Still unbeaten: Journey to the West (1986, TV series)

Journey to the West is one of the four great novels of Chinese literature. Over the years, countless TV-adaptations have been produced. Everything from decent to mediocre to barely watchable.

One of the oldest, the 1986 version, was so strong and convincing that it achieved classical status. It seems almost all mainland Chinese people grew up watching this CCTV-production of Journey to the West and it still can be seen on Chinese television today. (It’s one of those series Chinese national television just keeps repeating.)

From today’s perspective, the special effects are obsolete and bizarre. And the story evolves much slower and more long-winded than Netflix addicts are used to nowadays. The striking thing though: China and its film industry have developed so much since then, but they never quite managed to top the 1986-series! In terms of story line, costumes, portrayal of characters, it still is considered the most original and authentic rendition of the story. As a matter of fact, some of the newer adaptations are hardly more than imitations that fail to bring new interpretations to the plot and characters.

Key to understanding China

Most people who are serious about learning Chinese, watch or read Journey to the West at some point. There is just no way around it. The legendary journey of the Buddhist monk and his apprentices somehow is fundamental to Chinese culture. The adventures of the Monkey King have left their traces in the Chinese language. Journey to the West is a key to understanding China, although it leaves you with many new questions. About Chinese mythology and religions for example.

Still the best: 1986 (TV series)

  • Year: 1986
  • Duration: 25 episodes X 45 min.
  • Subtitles: Chinese and English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

The complete 1986-adaptation you can find on YouTube with English subtitles.

Reading Journey to the West

I wrote about Pleco’s e-book Journey to the West a while back. The online dictionary offers its own graded reader series for the Chinese Classics, suitable for non-native speakers. Pleco’s Journey to the West is an abridged version for intermediate learners which stays true to the original as far as I can tell. Watching the series and reading the story with its additional notes on places, monsters and demons together can be very helpful. If you have the time, that is! The story is meant for HSK 4 or 5 learners.

Other adaptations

Countless other adaptations have been made. I can’t guarantee this list is complete. It doesn’t include cartoons for example. Unfortunately, most of them lack quality. I found only one exception.

1996 (TV series)

Disappointing

1999 (TV series)

This is the second season of 86′ version.

2000 (TV series)

Disappointing

2010 (TV series)

Disappointing

2016 (Movie)

Watchable. Famous actress Li Gong plays the “white bone demon”. The actor who plays Sun WuKong does a good job as well.

2018 (Movie)

High budget, heavy on special effects, but not convincing.

2019 (TV series)

This seems to be a remake of the 1986 CCTV-adaptation.

Recommended: 1986 (TV series) on YouTube

This is the CCTV-version from 1986 with English subtitles.
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One essential podcast for serious Chinese learners

I’m talking about the You Can Learn Chinese Podcast. It’s not about teaching you Chinese in 15 minutes or getting 100 percent fluent while you’re asleep or some other click-bait nonsense. No, it’s an expert panel for everything related to learning Mandarin.

Why I recommend the You Can Learn Chinese Podcast

  • Experts views on how to study Chinese effectively and everything related to studying the language
  • Delivers answers to questions many serious learners of Chinese are struggling with. From improving your pronunciation to gaining fluency in speaking and reading and lots of other topics.
  • Great interviews with other Chinese learners who share their stories about how they mastered Mandarin. Some of them, Steven Kaufmann for example, learned Chinese during the seventies. In other words, before the internet and apps like Pleco or Anki revolutionized language learning. Yes, you can learn Chinese: They started out much earlier, without all the tools and resources we have at our disposal today, and still were very successful.
  • Critical discussions about new developments in Chinese teaching and learning from insiders and experts. Doesn’t sound too interesting? Teaching Chinese as a foreign language is a relatively young field. Many questions still need answering: Why is Chinese taught the way it is taught in China today? How do non-natives effectively learn to read Hanzi? What’s common practice in “traditional” Chinese teaching isn’t always backed by solid empirical research, to say the least. The podcast keeps an eye on those new developments, so if a promising method has been invented, you’ll probably hear it here first.

The podcast is all about the meta-level of learning Mandarin. The format doesn’t aim at teaching people the language, though you can pick up some words occasionally. It’s hosted by Mandarin-experts John Pasden and Jared Turner and I really recommend it.

