Can you learn Chinese without Pleco flashcards?

The Pleco Chinese dictionary is a crucial app for Chinese learners. What about the Pleco flashcards add-on though, are they worth spending 10 bucks? Are they really essential or can you learn Chinese without Pleco flashcards? Let’s have a look at the pros and cons!

The benefits of Pleco Flashcards

Pleco flashcards are a popular means to organize and train vocabulary. Say you’re in Taiwan or China and receiving tons of new input every day. How to keep track of all that new vocabulary? Are you going to write down the Pinyin and later add the character(s) and meaning? In such a scenario working with Pleco flashcards might be the superior approach:

  • Pleco combines dictionary functionality with a flashcard system. It’s very efficient to create flashcards based on your search history and to sort them by different categories. Scroll through your search history to bookmark those characters for further learning.
  • If you like reading the news or any other Chinese text: Pleco allows you to bookmark important vocabulary from any given text while using the clipboard reader.
  • The flashcards contain the link to the complete dictionary entry, including example sentences.
  • Spaced repetition supports efficient memorization. More advanced users know how to tweak the settings to their personal tastes.
  • Sound is integrated.
  • Ready-made lists of HSK-flashcards.
  • Lists can be imported and exported between different users and devices.

Hidden dangers?

So, are Pleco flashcards the ultimate learning solution? Well, I personally think that the pros certainly outweigh the cons. If you have a goal of learning 100 new characters every month, Pleco flashcards allow you to realize this goal in a smart and efficient manner, helping you to keep track of your progress. There are some hidden dangers though which become more apparent the more frequent you use this feature:

  • The easier it gets to create flashcards, the harder it becomes to maintain order. Flashcards have a tendency to pile up. You can’t keep track of them all. This raises some questions like: should I really memorize every new word? Which words are truly relevant, which words can wait or even be dumped? As far as SRS is concerned all words are equally important.
  • The more cards are due every day, the more time you spend simply reviewing vocabulary. Is that the essence of language learning?
  • Is 100 percent retention a realistic goal or tyranny? How much time and energy do you want to spend on memorizing every single input? Shouldn’t it be acceptable to forget an X percentage of vocabulary?
  • Even though Pleco SRS flashcards make learning Chinese vocabulary considerably more convenient and manageable, we partly outsource the autonomy of our learning by allowing the algorithm to make daily decisions for us. It automatizes the process of vocabulary learning to some extent. We do control the algorithm of course and you can set up different test profiles, but I think there’s something to the idea that by employing such tools we become a little like these tools. The main point being that vocabulary learning shouldn’t turn into a blind automatism.
This video shows how you can change the standard dictionary settings to be able to turn example sentences into flashcards.

What kind of learner are you?

All of these “hidden dangers” don’t have to be a real problem as long as you’re aware of them. The ultimate article about pros and cons of flashcard learning by Sinosplice notes that whether you like flashcards or not really depends on what kind of learner you are:

Over the years of working with lots of different learners of Chinese through AllSet Learning, I have noticed a very clear trend: analytical, programmer-types loooove SRS. It’s the efficiency of it, having the “checklist” where nothing gets omitted. These types of learners can find SRS a Godsend which changes their studies completely, and they often evangelize for SRS quite a bit.

However, learners much more interested in talking in Chinese, or reading in Chinese, may find the preoccupation with flashcards a bit off-putting and unnecessary. If you really are speaking Chinese all day, or reading for hours and hours every week, you may not need SRS flashcards as much.

Sinosplice: SRS Flashcards: Pros and Cons

So now what?

Are Pleco flashcards as essential to learning Chinese as fuel to a flying airplane? On the one hand, this depends on your learning situation. If you’re intensively studying Chinese, whether in China or at home, you might want to consider Pleco flashcards as probably one of the fastest and most efficient ways to organize, keep track of and ultimately memorize new vocabulary. In the heat of the moment, Pleco flashcards definitely beat a notebook or any other app I know of. On the other hand, if you’re not that analytical kind of learner, you’re probably not going to find salvation using flashcards, although it may very well support your learning in a useful way.

My opinion

As far as I am concerned: I’m somewhere in between. My motivation for flashcard learning seems to be coming in waves. I appreciate how Pleco combines dictionary and flashcards, allowing me to keep track of what I’m learning, but I have a hard time keeping that motivation for daily reviews over a longer period of time. This goes against my better judgement, because daily reviewing (even 10 minutes) really does make a difference. The effects are real. In the end, it’s up to ourselves how to make the best use out of this Pleco feature. It’s not the one-size-fits-all vocabulary learning solution or the nr. 1 method to memorize vocabulary for everybody, but it most certainly is a powerful tool that has enhanced the way many people learn Chinese as a foreign language and will continue to do so until something better comes along.

