10 Chinese audiobooks for advanced Mandarin learners

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Once you’ve reached a certain level, listening to Chinese audiobooks helps to get the more advanced language input you need to keep upgrading your Chinese skills. But where do you find Chinese audiobooks that are interesting, high quality and not hidden behind a paywall?

Why listen to Chinese audiobooks?

Once you’ve reached a certain level, making significant progress becomes harder and slower. The good news: you’re finally ready to listen more advanced stuff, especially audiobooks. Listening to Chinese audiobooks can be an attractive option, for instance if:

  • You love books, but lack the time to sit down and read
  • You’d like to study more actively, but somehow can’t or don’t
  • You’re not in a Chinese speaking environment (anymore), but want to get as much Chinese input as possible
  • You want to expand your active and passive vocabulary and improve your overall listening comprehension

Tips for listening

  • If you’re serious about this, why not set a goal (15 hours a month for example) and share it with people who care about your progress
  • Spend some time listening everyday – this can in between activities, while commuting, running, eating, before going to sleep – whatever you like
  • If you have some free time during the day opt for listening Chinese
  • If the choice is between Netflix (or a non-Chinese podcast) and listening Chinese, opt for listening Chinese

Where can you find Chinese audiobooks?

Well, there’s a number of mostly Mainland Chinese websites where you can find loads of Chinese audiobooks. You should definitely have a look:

10 Chinese audiobooks for advanced Mandarin learners

The main challenge is finding something that suits your level and is exciting enough to keep listening to. That’s also the reason for this post: making this process a little easier by giving some suggestions. The Chinese audiobooks I want to share with you are mostly classics or international bestsellers. For each I provided a short introduction with a link (in the picture) to the recording. Enjoy!

The Little Prince (1943) – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Chinese audiobooks - The Little Prince

The fantasy tale follows a young prince who visits various planets in space, including Earth. Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince is usually seen as a children’s book but that’s somewhat shortsighted. One of the main themes is the narrow-mindedness of adults compared to the curiosity and open world view of children: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly: what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) – Yuval Noah Harari

Chinese audiobooks - Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

This is one of the most popular books in the category of universal (or pop) history. It’s not filled with minor details about rulers and kings, but draws the bigger picture about how we humans started out in this world and which ideas powered human development. Harari’s history of humankind is thought-provoking, but also highly speculative. That being said, Sapiens is a great book that will probably change the way you think about humankind.

The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European (1943) – Stefan Zweig

Chinese audiobooks - The World of Yesterday

This autobiography by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig is one of the best books about European history I’ve read. In the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most widely translated and most popular writers in the world. In 1934, seeing the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, Zweig emigrated to England and then, in 1940, moved briefly to New York and eventually ended up in Brazil. There he committed suicide shortly after ending this book. One of the questions Zweig keeps asking himself is how the civilized nation of Germany could fall into the abyss of Nazi barbarism.

To Live (1993) – Yu Hua

Chinese audiobooks - To Live

The famous movie To Live by Zhang Yimou was based on this novel by Yu Hua who grew up during China’s cultural revolution. To Live is a dramatic story about peasant life and the struggle for daily survival in the days of Mao.

To Live describes the struggles endured by the son of a wealthy land-owner, Fugui, while the Chinese Communist Revolution is deeply changing the nature of Chinese society. Fugui, once a selfish, rich idler, looses everything through gambling. When Mao’s forces takes over, this loss of his family estate proves lifesaving. His troubles are far from over however.

Yu Hua grew up in a small village in Shandong province. What makes his writing stand out is that it’s very close to how the village people described by him actually speak and think. This not only makes the novel very authentic but also more accessible for Chinese learners.

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (1995) – Yu Hua

Chinese audiobooks - Chronicle of a Blood Merchant

Another novel by Yu Hua. This one is about the practice of donating blood in exchange for money which has led to horrible scandals in China. Chronicle of a Blood Merchant is the story of a silk factory worker, Xu Sanguan, who sells his blood to overcome poverty and family crises. The story is set in the late 1940s until the 1980s, from the early years of the People’s Republic of China until after the Cultural Revolution.

