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:

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

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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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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.

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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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.

Affiliate links

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

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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.

Other posts on Kaohongshu

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

HSK 6 Chinese Graded reader review: The New Housekeeper

HSK Chinese Graded Reader - The New Housekeeper - Front 2

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

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

Here’s some basic information about this graded reader:

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

Difficulty

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

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 – Reader’s note

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

How to read it?

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

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 – Reader’s note

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

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

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

What about the story?

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

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 – Synopsis

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

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

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

Here are some examples:

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

Lay-out

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

Opportunities for improvement

Here’s some things that could be improved:

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Affiliate links

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

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

5 apps that help you to understand and write Chinese characters

3

From the great number of apps that claim to boost your Mandarin skills only a few focus specifically on understanding and writing Chinese characters. I tested five of them and only one application really convinced me. Here’s my top 5 of apps for learning Hanzi.

Learning Chinese characters is difficult. In my view, it’s not so much the ancient writing system itself that poses a problem, but primarily the teaching and study methods we use for Hanzi which can be awful. Even in this decade of the 21st century, lots of people continue to “binge-write” Hanzi (for example write the character 爱 30 times) hoping that this somehow is enough for our brain. There’s nothing wrong with diligence, is this really the best method we got though?

Let’s imagine for one second that our best teaching methods and study practices can flow into an app that makes learning Hanzi easier, more efficient and fun, both for beginners and more experienced learners. Which apps can meet these straightforward qualifications?

5. Daily Mandarin

Daily Mandarin Hanzi practice for iOS
88.8 MB, iOS only

Daily Mandarin is a very basic app designed to practice writing all level HSK characters and uhm.. that’s about it. You simply open one of the six well-known HSK-vocabulary lists in the app, select a character you want to practice and the app will show the stroke order and play the audio. If you feel you’re getting the hang of it, hide the stroke order. Additionally, you can look up characters with the search function. The app is completely free.

Unlike Scripts, Daily Mandarin is not very practical in terms of daily use. Where to start with 5000 characters to learn? How to memorize them all? These questions need answering, but Daily Mandarin doesn’t give any clues, let alone any form of spaced repetition. It’s pretty much like being handed a dictionary. This reveals a lack of didactic considerations on the side of the developers. Besides, they could have made the character writing smoother.

Bottom line: Daily Mandarin is a potentially helpful app, but how to properly use it remains unclear.

4. Scripts

"Scripts by Drops": Learn Chinese characters, the Korean alphabet or the Japanese writing system with illustrations and mini games.
31 MB, Android and iOS

Scripts by Drops is a popular app for introducing you to new writing systems, Chinese Hanzi being one of them. It’s designed for a gamified learning experience, making the first steps into the world of Hanzi as amusing and colorful as possible.

The free version allows you to learn the most common radicals, including stroke order, visualized meaning and pronunciation, for five minutes. After this 5-minute session you have to wait for ten hours to have another go. Why? Well, to quote the app developers:

Limiting learning time may sound counter-intuitive but it makes Drops Scripts incredibly addictive. And that’s a good thing in terms of language learning. The obstacles standing in your way of finally starting to read and write in a new language are made obsolete. No excuses: you ALWAYS have 5 minutes!

Addiction in this particular case indeed isn’t a bad thing. Being limited to 5-minute sessions is though. The only solution – you guessed it – is to upgrade to the premium version which offers you:

  • Access to BOTH Scripts and Drops Premium
  • Unlimited practice session times
  • More topics
  • No ads and offline access

Which – to be honest – is not that spectacular – assuming we’re only interested in writing Hanzi (Scripts) and less in learning vocabulary (Drops). Browsing the free version of Scripts I merely noticed the usual list of Hanzi radicals which you can find almost anywhere. What’s more, study all of them is not necessary for beginners – apart from being pretty dull – since most radicals are character components, not actual characters that you use on a daily basis! Moreover, you first have to know a substantial number of Chinese characters to grasp and appreciate the actual use of (all) radicals. So for me to purchase the premium version I’d definitely need to see a broader variety of content first.