What’s your opinion about Pleco flashcards? Are they a godsend or can you do without them? Feel free to leave a comment down below!

Further reading

Many long-term Pleco users have shared their favorite configurations and other tips:

  • How to Use Pleco to Really Learn Chinese: “As a Chinese-language learner living in China, Pleco is the most important app on my phone. Some days, I spend more time on it than WeChat.”
  • My Pleco flashcard setup: “The way I use the flashcard feature evolved over time. Now it is in a state that helps me learn new words faster. Therefore I will present to you the way I use Pleco’s flashcard feature in this post! You will learn about the different test profiles I have set up. Additionally, I will explain to you, how I customized Pleco’s scoring algorithm.”
  • Pleco flashcards: “If you are not familiar with Pleco’s flashcard system yet, be sure to continue reading on how to set up an ideal spaced repetition testing system.”
  • My Pleco flashcard configuration: “After going through various internet resources and using it for over a year, I’ve found a configuration that works for me. So I thought I would share it here.”
  • Is the flashcard upgrade worth 10 bucks?: “Do you guys think it’s worth it getting the flashcards upgrade on the app? Is there a limit to how many you can make in the demo?”
  • HSK 3.0 Flashcards: The Pleco flashcards for the new HSK.

Affiliate links

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Chinese short stories for beginners
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10 tips for learning Chinese in China

Chinese has gained popularity among language learners owing to the rapid economic growth of China. Many students would like to study Chinese in China as communicating with native Chinese speakers on a regular basis is one of the most effective ways for them to improve their Chinese. Well, if you want to make the most of your learning experience in China, we are here to offer you some tips that might help you make your Chinese learning more productive.

This is a guest article by That’s Mandarin

Improve Your Pronunciation

If you would like to quickly improve your listening comprehension and spoken Chinese, you will need to pay great attention to your pronunciation. Even a slight mistake in pronouncing the tones (there are four tones in the Chinese language) can lead to misunderstanding. Therefore, a good knowledge of the Chinese phonetic system will certainly allow you and your Chinese friends to better understand each other during a conversation.

Make Some Chinese Friends

If you are studying Chinese in China, it’ll be a good idea to make some Chinese friends. Nowadays young people in China are curious about different cultures, and they are also happy to introduce Chinese culture to foreigners. What you can benefit from making friends with Chinese people is that in addition to learning the Chinese language, you will also have the opportunity to know more about Chinese people’s daily lives. Exploring the local people’s lifestyle is quite interesting and can turn out to be an enjoyable experience on your Chinese learning journey.

Find Yourself a Learning Partner

More and more people in China have started to realize how important it is to have a good command of English as it’s the prerequisite of finding a decent job. If you are a native English speaker, it’ll be easy for you to find a language exchange partner in that many Chinese people are actually looking for foreigners to help them improve their English. Moreover, studying Chinese with a learning partner is considered a mutually-beneficial process that will make your Chinese learning more effective.

Attend Chinese Classes

Attending Chinese classes is an ideal choice for you to improve your Chinese language skills. Chinese language schools offering different types of courses can be found in major cities across China. The main advantage of studying Chinese at a Chinese language school is that you will be able to make gradual progress in Chinese under the instruction of a professional Chinese teacher. On top of that, you will have the chance to make friends from different cultural backgrounds if you choose to sign up for group classes.

Participate in Cultural Activities

In addition to Chinese courses, most Chinese language schools organize cultural activities like watching Chinese operas or making Chinese dumplings on a weekly/monthly basis. Participating in cultural activities would provide you with the opportunity to have an insight into Chinese culture and traditions, which could more or less stimulate your interest in learning the Chinese language.

Develop a Hobby

If you would like to gain a deeper understanding of the quintessence of Chinese culture, it’ll be helpful if you would be interested in developing a hobby such as calligraphy or paper-cutting. Even if you think it’s a bit hard for you to create nice “art works”, it’s still fascinating to, for instance, admire some of the greatest calligraphy masterpieces of ancient China so that you can experience the authentic traditional Chinese culture for yourself.

Visit Local Chinese Restaurants

China is famous for its rich food culture, and you definitely wouldn’t like to miss the chance to visit local Chinese restaurants when you’re in China. Despite the fact that local restaurants in China usually don’t provide English menus, pictures of most of the dishes are available, which means you’ll still be able to choose the dishes that you like based on what you see. Sometimes you will come across some traditional homemade dishes that are not on offer in those fancy restaurants, which is exactly what some passionate Chinese learners are looking for in order to have a clearer idea of what ordinary people in China like to eat.