Brothers (2005–06) – Yu Hua

Chinese audiobooks - Brothers

Whereas To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant don’t cover present-day China, Brothers by Yu Hua sets out to tell the story of China’s transformation from Maoism to all-out capitalism.

How to Win Friends & Influence People (1936) – Dale Carnegie

Chinese audiobooks - How to Win Friends & Influence People

How to Win Friends and Influence People is a self-help book written by the American writer Dale Carnegie and what you call a longtime bestseller. Carnegie is best known for developing and teaching business courses in self-improvement, public speaking and interpersonal skills. One his core ideas is that it is possible to change other people’s behavior by changing one’s behavior towards them. Starting point for this particular book is Carnegie’s personal observation that the leading business people in any given industry are not those with the most technical know-how, but rather those with the best people skills.

How an Economy Grows and Why it Crashes (2010) – Peter Schiff and Andrew Schiff

Chinese Audiobooks - How an Economy Grows and Why it Crashes

How an Economy Grows and Why it Crashes (2010) is an international bestseller explaining the basics of (macro)economics in a way that people like me can understand. It addresses such questions as:

  • Why can governments spend without ever seeming to run out of money?
  • Why are some countries rich while others are poor?
  • Is spending or saving the best cure for a bad economy?
  • Where does inflation come from?

The Story of Mankind (1921) – Hendrik van Loon

Chinese Audiobooks - The Story of Mankind

The Story of Mankind tells the history of western civilization in short chapters. It begins with primitive man, and then covers the development of writing, art, and architecture, the rise of major religions, and the formation of the modern nation-state. The Dutch-American journalist, professor, and author Van Loon wrote the book for his grandchildren.

Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist (2008) – Roger Lowenstein

Chinese audiobooks - Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist

This is a biography about Warren Buffett, one of the world’s most successful investors and number 4 richest person walking this earth. It is said that he first bought stock at age 11 and first filed taxes at age 13. Even if you’re not particularly interested in the stock market, Buffett is a legend and a genius worth studying.

Thanks for dropping by on Kaohongshu. Hope you enjoyed this article about Chinese audiobooks for more advanced learners. If you have any thoughts or comments for me, feel to write them down below.

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5 things we tell ourselves that keep us from studying Chinese

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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, however, is a skill that can be learned like so many things in life. If you weren’t particularly good at it at school, doesn’t mean you lack talent. It probably just means at that time and place, in that particular setting, you couldn’t perform at the best of your ability.

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

Learning to read and write Chinese is time-consuming – even for Chinese people. 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 when you try to speak their language.

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 some people (actually 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 study 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 there 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 never 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.

Thanks for reading this article! If you have any thoughts or comments for me, feel to write them down below.

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11 things I wish I knew before starting to learn Mandarin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03. Invest in learning tools

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

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

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

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

04. Finish Pinyin base camp before moving on to Hanzi

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

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

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

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

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

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

06. Drills are actually not that bad

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

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

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

07. Read more on your level

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

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

A solution to this are free reading resources like:

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

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08. The power of reviewing is undervalued

Spaced Repetition - retention curve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TV Series

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

Streaming platforms

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

YouTube Chinese learning channels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion – you’ll never be the same

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

To wrap it up here, these ten points only reflect my personal experience. Everybody’s different and there’s no ideal way to learn Mandarin. As with most things in life, you have to find your own way and figure out what works best for you.

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

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“How to learn any language in six months”

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Human learning capability is tremendous, but can you really learn ANY LANGUAGE in 180 days?

Chris Lonsdale’s language learning principles

The man who makes this bold claim is Chris Lonsdale. He is a New Zealand psychologist, linguist and educator who adopted the Chinese name 龙飞虎 or “flying dragon tiger” (or something like that).