The online Chinese cooking community

What’s the one thing that always gets Chinese people excited? It’s food!!! Yes, my friends. Chinese can talk endlessly about it. You like to pour some panda sauce into the wok too? If you enjoy Chinese cooking, then you’ve come to the right place.

The most hungry online cooking community in the world

Xia Chufang
The main page

下厨房 (xià chúfáng) is a Chinese platform where users can share their recipes with an online community. Xia Chufang is the platform in China where Chinese cook out of passion AND – welcome to the new world – for likes, followers and views.

Like and comment or save the recipe, cook it yourself and share the result

What I am showing you here, is the desktop version, but it also runs on mobile (and I have no idea which personal data they process or where they store it, so be warned).

You want to discover some new recipes, but the ingredients are all Chinese to you? If you haven’t installed it already, this is where a pop-up dictionary comes in handy. Now you won’t get lost.

If you are a cooking fanatic yourself, you can make your own profile, upload your creations and get in touch with other online cooks. The vast majority out there is from mainland China and most recipes come in Mandarin. A chance to put your language skills into practice!

Xia Chufang, user profile
Create your own profile

Here are some nice dishes to start with:

  1. 番茄炒蛋 (tomato scrambled eggs)
  2. 蒜蓉西兰花 (stir-fried broccoli with garlic)
  3. 家常蛋炒饭 (home-made egg fried rice)
The most popular dish seems to be “cola chicken wings” with over 68.000 people making their version of it. Most used keywords are 家常菜 (home cooking), 早餐 (breakfast), 豆腐 (Tofu) and 红烧肉 (red-cooked meat).

But you can find recipes for all levels. Enjoy!

PS. I wrote “Chinese cooking”. A reader from China pointed out, it’s not that simple. Just imagine someone from Sichuan eating Shanghai cuisine where they add sugar to everything. Unthinkable. So I received this map with China’s eight major cuisines (中国八大菜系地图) and we get a little closer to the truth:

China's eight major cuisines

DuShu: a powerful reading tool

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You want to improve your reading of Chinese texts? DuShu is a reader app that will take any Chinese text and turn it into a learning resource. Check out what DuShu can do for you.

DuShu

I’ve been using DuShu for over a year now and I recommend it for intermediate and advanced learners who want to improve their reading skills. It’s extremely useful for reading news articles, but you can import any text you want.

I experimented with using DuShu everyday for 20 to 30 minutes, reading the news in Chinese. It not just allowed me to understand the latest news in Mandarin, but also allowed me to gradually speed up my reading and expand my vocabulary.

What makes DuShu such a powerful tool:    

  • Easy to use: Just copy & paste any text into DuShu, save it and the text will be added to your reading list.
  • Difficulty: DuShu will tell you the difficulty level of the text you are about to read. For more details you can go to text info in the upper right menu. It will show you the text’s statistics and give you a detailed difficulty rating with percentages.  
  • Start reading: DuShu offers two kinds of reading modes: you can read sentence by sentence or in full page mode. DuShu further supports your reading by underlining words, so you know exactly which characters belong together. It will also point out conjunctions and particles with a purely grammatical function that otherwise might confuse you. You can personalize these settings to your own needs.
  • HSK-friendly: DuShu generates a vocabulary list for each text. It shows you the HSK level of the character(s). It will tell you for example that 毕业 is HSK 4 vocabulary. This allows you to focus on your target level and ignore any words that are less relevant for your current goals.
  • Pronunciation: Any sentence can be read out loud if you want to listen to what you are reading. Also the tones are marked with different colors.

What to read…

I advise reading texts that are just a little bit out of your league, the gap shouldn’t be too wide though. If you have a solid HSK 4 basis you can have a go at intermediate up to upper intermediate texts, but the advanced level might be overkill for now. Not sure this is the right level? Try a topic you’re familiar with.

Avoid texts where you have look up every second word, unless it’s a text you are really eager to read. In general though, progress will be easier with texts that match your level, reading more satisfying.

If your main goal is speed, then you should try extensive reading. Pick texts within your comfort zone, texts you can read with ease, and just keep reading.

Success doesn’t come overnight, but invest enough and the results will come.

What could make it even better…

Doing some research on the app, I noticed some people having issues with the audio function: Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I sometimes have this problem too.

Another thing which could be even better are the automatically generated exercises after each text. They are pretty good, but still somewhat basic. I’d be happy to pay something for more advanced practicing.

