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.

Can you learn Chinese from a textbook?

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Last week I listened to the You can learn Chinese podcast where the above mentioned question was discussed: Can you learn Chinese (solely) from textbooks? And if so, to what extent? Can you become fluent by studying the whole textbook series of Integrated Chinese from beginner to advanced level? I doubt it, but maybe we should start asking the opposite question first…

Can you learn Chinese WITHOUT a textbook?

Yes, you can but…

Consider the case of Alice: she spent two years in China, but for some reason never found the time to attend Chinese classes or seriously study on her own. Neither in China, nor before China. During her time in China, she started to understand and speak some everyday life Chinese, but after two years, she still couldn’t read a complete sentence and wasn’t able to answer more specific questions like the kind of work experience she has and which cultural differences she experienced…

Easy come, easy go?

I know a number of people who acquired an impressive blending of survival Chinese without ever opening, let alone studying, a Chinese textbook. However those expats were typically very extroverted, outgoing people who enjoyed communicating with the locals from an early stage, unbothered by their limited vocabulary. But then again, sooner or later, they all reached their limit. They had learned everything they could by real life communication and then gradually stopped making any significant progress. Perhaps their Chinese level was sufficient for their purposes, maybe not. It is likely though they could have done better with some kind of “formal learning” to support them.

Flying in all directions

Because without a textbook you’re pretty much like a pilot flying without navigation: you’re going in all directions. What’s more, you know you can buy vegetables and a train ticket, but you don’t know your language level. Although HSK (or other Chinese tests) can’t completely assess your Chinese language skills, it is the best standardized assessment tool so far. It’ll at least give you some indication where you’re at. More than your Chinese friends can ever tell you.

Allergic to textbooks

How far will a textbook get you then? It depends somewhat on your personality and learning style. I know people and have taught students who reacted very allergic to textbooks. I worked for a private language school which discouraged using textbooks, because such books were thought to be the ultimate means to bore (paying) students to death. Teachers should rather bring their own ideas and focus on conversation. They didn’t have a copying machine, since “teachers shouldn’t rely on books and printed materials too much” or so they said… So is language learning without textbooks the new trend in foreign language education?

Can the teacher teach without a textbook?

Textbook-free learning has many practical implications. If you ask me now, to demand from young teachers to give classes without the help of a textbook is unprofessional for a serious language institute. Freestyle teaching requires a great amount of classroom experience, because it implies the teacher knows the curriculum by heart and how to deal with all kind of student’s questions that pop up along the way. The less experienced teacher typically is more reliant on navigation tools. He can’t just fly blindly towards his target. As a freshman you might do a good job on conversation class and have fun discussions about movies and personal ambitions, but to get all your students to the next level within the set period is a different story.

For that you would have to cover an X amount of vocabulary, grammar, sentence patterns, you name it. And you would have to do it in a specific order, not just randomly. In short: you need a good textbook to guide you. Only a textbook provides a basic structure, a step-by-step plan.

How much textbook?

The Chinese language program I attended as a student was based on the idea that you should acquire the Mandarin basics first (for one year). After that, you’d be sent to China and thrown in at the deep end. In the first year, progress was slow. Nobody felt very confident when speaking to Chinese people in their language. But still, by the end of the year, we had covered the groundwork: from counting to the 把-sentence. (We did have a group of experienced teachers.) It was in China that most of us fast-forwarded their command of the language significantly. Over there, we still used textbooks, but we weren’t bent over our books the whole day. Even in class, there were other activities like role playing, guessing games, discussions and so on. Outside of class, there was time for real communication. Learning was never limited to textbooks only.

So, how much textbook then? In the podcast, they answer the question with 25 percent. The other 75 percent should be spent “outside of the textbook”. Indeed, there is no point in endlessly studying your HSK textbook, from one level to the next, without actually using the language in real communication. That’s like preparing for the Olympics for years at home without ever getting out there to compete against other athletes.

Can you learn Chinese solely from a textbook?

