Ideology in Chinese textbooks

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

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

Screenshot from the Karate Kid

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

Ideology and politics

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

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

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

The Chinese Reader (1972, Beijing)

The Chinese Reader series, 1972, Beijing

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

Sacrifices for a socialist future

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

Dong Cunrui – a true warrior

Dong Cunrui, a Chinese warrior hero?

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

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

Kim Jong-Un

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

Liu Hulan, a Chinese hero?

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

“敌人把刘胡兰带到了一座庙里,匪军连长恶狠狠地问 : “你叫刘胡兰?”

“刘胡兰回答 我就是刘胡兰!”

“你跟八路军哪些人走联系?”

“和谁也没联系!”

“没联系? 有人已经供出你是共产党员了!”

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

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

Revolutionary vocabulary

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

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

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

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

Jordan Peterson

Ideology-free learning?

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

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

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

大张伟 – 葫芦娃 (2018)

Wowkie Zhang – Calabash brothers (2018)

葫芦娃 葫芦娃
一根藤上七个瓜
风吹雨打都不怕
啦啦啦啦
葫芦娃 葫芦娃
一根藤上七个瓜
风吹雨打都不怕
啦啦啦啦
叮当当咚咚当当 葫芦娃
叮当当咚咚当当 本领大
葫芦娃 葫芦娃 本领大

妖精 放了我爷爷!

The original theme song from the cartoon

趙傳 – 我是一只小小鸟 (1990)

I’m a little bird (1990)

有时候我觉得自己像一只小小鸟
想要飞却怎么样也飞不高
也许有一天我栖上枝头
却成为猎人的目标
我飞上了青天才发现自己
从此无依无靠

每次到了夜深人静的时候 我总是睡不着
我怀疑是不是只有我的明天没有变得更好
未来会怎样
究竟有谁会知道
幸福是否只是一种传说
我永远都找不到


我是一只小小小小鸟
想要飞呀飞却飞也飞不高
我寻寻觅觅寻寻觅觅一个温暖的怀抱
这样的要求算不算太高
我是一只小小小小鸟
想要飞呀飞却飞也飞不高
我寻寻觅觅寻寻觅觅一个温暖的怀抱
这样的要求算不算太高


所有知道我的名字的人呐
你们好不好
世界时如此的小
我们注定无处可逃
当我尝尽人情冷暖
当你决定为了你的理想燃烧
活的压力生命的尊严
哪一个重要


我是一只小小小小鸟
想要飞呀飞却飞也飞不高
我寻寻觅觅寻寻觅觅一个温暖的怀抱
这样的要求算不算太高
我是一只小小小小鸟
想要飞呀飞却飞也飞不高
我寻寻觅觅寻寻觅觅一个温暖的怀抱
这样的要求算不算太高


我是一只小小小小鸟
想要飞呀飞却飞也飞不高
我寻寻觅觅寻寻觅觅一个温暖的怀抱
这样的要求算不算太高
这样的要求算不算太高

Learning Chinese? 10 BLOGS you should know about

Blogs can be a great source for tips & tricks, ideas and inspiration, even free resources like reading materials, cheat sheets, video’s and podcasts. Blogs come an go though and some of them have already turned into online fossils. So when I made this top 10, I looked for four things:

  • Engaging and fresh content
  • Relevance
  • Passion
  • Integrity

Top 10 blogs for learning Mandarin

ONE: Sinosplice

This is a great blog by John Pasden, an expert and Mandarin nerd “who’s been around” for a long time. He has published a great series of graded readers for Mandarin learners. Check out his list of resources and inspiring podcasts. It’s a great starting point by someone who knows every obstacle on the way, but maybe a little too nerdy and old-school for some.

TWO: Hacking Chinese

Hacking Chinese is a blog by Mandarin expert Olle Linge from Sweden who has studied for four years in Taiwan and teaches Chinese and English. Having a solid background in linguistics, he answers almost all questions related to successfully learning Mandarin Chinese. His main advise for language learners: “If you don’t take responsibility and think for yourself, it will take ages to reach a decent level, but if you become aware of how to learn and study efficiently, fluency is within reach.” Olle also organizes the “monthly extensive reading challenge“. The main goal here is not “intensive reading” but reading as much Chinese as you can below or at your current level.

THREE: FluentU

FluentU is more like a corporate blog which has a team of (freelance) writers blogging for them. They don’t always share the most practical advice, they do post a lot of relevant tips and ideas though. If you’re wondering what apps you might want to use and which Chinese movies to watch, this is the right place.

FOUR: Chinese Zero to Hero

Chinese Zero to Hero is not a blog, it’s a very well built website for Chinese learners. Lots of useful resources for listening, reading and grammar and they keep improving and expanding the website. I’ve grown very fond of the transcribed YouTube videos and their music database. You can even adjust the website’s settings to your personal taste (show / hide Pinyin, simplified / traditional characters etc.). Great work.

