Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Accessing Chinese culture through cartoons

Most curricula these days stress the importance of culture. That includes everyday things like how to greet people, etiquette when eating and so on, which are essential at a beginner and intermediate level, but it also includes “bigger” culture, such as literature, traditional stories and more.

Language and culture

Learning about this kind of culture is quite difficult as a second language learner. This is partly because native speakers learn about it during their whole lives, and partly because we don’t spend enough time on it. But it is important, especially when you reach a more advanced level.

Imagine being a fluent speaker of English who have never heard of Snow White, Cinderella and the Brothers Grimm. You will miss things. The same can be said about modern culture as well, of course, but in this article, I’ll stick to more traditional culture. For example, do you know about these:

  • 白蛇传
  • 西游记
  • 封神榜
  • 聊斋

Accessing Chinese culture through cartoons

To put it briefly, there is a huge body of culture that we don’t necessarily need to know very well, but that we should at least be aware of, because they pop up as references all over the place. Understanding theses stories might also be part of the key to understanding Chinese culture and society in general.

However, for most of us, returning to the original stories isn’t necessarily a good idea. They are often written in classical Chinese and are too difficult even for most advanced students. It could also be argued that focusing on classical Chinese is only indirectly helpful for improving our grasp of modern Chinese.

Fortunately, you can access a lot of culture through cartoons, which will allow you to explore the stories and improve your modern Chinese at the same time. Cartoons are often condensed versions aimed at a younger audience, making them more suitable for second language learners as well. Also, while children’s books in Chinese seem to be written to teach vocabulary, cartoons are aiming for entertainment, which makes them doubly suited for language learning.

Step-by-step guide to learning about Chinese culture through cartoons

This is the approach I’ve used for learning about Chinese culture through various cartoons I’ve found interesting or necessary to know more about. I first did it with this version of 白蛇传 many years ago, so if you if you don’t know where to start, you can try that one as well!

  1. Find a story that you think you should know about, either because someone has referred to it and expose your ignorance or because someone has recommended it. It could also be something you really think you should know about or something you find more or less randomly. Most versions have subtitles, which is very helpful.
  2. Read about the story in Chinese or English to give you a general idea of what it’s about. Use Wikipedia, Baidu or just search for a summary. If you think your Chinese is not up to par, reading a summary in English is a good idea. The more advanced you are, the less you should rely on such scaffolding, of course
  3. Watch the cartoon once, trying to understand the gist, but without obsessing over details. If you don’t understand anything at all, you might be out of your depth and should choose an easier story. It might be that that particular cartoon contains tricky language or is made for an older audience.
  4. Record, download or rip the audio and transfer the audio files to your phone. Listen to just the audio a few times and let yourself gradually understand more and more. Don’t force it too much. There are many tools for ripping and downloading audio that I won’t cover in this article, but you can start with Audacity, VLC, Freecorder and Listen to YouTube.
  5. Watch the cartoon again, now with close to full understanding. You are now free to obsess about details if you want, but it’s perfectly fine to be done with it and move on to the next story. Remember that perfectionism can sometimes be an obstacle to progress!

In short, I think this is a great method because it accomplishes several tasks at once (mainly listening and cultural knowledge) while still being quite enjoyable.

A few recommendations

Below, I have included a few links to check out. If you have further suggestions, please leave a comment and I will update the list. You can find a lot by searching for 经典/童话/神话 + 故事. Here’s the list:

Do you want more practical exercises, audio versions of articles and Chinese translations? Check out my Patreon page!

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8 comments

  1. Tom says:

    Hello,
    In 2011 I bought Volume One of
    Understanding China through Comics.
    However I did not buy the further two Volumes.
    Have you looked at these ?

  2. Michael King says:

    Hi! Would you not recommend a cartoon that has Chinese subtitles over a cartoon that doesn’t have them? Do you happen to know of any good cartoons (or other tv shows) that have Chinese subtitles?

    1. Michael King says:

      My bad, I didn’t realize that the second link had subtitles…

  3. Eve says:

    Hi, just the other day I found this on Youtube:

    “Cartoon Romance of the 3 Kingdoms Chinese history”.
    Didn’t have time to start watching it, but it looks quite good.

    Olle, you mention “Audacity” and other programs, does anybody know a good and free Text-To-Speech program with Chinese voices? What I’m looking for is a TTS program that has decent Chinese voices and that will let me record the audio as an MP3… I found a few, but either they weren’t available for free, or the voices were just awful (metallic and coming out in bursts), or I could listen but not keep the file for later usage.

    Many thanks! And congrats again, Olle, for the fantastic job 😉

    1. Lucy says:

      Eve, do you have Windows 10? I ask because the TTS voices for Chinese are very good, You’ll have to install the free Chinese Language Pack and then select the voice in Settings. If you need any help, just ask.

    2. Olle Linge says:

      I would be careful with TTS for learning purposes unless your Chinese is already very good. No TTS service I know of generate good enough spoken Chinese to be used in an educational setting. Good enough for understanding what they say? Yes. Good enough that you want to hear a lot of it before your pronunciation is near-native? No.

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