Watch Chinese TV Series

If you are interested in knowing more about some of the social problems that can be observed in China at the moment, watching Chinese TV series could be a good option. The plots of most Chinese TV series are based on some typical problems that people encounter in their daily lives. For example, there are several popular TV series that are devoted to the stressful situation where young parents have to work extremely hard to provide their children with the best education. Therefore, if you consider yourself an advanced learner, it’ll be a good idea to spend some time watching Chinese soap operas to know more about what Chinese people really want from life.

Here are two famous Chinese TV dramas that may help you improve your Chinese language skills:

家有儿女 (Jiā yǒu Érnǚ): Home with Kids

家有儿女 (Jiā yǒu Érnǚ): Home with Kids
家有儿女

This TV drama is ideal for intermediate and advanced Chinese learners to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese people’s daily lives. The main idea about this TV show is centered on an ordinary Chinese family, in which a remarried couple and their three kids strive to enhance mutual understanding between each other. This TV drama contains a large number of episodes, with each of them representing a separate story.

爱情公寓 (Àiqíng Gōngyù): iPartment

爱情公寓 (Àiqíng Gōngyù): iPartment
爱情公寓

This is a very popular TV drama among young people in China, and it’s all about the hilarious things that happen to seven people who share the same apartment. This TV show is more or less similar to the famous American comedy Friends, which means it would allow students to gradually improve their Chinese skills in a relaxing and enjoyable way.

Learn Chinese Characters

Learning Chinese characters is required for intermediate and advanced students in that they are expected to be able to read Chinese articles. Many Chinese learners think it’s very hard to master Chinese characters as some of them look really complicated. However, there is usually a logic behind a Chinese character based on its shape or meaning, which would make the learning process pretty interesting. Take the character “飞 (fēi)” as an example, it means “to fly” and it does look like a bird which is flapping its wings.

Read Chinese Newspapers

This final tip is for advanced Chinese learners who are interested in politics and would like to have a deeper understanding of China’s role in the international arena. If you want to carry out research on China, it’s indispensable that you understand contemporary Chinese politics. Moreover, it might come in handy even when it comes to job-hunting in China. Therefore, developing the habit of reading Chinese newspapers can be helpful for you to improve your Chinese language skills and develop your career in China.

I hope you enjoyed this guest article by That’s Mandarin and found their tips helpful. Here’s a short self-introduction from That’s Mandarin: “Founded in 2005, That’s Mandarin has been delivering excellence in Chinese teaching for over 15 years to more than 50,000 students of different nationalities. That’s Mandarin has excellent teachers with both online and offline courses on offer, and their various types of classes will suit all your needs for Mandarin learning.”

Reading Chinese novels: To Live《活着》

“The little chickens will grow to be ducks, the ducks will become geese, and the geese will become oxen, and tomorrow will be better”. That’s a central passage from the famous novel and movie《活着》or To Live by the Chinese author Yu Hua. Is it any good as a Chinese learning resource? How difficult is the text and who should read it?

Difficulty

Unlike most Chinese literary products “To Live” is an amazingly readable novel. I’d estimate it requires HSK 4 or 5 level to be read and HSK 6 to be enjoyed. This is just an indication. As it has more to do with your overall Chinese reading experience than any particular HSK level. For one thing, you’ll still find plenty of words “outside of HSK”. If you’re like me not reading Chinese novels on a daily basis, it’s main difficulty most likely is its length (The English version counts roughly 250 pages). Here’s a text sample that should give a taste of the text’s difficulty:

 到那时我还没怎么把家珍的病放在心上,我心想家珍自从嫁给我以后,就没过上好日子,现在年纪大了,也该让她歇一歇了。谁知过了一个来月,家珍的病一下子重了,那晚上我们一家守着那汽油桶煮钢铁,家珍病倒了,我才吓一跳,才想到要送家珍去城里医院看看。

To Live, Chapter 6

The complete Chinese text can be found here. I printed it for some good old offline reading:

Why read it?

You can’t understand present-day China without looking into China’s history. That includes recent history. Even when most Chinese people I’ve met are eager to move away from the Mao years (1949-1976), they are still relevant. The author Yu Hua manages to give an honest account of how poor village people – that’s most people – have experienced the turmoils during the first decades of the PRC (almost without ever mentioning the people responsible).

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. An anonymous reader sums it all up:

“To Live” is an amazing novel, which takes you through the 20th century history of China while being at the same time amazingly written. This is one of the greatest novels I have read in a long time. The story of a family through three generations, with one character at its center, his highs and lows, and Chinese politics. This is a tour de force. The writing is vivid, concise, yet so beautiful and moving. If you can’t read it in Chinese, read it in English, it has been translated many times, and I guarantee you will remember this story for many years to come. And for those with an interest in China, this is a must.