FIVE: Chineasy Blog

This is another corporate blog and similar to FluentU you’ll find a broad variety of topics here, not everything directly related to learning Mandarin, but interesting and engaging articles nonetheless. If you’re a fan of the Chineasy approach to character learning, you’ve come to the right place. What the blog lacks, is a categorization of content by topic, level, date etc.

SIX: Sapore di Cina

This website as well is a lot broader than just focusing on mastering Mandarin. I included it because of its practical tips for foreigners interested in traveling or even living in China.

SEVEN: Just learn Chinese

This blog by native Chinese speaker Grace (currently living in Toronto, Canada) hasn’t been updated for several years and has some technical issues, but its content and resources are just to great to ignore. If you are looking for free reading material on your level, you might get lucky here. Or look for tips, for example on how to express disagreement in Chinese.

EIGHT: Chinese Hacks

Chinese Hacks is a widely-varied blog where you find all kinds of practical advise, ideas and inspiration. I particularly enjoy the Chinese idioms covered on his site. Pity it’s not being updated anymore.

NINE: Chinese Breeze

Chinese Breeze is run by three authors who studied Mandarin in China and offer their advise to other learners. This main overview by Kevin Peters, who taught English in Xinjiang for four years, is especially useful for starting learners.

TEN: chineseffect.com

Chineseffect.com also deserves mentioning. This is a fun website for learning and practicing vocabulary created by FM_Yunfei. The team behind it put a lot of effort not only in the content and exercises but also in the webdesign. Now the website requires some technical updates though…

Related post: China podcasts

Check my post on podcasts about China!

What’s your favorite Chinese learning blog? Please feel free to comment down below.

花儿乐队 – 果汁分你一半 (2006)

The flowers – I share half a cup of my juice with you (2006)

我要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
你要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊

月亮弯弯 绵绵绵绵缠缠
果汁分你一半 爱相互分担
长路漫漫磕磕磕磕绊绊
果汁分你一半 爱相互扶搀
今晚多么美满
约会相当浪漫

我果汁分你一半
我结账你买单谁跟谁别细算
我果汁分你一半
偶尔我也会烦
脸色说翻就翻
我果汁分你一半
就算怎么艰难也要保持乐观
我果汁分你一半

月亮弯弯绵绵绵绵缠缠
果汁分你一半 爱相互分担
长路漫漫 磕磕磕磕绊绊
果汁分你一半 爱相互扶搀

我要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
你要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
当喜欢上自然 一个眼神交换

我果汁分你一半
我吃饭你刷碗 不是我要偷懒
我果汁分你一半
偶尔你也会乱 发脾气不敢管
我果汁分你一半
向前向后攻占 粘我阴魂不散
我果汁分你一半

月亮弯弯绵绵绵绵缠缠
果汁分你一半 爱相互分担
长路漫漫 磕磕磕磕绊绊
果汁分你一半 爱相互扶搀

我要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
你要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
我要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
你要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊

月亮弯弯 绵绵绵绵缠缠
果汁分你一半 爱相互分担
长路漫漫磕磕磕磕绊绊
果汁分你一半 爱相互扶搀
月亮弯弯 绵绵绵绵缠缠
果汁分你一半 爱相互分担
长路漫漫磕磕磕磕绊绊
果汁分你一半 爱相互扶搀
啦啦啦…

Corona virus: 口罩都卖完了!

After the Mexican flue, SARS and MERS it was about time the world got hit by another pandemic. Allegedly, this time it all started on a Wuhan wet market where the locals buy their portion of snake and armadillo meat. In this post, I share some virus-related key vocabulary and firsthand footage from Corona-survivors.

Shortage of face masks

To start on an optimistic note: Did you know that if you’re still alive today, you’re a virus-survivor too? (One of 7.7 billion people)! If you were planning to go to China, you might want to postpone your next trip though and wear one of those trendy face masks if you use public transport, just in case. That is if you can still lay your (disinfected) hands on one. For this Chinese YouTuber it all seems too late.

With English and Chinese subtitles.

China is red

It’s a very, very serious situation, so I did some homework on the virus-related key vocabulary that you read in the Chinese news. “For your daily apocalypse click here”. The virus is everywhere. It’s amazing how quickly bad news spreads and people start panicking. (Positive news about China usually doesn’t make it to Germany, it’s mostly bad, though more and more people (mistakenly) sympathize with “the Chinese way” of governing, although they don’t live there themselves). Even here in Europe many ten thousands miles away from the disaster zone the news is dominated by it. Online news papers provide hourly updates as if the world will perish. It’s almost like a drug.

Map of confirmed corona virus cases.
China is red again! This is a map of how the virus is spreading. You can see in which countries cases have been confirmed.

Business opportunities

But where disaster strikes, you’ll also find business opportunities! Do you think 25 bucks is a good price to protect yourself against virus infection? The Asian girl on the picture sure does. Did they pick an Asian girl for a reason or is it just me? From what I hear masks in Germany and many other countries are sold out at the moment.

Amazon product information for face masks. Prices are rising.
口罩都卖完了!

武汉加油!

Meanwhile people in Wuhan can’t go nowhere, so during the long cold nights they started shouting at each other to uplift their spirits. A rather unusual spectacle, isn’t it? It’s hard to imagine a complete lock-down on such a gigantic city.