Apart from this lack of vocabulary, the biggest downside is – as we now know – intended: the 5-minute session limit. This makes the free version almost useless for beginners, because 5 minutes simply isn’t enough. Going premium currently costs €5/month (yearly subscription) or € 8.49 (monthly subscription).

3. Kangxi

KangXi: learn characters by their radicals
Size 12,9 MB, free, iOS only

Kangxi is a fun app which focuses on radicals. Basically it’s a game in which you match characters with the same radical as quick as you can. There are five HSK levels to choose from, audio and traditional characters included. It’s a quick and painless method to boost your knowledge of radicals and certainly worth a try.

The only issue I have with the Kangxi app is that in some cases knowing the radical isn’t very advantageous. The developer arguably could have picked more ‘meaningful’ semantic components instead, but then the app wouldn’t be called Kangxi, I suppose.

2. Hanzi Study

Size 11 MB, Android only

This app should be called HSK Hanzi Study, since it ‘only’ contains the 2600 characters from the HSK-test (2.0). Hanzi study provides you with a self-paced learning structure that breaks down all that vocabulary into manageable bits, namely 6 grades with a X number of lessons.

HSK 1 consists of 9 lessons teaching you 20 words each for example. The characters in each lesson seem to be randomly put together, which in my opinion is just as good or bad as alphabetic order. You get a short “briefing” for each new character, showing:

  • Example sentences
  • Stroke order and stroke count
  • Radical of each character
  • Frequency

That’s nice! Here comes the ‘but’:

  • Upgrade needed for the test function (€2.09)
  • No audio in the free version
  • Example sentences are too difficult for beginners
  • Can’t remove Pinyin during test, no traditional characters

The app isn’t complete without the test / flashcard function. Without it, you’re only able to preview the lessons, but can’t track or indeed test your progress.

1. Skritter

Size 30 MB, for Android and iOS

Yes, yes. Skritter. For anybody serious about mastering writing Chinese characters Skritter is the best app I’ve used so far, but also one of the most expensive (monthly subscription $14.99, yearly subscription $99.99). But if you’re really invested in Mandarin and thinking long-term, Skritter probably is the number-one tool for writing Hanzi and vocabulary training.

I know this introduction has an affiliate marketing tone to it, but that’s how I feel about Skritter. It’s worth checking Skritter’s browser version and especially the app. The free version naturally only offers a small taste of Skritter’s functions, where as premium subscribers get the full deal:

  • Learn to write Chinese characters and deepen your understanding of Hanzi (radicals, semantic components, stroke order)
  • Lots of content (HSK, commonly used textbooks and decks created by users)
  • Learning history and progress tracking
  • Master characters in three steps: learn, test and review with spaced repetition (this order is actually pedagogically responsible which can’t be said for all learning tools)
  • Skritter’s little game ‘Time Attack’: test your writing skills in a race against time (lots of fun, even for natives who want to refresh their handwriting)

It’s the kind of language tool I wished I had discovered earlier, because – let’s be honest here – I wasted insane amounts of time studying Hanzi with old-fashioned methods, writing, rewriting and then forgetting them again. I believe Skritter – when used properly – can ‘professionalize’ this whole process and make it more efficient and rewarding.

You not only save, but you also win time, since you can use Skritter to study anywhere and anytime you feel like it. Skritter’s SRS also makes it much harder to forget what you learned. SRS is never perfect, but it’s much better than studying at whim and more efficient in the long run. Furthermore, the app allows you to keep track of your progress, so you know exactly where you’re at and what you’ve been learning.

Does Skritter have to be so expensive? Well, I don’t know, but as far as I can tell it’s the only serious tool for writing Chinese characters on the market. Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself if Skritter works for you and whether or not is its money’s worth.

