- Recent articles
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Grammar is something central to learning any language, including Chinese. If someone says otherwise, it’s probably because they don’t know what grammar means, so let’s start with a basic definition (from Wikipedia):
grammar is the set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language
Thus, while it’s true that Chinese grammar is different from English grammar or the grammar of other European languages you might have encountered, Chinese certainly has a complex grammar itself and mastering how make words, construct phrases and string together sentences is an essential part of learning Chinese. There’s little do disagree about here, so the big question is as usual not what, but how:
There are many, many different ways of approaching grammar, both from a theoretical point of view and from a practical, student perspective.
Even though the question above is very short, it covers a number of topics. For instance:
- Is there any difference between learning grammar when learning Chinese compared with other languages?
- What should students who are studying on their own focus on?
- What resources are available for learning grammar?
- Is it important to focus on grammar when learning Chinese or should it be done implicitly?
- Is theoretical knowledge useful, and if so, how should we acquire it?
There are of course many more things to talk about than these, but this serves as an introduction to the complexity of the question of how to learn grammar. Because this is such an interesting topic and there are so many different approaches, I decided to ask the expert panel and see what other language learners and teachers out there had to say about learning Chinese grammar. They have all answered the question in their own way, so rather than viewing this as a competition between different views on how to learn grammar, regard it as a tour through different available options.
Expert panel articles on Hacking Chinese
- Asking the experts: How to bridge the gap to real Chinese (immersion)
- Asking the experts: How to learn Chinese grammar (this article)
As you can see, this is the second expert panel article here and these articles are still very much an experiment. If you have suggestions or thoughts about the format or how to improve it, let me know! If you know someone who you think should participate next time or if you have ideas for different topics to ask, leave a comment!
Here are the participant in this expert panel on grammar. In order to scramble the order a bit compared with last time, I have sorted the answers based on the authors’ surnames (or family names) rather than their first/personal names:
- Imron Alston
- Greg Bell
- Yangyang Cheng
- Steven Daniels
- Ding Yi
- Carl Gene Fordham
- John Fotheringham
- Jacob Gill
- Hugh Grigg
- Ash Henson
- David Moser
- Alan Park
- John Pasden (upcoming separate article)
- Albert Wolfe
- Chinese Forums
Imron Alston has been learning Chinese since 2001, and in that time has spent a total of six years living, working and studying in China, mostly in Hebei and Beijing. He is an admin on the Chinese learning site Chinese-Forums.com, and is also the developer of a number of tools designed for Chinese learners, including Hanzi Grids – a tool for generating custom Chinese character worksheets, and Pinyinput – an IME for typing pinyin with tone marks.
For me, most of my learning was done through exposure to native speakers and native content, and while this also included following different parts of different text books at different times, I never really had a methodical approach to learning grammar. At times I also read various grammar books, and while it was nice reading them and having various structures explained, it’s never been something that has captured my interest.
Unfortunately what this meant is that as I got better at Chinese, I found myself at a stage I think of as ‘advanced with gaps’. The gaps continue to reduce the more advanced I get, but even now there are times when I find myself having a degree of uncertainty with whether what I’m saying is correct or not. It also means that except for basic things, I’m pretty useless at explaining grammar beyond ‘just because’. It’s quite possible that I would still be in this position if I had paid more attention to things like grammar, but in general I attribute these shortcoming to my lackadaisical study approach early on. For me, I was always more interested in being able to use the language, rather than in the study of the language itself, and looking back I think this hampered my learning to some degree.
If I were going about things again I’d certainly try to be more rigorous in this regard. I probably still wouldn’t dive deep in to grammar in the beginning, but I’d make sure to choose a good text-book series and make sure to work my way through it from start to finish. As a self-learner, the younger me was too concerned about becoming ‘advanced’ and saw using ‘advanced’ level text books and materials as evidence that I’d reached that position. What that meant was skipping past things that probably would have been quite helpful in solidifying my language skills.
I like to think my Chinese has turned out all right despite all of that, but it’s meant the journey has likely been longer than it otherwise might have been. My advice to new learners would be don’t try to rush things, and don’t get so caught up in just trying to use the language that you neglect skills that will help you improve. Keep working at things slowly and methodically, and you’ll set yourself up with a good base from which to continue your learning.
Greg Bell – I’ve currently got two blogs going on the matter, my language learning journey one at zhongruige.wordpress.
To me, the best way to learn Chinese grammar starts in the classroom or with a decent textbook that establishes a firm foundation in grammar. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated, but should at least set you right on the basics. Later on, though, I feel it’s best to switch over to material for native readers and just start reading. In my own experience, I’ve found the best way to learn grammar was not through complicated grammar guides, but instead just by reading as much as possible and across a variety of sources (novels, comics, nonfiction, etc.). After a while, I began to internalize the grammar, and started to gain a feeling for the language.
I don’t believe there is any real difference between learning Chinese grammar versus learning grammar for other languages. Although the lack of verb conjugation does make things easier, each language has its own nuances. Through either careful study or full immersion, I believe it’s possible to learn the grammar of any language.
