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This is a guest post about reading comics in Chinese, written by Sara K. It was written as a natural follow-up to her previous article, but instead of talking about reading in general, this time she introduces comics for Chinese learners. I also enjoy reading comics, but rather than trying to write something mediocre myself, I hand over the pen to an expert. Enjoy!
Olle Linge has already said why reading comics are good for language learning (Reading manga for more than just pleasure), so this article is about how to use comics for language learning.
I have read comic books ever since I learned how to read, I came into Chinese-language comics with a broad knowledge of the medium to support me, and even so, I had to learn how to best use the comics in my studies. There are two main issues:
- Picking a comic (this is very important, and also difficult to do without broad knowledge of what is out there)
- Being comfortable with the comic book medium
This article mostly focuses on (1), but I will first address (2).
Many people look down on comics because they are for kids, porn, silly, or are simply degenerate. To people who have such an attitude, I say this: if you are more concerned with building highbrow-culture credentials than language learning, that is your choice, but if you refuse to read comics because they are too lowbrow for you, you are denying yourself a very useful tool for language learning. Many people are concerned, not about their own attitudes, but the attitudes of others. I think such fears are often exaggerated, but in some situations they are valid, so here are my suggestions:
- Read in private
- Use book covers (you can make your own out of scratch paper). This is a good idea anyway – it keeps the comics in good shape.
- Stick to comics which are obviously for grown-ups yet are obviously not porn. For example, The Drops of God (神之雫), an international bestseller about wine, is a good choice in this category.
Kids comics, of course, are not only okay, they are wonderful. Kids comics generally will have simpler language, even pinyin or bopomofo (the phonetic script used in Taiwan). And many kids comics are enjoyable for readers of all ages. There are too many kids comics out there for me to offer a comprehensive overview, but here are two places to start:
- Doraemon (哆啦A夢), perennially popular with the children of Taiwan (and Japan too, of course)
- Shonen Jump, the most popular comic book magazine in the world (though only the second most popular comic book magazine in Taiwan – I’ll discuss the most popular comic book magazine in Taiwan later in this article). It is the origin of phenomenal hits such as Dragonball (七龍珠), One Piece (航海王), and Death Note (死亡筆記本), among others. There is plenty of information about Shonen Jump on the web.
And finally, porn is also okay. There is no shortage of it, at least in traditional characters. There is comic book porn catering to many different tastes, including female tastes. And porn tends to be short – good for people intimidated by long works. Unfortunately, it might be hard to find porn suited to one’s tastes outside of Taiwan/Hong Kong – in Taiwan/Hong Kong, of course, one simply needs to enter the over-18-years-old section of a comic book shop and browse.
Like film, there are a set of well-known conventions used in comic books to convey the story – usually referred to as ‘comic grammar’. Most people learn comic grammar by reading lots of comic books – the same way people learn film grammar or television grammar. I have met people in both the United States and Taiwan who cannot ‘read’ comics in their native language because they have not picked up comic grammar (they don’t actually use the term ‘comic grammar’, but that’s what they mean).
Even though comic grammar is not uniform throughout East Asia, or even just in the Chinese-speaking world (for example, Hong Kong comic grammar is not identical to Taiwanese comic grammar), the similarities are strong enough that anyone who has read lots of East Asian comics shouldn’t have a problem with this when they start reading comics in Chinese. On the other hand, this could be a bit challenging for somebody who had not read many East Asian comics. If this is an issue, or if one simply does not want to pick up comic grammar at the same time one is trying to pick up Chinese, I suggest reading either a) kids comics (simpler comic grammar) or b) manhwa (Korean comics), as manhwa tends to have more straightforward comic grammar than manga (Japanese comics) and manhua (comics from the Chinese-speaking world).
What do you want from comics?
Answering this question is the first step to picking appropriate comics. For example, if you simply want to feel more comfortable reading Chinese, I would advocate reading a long comic book series full of cliffhangers – sticking to one cast of characters is generally easier than reading a bunch of short unrelated works, and cliffhangers keep one motivated (Shonen Jump, mentioned earlier, is a good source for this type of thing).