Of course this is list is far from complete. Which apps have been particularly helpful to your Hanzi adventure? Any apps that should be included in this list? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Affiliate links

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

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Reading above your level: Game of Thrones in Chinese

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Reading is key to expanding your vocabulary. I finally felt ready for reading a serious work of fiction in Chinese. Not an abridged version, not a children’s edition, but the real thing. This is how it went…

Some thoughts on reading in Chinese

Not at your level

Most of the content you find free available on the web isn’t at your particular level and doesn’t necessarily fit in with the vocabulary and sentence patterns you’ve covered so far. Graded readers are the best solution, but their pricey – you want to read more than just one – and chiefly written for beginners and lower intermediates. So once you’re past that level, there’s practically everything and nothing you could pick to read.

Don’t read about the southward expansion during the Qin Dynasty

If you do wish to continue reading, best pick a topic you’re familiar with. If it’s a book, choose one you know by heart. I’ve been looking for The Hobbit in Mandarin for example. Since I’ve read it in Dutch and English, I’m already familiar with the names, places and storyline. I merely have to get used to Gandalf speaking Mandarin to Bilbo and the dwarfs.

Weixin Dushu app by Tencent
The app Weixin DuShu by Tencent

Weixin DuShu – 微信读书

I used the app called Weixin DuShu, produced by Tencent and somewhat similar to Amazon’s Kindle. It’s usually linked to a WeChat account and not that well-known outside of China. It’s main attraction: it gives access to a great number of Chinese books.

Tencent…?

Tencent, by the way, was the company that released a mobile game titled “Clap for Xi Jinping: An Awesome Speech“, in which players have 19 seconds to generate as many claps as possible for Xi. Another interesting fact is that they got this big mainly by piracy or like Jack Ma of Alibaba Group stated, “The problem with Tencent is the lack of innovation; all of their products are copies.” Worst of all, the Chinese company plays a major role in mass surveillance and implementing censorship in China.

The app itself

Weixin DuShu is not optimized for language learning, but it does allow you to look up words in a Chinese-Chinese dictionary or underline certain characters. It’s not completely free. You enjoy unlimited access to the Weixin library for about a month, than you have to pay to read on. This can be avoided if others send you a book invitation and it seems you then can keep on reading for “free” more or less permanently.

Some features I find useful:

  • Change the font size: reading slightly larger characters can make reading a lot more comfortable.
  • Search the Chinese-Chinese dictionary or search the web: unfortunately, no English translation included.
  • Listening: the AI voice isn’t even that bad! You can listen entire chapters conveniently on your phone or tablet.
  • Offline-mode: continue reading when you’re offline.
  • Comment function: Nobody likes library books with little scribbles all over, but in this app everybody can comment on a word or passage. Not essential, but nice anyway.

Reading Game of Thrones in Chinese

Now to the book itself. Reading the first volume of the series proofed more difficult than I thought. Except for graded readers I’d never read a whole novel written in Mandarin before. Here’s what I struggled with:

Unknown vocabulary…

It’s words like usurper (篡夺者), lord (贵族), bastard (私生子女), armor (甲胄), queen mother (母后) that are new to me. The same goes for vocabulary like loot (洗劫), heir (继承人), the king slayer (弑君者), pray (祝祷) and many other less frequently used words.

Chengyu or Chinese idioms

If you’re familiar with the mostly four character idioms: great. If you aren’t, you’re left to guess. Sometimes they could just mean anything! Here’s a selection of the chengyu I encountered while reading the first chapters:

  • 措手不及 – be caught unprepared
  • 大失所望 – to one’s great disappointment
  • 摇摇摆摆 – swaggering
  • 视如无睹 – take no notice of what one sees
  • 口无遮拦 – have a loose tongue
  • 自然而然 – naturally
  • 甜言蜜语 – sweet words and honeyed phrases
  • 野心勃勃 – be overweeningly ambitious
  • 名垂青史 – go down in history
  • 忠心耿耿 – loyal and devoted

Much description…

Although compared to J.R.R. Tolkien George R.R. Martin’s novels are written more straightforwardly and the narration flows much quicker, the author does have lots of heroes and history to introduce to get the story going. Martin takes his time describing swords and the history and mindset of the royal houses. Sometimes minor details contain important clues about places, characters or events. This doesn’t make for easy reading.