And what about this? You’ve finished reading your text and want to memorize the vocabulary. You can use the flashcard exercise, which is nice, but it only gives you 20 randomly picked words. What if you want the whole list and practice with a spaced repetition flashcard system? Yes, the vocabulary list can be exported (premium feature) and imported to Anki, but this doesn’t work very well in Anki’s android version. It would be great if DuShu allowed to make your own deck of flashcards from each text and provide a more sophisticated vocabulary trainer.

Integrated graded readers as premium feature would also be welcomed, because finding the right texts on the internet is not always as easy as one would expect.

Google translations are limited, so you only get 10 free translations every day. For more you must upgrade to the premium version. Once you read your ten sentences you have to rely on your own translation skills. Vocabulary still gets translated individually though, so it’s not the end of the world.

Fun would be to add an element of a competition. So that you could compete with friends or other learners on reading “distance” or speed and see how you list in the weekly top ten.

Closing the small complaining part, I recommend including DuShu into your personal Chinese learning tool kit. When used daily and in the right way, I am convinced it will improve your Chinese reading skills and take you the next level.

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.

Pleco’s graded reader: Journey to the West

buddhist statue

Journey to the West is one of China’s Four Great Classic Novels. Reading the original classic about Buddhist monk Xuanzang and his three disciples by yourself is considered rather advanced stuff, after all it’s a lengthy piece of Chinese literature dating back to 16th century.

You could, of course, read a translated version or watch one of the many TV-adaptations, but if you still want to have read it in Chinese, the Pleco Chinese dictionary offers a solution. It’s an abridged and simplified version of Journey to the West which is much easier and more fun to read.

Two versions of “Journey to the West”

Pleco’s version of the story is – I’d say – suited for HSK level 4 or 5 (between 1200 and 2500 words). The vocabulary is narrowed down to those characters you’re supposed to know when you are somewhere between HSK 4 and 5. The official recommendation is HSK 5 though, so it might proof a little ambitious for HSK 4, but that level should bring you a long way.

The graded reader is divided into 37 chapters of about 1500 characters each. Every chapter is just two or three pages long, at the end of which, you’ll find a number of additional notes, giving you some background on Buddhist figures, monsters, names and places. Usually, there are some questions to check your comprehension.

The original novel, by the way, has 100 chapters and is definitely not the kind of book you can read in a week. If you want to get an impression of the difficulty level, you can check the picture slide show below. It shows an image of the first page of the first chapter from the copy I brought from China.

I can’t say Pleco’s 西游记 is very well written, but then again, this is a simplified version for studying Mandarin. It allows you to read one of the great Chinese classics in it’s “original language”, so friends of Chinese culture can cross off another item from their bucket list.

What I mean is, it reads as if a 10-year-old is summarizing a long and complex story by describing what happened in chronological order, using the same words over and over again.

BUT, that being said, the Pleco version of Journey to the West is fine material to speed up your reading. Repetition plays a key role in this. And you can learn quite a lot about Chinese folk religion, mythology, Confucianist, Taoist and Buddhist philosophy on the side.

The current price of 10,99€ is rather high for an e-book or – to be more precise – an add-on in Pleco. I’d expect a text-only adaptation of a classic – the Pleco reader probably doesn’t support any artwork – to be cheaper, so I doubt that I’ll buy any of the other three Great Classics. I’ll probably look for a Chinese children’s version instead, which can be found in almost any Chinese bookstore.

Do you have any Chinese reading material you would recommend or are disappointed about? Please leave a comment below.

5 Things we tell ourselves that keep us from studying Chinese

We sent people to the moon. We created touchscreens and video streaming. We discovered water on Mars. We developed robotic body parts. We can clone humans and grow new organs.

We excel in innovation.

What strikes me as odd though, WHY – at the same time – it’s so hard to get OUT of our COMFORT ZONE and take things to the next level.

This post is dedicated to this underrated capability of ours to come up with reasons that justify staying in our comfort zone just a little longer…

Especially, when we learn new skills OR LANGUAGES like Mandarin that are considered hard beyond belief.

Nr. 1: “I suck at foreign languages”

Many people worry about missing the mysterious language gene or think they generally lack the talent to learn a new language, especially a “hard language” like Mandarin. The idea that they could reach a certain level of proficiency in Chinese seems as likely to them as climbing Mount Everest without oxygen.

Language learning is a skill, however, that can be learned like so many things in life. If you weren’t particularly good at it at school, doesn’t mean you cannot do it. It probably just means at that time and place, in that particular setting, you couldn’t perform at the best of your ability. And is Chinese really that hard to learn?