If you’re studying on your own, I believe in the beginning something like AllSet’s Grammar Wiki is a fantastic place to start. When you’re comfortable with that grammar, you can move on to news articles, short stories, or even graded readers if they’re available. In the end, grammar doesn’t have to be too theoretical (sorry linguists!) and can naturally be picked up. As you advance though, it may be good to flip through some grammar books, ideally written for native speakers, and refine your understanding of the grammar of the language.
Yangyang Cheng is the founder and host of YoyoChinese.com, an online Chinese language education company that uses simple and clearly-explained videos to teach Chinese to English speakers. A previous TV show host and Chinese language professor, Yangyang is also one of the most popular online Chinese teachers with tens of millions of video views.
Why is learning Chinese grammar important?
I often tell my students that learning a language is like building a house. Vocabulary words are like the bricks for your house and grammar is like the architectural blueprint that tells you how to put the bricks together and in what order. Learning grammar is important because it can give you the freedom to build correct sentences on your own. For example in Chinese, once you know the Golden Rule regarding Chinese word order, you’ll instantly know where to put time and location words and be able to speak with confidence.
When should I start learning Chinese grammar?
The best time to learn grammar is after you already have some basics down. For example, if you already have some decent vocabulary and some experience talking to a native speaker, your next step is going to be grammar.
Where and How should learn Chinese grammar?
We have 12 free gframmar videos on Youtube that you can watch. I also have a program on my Chinese learning site www.yoyochinese.com called “Yoyo Chinese Grammar”. Basically, you can think of this course as the video version of a comprehensive Chinese grammar book, but with lots of pictures/cartoons and clear and easy to follow explanations. The course is organized around different grammatical topics, such as “Chinese word order”, “Chinese negation words”, “how to form a Chinese question” and “how to use the notorious (ba3- 把)” etc. Each topic contains a series of mini lessons that build upon each other. You can either watch all the lessons in order to get a complete picture or skip around and only learn the things that you need.
Hi! I’m Steven Daniels, I’ve studied Chinese for years and lived in China even longer. My interests–learning Chinese, Chinese dictionaries, and programming–led me to create Lingomi and 3000 Hanzi.2 Tips for learning Chinese grammar on your own:1. Buy some material: most textbooks do a pretty good job of introducing grammar in each lesson. For-pay podcasts sites do a good job of this too. Don’t skip the grammar sections and examples, no matter how much you’d like to.
2. Add repetition: copy the grammatical patterns and examples out of your textbooks and put them onto flashcards. Review them like you’d review words or sentences.
Chinese Grammar is taught pretty well.
I’m often critical of standard practices for teaching Chinese, but grammar is one area where I’m not very critical. For those studying on their own, this is a quick rundown of how grammar is taught.
Currently, teachers provide beginners with a light introduction to basic grammar. You mostly learn simple sentence structures. At this stage, Chinese grammar feels pretty easy: in some ways it feels like Chinese barely has any grammar at all (especially compared to most other languages). At this stage, beginners, being confronted with tones and character, don’t have the time or the background to try and fully understand Chinese grammar.
Once a student gets to an intermediate level, they are introduced and re-introduced to Chinese grammar. At this point, Chinese grammar starts getting more difficult (e.g. the many ways to use 了 ). An intermediate student can learn most of the grammatical structures that Chinese uses, but these will still take a while to master.
When you look at advanced Chinese textbooks, there really isn’t a lot of grammar in the traditional sense. Advanced students spend time passively (or actively) reviewing grammar they learned at earlier stages. In addition, advanced students spend a lot of time learning collocations and trying to master when to use one of a variety of synonyms.
There are many different approaches that could be taken with teaching grammar, but they all have drawbacks. Using linguistics to introduce grammar could make learning it easier, but most Chinese learners don’t have a linguistics background. Trying to shoehorn more grammar in at earlier stages would require spending less time on pronunciation or characters — not a good tradeoff. Overall, I feel Chinese grammar is taught rather effectively. Of course, I do have a couple of issues.
- One possible complaint is textbooks tend to teach grammar once and expect you to master it. Luckily, most teachers will make sure you review it constantly. Like learning Characters, repetition is key.
- Finally, there aren’t any guides to reaching fluency. Going beyond advanced, students should learn how to go about writing different types of essays–how to structure their argument, how to use 连词 properly, etc. The old HSK’s writing section awarded students who knew how to structure essays in a way that native Chinese learners were accustomed to reading. If writing isn’t your thing, you can still learn these important structures and patterns by looking at Chinese debates online or joining a Chinese debate team.
Ding Yi is the Events Coordinator and full time teacher at Hutong School, the leading foreign owned Chinese language school in China founded in 2005. With an enthusiasm for teaching Chinese language and culture to students from all around the world, Ding Yi loves exchanging fresh ideas and making new friends along the way. He loves the airport, yuxiang rousi, and hiking.
Learning Chinese grammar is a step by step process. What I mean by this is that you must establish the foundations first and then build further on this. I therefore believe that absolute beginners must have a teacher.
Why? Since Chinese history and culture is immensely vast, evolution over time has meant that one character can hold a plethora of meanings – both literally and symbolically. Although Chinese sentences are more flexible in its word order compared to other languages, it is also very important, and so a difference in sentence structure or subtle addition of particles to the untrained ear is likely to cause confusion.