The names…

With every royal house having its own family history, the story shifting back and forth between different places and protagonists, remembering all the names is tricky enough, even in English. But in Chinese the who-is-who turns into a guessing game of a whole different category. Sometimes you don’t even recognize the characters at hand as a name. Judging from the sound of the Pinyin you may connect “Nai de” to “Ned” and “Shi ta ke” to “Stark” or – more likely – you don’t and wonder who the hell “Qiong en Xue nuo” is (it’s Jon Snow) and why a person named “Robb” should be called “Luo bai” and so on.

Like others before me I don’t get the “system” behind the translations, but I accept them. A few more examples:

  • 艾德·史塔克
  • 凱特琳·史塔克
  • 羅柏·史塔克
  • 珊莎·史塔克
  • 艾莉亞·史塔克
  • 布蘭·史塔克
  • 席恩·葛雷喬伊
  • 瓊恩·雪諾
  • 提利昂·蘭尼斯特
  • 詹姆·蘭尼斯特
  • 瑟曦·蘭尼斯特

A longer list you can find here. I’ll put out the English names in the comments later on.

Overall difficulty

For an upper intermediate learner like me (HSK 5 / 6 – for what it’s worth) who has watched the entire series the novel is still astonishingly tough to read in Mandarin and I didn’t make it all the way through. I did manage to pick up some speed (still 10 times slower than me reading in English), combining and switching between two reading styles: Intensive reading for detail, extensive reading for speed and breadth. It still took me ages to finish the first five chapters, so I guess I have to admit that this novel is above my level still. The experiment was enjoyable though. I did learn lots of new details that somehow didn’t make it into the series, not to mention words like bastard (私生子女!) and king slayer (弑君者!) in Chinese.

Do you have any thoughts on reading in Chinese? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

How hard is HSK 6?

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Recently I’ve been thinking about taking the HSK 6 Chinese test and started doing some research: how painstakingly difficult is the HSK 6 exam really? And what do native speakers have to say about it?

A quick overview

  • Vocabulary: for HSK 6 you need to master 2500 words on top of the 2500 you’re supposed to know by now. That’s sounds like a lot, but many of them are “variations” of words you’re already familiar with like 出路 (a way out),出卖 (to sell), 出身 (to come from) and 出息 (to profit) . Others you’ve probably come across by now like 用户 (user),祖国 (motherland) or 火箭 (rocket). Not all are that easy to remember though.

  • Chengyu or “idioms”: According to this list HSK 6 contains 111 so-called chengyu, usually 4-character combinations. They can be really annoying. From the positive side: if you’ve come this far, you probably already know a bunch of them. Plus, it’s sufficient to know them passively. In some cases their meaning can be guessed from the context.

  • Grammar points: I couldn’t find a complete overview. ChineseGrammarwiki doesn’t include all HSK 6 grammar points, but it’s good for a start. From what I can tell they are numerous and require special attention, especially the conjunctions and sentence patterns are crucial for comprehension and reading speed.

The exam

HSK 6 consists of three parts and lasts about 140 minutes:

Listening

35 Minutes: The listening section shouldn’t contain any surprises, since it’s entirely based on the HSK 6 basic vocabulary. If you expected the HSK end boss showing up in the final level, you’ll be disappointed. In fact, it’s more of the same. You listen either to a short text or dialogue, spoken slower and clearer than any native speaker in normal life will ever speak to you – unless it happens to be a CCTV news anchor. If you’ve done your share of mock exams, you know the drill. Insider’s tip: read the answers first.