武汉加油!
新冠病毒Xīnguān bìngdúNew corona virus
感染新冠病毒的人gǎnrǎn xīnguān bìngdú de rénPeople infected with the new corona virus

Who can you trust?

In this video “teacher Mike” discusses the latest rumors about the virus. Which media can you trust, the western or Chinese news? Where does Mike get his info from? After all he lives there, so he needs to know. Unfortunately, no subtitles.

Virus vocabulary

感染gǎnrǎnto infect
感染新冠病毒的人gǎnrǎn xīnguān bìngdú dí rénpeople infected with the new corona virus
受到病毒感染shòudào bìngdú gǎnrǎnget infected with the virus
无症状感染者wú zhèngzhuàng gǎnrǎn zhěpeople that are infected but do not display any symptoms
传染他人chuánrǎn tāréncontaminate others
有传染力yǒu chuánrǎn lìto be contagious or to have “contaminating power”

The ultimate learning video

I finally found a video that walks you through all the Corona-related vocabulary that you need to understand Chinese news reports about the virus. Chinese and English subtitles. Very clear pronunciation.
确诊quèzhěnconfirmed diagnosis
确诊病例quèzhěn bìnglìconfirmed cases
死亡人数sǐwáng rénshùnumber of dead people
2%死亡率2% sǐwáng lǜdeath rate of 2 %

What’s this Corona virus anyway?

For real in-depth information about the virus you need to listen to Li Yongle Laoshi, cause he can explain almost everything. He’s one of the first people I see explaining something about the virus itself: how it behaves and how it multiplies and so on. With Chinese subtitles.
封城fēng chéngsealed city
宣布”封城”xuānbù”fēng chéng”to announce that the city is sealed
武汉wǔhànWuhan
症状zhèngzhuàngsymptoms
无症状携带病毒者wú zhèngzhuàng xiédài bìngdú zhinfected people without symptoms
治疗zhìliáomedical treatment
接受治疗jiēshòu zhìliáoreceive medical treatment
扩散kuòsànto spread
病毒扩散bìngdú kuòsànthe spreading of the virus

Go shopping, decrease panic

In this video German vlogger Thomas阿福 shows us the “shopping situation” in Shanghai. Are prices really skyrocketing as rumor has it? You can add to the panic as I’ve written above but you can also try to decrease panic and hysteria like Thomas does here. Great job!

An expert opinion…

I’ll finish here with a message of hope from German professor and virus expert Rolf Hilgenfeld, interviewed by German Youtuber Thomas阿福. Hilgenfeld states that the Corona virus won’t be able to multiply forever. Scientists are testing vaccinations right now. Once enough people have been in contact with the virus and produced antigens, the growth will decrease and the pandemic will stop. A matter of 6 to 12 months, he estimates. Let’s hope the situation gets better soon.

宋祖英 – 辣妹子 (1998)

Spicy girl (1998)

宋祖英 – 辣妹子

辣妹子从小辣不怕
辣妹子长大不怕辣
辣妹子嫁人怕不辣
吊一串辣椒碰嘴巴

辣妹子从来辣不怕
辣妹子生性不怕辣
辣妹子出门怕不辣
抓一把辣椒会说话

辣妹子辣 辣妹子辣
辣妹子辣妹子辣辣辣
辣妹子辣 辣妹子辣
辣妹子辣哟辣辣辣

辣出的汗来汗也辣呀汗也辣
辣出的泪来泪也辣呀泪也辣
辣出的火来火也辣呀火也辣
辣出的歌来歌也辣歌也辣

辣妹子说话泼辣辣
辣妹子做事泼辣辣
辣妹子待人热辣辣
辣椒伴她走天下 辣妹子辣 辣妹子辣
辣椒伴她走天下

辣出的汗来汗也辣呀汗也辣
辣出的泪来泪也辣呀泪也辣
辣出的火来火也辣呀火也辣
辣出的歌来歌也辣歌也辣

辣妹子辣 辣妹子辣
辣妹子辣妹子辣辣辣
辣妹子辣 辣妹子辣
辣妹子辣妹子辣辣辣


辣妹子辣 辣妹子辣
辣妹子辣妹子辣辣辣
辣妹子辣 辣妹子辣
辣妹子辣妹子辣哟辣辣辣

Vocabulary list

  • – spicy
  • 妹子 – “younger sister”
  • 不怕 – not fear / does not fear
  • 嫁人 – to get married (of woman)
  • – to hang up
  • 一串辣椒 – a string of hot peppers
  • 碰嘴巴 – to touch the mouth
  • – sweat
  • – tears
  • – fire
  • – song
  • 生性 – natural disposition / from birth
  • 说话 – to speak
  • 出门 – to go outdoors
  • 做事 – to do things
  • 待人 – to treat people
  • 泼辣 – bold and vigorous
  • 热辣 – “hot”
  • 走天下 – to walk everywhere (she goes)
  • 辣椒伴她走天下 – chili accompanies her everywhere she goes