On the other hand, if one wants to expand one’s flexibility (being able to read a wider range of texts), I would advocate reading a bunch of stylistically different works to get exposed to as many kinds of Chinese as possible. Creative Comics Collection, Taiwan’s most popular manhua magazine (it outsells the Taiwan edition of Shonen Jump), is great for this. It’s full of short works which address topics as different as rooftop gardens, the history of Taipei, the different types of dragons used to ‘guard’ temples, a house built for use by the Japanese imperial family, and bathing habits in Ancient Greece (by the way, all of these topics appeared in the same issue).
From here, I am going to split this into three sections:
- Colloquial Chinese
- Literary Chinese
- Non-fiction Chinese
Of course, the most important thing is motivation. 7Seeds (幻海奇情), a post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure manga by Yumi Tamura, does not fit any of the categories I describe (well, it might fit under ‘colloquial’). However, even though it does not fit well into any of the categories discussed below, if you want to read 7Seeds really badly – then go ahead and read it. Don’t stop yourself from reading something you’re really interested in, even if it doesn’t align with my suggestions.
Many comics use very colloquial language, but not all. For people who are primarily interested in colloquial Chinese, I have two general suggestions: comedies and manhua.
In every language I have ever used, comedies tend to have the colloquial language of any form of fiction. I think it is because humor often requires very natural language in order to work. I know I have picked up much more Chinese slang from reading comedic comics than all other comics combined – and comedies only make up a minority of my comic-book reading. For example, I learned that 復古 (fùgǔ) means ‘retro’ by reading the manhwa 瑪麗的外宿中 (Mary Stayed Out All Night).
I also think that, for the most extremely colloquial language, one should look at manhua (comics from China/Taiwan/Hong Kong/Singapore). Sure, some manhua are written awkwardly (no language is immune to bad writers), and some translations are so good that they do not feel like translations at all. But, on average, I would say that manhua better reflects natural speech than comics in translation (I would say the same of comics originally written in English vs. comics translated into English). For example, Taiwanese manhua not aimed at children occasionally throws in some bopomofo (the phonetic script used in Taiwan), whereas I have never seen this in a comic in translation.
Speaking of bopomofo, that raises another issue – region. Ideally, one would read manhua from whatever region one is interested in. For example, as someone who is studying Taiwan-Mandarin, Taiwanese manhua is the obvious choice for me. People with a strong interest in Guangdong should pick up humor manhua from Hong Kong. Ask people from whatever region you are interested in if there are any good local cartoonists.
And of course, another reason to favor manhua, particularly manhua from one’s region of interest, is culture. One cannot master a language without knowing a lot about the culture, and manhua best reflects the culture of Chinese-speakers. Comics in translation can also contribute to cultural knowledge – Japan has such an overwhelming influence on Taiwanese culture that one has to know quite a bit about Japanese culture to understand Taiwanese culture – and translation choices also reveal culture. Nonetheless, I think serious language learners who want to try comics should at least try manhua to get the maximum benefit.
Finally, another way to use comics for colloquial Chinese is to combine them with idol dramas. This is a way to integrate reading and listening skills – start with the format one is more comfortable with, and then experience the story in the format one is less comfortable with. Here is a list of idol dramas which I know have a manga or manhua equivalent (though some of the manga/manhua exist only in traditional or only in simplified characters).