Another important aspect of Chinese is that it is an economical language; only a small number of words are used in order to express maximum power. An example of this is in the use of chengyu, which can be compared somewhat to idioms. Whilst they are often incomprehensible without explanation and seem to lack grammatical structure, these typically four character phrases give an insight into the complexity of the Chinese language.
To learn effectively and thus remember well, practicing speaking with a native speaker beside you is the best tool you can have, more so than learning the technicalities of the theory via a text book. A tried and tested method that I teach my students is to make long sentences when you first start learning the basic concepts of Chinese grammar. This will encourage you to keep to the correct order when attempting your own sentences in real life. All in all, in order to have a deep understanding of how grammar works, you must apply the practical usage in daily life, because actual application is the most important thing. In short, go out and practice speaking Chinese now.
Carl Gene Fordham is a NAATI-accredited Chinese-English translator with a Master’s degree in Translating and Interpreting Studies from RMIT University and a HSK 6 Certificate (the highest level Chinese proficiency certification). Carl currently runs a translating, interpreting and IELTS training school in Melbourne, Australia. He also writes a popular blog about translating and interpreting Chinese called 一步一个脚印.
In my opinion the best way to learn Chinese grammar is through a combination of reading textbooks and conversing with native speakers. Nowadays there are plenty of decent grammar textbooks on the market which can be very helpful, but the focus should always be on how to take what you learn in the book and apply it in real life. This is where the advice of a good teacher or tutor is essential, as the average native speaker friend will not be able to explain the finer points of grammar. But the learner should also take the initiative to put the grammar into practice too. As you start to do this, the grammar will become your own.
Personally I’ve found Chinese grammar to be, on the whole, a straight-forward system, much more logical than English grammar. It is, of course, also highly complex – that is, complex, but not necessarily complicated. The beginning and intermediate grammatical structures you pick up are powerful enough to be used in most situations – this is unlike other languages which require you to memorise large numbers of cases, tenses, genders, etc.
John Fotheringham is a serious “languaholic”, an adult-onset affliction for which he has yet to find a cure. John has spent most of the last decade learning and teaching foreign languages in Japan and Taiwan, and now shares what he’s learned along the way on his blog, Language Mastery | Tips, Tools & Tech to Learn Languages the Fun Way.
First of all, I would like to put to rest the ridiculous myth that “Chinese has no grammar”. Chinese may lack the verb conjugations so prevalent in Romance languages like Spanish and French, but that does not mean that the language lacks “grammar”. Like all languages, Chinese contains a finite (though gradually evolving) set of patterns, conventions, and syntactic rules that allow us to understand—and be understood by—others. Without grammar, languages would just be a chaotic slew of words and society as we know it could not exist.
However, just because grammar is essential for communication, it does not follow that one must spend heaps of time formally studying grammar rules to properly understand and form a language. As Barry Farber puts it:
“You do not have to know grammar to obey grammar.”
One’s ability to understand and form grammatical sentences is based on what’s called “procedural memory”, the brain’s way of storing and retrieving implicit knowledge. Without it, we would not be able to drive a car, throw a ball, or speak a language without consciously thinking through each and every tiny step, each and every time we do perform a complex action.
Many language learners fail to reach functional fluency in foreign languages because they approach language study as an academic subject, trying to force feed grammar rules into “declarative memory” (the kind of memory used to store explicit facts) instead of getting the input and output practice they need to truly internalize the language’s underlying structures. Procedural memories are only formed when you get tons of listening and speaking practice.
I will concede that a little bit of formal study can help prime the brain for the grammatical patterns it will encounter when listening and speaking a language, but this should augment—not replace—the active input and output activities that do most of the heavy neurological lifting. So take a peak at your textbook from time to time if you like, but make sure to spend the majority of your study time listening to Chinese podcasts, watching Chinese videos on FluentU.com, speaking with tutors on Skype, and chatting up native Chinese speakers at your favorite tea shop.
Jacob Gill is a graduate student at National Taiwan Normal University for Teaching Chinese as a Second Language. Co-Founder of Chinese Guild (add link), Chinese Teacher, Translator, Academic Advisor for Skritter, Summer Coordinator at Academic Explorers and blogger at iLearnMandarin. A Global Citizen, a life-long language learner and a full-time geek.
How should we learn Chinese grammar?
Chinese isn’t English, and it isn’t like many European languages, which means that a lot of the things we usually associate with grammar — tenses, conjugation, etc. don’t apply. If the rules we usually use have changed, we have to take the time to understand how the new rules work or interact with what we know, and how to build new connections where necessary. I like taking a more top-down approach to learning Chinese grammar, meaning paying attention to different word order patterns and how/ when they’re used, for example: simple Subject, Verb, Object, sentences, or the more complicated types: ex. subject, when, where, how, action. Ask yourself, how are these patterns similar to my native language, and how are they different?
By understanding the framework of Chinese grammar, patterns will begin to emerge and fall into place leading to quicker comprehension, and also the ability to produce your own sentences fast. Add context to various grammar patters, and when reading or listening in Chinese, try and pay attention to pre-set patterns, and how they’re used in conjunction with each other. In my eyes, people often learn best by doing something, so a key part of “learning” Chinese grammar is actually using the language to be understood. So start producing as quickly as possible, regardless of error!