The title of his TED talk sounds like some shady language school’s advertising pitch. Then again, he did manage to catch people’s attention (over 18 million views on YouTube).

Chris Lonsdale on how to learn any language in six months…

Lonsdale’s approach in a nutshell:

Things that don’t matter in language learning

  • Talent
  • Immersion (per se)

Why immersion isn’t a necessary factor: “A drowning man cannot learn to swim.” (We need comprehensible input)

What does matter is Language modeling

  • Attention
  • Meaning
  • Relevance
  • Memory

Five Principles of Rapid Language Acquisition

1. Focus on language content that is relevant to you.
We master tools by using tools; we learn tools fastest when they are relevant to us.
2. Use your New Language as a Tool to Communicate, right from Day 1.
3. When you first understand the message, you unconsciously acquire the language. “Comprehensible input”; comprehension works; comprehension is key. Language learning is not about accumulating lots of knowledge. In many ways it is about
4. Physiological Training. “If you can’t hear it, you won’t understand it, and if you don’t understand it, you are not going to learn it. You have to be able to hear the sounds… Speaking requires muscle; if your face is hurting you are doing it right.”
5. Psycho-physiological states matter, and you need to be tolerant of ambiguity.

Seven Actions for Rapid Language Acquisition

Action 1: Listen a lot. “Brain Soaking”
Action 2: Focus on the meaning first. Get the meaning first before you get the words. Use body language. (Understanding through comprehensible input.)
Action 3: Start mixing. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to work.” Action 4: Focus on the core (high frequency content). For English, 1000 words is 85% of anything you are going to say in daily communication; 3000 words gives you 98% of anything you are going to say in daily conversation.
Week 1 Tool Box (in the target language):
– What is this?
– How do you say?
– I don’t understand…
– What does that mean?
– Repeat that please.
Week 2-3 Pronouns, Common Verbs, Simple Nouns
Week 4 Glue Words: and, but, therefore, even though
Action 5: Get a Language Parent. Language parent creates a comprehensible input environment.
1. Works hard to understand what you are saying
2. Does not correct mistakes
3. Confirms understanding by using correct language (feedback)
4. Uses words the learner knows
Action 6: Copy the Face
Action 7: “Direct Connect” to Mental Images

My thoughts…

First, Lonsdale delivers a great speech on what he thinks is the best strategy to learn ANY language and he deserves credit for motivating and inspiring people as well as for offering practicable advice.

A question I had straight from the start though, is what does he mean exactly by ”learning any language”? What level of proficiency is he speaking of? Which language skills is he talking about? Is he referring to the highest achievable level? According to the Common European Framework that would include the following:

C1
Effective operational proficiency or advanced
Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning. Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
C2
Mastery or proficiency
Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

And for that you would need to study at least 1000 hours or at least 8 hours a day in six months…

I also couldn’t help noticing the contradiction that he learned Chinese (to a very impressive level) by immersion. Doesn’t he tell the story that he stayed in China, “soaked his brain” in Chinese and gradually started making sense of the language? Basically, he is telling us that this combination of immersion and “survival” from day one worked out pretty well for him.

This leads to the question if you can apply the same principle when you are not “immersed” and not in “survival mode”, say you are learning Chinese in Brazil or Canada. Can you really recreate that kind of experience?

Another issue: Lonsdale believes you should start speaking from Day One and use the language as a tool for real communication (no simulation stuff). In a way, I think he’s right about this. It’s the most natural thing to do (in the right environment). BUT many people are extremely uncomfortable with this. It’s a big step out of their comfort zone. Other high profile language learners like Steve Kaufmann argue you should acquire basic vocabulary first and read, read, read, before you can have a meaningful conversation. Not everybody is going to be comfortable with communicating in Mandarin from Day One, so that’s an issue.

Conclusion

On the whole, I really like what he has to say about language learning. He’s got a powerful message that’s all about learning a new language the “hard and uncomfortable” way, telling us to “get out there and do it”. We need people like Lonsdale who develop their own ideas about language acquisition.