- 流星花園 ‘Meteor Garden’ (Hana Yori Dango / Boys Over Flowers by Yoko Kamio)
- 蜜桃女孩 ‘Peach Girl’ (Peach Girl by Miwa Ueda)
- 薔薇之戀 ‘The Rose’ (Bara no Tameni by Akemi Yoshimura)
- 戰神 ‘Mars’ (Mars by Fuyumi Soryo)
- 橘子醬男孩 ‘Marmalade Boy’ (Marmalade Boy by Wataru Yoshizumi)
- 惡魔在身邊 ‘Devil Beside You’ (The Devil Does Exist by Mitsuba Takanashi)
- 花樣少年少女 ‘Hana Kimi’ (Hanazakari no Kimitachi e / For You in Full Blossom by Hisaya Nakajo)
- 惡作劇之吻 ‘It Started with a Kiss’ & 惡作劇2吻 ‘They Kiss Again’ (Itazura na Kiss by Kaoru Tada)
- 櫻野3加1 ‘My Best Pals’ (櫻野3加1 by 俞家燕)
- 籃球火 ‘Hot Shot’ (籃球火 by俞家燕)
- 微笑 Pasta ‘Smiling Pasta’ (微笑 Pasta by 俞家燕)
- 旋風管家 ‘Hayate the Combat Butler’ (Hayate the Combat Butler by Kenjiro Hata)
- 命中注定我愛你 ‘Fated to Love You’ (命中注定我愛你 by 海澄 & 櫻炎)
- 我的億萬麵包 ‘Love or Bread’ (我的億萬麵包 by 俞家燕)
- 泡沫之夏 ‘Summer’s Desire’ (泡沫之夏 by 明晓溪)
- 華麗的挑戰 ‘Skip Beat’ (Skip Beat by Yoshiki Nakamura)
- 絕對達令 ‘Absolute Boyfriend’ (Zettai Kareshi / Absolute Boyfriend by Yuu Watase)
There are sometimes trade-offs between entertainment and language learning. For example, my favorite drama and comic on this list is Mars, but because of the frequent silent pauses in the drama, it is not the best choice for language acquisition (likewise, I would say the comic book does not have particularly colloquial language). I find Fated To Love You very entertaining … but about 10% of it is in Taiwanese, which makes the drama less than ideal for improving Mandarin-listening skills. On the other end, I think Hana-Kimi is great for language acquisition because it is repetitive and the language is very natural … on the other hand, it is repetitive and some sections of the manga are really boring (I prefer the drama). I have not read/watched everything on this list, but of the ones I do know, I would say that It Started With A Kiss / They Kiss Again offers the best combination of entertainment and language acquisition value.
Stepping into literary Mandarin, especially when sprinkled with Classical Chinese, can be daunting. Comics can ease one into literary Chinese by…
- …offering a lot of context (specifically, the artwork)
- …having a high story-to-word ratio (if you read Chinese at the speed of a snail, it is much more satisfying to read comics than pure prose because the story moves much more quickly)
Jumping into literary prose will be much easier if one has already been exposed to the language through comics, doubly so if you read a manhua adapted from a novel and then read the original novel.
While I suggested that people interested in colloquial Chinese should consider manhua, I strongly urge that people who want to use comics to pick up literary Chinese use manhua. Do not consider comics in translation without a compelling reason. Imagine a comic about Japanese shoguns rendered in Elizabethan English, and I think you can understand the problem (I am one of the three people in the world who likes the Viz adaptation of Ooku, but even I would not recommend it to somebody trying to improve their literary English).
The limitation with using comics to pick up literary Chinese is that the vast majority of literary manhua out there is either based on classics (such as Journey to the West) or on wuxia novels. That’s great if classics and/or wuxia is what you want to read, but if you are more interested in Lu Xun or Chiung Yao, it’s not so helpful (yes, I know there is at least one manhua adaptation of Lu Xun out there, but I do not know how to get a hold of it, so it’s useless to me). On the other hand, all of the four major classics have been adapted to manhua multiple times, so one can probably find an adaptation one likes. As far as wuxia, Jin Yong, Gu Long, Wen Ruian, and Huang Yi have all had at least one of their novels adapted into manhua, by artists with different styles, so there is a fair amount of variety there too.
If one is considering using manhua to improve one’s literary Chinese, but do not know where to start, I not-so-humbly suggest looking at my series of blog posts at Manga Bookshelf: The Condor Trilogy in Manhua. For the record, I think Lee Chi-Ching’s The Eagle-Shooting Heroes is the best manhua for studying Chinese out of all the manhua I discussed at Manga Bookshelf. It has the highest art-to-words ratio (lots of context), is the most faithful to the original work, and has the simplest comic grammar (for people who are not experienced comic-book readers). It’s also the easiest to acquire.
East Asian culture values cramming as many facts as possible into one’s head. To facilitate this, Japan has produced a lot of non-fiction manga, such as ‘The Manga Guide to Biology’, and many of these manga have been translated into Chinese (at least traditional characters … but considering that Chinese views on cramming facts into people’s heads are not much different from Japanese or Taiwanese views, I would be surprised if there was nothing available in simplified characters). As with Literary Chinese, comics can ease one into using more advanced language before wading into pure prose.