To sum it all up: the reasonable answer is NO of course. Just like you can’t learn how to drive a car only by studying the mechanics of a Toyota or Chery.

That being said, I’m not stating that classic textbook learning is the only way. Guidance is important. The world of language learning is changing very fast. Professionals in education are shifting their attention to developing new apps, virtual reality programs and AI supported learning. Information and language input are much more accessible than they used to be. But all that cannot replace – at least in my view – the accumulated experience of teachers that typically flows into a good textbook series.

Which Chinese textbook did you like or hate the most? How far do you think can you get without the help of textbooks? Can apps like DuoLingo and the like replace old-fashioned paper-based learning? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Should I read Chinese texts above my level?

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Some people get fed up with coursebooks and graded readers, because the more they progress, the less challenging those texts become. But moving on to more daring stuff, they discover that reading turns into an uphill struggle again. Deciphering just one page of text takes ages. How much of a struggle should reading be? What’s the best strategy to improve your reading skills?

  1. Should I read texts above my level or rather on my level?
  2. Should I be doing extensive or intensive reading to speed up my reading?
  3. Should I look up every unknown character?
  4. What about Pinyin written above the characters?
  1. What’s a healthy reading speed?
  2. How can I find out the difficulty level of a random text?
  3. Should I read children’s books for a start?
  4. Where do I find suitable online reading resources?

Should I read texts above my level or rather on my level?

Reading texts far above your level is a bit like plodding your way through high snow. The longer the text, the more exhausting it gets. My advice would be to do both, but to concentrate your time and effort on “less demanding texts”.

Why so? Because – it sounds all too obvious – the best way to improve your reading skills is to read. A lot. You must cover some miles every day. But not just random characters or unreadable prose from the Ming dynasty. Preferably, something meaningful that your brain can process in an enjoyable way. In other words: extensive rather than intensive reading.

Which doesn’t mean you should abandon intensive reading altogether. 80 percent = extensive, 20 percent = intensive worked out really well for me.

To read intensively is to completely deconstruct a text, with the goal of absorbing as much meaning from it as possible. This is done by taking a text, and systematically looking up every word, phrase, or collocation that you do not understand.

Luca Lampariello (01.12.2019)

Reading a lot above your level is “applaudable”, but doesn’t necessarily result in picking up all that new vocabulary. On the contrary, I would have forgotten most of it by the next day. And to counter that, I would spend more time reviewing than actually reading.

Reading on your level means that you are familiar with 95 to 98 % of the words in the text. For each 1000 words you should only have to check 20 up to 50 words on average. It should feel more like a relaxed Sunday morning walk.

Should I be doing extensive or intensive reading to speed up my reading?

One superlatively important effect of wide reading is the enlargement of vocabulary which always accompanies it.

H.P. Lovecraft

Extensive reading of texts suitable for your level is the best way to accelerate. I tried both strategies and I’d say extensive reading is the most helpful means to absorb new words through context and read faster. It shouldn’t cost much effort, since you’re (speed) reading the text as opposed to studying it to extract every detail for eternity.

Extensive reading is also helpful when your preparing for HSK tests, especially the higher levels where reading speed becomes more crucial. Only reading textbooks and HSK tests may not be enough. What you need is all-round reading experience. Once your brain is trained to process Hanzi faster, you’ll extract the meaning from a random HSK question without much guessing.

Should I look up every unknown character?

Admittedly, I often do this myself, however it’s not a good habit to develop. For three main reasons:

  • Looking up characters interrupts the reading process and makes you slow.
  • Looking up every unknown character isn’t necessary to understand what you’re reading. Often you can guess the meaning, or it becomes clearer after a few pages.
  • The more characters you have look up, the harder it gets to remember them and the less time you have to read.

Unfortunately, looking up 1000 characters every month doesn’t result in learning 1000 new characters every month. You have to be a very committed and skilled learner to pull that off. I’d suggest reading easier texts and looking up a limited amount of key characters only.

What about Pinyin written above the characters?