Does this method apply to everyone? Well, he overgeneralizes his own learning approach and success a bit, but he knows what he’s talking about. The thing is no learner is the same. Language learning depends on so many personal circumstances and preferences. At the end of the day, I guess you’re free to try his method or parts of it. I personally like the “leave your comfort zone” part as it’s essential to any kind of growth.

By the way, if you want to hear Chris Lonsdale speak Mandarin, check this video from Mandarin Corner where he tells all about his method, covers Chinese characters (what about them, right?) and explains why Mandarin class is a waste of time.

Let me know what your thoughts are on this topic. Can you be fluent in Chinese in only six months? Please leave a comment below.

Slow listening: boost your vocabulary with Mandarin Corner

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

Mandarin Corner for intermediate learning

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

  • They discuss interesting topics that appeal to an international audience
  • They are one of the few channels that mainly produce content suitable for the higher HSK levels (4 – 9)
  • They provide free flowing conversations you can actually understand
  • Their videos are completely subtitled (Hanzi, Pinyin, English)
  • Scripts and audio can be downloaded if you make a one-time donation

Listening modes

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

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

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

Slow listening with Mandarin Corner

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

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

Mandarin Corner: China’s alarming divorce rate

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

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

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

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

The Diplomat, 03.06.2020

Vocabulary

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Diplomat, 03.06.2020

Vocabulary

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

Mandarin Corner: Stereotypes Chinese have of foreigners

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

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

Vocabulary

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

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

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

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

Vocabulary

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

Mandarin Corner: the 996 work culture

Main question: Are Chinese workaholics?

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

Vocabulary

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

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

Affiliate links

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

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

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.


More from Kaohongshu

Learning Chinese becoming less popular?

5

Not so very long ago, probably around January this year, I was working on an article with the cheap yet upbeat title “10 reasons to learn Chinese in 2020”. Then 2020 came along, bulldozed my plan and the article died an early death. What bothered me the most though: I simply couldn’t think of any convincing reasons why 2020 should be the year to study Mandarin!

Was it just me? Or maybe studying Mandarin is just not as popular as it was before? I had to find out and looked at some data from trends.google.com that I want to share with you in this post. This website plots the popularity of any given search term on Google over time. The results were shocking.

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline

Search term “learn Chinese”

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Global search volume for "learn Chinese" on Google.
Global search volume for “learn Chinese” on Google ( 2004 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

I simply entered “learn Chinese”. What we see on the whole is a more or less steady decline, starting from 2005 (!), with a little peak at the beginning 2020 due to the Covid-19-pandemic. But could it really be that in 2005 studying Mandarin was more popular than say 2015? I had to have another try with a less vague search term.

Search term “learn Chinese for beginners”

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Global search volume for "learn Chinese for beginners" on Google ( 2004 - 2020)
Global search volume for “learn Chinese for beginners” on Google ( 2004 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

What I got was more or less the same picture, the line dropping with ups and downs until 2013, then climbing up a little and then almost stabilizing on a low level. To get a more complete impression, I consulted the data for YouTube as well.

Popularity of learning Chinese on YouTube

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Global search volume for "learn Mandarin" on YouTube (2008 - 2020)
Global search volume for “learn Mandarin” on YouTube (2008 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

As everybody knows YouTube has developed into an important platform for language learning, Mandarin Chinese being no exception. The YouTube data surprisingly shows a different picture. Between 2009 and 2017, the number of people looking for content to learn Chinese fluctuates on a relatively high level. Then the frequency of the search term suddenly drops in July 2017 with no sign of recovery. The exact same thing we get for the search term “learn Chinese”:

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Search volume for "learn Chinese" on YouTube (2008 - 2020)
Search volume for “learn Chinese” on YouTube (2008 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

Just to double check, I entered the search term “living in China”, only to discover the same “crash” in July 2017:

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Search volume for "Living in China" on YouTube (2008 - 2020)
Search volume for “Living in China” on YouTube (2008 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

What happened in 2017?