Source: Reader on Amazon

Story

To Live tells the story of Fugui, the son of a rich land owner. The young Fugui enjoys two things more than everything else: the first is gambling, the second whoring. Before long he manages to lose his father’s entire estate. He has no other choice left than make a living as a poor farmer and is forced to fight in the Chinese Civil War. The rest of the story tells how Fugui, his wife and two children survive Mao’s new China and its mass movements. The loss of his family estate proves lifesaving, but his troubles are far from over.

New words

Here’s some interesting words I came across:

  • 孽子 – unfilial son; unworthy descendant
  • 败家子 – wastrel
  • 二流子 – loafer; idler; bum
  • 光耀祖宗 – to honor forefathers
  • 鬼混 – lead an aimless or irregular existence; fool around
  • 闹腾 – to amuse oneself
  • 嫖 – to visit prostitutes; go whoring; frequent brothels
  • 胡闹 – run wild; make trouble
  • 牲畜 – livestock; domestic animals
  • 庄稼 – crops
  • 左思右想 – to think over from different angles
  • 骰子 – dice
  • 赊账 – system of buying or selling on credit; have outstanding bills
  • 踏实 – steady and sure; dependable; free from anxiety; having peace of mind

Conclusion

To Live has a lot to offer: a good story, Chinese history and culture. What makes it interesting as a learning resource is its availability as film (Zhang Yimou, 1994) and audiobook, both great works of art in their own right. You can pick one of these formats or even combine them. Don’t read it if you’re not interested in the Mao era or don’t want to read about extreme poverty and the hardships of rural life. This story should be told to the world though.

Thanks for dropping by on Kaohongshu. If you have any thoughts or comments for me, feel to write them down below.

PS. If you want to know about the rise of communism in China, CCP power politics, Mao’s cult of personality and the like, you can check these lectures:

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The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Graded Chinese Reader 3000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories

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Two free online tools to hack Chinese texts

Reading difficult Chinese texts? These two free tools assist you reading and extracting value from any Chinese text you want to study in-depth.

Chinese Pinyin converter and Vocabulary List Generator

Previously on this blog I reviewed the app DuShu which allows you to import any Chinese text and get instant word translations, flashcards and vocabulary lists and difficulty check. DuShu can be a very effective tool when you’re reading the Chinese news, Chinese blogs or indeed any Chinese text that requires some outside help.

The Chinese Pinyin converter combined with the Vocabulary List Generator have similar features, but they are browser applications for desktop users. They are particularly handy if you want to study a text in-depth and create vocabulary lists, flashcards and the like. Another major advantage compared to popular yet costly Chinese reading platforms like the Chairman’s Bao and Du Chinese is that they are free of charge and you can take control over the content.

Let’s be honest here: they are not spectacularly new tools. On the contrary, they have been online since 2013, but are not that widely known. Both tools are pretty self-explaining, but let’s do a quick run-through anyway.

01. Copy any Chinese text you want to study

Copy any Chinese text you’d like to study (max. 1000 characters). For this post, I picked a news article about Chinese tariffs for Australian wine, because I like wine:

Copy your Chinese text into the  Chinese Pinyin converter

02. Paste text into the converter

OK, we got our text. The next step: paste the text into the converter and click Convert. Note that you have different view options for Pinyin or Zhuyin transcription. I’m OK with Pinyin. Tone colors (never worked for me) can be added or removed. The English word translation will pop up in the converted text if you select Annotation. Of course, you don’t need that if you have your pop-up dictionary running. Now we’re ready to convert:

Convert your Chinese text in the Chinese Pinyin converter

Once you’ve converted the text, you can start studying the text. Under View the Pinyin for different HSK levels can be selected, depending on your level. For instance, if you don’t want to see HSK 1 – 3 words, you only select the higher levels. Or pick the hover-option to reveal the Pinyin only in individual cases when you mouseover the characters.

You want to listen to the text? The converter provides audio and (unlimited) translations for each sentence. To adjust the audio speed a pro account is required though.

This is what the converted text looks like:

This is what a converted Chinese text looks like in the Chinese Pinyin converter

03. Mark words to create a vocabulary list

Let’s imagine this text is interesting enough for you to want to remember its key vocabulary. One way to do this is by clicking on the characters. Simply handpick words to create a vocabulary list. This method is an exercise in itself and pretty fast, even compared to Pleco’s clipboard reader, and has the advantage that the list can be printed for “offline studying”.