It’s an unnecessary distraction. As helpful Pinyin is when you are just starting out reading Hanzi, after a while you should allow your brain to focus on characters only. It needs time to adapt.

Focusing on Hanzi: this is an old-fashioned graded reader with CD and Pinyin cover mask.

The (non-Chinese?) brain cannot ignore Pinyin and prefers to process alphabetical letters first. Try it yourself:

That’s even more true for English translations added below the Chinese sentence:

So it’s better to get rid of the Pinyin in an early stage and allow your brain to absorb the characters. That doesn’t mean you cannot occasionally uncover the Pinyin if you’re unsure how to pronounce a character.

This question has been debated in depth in this episode of the Mandarin Companion podcast by the way.

What’s a healthy reading speed?

This depends on your reading strategy. If it’s intensive reading, take 10 or 15 minutes per page if you have to, since you are really studying the text.

For extensive reading, you shouldn’t take much more than 4 minutes per page, only occasionally consulting a dictionary (or better, consult it after reading). Remember that you don’t have to understand every detail and analyze sentence patterns, grammar points and so on.  

How can I find out the difficulty level of a random text?

The free reading tool DuShu enables you to analyze Chinese texts on their difficulty level. It shows you detailed statistics like the percentage of vocabulary in different HSK levels and give a difficulty ranking. Like “lower intermediate”, “intermediate”, “upper intermediate”, “advanced” and “highly advanced”. The actual reading experience doesn’t always match this ranking, since the tool doesn’t know what you know, but it’s clarifying anyway.

This tool cannot tell the difficulty of a text, but it filters out the HSK vocabulary. Useful when your preparing for a HSK test and want to focus on HSK characters only.

Chinese Text Analyser can do all those things and more, but you need to purchase the software first.

Should I read children’s books for a start?

I wouldn’t recommend children’s books for beginners. Books for children are much harder than you would assume and usually contain lots of less relevant vocabulary, since they are meant for kids.

As for content, expect to be bored quickly, unless you are into little rabbit becoming friends with fat piggy in the green forest. More grown-up stories like Harry Potter, The Hobbit or The little Prince require plenty of skill to read and enjoy in Chinese. Try cartoons and graded readers instead.

Reading Xiao Wangzi
Reading 小王子 in an early stage of my learning. I translated character by character. What was even worse: I couldn’t tell which characters belonged together and failed to recognize common grammar patterns. Honest effort, but not a recommendable reading strategy. The little Prince is a good read though.

Where do I find suitable online reading resources?

Free online resources:

Non-free online resources:

What are your experiences with reading Chinese texts? Where do you find useful resources? Please 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

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.

Pleco’s graded reader: Journey to the West

buddhist statue 10

Journey to the West is one of China’s Four Great Classic Novels. Reading the original classic about Buddhist monk Xuanzang and his three disciples by yourself is considered rather advanced stuff, after all it’s a lengthy piece of Chinese literature dating back to 16th century. You could, of course, read a translated version or watch one of the many TV-adaptations, but if you still want to have read it in Chinese, the Pleco dictionary app offers a solution. It’s an abridged and simplified version of Journey to the West which is much easier and more fun to read for Mandarin learners.

Two versions of “Journey to the West”

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

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

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

I can’t say Pleco’s 西游记 is very exciting to read, but then again, this is a simplified version for studying Mandarin. It allows you to read one of the great Chinese classics in Mandarin which is something not few Mandarin learners have always been dreaming about.

So be prepared to read a simplified and summarized version of a long and complex story which describes the Tangseng’s adventures in chronological order, using a limited vocabulary.

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

The current price of 10,99€ is still rather high for an e-book or – to be precise – an add-on in Pleco. You could expect a text-only adaptation of a classic – the Pleco reader probably doesn’t support any artwork – to be cheaper maybe, so I’m hesitant to buy any of the other three Great Classics. If you want to have a taste of the extended version, but don’t feel ready for the book itself, you could combine reading the Pleco graded reader with the 1986 TV-series.

Do you have any Chinese reading material you would recommend or are disappointed about? Please 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

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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