Focus energy on how words work within, not independent of, grammatical chunks, ex. 因 為…所以…. I don’t think it hurts to spend a good deal of time memorizing these chucks, and basic Chinese Sentence Pattern books can be a great resource. One of the most successful programs I’ve ever studied in spent two hours a day drilling Chinese sentence patterns, and the results payed off in quicker overall comprehension and production all around. But, I think it’s always important to be thinking about ways to connect these new patterns to things you already know and understand. Relate them to conversations you’ve had, certain moods, or various situations, and then go out and use them. Grammar patterns will emerge naturally in conversation, and you’ll pick it up just as naturally if you force yourself to communicate and attempt to be understood. Challenge yourself to use new patterns, and to make mistakes. Ask for feedback, and if you don’t understand something, be sure to ask for help. Be creative, be fearless, and above all, use the language.
Hugh Grigg studied East Asian Studies at university, and is trying to keep up the learning habit long term. He writes about what he learns at eastasiastudent.net , to keep track of his progress and to try and help out other people where he can.
Despite running a website entirely devoted to Chinese grammar, I’m actually in the camp that says you shouldn’t spend too much time explicitly studying grammar. I think it’s important to have a reference available, to be able to ask questions, and most of all to be able to preview grammar points with explanation before you encounter them in the wild. Just as immunisation lets your body prepare to fight off an infection before it does the actual fighting, studying some grammar lets makes you more effective at doing the actual work of getting input and practicing (please forgive my love of terrible analogies). That’s the real work you need to do to learn a language: getting as much input as possible (reading and listening), and getting as much practice as possible (actually trying to speak and write as much as you can). Olle does a fine job of both writing about this and putting it into practice himself.
Our goal with our Chinese grammar site is to help out as much as we can with the process I describe here. We work as a pair (a native English speaker studying Chinese and a native Chinese speaker studying English) and try to explain grammar points as intuitively and simply as possible, but really focusing on giving plenty of natural example sentences. I use these sentences (and others) in the Anki SRS software and rehearse them that way, until the words, patterns and syntactic glue all become very familiar to me and are at my disposal in future. That’s how I study Chinese grammar and it’s the way I’d recommend (although I’m very much looking forward to reading the other responses here!).
I’ll also direct everyone who hasn’t seen it to the Chinese Grammar Wiki, which I worked on in its early stages. It’s an amazing project, and is a little different to our site. Rather than being half-blog, half-FAQ like ours, it’s a full and comprehensive encyclopaedia of Chinese grammar with a super-clear structure and design – take a look!
Ash Henson – Avid language learner, after working as an engineer for 8+ years, left to pursue a language-related career. Currently working on a PhD in Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University. Research interests include Old Chinese phonology, Chinese paleography, the Chinese Classics and excavated texts.
In modern language learning, far too much time is spent on learning to read and write, while speaking and listening are often given the back seat. Reading and writing are important (very important, actually), but should come only after the sound system of the target language has been acquired.
So what does this have to do with grammar? We all learn the grammar of our native language by listening to our parents and those around us talk. Everyone generally agrees that native speakers of a language outperform non-native speakers. Part of this may be due to biological factors (though this may not be as important as you might think, people can and do learn other languages to native or native-like levels all the time), but part of it has to do with the way languages are learned. Sound plays a huge role in properly acquiring a language. Because they can put a barrier between the learner and the actual sounds of the target language, reading and writing too early in the learning process can actually hinder proper acquisition. For example, thinking of tones as numbers if you haven’t yet mastered the actual tone contours puts an unneeded level of abstraction between you and the actual sounds of the tones. Always try to understand the actual sounds rather than the symbols used to represent them (which are useful only AFTER the actual sounds have been acquired).
When we hear non-native speakers make grammar mistakes in our native language, we know a mistake has been made because it “sounds wrong.” What that really means is, faulty sentences (i.e., a pattern or collection of sounds) go against the vast internal database we have of what our language sounds like. How we should learn grammar, then, is the answer to the question, “How do we develop the ability to know that something “sounds wrong” in the target language?”
Obviously, building up an internal database that could match a native speaker would take quite some time, but I think the old 80-20 rule can be applied here. For each grammar structure that you want to master, memorize five sentences that incorporate that structure by listening, repeating and mimicking a native speaker saying those sentences. For tonal languages such as Chinese, you might want to spend some time (perhaps a significant amount) practicing tones and tone combinations before you do entire sentences. When doing these things, you want to be thinking ONLY about the sounds and how to mimic them. You should avoid thinking about things like spelling, meaning, and grammar. Once you have the sentences memorized, go back and look at the grammar rule that they incorporate and you should be able to understand it on a more intuitive level.
We are most vulnerable to influence from our native language when we don’t know how to phrase something in the target language. Spending a lot of time mimicking native speakers in their pronunciation, rhythm, phrasing, word usage, etc. will minimize the influence our native language has the new language and help us to speak the target language in a much more natural way
David Moser holds a Master’s and a Ph.D. in Chinese Studies from the University of Michigan, with a major in Chinese Linguistics and Philosophy. David is currently Academic Director at CET Chinese Studies at Beijing Capital Normal University, an overseas study program for U.S. college students, where he teaches courses in Chinese history and politics.
