

missed character list
Excerpt from my missed character list (Hanzishan)

So that’s a problem. Grabbing a Chinese novel, opening a random page and pointing your finger blindly at some character could lead to the same result. Or so it seems to me, due to the randomness of the list above.

As a HSK-student, you would probably get a higher score testing HSK characters, but then again, Chinese texts don’t necessarily stick to HSK-vocab just to make your life easier.

As a testing method, I can’t recommend any of these tests, unfortunately.

Anyway, I could be wrong. If you want to feel the same frustration, give these Chinese character tests a try and feel free to comment your score down below.

The 6 biggest DON’TS mastering Chinese

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Would you do things differently today if you’d have to start learning Mandarin all over again? I would! Based on my own experience and what I know from others, here are six don’ts for learning Chinese.

01. Skip the basics of Pinyin, tones and pronunciation

Pinyin, tones and pronunciation build the first layer of your Chinese language foundation. This foundation needs to be as strong as possible in order not to subside once you progress. It’s very tempting to rush on to more interesting content like Chinese characters and new vocabulary, thinking there’s enough time to work on Pinyin and all that other beginner’s stuff later on. The truth is nobody ever regretted covering these basics thoroughly. This usually includes:

  • Writing basic Chinese sentences in Pinyin, also from dictation
  • Speaking and recognizing the four tones
  • Reading Pinyin fluently and correctly (standard pronunciation)

Although more and more resources are available for Pinyin, probably the best way to build a solid foundation is to join something like a “Pinyin boot camp” or intensive Pinyin elementary course. When I started studying Mandarin, I had no choice but to undergo a two-week Pinyin brainwash with our devoted Chinese teacher. We would go through all the Pinyin syllables and enjoyed prolonged drill sessions with our inexhaustible laoshi to the point where we would be haunted by shreds of chu, qu, chang, qiang, nü and nu outside the classroom. However, this Pinyin boot camp proofed a big help for everything that followed. In most cases, I’d say a intensive Pinyin introduction is more effective than self-studying Pinyin without qualified native speakers correcting you.

02. Ignore Hanzi

Can you learn Chinese without Chinese characters? This is an intensely debated question. It all depends on your personal goals: what degree of proficiency do you want to reach? Which language skills matter to you?

You can learn basic level Chinese without understanding Hanzi, BUT… Pinyin – in the long run – cannot replace Hanzi. The thing is that the Chinese writing system is so crucial to Chinese culture that without it, you’ll remain “illiterate”, not just in the direct sense but also in terms of understanding the Chinese language and culture (and people). Without the characters, your learning curve will flatten in an earlier stage, because the fact that more and more vocabulary sounds and looks the same to you becomes a real handicap.

Here is an example:

Same in sound (homophone), but different in meaning. The part you miss when you can’t read Hanzi.

To illustrate this in more detail: When you ignore the four tones, standard Chinese has about 400 different syllables. Not a very high number compared to German, English, Russian or most other languages. The result of this small phonetic inventory is a high level of similar sounding words or homophony. But this relatively small amount of syllables does match a far greater number of commonly used characters. The official list numbers about 7000 common Hanzi. You get pretty far though, when you know the thousand most frequently used characters.

HSK levels compared to CEFR
Here you can see how HSK levels match (or do not match) the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and the number of characters needed for each level with A1 meaning “beginner” and C2 “almost native”. It’s interesting to see that HSK 6 according to German estimations equals only B2, which is upper intermediate, whereas according to Hanban, HSK 6 matches the “almost-native” C2 level.

So this is something to consider when you are starting out or have that feeling that Pinyin brought you a long way, but now making progress becomes harder and harder. That’s why each Pinyin-only learning method is OK for first steps, but probably won’t get you to an intermediate or advanced level.

03. Forget to make Chinese friends

Learning Chinese becomes much more real and fun when you can communicate with Chinese people. If you happen not to be somewhere within Greater China, local tandem programs and language exchange facebook groups (or Scrabbin or interpals) can be an excellent starting point. It doesn’t always work out the first time. When you are lucky, you find a nice tandem partner to chat with.

04. Worry if you “still don’t understand anything”

Chinese is unlike Italian or French so different from almost all languages that hardly any word sounds familiar. Especially when you are not in a Chinese speaking region and immersed in the language, developing adequate listening skills takes time and is really difficult, so don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s quite normal. Concentrate on what you know and build on that. When you have got time, watch Chinese movies and listen Chinese songs and keep a steady level of Chinese input.

05. Expect apps to solve all your problems

Apps are reshaping the way we learn foreign languages, but the learner still has to make time and deliver the effort to climb up the hill. What’s just as important: how to use online learning applications the right way. App developers don’t know your goals and motivation or indeed what’s best for you. That’s why apps usually don’t provide much guidance and for instance don’t tell you how, when, how often and with which expectations to use them.

Think children’s books are easy

When I knew a couple of hundred characters, I reckoned it was time to read “红红的柿子树” (“honghong de shizishu”/ “red persimmon tree”), a children’s book a Chinese friend gave me.

It had Pinyin and pictures and I could recognize several characters, but I had a hard time making sense of the story. For two reasons: 1.) It was too hard for me. 2.) I couldn’t really relate to “little piggy looking for a friend” and all the other exciting animal characters in the book. This was demotivating to me.

Reading “The Little Prince” in Chinese (with Pinyin) was even worse. It’s a great book: nice pictures, short chapters, Pinyin included. However it proofed almost impossible to understand for me without translating word by word, which I tried for some time, but it’s not something I would recommend. Try Chinese textbooks and graded readers instead.

Reading the Little Prince in Chinese
Reading “Xiao wangzi” the hard way. This is an example of what the pages looked like after I went over them.

Thanks for reading! If you have any thoughts or ideas about this topic, please leave a comment below.

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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