Reading

50 Minutes: The reading comprehension section is more tricky. Not so much because of the difficulty level of the texts and questions: it’s rather the amount of characters you have to plough trough. You need to process the information fast. If you’re not used to that or your reading is still shaky, you run into problems (and out of time). Many test candidates skip the grammar questions completely (meaning answer them randomly) just to win time. It is said even many native speakers have serious trouble answering those.

Writing

45 Minutes: The writing section is not that challenging. Again, if you’d expected to write 3000-character piece on the bureaucratic reforms during the Ming-dynasty, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. What you get is an article of about 1000 characters which you more or less have to rewrite. This means you don’t have to write Hanzi purely from memory which makes things a lot easier for most participants. With some basic writing fluency and composition skills you should be fine.

What do native speakers think about the HSK 6 exam?

Reading some threads on Reddit and Quora, I found that most native Chinese speakers don’t think HSK 6 very hard at all, especially compared to the proficiency levels required for IELTS. They only seemed to be taken a little aback by the grammar questions for which you have to point out the grammatically incorrect sentence. This of course has little to do with the reality of spoken Mandarin where sentence patterns are extremely flexible.

HSK 6, reading comprehension, grammar questions
Two examples from the HSK 6 reading section: find the grammatically incorrect sentence (语病). I’ll write the answers in the comments below.

A Mainland Chinese speaker wrote the following about his experience taking the HSK 6 mock exam:

  1. I can pass this test without any effort. (get 180 in 300)
  2. If I want to get a high mark (>290), I must prick up my ears to listen and pay full attention to every question.
  3. Even if I tried my best, I couldn’t get a full mark.
  4. This test requires a relatively high knowledge level (at least high school graduate). I guess it is really hard for those native speakers who haven’t received a good education. (Source: Quora)

Interestingly, not all native Chinese speakers agree. In particular those who grew up overseas, in an non-Chinese language environment:

Well it depends. As an Indonesian Chinese who grew up in a non-Mandarin speaking society, I think HSK 6 is hard. In Indonesia, only few people passed HSK 6.

I passed HSK 5 last year and am currently studying for HSK 6. I realized that the vocabulary in HSK 5 and 6 are almost the same. It just the question model which is different. They make it a bit more difficult.

Actually it is not that hard if you have plenty of time to do it, especially the reading section. However, due to the very limited time given during the real exam, I might say it is almost impossible for an Indonesian Chinese to finish reading all the question before the time end.

On the other hand, maybe other overseas Chinese who speak mandarin in their daily life like Malaysian Chinese would think that HSK 6 is a piece of cake.

Source: Melody from Indonesia on Quora

How hard is HSK 6?

To wrap it up here: it’s hard to give a definite answer to this question. We should also ask for whom and with which level of preparation. If you’re starting from scratch and planning to take the exam in one or even two years, you have some intensive studying ahead of you and you’d most likely have to go to China and take classes to receive all the input you need. Most people need more time though.

On the other hand, considering this is the highest level of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, it could be a hell of a lot harder. HSK 6 is definitely not the top of the mountain. There’s still a whole world beyond it. A fact many people who took the exam notice as soon they take up a job or do business in China.

Feel free to let me know what you think about HSK 6.

Affiliate links

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

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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What does your HSK level really tell about your Mandarin skills?

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Many people taking the HSK exams share the same experience. When they’ve reached HSK 4 level, they think they’ve arrived. But once they turn on the Chinese news, they still don’t understand what’s being said. So what do HSK exams really tell about your proficiency in Mandarin?

The HSK merry-go-round

The HSK merry-go-round or why you shouldn't be focused on HSK results only.

The story doesn’t stop with HSK 4. Because as soon as people realize they’re not as proficient as they thought, they more often than not sign up for the next level. HSK 5 is supposed to get you to “professional proficiency”:

Test takers who are able to pass the HSK (Level V) can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, enjoy Chinese films and plays, and give a full-length speech in Chinese.