Grammar is first learned intuitively, absorbing rules subconsciously, by example. Therefore, the absolute best way – really the only way – to learn Chinese grammar is to speak Chinese with Chinese people. Only when you’ve reached a certain level of mastery will grammar rules even make sense to you. So by all means read the grammar books; they are useful stepping stones. But the most reliable Chinese grammar is not in books, it’s in the heads of Chinese speakers. Seek out or create, by hook or crook, an environment where you are constantly interacting with Chinese speakers. If you’re not in China, don’t worry, there are Chinese people everywhere in the world. Find them, befriend them, and talk with them. You can also find them online, on Weibo, or Facebook, or on WeChat, it doesn’t matter. Set up a situation, no matter how artificial, in which you are communicating constantly in Chinese.
Here are some hints on how to make the best use of your Chinese friends to improve your grammar:
(1) Enlist your Chinese friends to actively correct your mistakes. This is not as easy as you might think. Most people are reluctant to correct your grammatical errors, thinking it to be impolite or distracting. In addition, it’s natural for people to care more about content than form — grammar won’t even be on their radar. You may have to keep reminding them – or even beg them – to point out your mistakes.
(2) Work on very specific linguistic goals. “Chinese grammar” is an impossibly broad domain; narrow your goals down to specific tasks. The grammar will come naturally, as different discourse types demand different structures; for example, teaching a Chinese friend how to play guitar (the ba把construction); recounting the plot of “Game of Thrones” (time and aspect); or simply explaining why in the world you’ve decided to learn Chinese (resultative suffixes, the grammar of hopefulness). Whatever it is, begin by collecting crucial patterns and sentences, and worry about the grammar later.
(3) Be attentive to “unconscious corrections” from your friends. When you make a grammatical error, you will often find that the person you are speaking with will, in their reply, take your imperfect utterance and automatically revise it to be in accord with their internal grammar. These “unconscious corrections” are linguistic gold – hoard them!
(4) “Cheat” by Googling. If you’re wondering if a certain grammatical structure you’re using is idiomatic, you can always Google it. If a native speaker produced a similar utterance in writing somewhere on the Internet, it’s pretty safe to assume it’s at least grammatically legal. For example, if you’re wondering how to say “Allow me to introduce myself” in Chinese, you can simply take a few guesses (“让我介绍我自己”, “请让我自我介绍一下”, “我把自己介绍给你”, etc.), and then search to see the range of grammatical possibilities.
Alan Park has been studying Chinese for 13 years and previously worked in China with Chinese clients as a management consultant. Currently, he is the founder of FluentU, a site that brings language learning to life with real-world video content.”
The conventional wisdom on Chinese grammar is that it’s easy. That the hard parts are tones, pinyin, characters – basically anything except grammar. But I think it’s totally wrong. Chinese is more different from English than romance languages, and that’s what makes it hard.
Some of the tricky issues are: unusual word order, new concepts that have no real counterpart in English (eg. 了), and grammar patterns which seem to be deceivingly similar (eg. the de particles 的, 得, and 地, which all sound the same). I would not recommend that Chinese learners gloss over these tricky grammar, and assume that they will figure it out through osmosis.
What learners really need is a targeted approach. First, they should try to understand the underlying concepts with a quality grammar book or Chinese learning website like Hacking Chinese. Then, they should try to collect examples of those grammar points. Then they should be as aggressive as possible in actually practicing them and getting feedback from a teacher. Learning grammar, like learning Chinese, isn’t something that can be done by just passively reading a book. It has to be done through the creation of muscle memory, which comes from falling on your face over and over again.
Of course, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t supplement it with quality examples and explanations of the concepts. Beginners or intermediate learners might find this blog post helpful: 13 Mandarin Chinese Grammar Patterns and Structures We Love to Hate. We identified some of the most challenging grammar points (eg. the de particles, 会 vs 能, 想 vs. 觉得), and tried to provide concise explanations that would really make the light bulb go off in learners’ heads.
Roddy, who runs Chinese-forums.com, which celebrated its tenth birthday earlier this year. The site covers discussions on many topics related to China and Chinese – textbook choices, recommended authentic materials, studying at Chinese universities, and plenty more.
I think if at any point you’re sitting down to “study grammar” then you’re doing it wrong. If you’re following some kind of progressive course (which I’d recommend, even if you’re also getting tonnes of real exposure) that should introduce, explain and apply new structures at a reasonable pace. If you hit something that seems problematic, or you happen to hear something three times in a day and can’t resist looking it up, fair enough, open the grammar book. But otherwise make it a part of all your other learning, not something you do separately.
But each to their own. I’ve probably told this story before, but when I went back to the UK after my first year in China I signed up for an evening course in Chinese at the local university. One of the other students was an elderly professor of history who was, to be fair, awful at Chinese.
Chatting with him during the break one day I asked if he had any plans to go to China. No, he said, can’t imagine ever doing that. Chinese family or friends? Oh no, not that I can think of. Research interest in China? No, no. So why Chinese, in that case? Oh, he said, leaning in to divulge the big secret… I just love the grammar.
Albert Wolfe started learning Chinese on his own when he came to China in 2005. He is the author of Chinese 24/7: Everyday Strategies for Speaking and Understanding Mandarin and a novel faceless and the blog LaowaiChinese.net.