The YouTube data clearly indicates a downward trend that sets in from July 2017 and continues until this day. What happened in 2017 that had such on impact? My best guess is that Trump and the Sino-American Trade War happened, leading to much insecurity.

What about individual countries?

I chose to examine Google’s “global data” using English search terms. How about individual countries though?

To my surprise, the general trend in these six countries is very similar. All charts indicate that the popularity of Mandarin is in decline.

Validity of data from Google Trends

I’m still not completely sure if the data give an accurate picture of the situation. It could for example well be that people’s search behavior on Google has become more sophisticated over time, which would (partly) explain the decreasing popularity of a search term “learn Chinese”. The YouTube data is probably more significant, but we still require more indicators to satisfyingly answer the question. HSK statistics revealing how many people have been taking the standard Mainland Chinese test over the last decade could be insightful for example. Let’s have a quick look.

HSK exam growing in popularity

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any up-to-date numbers, but the overall trend points towards growing popularity of the HSK exam:

HSK test takers statistics: how many people took the HSK test from 2009 to 2012.

This China Daily article even mentions 6.8 million test takers in 2018:

The HSK exams, a test of Chinese language proficiency organized by the Confucius Institute Headquarters, or Hanban, were taken 6.8 million times in 2018, up 4.6 percent from a year earlier, the Ministry of Education said on Friday.

China Daily (31.05.2019)

These HSK statistics obviously contradict the data I found and are somewhat reassuring, since it’s only logical that the language of a growing superpower has increasing significance in the world. And even though the interest in Mandarin may be waning in some parts of the world, this doesn’t necessarily mean that this a global trend. Take a look at African countries like Zambia for example where starting from 2020, Mandarin Chinese will form part of the Zambian high school curriculum.

Learning Mandarin becoming less popular – so what?

To end on a positive note here: even if it is true that fewer people are interested in studying Mandarin, why should we care? After all, when Mandarin skills and Chinese cultural competence are becoming more rare, people who do possess them become even more valuable. We need people who are proficient in the language and understand China’s culture and history. We have lots of challenges still ahead.

Is studying Mandarin becoming less popular? What do you think? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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My 2021 overview of resources for Mandarin Chinese

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

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

Mandarin Chinese resources

Table Of Contents

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

Best Mandarin Chinese Learning Resources for Tones

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

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

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Listening Material

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

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Podcasts

Mandarin Chinese podcasts for beginners

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

Mandarin Chinese podcasts for intermediate learners

Mandarin Chinese podcasts for advanced learners

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Music

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

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Audiobooks

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

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese with TV & Video

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Chinese TV & video platforms

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

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

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: TV shows and series

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

Mandarin Chinese TV shows and series for beginners

Mandarin Chinese TV shows and series for intermediate learners

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

Mandarin Chinese TV shows and series for advanced learners

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

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese on YouTube

Chinese lessons on YouTube

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

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Textbooks

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Books about learning Mandarin

Best Mandarin Chinese Learning Resources: Chinese learning forums

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

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

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Dictionaries

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Dictionary apps

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

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Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Popup dictionaries for browsers

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Web dictionaries for Mandarin Chinese

  • Chinese Pinyin Converter – Not a dictionary but a tool that helps you reading difficult texts by adding Pinyin, highlighting tones, extracting vocabulary lists etc. [free]

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Grammar

Yes, Mandarin Chinese does have grammar.

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Reading Material 

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

Mandarin Chinese reading resources: Free online resources

Mandarin Chinese reading resources: Non-free online resources

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

Mandarin Chinese reading resources: Graded readers and more

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

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Flashcards & Vocabulary Training

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

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

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Writing Characters

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

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

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Apps for Mandarin Chinese

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

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

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

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

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

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: HSK

More on Kaohongshu

5 apps that help you to understand and write Chinese characters

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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.

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