(HSK 5 language skills description)

But can they really? I passed HSK 5 in 2017 with 208 points (out of 300) and even though my score could have been worse, I didn’t doubt one second that I had passed the test only by the skin of my teeth. I could hardly read a Chinese newspaper, let alone “give a full-length speech”.

HSK 5 is supposed to equal C1 language proficiency which is almost native-like fluency. It’s surprising how many people who come this “far” actually feel their grasp of the language is insufficient.

So what else to do than prepare for the “final stage”? HSK 6 is officially the highest language level you can achieve in Mandarin, so formally speaking it’s the end of the line. There’s nothing beyond that.

How come then that many people who passed HSK 6 come to feel that the highest HSK level still isn’t that “special” and isn’t actually “enough”?

Beating HSK vs real life Mandarin skills

Then I spent this year reaching HSK 6 level which is pretty much where I am now. And to be honest I still feel like my Chinese is not good enough.

Experienced learner after passing the HSK 6 exam

The funny thing with HSK is that you can completely crush the higher level exams and still do relatively poor at real life communication. For example, you might be a master at the HSK listening part, but you still don’t get a single word of the taxi driver talking to you, because he speaks relatively fast and with a slight accent.

It reminds me of Chinese students who got the highest grades on their English tests, but can’t use the language at all in the real world. They for example can’t keep up with a real conversation and answer “yes” to open questions – BUT they’re very successful at passing the exams.

HSK prepares you for HSK

Writing HSK is a skill on its own I’ve written before. One thing is essential to understand: The HSK is tailored to the classical classroom style of teaching still very common in China. In a typical HSK preparation class the teacher will focus on vocabulary and grammar points and use 95% of the speaking time hammering in vital HSK stuff. The rest of the class is usually dedicated to making as many mock exams as possible – to get you fit for the exam. NOT FOR REAL LIFE.

What does your HSK level tell about your Mandarin proficiency?

On the other hand, I don’t want to trivialize HSK. Most people who pass the national standardized test – especially the higher levels – have come a long way, others never make it. In my eyes, HSK 6 is impressive. It means you can read complex Chinese texts and write a great number of characters to compose an essay.

But there’s a problem with being HSK-focused only. The reason is this: studying (solely) for HSK will only make you a star at taking the HSK exams, while in fact you could be spending your time far more effectively.

Developing real life Mandarin skills involves a lot more. Like learning to cope with regional accents, slang, formal and informal language. Or learning to deal with different “genres” of Chinese – comedies, modern and classic literature, poetry, newspaper articles, scientific articles, emails and bureaucratic documents. HSK only provides a basic framework which proves insufficient once outside the classroom more often than not.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try…

So if you don’t need the certificate, should you still take the exam? It all depends on your situation. You should probably spare yourself the trouble, but then again, why not give it a try to see where you’re at. Especially when your self-studying and you don’t have any other points of reference. Maybe you do better than you guess!

Although by now it’s obvious I’m not a big HSK-fan and try to see HSK for what it is, I gotta admit I’ve been tempted to take the HSK 6 exam myself. Mainly to have a goal to focus on and test my progress since I took HSK 5, three years ago. Back then my biggest problem was reading speed. My reading was so slow that I couldn’t finish the questions in time. I’ve been working on that by reading more often and more extensively, but will it be enough to survive the HSK 6 reading part?

My HSK score, HSK 4 and 5 (2016-2017)
My HSK score (4 and 5): writing HSK 4 I didn’t have any problems with reading. Taking HSK 5 though, I struggled against time. Clearly the processing power of my Hanzi brain was lacking.

You only know if you try.

What are your thoughts on taking HSK exams? How does your HSK level relate to your actual Mandarin skills? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Affiliate links

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

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.