Nr. 2. “Chinese is too difficult for me”

Is Chinese harder than Arabic, Icelandic or Spanish?

It depends for whom of course!

For Vietnamese people for example, Chinese is not completely outside their frame of reference. Many elements look and sound familiar:

I think this really comes down to how close your language is to Chinese. I, for example, am from Vietnam, my only mother tongue is Vietnamese and I’ve been learning English for roughly 10 years now and Chinese for more than 1 year. To me, English is definitely the harder one since its grammar and vocabulary are completely foreign, it took me like 5-6 years to be able to hold a normal conversation and to be able to listen and understand what others are speaking.

Nguyen Nguyen (YouTube nickname), commented the question if Chinese is the hardest language on earth.

Chinese generally has four main challenges as a foreign language:

  1. The writing system
  2. The tones and pronunciation
  3. The vocabulary (the lack of loanwords and other recognizable elements)
  4. Short phrases (idioms) linked to Chinese culture and history

Reading and writing Chinese is time consuming. No doubt about that. On the other hand: Chinese grammar is relatively easy. Compared to German for example, you don’t have to worry about different tenses, pluralization, cases, genus, articles and what have you.

Which means that basic communication can start from an early level, without the grammatical obstacles typical for German, English, Polish and other languages. Learning Chinese for daily survival is not as hard as many people think. Chinese people usually won’t hesitate to show you their admiration.

Nr. 3: “I don’t have time”

If you are a managing director with a family at home, you might well have too much on your plate already. You won’t be able to focus on yet another task, neither during the evening nor on weekends. You are either too tired or too occupied with work, family and the other 89 things on your to-do list.

What’s more, – I noticed this with management people I used to teach – if you cannot be good at it, you start to hate it. Therefore, without the proper time resources, any learning process is set up for failure.

On the other side of the spectrum, I used to know people men who worked a normal office job, were single and spent most of their leisure time playing Xbox and drinking beer.

Either way, time is a limited resource. That’s why we MAKE time for things (or people) we value.

The crucial thing for learning any new language is daily practice. Even 10 minutes every day amounts to 70 minutes a week, 280 minutes a month.

You can even do it on your way to work. If you “waste” a lot of time commuting every week, this is “hidden potential” you can tap into.

The hours normally wasted in the Berlin S-Bahn turned into a completely different experience when I started listening to audiobooks and courses in history and philosophy. Average traveling time per week: 10 hours. Around 480 hours per year! Why not invest some of that time in something more useful?

If you ever took driving lessons: it’s the same idea. Regular practice does the trick.

Imagine what you can achieve in a year if you spend two hours every week on learning something new?

Nr. 4: “I’m not in China. How can I learn Chinese?”

It’s a common belief that you have to be immersed in the language to make progress. Although not all immersion leads to proficiency, in general, language learners do boost their abilities significantly during their stay in the target language country. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way.

Whatever you do, you should always prepare yourself for the real thing. If you are not in China right now, maybe you are planning to go their at some point and you’ll prepare yourself for that as good as you can.

If you cannot go to China: consider digital immersion and meeting up with local Chinese. The internet offers so many possibilities to communicate that Marco Polo would wish he had had. Chat with Chinese people, find Chinese teachers online, watch Chinese TV-series. There’s a surplus of options.

Nr. 5: “I’ll never understand Chinese culture anyway”

This is what a friend said to me after somewhat unfortunate first experiences with Chinese culture, working for a Chinese company. She never felt very sympathetic towards Chinese culture, but after being part of a Chinese company she completely lost all interest and felt she’d never understand “Chinese mentality” and their “indirect way of communicating” anyway.

“Never again”, she said to me, which I could understand, from her point of view. I just felt she gave up too early and let one bad experience waste everything. The road to understanding was from now on was blocked. By herself.

The obvious point here: If you don’t have any positive feeling towards a culture or language, learning their language becomes a struggle, cause you cannot develop any interest towards it.

This is where I’ve seen many people fail, because they couldn’t identify with their target language on any level.

Needles to say, studying the “Chinese mentality” and “indirect way of communicating” does serve as a mirror that could have prevented some of her hard feelings or at least questioned the universality of her own communication principles.

And Chinese culture envelops much more than the corporate culture of some Chinese enterprise entering the global market. The challenge here is to find some area of interest you can positively identify with.