How to learn grammar is both scary and controversial. It’s scary because many adult learners have grammar phobia. (I think it’s one of the top three scholastic fears along with math and tests.) If you don’t feel that way, that’s a huge advantage. If you do, just relax: you’ve already learned at least some grammar!
One of the most important controversies is inductive vs. deductive approaches. But personally I think both are great! So I highly recommend trying to figure out grammar rules from a bunch of sentence examples (inductive) and also reading resources like John’s Pasden’s excellent Chinese Grammar Wiki (deductive) to fill in the gaps.
One more little tip: learning your native language as a kid and learning a foreign language as an adult are two very different processes. So don’t fall into the trap of over-comparing those two experiences.
Chinese Forums – This is the only answer not delivered by an individual, but is instead the collected wisdom of Chinese Forums. The thread can be seen here and contains many interesting ideas and useful insights. I have selected a few to include in this article, mostly dealing with areas not covered by the above answers.
Li3wei1 on the difference between learning grammar in Chinese and many other languages:
I’d say in most other languages, there’s a lot of memorising that you have to do up front even to produce basic sentences: verb declensions, genders, irregular verbs. That is not necessary in Chinese, but in Chinese, when you get to the advanced level, there are hundreds of structures and patterns that need to be memorised. So the memorisation load comes later in Chinese than in other languages, at least as far as grammar is concerned.
Adam about the learning sequence:
In my case, I learned “street Chinese” for the first few years. I used characters like 就 and 才 in my speech without knowing why they were there or what their purpose was, just because that’s how I had “heard” it. It was only later, when I enrolled in formal classes that the grammar rules were explained to me. It made a lot more sense to me to see then because I had already observed all the use cases.
And finally, a recommendation from lakers4sho:
For each grammar point that I learn or revise, I write my own 例子 using the structure, not trying to make it as complicated, but actually trying to make it as simple as I can, just so that I can apply the structure correctly. I show the sentences to my teacher (this is important, make sure you ask someone who knows their grammar) and she can tell whether they are correct or not.
That’s all from the expert panel for now. If you have any questions, comments, opinions or experiences related to learning Chinese grammar, just leave a comment! I’m sure you’re not the only one who wants to ask that question and if you share what works for you, it’s quite likely it might work for someone else too!
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One of the most common questions I receive is what my flashcard deck looks like and how I think one should organise a deck of flashcards for optimum learning. The reason I seldom give straight answers to these questions is that the true answer is usually “it depends”. However, I can still say quite a lot about what it depends on and I will try to do so in this article.
Note that what I say here is generally applicable for flashcard programs in general (including paper flashcards, actually), but the specific software you’re using might limit what you can do. Anki is the only program I know that allows you to do everything I talk about here and more (although it is certainly harder to use). Other programs might be really good for other reasons, such as Skritter being excellent for handwriting, but this is not something I plan to discuss in this article. Instead, I will keep to major principles and leave different software for later.
Flashcard overflow, part 1: Review direction
One of the most immediate problems that faces people who use spaced repetition software is that they need to decide how they want their flashcards to work. In its most basic form, this question is a matter of direction. The most basic kind of flashcards have two sides, front and back, and you need to decide what goes on the front and what goes on the back.
Sounds easy? It’s not. Even if your particular program only allows you to enter three elements on each flashcard, such as Chinese character(s), pronunciation and definition, you still face the problem of directionality. Given three elements, you can set up three different kinds of cards. Actually, if we mix in audio recordings or pictures, you can have more combinations than this, but let’s not make it more complicated than it already is:
- Chinese characters on the front, pronunciation and definition on the back
- Pronunciation on the front, Chinese characters and definition on the back
- Definition on the front, Chinese characters and pronunciation on the back
This means that if we want to learn 500 words from the textbook we’re currently using, we could end up with 500 words, but 1500 flashcards, three for each word. This might be manageable, but if your vocabulary swells to thousands of words, your flashcard deck will become unusable very quickly. This is what I mean when I say flashcard overflow and it’s a very real problem. Before we start talking about solutions, let’s look at a second problem that is the nail in the coffin for the idea that you can create flashcards for everything.
Flashcard overflow, part 2: Review level
As if it wasn’t enough that we tripled the number of flashcards above, we also have to take into account what linguistic level we’re aiming for and therefore what we write on each side of the flashcard. Here’s a breakdown of the possible levels, starting with the smallest:
- Character components (phonemes for sound)
- Individual characters (monosyllables for sound)
- Single words
- Short phrases and collocations
Let’s say we encounter the sentence 今天太阳很大 and we want to learn it. Should we put the entire sentence on one card? Should we add 太阳很大 to focus our attention on the fact that we can say “the sun is big” in Chinese to indicate that it’s sunny? Should we add 今天, 太阳 and 大 as three separate words? Should we also add 阳 as a separate character that means “sun”? Or perhaps break it down even further and add 阝 which isn’t a character in itself, but is a common component that means “hill”, and 日 which is a character that also means “sun”?
Clearly, we can’t do all of this at the same time, especially not consider that each question can be answered in three ways depending on what you put on the front of the flashcard, the number of cards will spin out of control very fast. The question, then, in what should we add?
What cards should I add? It depends on what you want to learn!
Let’s return to the “it depends” answer I usually give to people who ask about flashcard models and review directions. First, the review direction (i.e. what you put on the front of the card) is mostly determined by what you use your flashcards for and what you cover through other means of studying (remember, spaced repetition software isn’t a panacea).