In addition to comics which are actually non-fiction, one can always try to find comics on the topic of interest. Want to read the type of Chinese used in corporate workplaces? Try Kosaku Shima (島耕作), a manga about the adventures of a Japanese salaryman. It’s not ideal, since it’s about a Japanese corporation, but I don’t know of any manhua about the trials and tribulations of, say, a Taishang in Guangdong (though I think if somebody published such a manhua, and it was of at least decent quality, it would sell quite well).
The culture’s the thing
One thing that is emphasized at Hacking Chinese is holistic learning. Part of holistic learning is putting the language and the culture together. I managed to improve my Chinese so much through comics partially because I already had a handle on manga and manhwa – I knew the territory, I was just using a different language. I did not have a handle on manhua. While its close relationship to manga certainly helped me, diving into manhua was like exploring some trails in rural Taiwan without a guidebook or map – just having hearsay, one’s sense of direction, and the occasional signpost to point the way.
Of course, manga and manhwa is what kindled my interest in manhua in the first place … and manga led me to Taiwanese idol dramas … and in Taiwanese idol dramas I would often see the places I visit in my travels around the island … and the combination of manhua and Taiwanese television led me to wuxia and … there are so many directions I can go with this that I have to choose carefully. Notice that I am forming the kind of web which is at the heart of holistic learning. It does wonders for my motivation. It also helps me pick up the language at a more technical level too – for example, I find it is so bizarre that Owain, an 18th-century European in a Korean manhwa, would use such a distinctly Chinese chengyu as 杞人憂天 (the man of Qi who feared the sky might fall) that it helps me remember that chengyu. It shows how the chengyu are so integrated into the language that translators will ascribe it to characters who would never, in reality, know about those allusions.
So, to get the most language learning out of comics, one should make an effort to learn about both comics culture and the culture of Chinese-speakers. To that end, here are some links:
- Manga Bookshelf – a good place to browse to learn about manga and manhwa, and now I have a weekly column there, “It Came from the Sinosphere,” in which I sometimes discuss manhua
- This thread at Chinese Forums has good information about how to order Chinese-language comics online, as well as a discussion of manhua.
- There is Baka-Updates Manga, which is the database I check when I want to look up what comics are available in Chinese, what is the Chinese title, which character set, etc (if the title is listed with traditional characters, it’s available in traditional characters; if the title is listed with simplified characters, it’s available in simplified characters). It also includes user reviews and has computer-generated recommendations.
And here are some articles about manhua in English:
- 55 Years of Taiwan Comics on Show in Retrospective
- Manhua: The Evolution of Hong Kong cartoons and comics (PDF)
- Manhua Momentum
- When Manga Meets Communism
- Japanese Elements in Hong Kong Comics
Notice that I am not linking to any of the zillion websites of comic book scans (at least in Chinese – Baka-Updates Manga is a database of English-language scans, but it also happens to be a really good database for getting information about Chinese-language comics too). Most of those scans are taken straight from published editions, which is disrespectful of the artists, editors, translators, etc. If you would not be okay with your work being distributed online without your permission, then don’t use the scans websites.
As far as finding Chinese-language comics on the ground, there are lots of ways to get them in Taiwan. I have an article at Manga Bookshelf about Guanghua Digital Plaza, but that’s hardly the only place to get comics in Taiwan (if have specific questions about acquiring comics in Taiwan, feel free to ask).
Outside of Chinese-speaking territory, acquiring Chinese-language comics is more difficult and, often, more expensive, but there are still options. For example, the San Francisco Public Library has a significant collection of comics in Chinese, and many libraries in California and Nevada can get those comics within days through (see a list of Link+ member libraries here). But possibly the best option is other people. Ask the Chinese speakers in your area if they or somebody they know has a collection of comic books in Chinese. There is a significant chance that the answer is ‘yes’. Comic book collectors often love turning somebody else into a comic book fan. Not only is borrowing comics very inexpensive, the collector can give recommendations, answer questions, and talk to you about the comics in Chinese. That’s a great approach for the holistic learner.
I wrote this article to be a sketch-map of Chinese-language comics. Now it’s your turn to go out there and explore. Bon voyage.
About Sara K
Sara K. has been studying Mandarin since Fall 2009. She currently lives in Taoyuan County, Taiwan, but grew up in San Francisco, California. She writes It Came From the Sinosphere for Manga Bookshelf, and has her own personal blog, The Notes Which Do Not Fit.
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