Here I selected 6 important words to study:

Creating a vocabulary list with the  Chinese Pinyin converter

To print your new vocabulary list export it to Word, make the adjustments you want to make and start printing:

Exporting the vocabulary list with the  Chinese Pinyin converter

04. Create a filtered vocabulary list without duplicates

And even faster way to generate a complete vocabulary list for any text you’re studying is by clicking Vocabulary List. Paste the text into the Vocabulary List Generator. Say you don’t care so much about HSK 1 to 4, then simply select these HSK levels to filter out the corresponding words. Also be sure to mark Duplicates to get rid of double entries:

Create a filtered word list without duplicates with the Vocabulary List Generator

The result looks something like this:

Filtered Chinese word list without duplicates

This list can be refined: if you don’t want words like 周五 or 澳大利亚 in your list, simply select them and click Hide Selected. This is probably one of the most efficient methods to create a Chinese vocabulary list.

05. Create flashcards to print

For those who like the good old paper flashcards: the Vocabulary List Generator also allows you to create printable flashcards:

The Vocabulary List Generator allows you to create printable flashcards

Once printed you only need a pair of scissors to cut the cards and maybe some glue.

06. Export vocabulary lists

Too much work or printer not working? Export the vocabulary list to your flashcard app of choice. If you’re using Anki to study flashcards, downloading the list as a CSV-file is an option:

 Export the vocabulary list as a CSV-file with the Vocabulary List Generator

After that import the file to study the flashcards with Anki:

Import the CSV-file to study the flashcards with Anki

PS. It’s also possible to study the vocabulary within the Vocabulary List Generator itself, since several study options like flashcards and a matching game are included. And I forgot to mention the writing sheets for Hanzi.

That’s it. Although these two tools certainly aren’t the newest state-of-the-art learning apps, they’re still pretty cool. Especially if you like to print stuff, hold things in your hands and make notes. I admit that for mobile readers that the Chinese dictionary app Pleco with its clipboard reader is probably the better choice, since it provides almost the same key features (Pinyin, translations, audio, flashcards).

Affiliate links

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

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

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“Should you still learn Chinese?”

“Should you still learn Chinese?” – American YouTuber and expert level Mandarin speaker LeLe Farley poses this question in one of his newest videos. His answer is long, personal and includes many political detours. My own answer hasn’t really changed, how about yours?

Chinese is not as popular as it was 15 years ago?

In an earlier post, I discussed the relations between politics and the motivation to learn Chinese, more in particular the impact of the mainly negative media coverage of China (e.g. Hongkong, Tibet, Xinjiang, Covid-19 etc.) has on us who are trying to learn Mandarin as a foreign language. It’s a sensitive topic, but I can’t see why it shouldn’t be discussed openly. It simply seems that Chinese is not as popular as it was 15 years ago. And the increasingly negative image of China and the political developments addressed by LeLe Farley in his video do play a role in this. At least in the eyes of many westerners.

Who is this YouTuber anyway?

The video in question: “Should you still learn Chinese?”

For those who aren’t familiar with LeLe Farley the first thing you have to know about him is that he spent 12 years perfecting his Chinese. He was one his way to become a laowai celebrity in China, but his personal ethics and political views got in the way, eventually leading to LeLe being banned from China.

Lele uploaded a video of him imitating He Who Must Not Be Named in a Winnie the Pooh costume. Less than a day after the sketch was uploaded to YouTube, LeLe’s name was blocked on the Chinese internet. He was completely erased 1984-style, just like he had never existed in China.

A taboo topic

We’re all learning Chinese, why don’t we speak openly about this? I can see two reasons:

  • People in the field of teaching Chinese as a foreign language usually don’t have any incentive to discuss sensitive political questions as it’s bad for business and “social harmony”. A publisher, for example, won’t risk raising issues like Hongkong or Xinjiang in learning materials, because this can have serious consequences.
  • International learning community naturally tend to block out information that damage their motivation to learn Chinese.

Should you still learn Chinese?

LeLe’s take on this question is highly political and arguably somewhat one-sided, but relevant nonetheless, after all he studied Chinese for more than a decade, had real opportunities in China, but eventually chose ethics over career (in China). The way he poses the question – Should you still learn Chinese? – suggests that something has changed fundamentally:

Should you still learn Chinese? This “still” is essential because 10 plus years ago learning Chinese was the fashionable thing to do. Yes, back then there were both pros and cons, but the pros typically outweighed the cons, because most people thought China was the next global powerhouse with a burgeoning middle class pushing the country towards democratization. Hell, even China’s premier Li Keqiang said so as recently as 2013. But now XJP has cancelled presidential term limits, centralized power, crushed dissent and stoked the flames of nationalism all in an attempt to divert attention from him and his party’s failures.

YouTube: XJP & China’s New Cultural Revolution: Should You STILL Learn Chinese? (23 Mar 2021)

Chinese (and China) not as “fashionable” as it used to be?