Here’s my personal philosophy:
- For basic words, add both characters to pronunciation/definition and definition to pronunciation/characters. You need to understand these words and you need to be able to produce them as well. If the words are really basic and if you practise Chinese often, you can probably do away with the second type of cards because you will learn that by using the words.
- When you encounter new sentence patterns or grammar, use sentences. This should be quite obvious, but don’t treat sentence patterns such as 因为… 所以… like single words, instead add sentences. If you find new instances of the same pattern that don’t fit your previous understanding, you can consider adding these as well. I don’t think that adding an example sentence is enough, though, you need the sentence to be part of the question.
- For anything beyond the basics (synonyms of words you already know, for instance), just add characters to pronunciation/definition. Your goal here is to boost your understanding of Chinese, you will learn how to use these words through exposure, but you need to understand Chinese in order to get exposed to it a lot. I’m a firm believer in that we need to learn things passively before we learn them actively. Exactly how to do this will be the focus of at least one future article.
- Whenever you encounter problems with words you have already learnt (such as something that goes against your understanding of the word or shows a new, cool ways of using it), focus on the problem and add a card that targets that problem. For collocation problems and problems with function words, use cloze test (a test where you remove the keyword from a sentence; fill in the gap); for characters you forget how to write, add single radicals and use mnemonics. Don’t go on tilt, be sensible.
The level you choose (component, character, word, etc.) depends mainly on these factors:
- The reason for wanting to learning the item – When you consider adding a flashcard, you presumably have a reason for doing so (if you don’t, you really shouldn’t add the card). Why do you want to add it? The obvious answer is that you want to add it because you don’t know something, but try to think one step further. What is it that you don’t know? If you see the sentence 今天太阳很大 you probably know at least some parts of the sentence. If you found the collocation 太陽-很大 new, focus on this (gap text or translation). If you didn’t know the word for sun, then adding the word 太陽 is a bitter idea. If you weren’t familiar with the word order in the sentence, you might want to add the entire sentence.
- The predictability of how the item is used – Some parts of a language have very strictly defined functions, tend to be more or less the same across languages and are therefore quite predictable. For instance, “table” is very similar to 桌子 and if you always translate “whale” into 鲸鱼 you will be right most of the time. In these cases, context plays a minor role, so adding entire sentences isn’t necessary; going for a single word is fine. Of course, you should try to add as few things as possible, we’re trying to deal with flashcard overflow after all!
- The productivity of the item – Productivity here refers to the number of expressions a particular item can generate or be part of. So, the most common radicals are ridiculously productive, whereas some chengyu (idioms) are not, which is one of the reasons I think learning chengyu is mostly a waste of time. The more productive an item is, the more you should consider adding it as a separate flashcard. You can use the common rule of three to determine this if you’re new to Chinese, so if you see something appear three times in different characters/words/sentences, you should consider learning it as a separate item.
In order for the above approach (my philosophy) to work, you need to spend a fair amount of time reading and listening, as well as actually practising using the language. In other words, this is not a method that works well if SRS takes up a large part of your study time. If it does, I would lean more towards using sentences since this is closer to the way the language is actually used.
This is too complicated! Is there a shortcut?
This might look very complicated when written down, but the process actually becomes natural quickly. First ask yourself what you want to be able to do with a certain word. If it seems likely that being able to know what it means is enough, go with Chinese on the front of the card and the rest on the back. If you want to add the card because you really want to be able to learn how to say this now rather than later, put the definition on the front of the card and/or use a cloze test.
You and your flashcard deck: A dynamic relationship
The most important thing to understand is that you should have an active relationship to your flashcard deck. It’s not like you have to decide exactly how to do things now and then stick to that for the rest of your life. For instance, learning the meaning of lots of characters can be very useful at a certain stage when learning Chinese, just as learning radicals can, but at some point, this stops being meaningful. Don’t hesitate to delete, change or add flashcards or flashcard models as you go a long (please read this article for a more thorough discussion of editing/deleting flashcards). Spaced repetition software should be a tool you use to maintain certain aspects of the Chinese language, not a chain that binds you to ways of studying you neither like nor find useful.
If you want to read more about flashcards and SRS, there’s plenty more to read here on Hacking Chinese:
More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese (newest first)
- Flashcard overflow: About card models and review directions
- Boosting your character learning with Skritter
- If you think spaced repetition software is a panacea you are wrong
- Is your flashcard deck too big for your own good?
- Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
- You can't learn Chinese characters by rote
- Measurable progress is a double-edged sword
- Answer buttons and how to use SRS
- Vocabulary in your pocket
- Dealing with tricky vocabulary: Killing leeches
- Spaced repetition isn't rote learning
- Diversified learning is smart learning
- Anki, the best of spaced repetition software
- Spaced repetition software and why you should use it
Please consider supporting Hacking Chinese so that I can keep providing free content. Please also visit the site sponsors for high-quality Chinese products and services.
In a world with perfect teachers and a perfect education system, we wouldn’t need to know how to study Chinese. We wouldn’t need to take many decisions about how to learn and even less about what to learn. The curriculum would be designed and executed in such a way that it made sure that we learnt everything we need to master Chinese. We could just do what was required of us and expect that to be enough.