I’m not judging his assessment of the political situation in China, because this is a language blog. But his statement that learning Chinese is not as “hot” as it used to be, has some truth to it. The Google search data seems to indicate this as well for example. This decline of interest for the Chinese language probably relates to the increasingly negative views people have about China. If you look at these charts, you can see China’s popularity has dropped drastically in recent years:

Increasingly negative eveluations of China across advanced economies. This survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that China's international image has been suffering over the previous decade.
This survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that China’s international image has been suffering over the previous decade. Does this somehow correlate to people’s willingness to learn Chinese? If so, how big is the negative impact? PS. Keep in mind that they only used data from 14,276 adults in 14 different “advanced economies”, so this survey shows an overall trend in the respective countries at best.

The better your Chinese gets, the more you hate the CCP?

One of his main points in the video is that the better your Chinese gets, the better you understand China and the Chinese and the harder it becomes to ignore the negative impact of China’s political leadership. In his own words:

Trust me, from my personal experience, I can tell you if you want to become China-famous, learning Chinese will only hold you back. As is true with any language: the better you get, the more you’ll understand the culture. But Chinese fluency enables you to see the profoundly negative impact the CCP has on China and the Chinese people. You become a witness in the lost potential of what could be magnificent.

YouTube: Xi Jinping & China’s New Cultural Revolution: Should You STILL Learn Chinese? (23 Mar 2021)

Becoming “China-famous”

“If you want to become China-famous, learning Chinese will only hold you back.” This statement reflects LeLe’s own story, joining auditions for Chinese TV-shows, but failing due to “political incorrectness”. I don’t think many people take on the challenge of mastering the Chinese language hoping to achieve fame on Chinese television though.

Looking beyond the here and now of politics

Thankfully, LeLe Farley is able to look beyond politics and all the negative distractions:

So if this is all true, then why why do I continue to learn Chinese? Simply put, because Chinese is fucking dope! Sharing nothing in common with Indo-European languages, Chinese builds you a completely unique frame of thinking through which to perceive the world. Characters represent ideas more than concrete words, giving rise to centuries of brilliant poetry, 20 character Tang-dynasty poems require pages of English translation and even then you still feel like something’s missing. And as your ears begin to discern between the tones of Mandarin you can enjoy the melodic cadence professional orators work years to perfect. You can feel the relaxed nature of a Chengdu accent, exude from the local speech. You can embrace the irreverent boldness of a Beijing accent getting drunk on rice wine with a bunch of old men, while chilling in the labyrinth of ancient alleyways. You can befriend enthusiastic locals that don’t speak a word of English yet remain tremendously curious about you and the outside world. You can even channel your frustrations with the communist party through satire. Try to reach out to those trapped within the great firewall and tell them you are not alone. You can try and be a force for the change that you want to see in the world. So if you’re looking to experience a wild roller coaster ride of a life, then hell yeah you should learn Chinese.

YouTube: Xi Jinping & China’s New Cultural Revolution: Should You STILL Learn Chinese? (23 Mar 2021)

Conclusion: “Should you still learn Chinese?”

It’s your decision

My personal answer is definitely yes, but most important of all: it’s your choice. We are all free to have your own motivations and ideas, as well as likes and dislikes. At the end of the day, it’s your call, nobody can decide for you. Not even a 100 percent fluent Mandarin speaker like LeLe Farley, let alone a simple blogger like me.

I personally value LeLe Farley’s courage and energy, but ultimately, this video provides his subjective account and (naturally) reflects his own experiences. In fact, I think that most people don’t care that much about the political stuff. I’m also not that sure a higher knowledge level of Chinese inevitably leads to an anti-CCP point of view (I’m not saying that the better you get, the more you’re going to fall in love with the party either). A more nuanced, multi-faceted point of view maybe. I do agree with LeLe that China (and the rest of the world) looked different 10, 15 years ago. I’m not without hope that things still can change for the better.

There are so many reasons to learn Chinese!

However, all this has very little to do with why most people develop an interest for the Chinese language. There are plenty of reasons to start learning Mandarin and most of them have nothing to do with politics. Just ask people in online learning communities what their motivations to learn Chinese are and you’ll see a wide variety of reasons:

  • “I like their literature and want to read them in Chinese one day.”
  • “Because I think Chinese will be as important as English”
  • “To communicate well with Chinese company for smooth business development”
  • “Because I like Chinese dramas”
  • “I want to further my studies in China”
  • “Because of my in-laws”
  • “Cause never stopped to put challenges in my life”
  • “We have a saying in our native language that translates to “one who thinks in different tongues (languages), thinks more rationally”.”

People have all kind of motivations to learn Chinese. They don’t need to be serious or thought through the end. This is a very personal matter – just like LeLe’s own story shows.

Learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor

I’ve written before that the world of politics is a day-to-day, month-to-month thing, where as learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor. Serious learners will acknowledge that you have to invest a huge amount of time and energy, so – if possible – your learning success shouldn’t be depending on any of that. Although I have to admit that this is easier said than done. I think the present Covid-situation illustrates that external factors can sometimes “explode in your face”.

Bottom line: The study of languages should be located above politics. And that doesn’t mean you don’t care or lack interest. There will always be value in mastering the Chinese language. We create that value ourselves. We decide what is meaningful. At any rate, if LeLe’s assessment of the situation is true and we’re in a new Cold War, then we’ll need people with a deep understanding of the Chinsese language, history and culture more than ever. In the meanwhile, LeLe Farley’s story should be told and his voice should be heard. You can support him on Patreon.

That’s it from my side. “Should you still learn Chinese?” Feel free to let me know what you think about this question. Does politics influence your motivation to learn Chinese in any way, positive or negatively?

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Improving your Chinese writing skills on Journaly

One of my favorite things about writing this blog is discovering new learning resources and tools. Recently, I tested the new online platform Journaly and found that it has great potential for Mandarin learners. Although maybe not for everybody. Here’s why!

Writing to improve your speaking skills?

First I have to say a few words about the benefits of writing.

Writing as a means to improve oral fluency in Mandarin is undervalued. This is mainly because to most people writing texts in general isn’t particularly enjoyable. Moreover, most Mandarin learners value speaking, listening and reading skills over writing skills. They more or less tend to overlook writing or associate it with school and exams. I’m no different: except for writing messages to Chinese friends, I “dropped” writing pretty much after passing HSK 5.

Writing texts – from keeping a (language) diary to writing short articles or essays – does have two major benefits though:

  • Writing helps to improve your ability to build correct and more complex sentences by using new and more daring sentence structures you’d avoid in a rapid conversation.
  • Writing helps to expand your vocabulary in a focused and thoughtful way. This is like slowly conquering new territory.

And let’s not forget feedback, because when nobody’s offering feedback on what you wrote you might as well speak Chinese with your parrot. Is it correct what you’re writing? Is there a better way of saying it? Is it correct what you’re writing but do you still sound like a laowai / foreigner? This kind of thing. Feedback is essential.

But most important of all: writing should be enjoyable. This is where Journaly comes in.

What’s Journaly?

Journaly is a foreign language journaling platform and online language learning community and both are growing fast. People on Journaly obviously want to improve their writing skills, but it’s more than just writing for the sake of being corrected by native readers. Journaly is a way to involve in meaningful communication by writing about the stuff you really care about. This can be almost anything, from every day life to quantum mechanics and robotics. And it’s about helping each other.

How is this different from lang-8?

Lang-8 was the first successful language learning platform where native speakers correct what you write. When I tried to create an account back in 2019, I got the message that “new sign ups for Lang-8 are currently suspended”. This actually has been the case since 2017. But to compare the two anyway, let’s see what Robin MacPherson, the man who created Journaly, has to say about Lang-8 and how Journaly is going to be different:

Lang-8 was very useful, but the design was incredibly outdated and they closed off the ability for new users to sign up years ago. There’s been a great need in the community that we aim to address, but Journaly is so much more than a Lang-8 replacement. Lang-8 was transactional, whereas Journaly has been designed from the first moment through the lenses of User Experience and habit-forming product design to help you not just write often, but also to help you build meaningful connections in the community with fellow learners who share your interests.

You’ll be able to find not just perfect language matches, but also perfect people matches. Let’s say you’re an English speaker who’s learning French. You like rock climbing, food, and movies. You’ll be able to use our robust filters to find French speakers who are learning English, and who write about one or maybe even all of your interests!

Robin MacPherson in his post “Introducing Journaly”, 25.09.2019

This idea to connect language learners with the same interests or background has great potential and goes beyond the simple quid pro quo of correcting and being corrected. Journaly’s ambition is to be one of the major online language learning communities of the future where people engage in meaningful interaction, build relationships and share skills and inspiration.

But let’s start with the basics first…

Native readers correct your posts

Once you publish something native readers usually correct your posts within hours, depending on the language. Mandarin is one of the most popular languages on Journaly – after German, English, Spanish, Italian and French, so timely response isn’t a problem. This, for example, is a comment I got on one of my texts:

Journaly - comments by native readers

You correct their posts

In return, you can correct other people’s post in your native language(s) and contribute to the community. Since I’m from the Netherlands, I feel most comfortable correcting texts written in Dutch. Yes, there’s even a place for relatively “small” languages like Dutch which is great. To add a comment, you simply select the part of the sentence and start writing, not unlike editing a Word document:

Journaly - I corrected a Dutch post

Is “correcting” the right word?

It’s not about wrong or right actually. I’d comment for example: “people usually say this” or “If you mean X, the word Y is more commonly used”. On the other hand, there’s no denying that writing on Journaly is all about learning from your mistakes. The whole point is making mistakes and getting the instant feedback you need. This can hurt a little bit, yes. I have to admit that even though I see the “greater good”, I didn’t much like the idea of being corrected in front of everybody and have my “mistakes” pointed out. But in the end, this is really a mentality thing that’s simply not helpful when learning Mandarin (or indeed learning anything).

And if your comments are useful to others, you actually “receive thanks” that are displayed in your profile. This means you’re being encouraged to support other learners:

Journaly - an example of a user profile on Journaly

Read what others are writing and learn from their mistakes

If you’re not writing or correcting, you can read the corrected posts by fellow learners in your target language. You can filter by languages and topics:

Journaly - my personal feed on Journaly

And start reading. There’s plenty of Chinese posts to choose from. This Chinese post for example is about the difficulties of choosing the right Chinese name for oneself. The author also asks questions and starts a discussion with native speakers. That’s the kind of meaningful communication what foreign language learning should be all about:

Journaly - example of a Chinese post by a fellow Mandarin learner

What to write?

Anything you want. Anything you want to share with others.

Really ANYthing? Well, I couldn’t find any community guidelines on Journaly, but I also didn’t encounter any spam or other unpleasantness. Either content moderation works or people here are really focused on learning languages.

Any tips on writing on Journaly?

Disclaimer: I only tested Journaly for one month. My thoughts:

  • Write according to your level. I tried to write something about the corona situation in Germany, but it got to a point where I had to look up too many words, because I wanted too much.
  • Writing should be fun and it shouldn’t take too long. No one says a post should have at least 400 words.
  • Write about your life and daily stuff. This is difficult enough as you have to write about it in a way that outsiders can understand, but it’s also the most universal stuff everyone can relate to.
  • Engage with the audience, ask questions (why is it that so many people in China hardly have any holidays?) and ask for advice.
  • Have a good time. At the end of the day, the main point is having fun. Being active on Journaly should be enjoyable to such an extent that you keep coming back to write more.

Start writing

Journaly is like a basic version of WordPress. It’s kind of like blogging. Simply start writing. Add a title, pick your language and select one or more topics:

Journaly - it's very easy to write and publish a post

Journaly is a very promising platform

Journaly is an excellent online learning platform if you want to improve your Chinese skills by way of writing or simply enjoy writing and reading in foreign languages and engaging with other learners. Here you receive the instant feedback you usually don’t get or can’t process fully when speaking Mandarin. Plus, this feedback becomes part of your posts. It can be studied and reviewed anytime. In a way it’s like blogging in a foreign language. You can make it as interesting and challenging as you want. Your language level doesn’t really matter.

Some people who love writing or blogging anyway will immediately be drawn towards Journaly. Others who hate this kind of silent, introverted activity probably prefer face-to-face communication and don’t want to waste their time with writing. But lots of people in the middle should give Journaly a try to see if it works for them.

Long story short: I’m looking forward to see both the Journaly platform and online learning community develop and grow in the time to come. It’s exciting to be part of this young community (almost) from the beginning. Here you can sign up for free.

Thanks for dropping by on Kaohongshu! What are your thoughts on improving your writing skills to become more fluent in Mandarin or indeed any other foreign language? Feel free to let me know about your experiences with Journaly.

Update (1-5-2021): Journaly Premium is now live with a first premium feature: inline post images. This allows you to include an unlimited number of images inside your posts and bring them to life. More premium features will follow in the future.

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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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HSK 6 Chinese graded reader review: The Art of War

HSK 6 Graded Chinese Reader - The Art of War

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

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

First some basic information about this graded reader:

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

Difficulty

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

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

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

How to read it?

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

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 – Reader’s note

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

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

First Chapter, Laying Plans (page 10)

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

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

What about the story?

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

Wikipedia – The Art of War

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

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

Lay-out

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

Publisher

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

Self-description on Amazon

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

Opportunities for improvement

I do see some areas for improvement:

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners (English and Chinese Edition)
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Classical Chinese Primer (Reader + Workbook) (Englisch)
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趙雷 – 三十岁的女人 (2014)

Some love this song, some absolutely hate it. Mainly because the singer Zhao Lei sings about “leftover women”, the so-called “剩女” which is a big issue in China. My opinion: the song is innocent, Chinese society is guilty. Let’s have a closer look. 三十岁的女人 – 30 year old woman Zhao Lei’s “outdated views about women”Continue Reading

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.

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

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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