Unfortunately, as we all know, this world isn’t perfect and Chinese education is in fact very far from being even adequate in many areas. Sure, there are schools that are really good and teachers that do their job well, but there are also lousy institutions and teachers who mostly teach because Chinese happens to be their native language, rather than because they have a passion for teaching and the necessary skills. Even in a very favourable situation, it’s unlikely that a teacher or course will provide you with what you want. You need to take control of your own studying.
This is partly why I think learning how to learn is essential for all adult students, not only those that are ambitious and like experimentation. Even though I realise that you as a reader of Hacking Chinese are probably more motivated and ambitious than the average learner, I do think and hope that what I write will spread to all students eventually. The ability to learn on your own isn’t something you need only if you have no teacher and no course. Instead, it’s a core ability that will determine your success in learning Chinese.
In other words, take responsibility for your own learning now!
Teaching you how to fish
There is an excellent saying in Chinese which pretty much sums up this entire website:
shòu rén yǐ yú,
bù rú shòu rén yǐ yú
This is usually translated as: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” If you take a course, your teacher will provide you with lots of fish and you won’t starve to death. If you read Hacking Chinese and apply what I write here, on the other hand, you will gradually learn how to fish.
In other words, if you have an excellent teacher who can drip-feed you fish (yuck!), you actually don’t need Hacking Chinese. However, since most people can neither afford nor find a teacher who caters to their individual needs, most people still need to learn how to fish. You can of course just try to find other people to help you with every single problem you encounter, but it’s much better to acquire the ability to help yourself, it’s going to take you much farther and puts you firmly in the driver’s seat of your language learning journey.
Teachers and classrooms
It ought to be obvious why most students have to rely on them selves to learn Chinese. In a classroom, the teacher doesn’t have time to do everything. Even in very serious language programs, there are seldom more than a few hours of lessons everyday. If the students are ambitious, the teacher can focus most of the classroom time on things that actually need a teacher (such as improving speaking ability) and avoid things that don’t (listening, reading and vocabulary learning).
In compulsory education or with students with low motivation, much time is wasted on things like:
- Learning words the students have never seen before
- Listening to the dialogue in the textbook
- Reading explanations in the textbook
- Learning the stroke order of characters
These are things you could (and should) do on your own. If these areas are covered in class, the problem is that students might get the impression that they are already doing enough and that the teacher is providing them with everything they need. This is wrong. There’s simply no teacher or program that can provide you with everything you need. Not only are you responsibly for your own learning, you’re also the only one who has the potential to really understand your own situation.
The journey is long, so you’d better learn how to fish
The reason it’s not true that you can simply rely on your teacher or course is that it’s almost certain that they won’t provide you with enough Chinese in terms of quantity. You don’t necessarily need to study more, but you definitely need to expose yourself much more to Chinese in order to get used to it. To a certain extent, learning a language is about understanding rules and patterns, but this is completely useless if you don’t combine it with a lot of exposure to the surface forms. Knowing a grammar rule is only truly useful when you can understand it in context and the requires quantity of exposure. Obviously, you need quality as well, but in my experience, students don’t really lack this aspect since it is what most textbooks and teachers already provide. Most students lack quantity.
This is particularly true for listening and reading, which will eventually spill over into speaking and writing. The reason quantity is so important for the passive skills is that it’s not only a matter of if you understand or not (binary), but also how fast you can do it. It doesn’t help that you know the meaning of all the words in a spoken passage if it takes you a second to recall each and everyone of them, because you’ll lag so far behind the speaker that you will become lost almost immediately.
Because most courses can’t provide enough exposure, it means that you will be on your own most of the time, even if you’re enrolled in a serious Chinese language program. The better your teacher is, the more support you will have, but very few teachers have the time, ability and willingness to feed you fish all day long, even if you have the money to pay them for doing so. Learning to fish yourself is the only way.
How to learn to fish
Learning to fish requires three things:
- A clear goal (otherwise it’s hard to determine what “success” means)
- A willingness to experiment (otherwise you won’t find the best method for you)
- Information and/or inspiration (otherwise you won’t know what to try)
The rest is about adjusting the methods to your goals and evaluate your progress, then tweaking or reconsidering your method based on the outcome of the evaluation. This is the start of a never-ending and fascinating journey in the the soul of language learning!
If you want some more concrete examples of things you can try to improve your learning right now, check the following carefully selected articles (or you can check the less carefully selected study hacks category):
- How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner
- Remembering is a skill you can learn
- Learning Chinese in the shower with me
- Vocalise more to learn more Chinese
- Learn by exaggerating: Slow, then fast; big, then small
- Timeboxing Chinese
- A smart method to discover problems with tones
Finally, don’t get stuck on just reading about these different ways of learning, actually try them! Now!
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I’m known for being a bit obsessed with pronunciation and for me it is the most fascinating part of learning a new language. Naturally, I realise that this isn’t the case for most students and therefore it is understandable that people sometimes ask me why I think pronunciation matters so much. I could argue the case from a personal point of view and simply say that I like pronunciation and find it both interesting to study in theory and to improve in practice, but instead of doing that, I’m going to look at two arguments why pronunciation actually matters more than you might think, regardless if you like it or not.
First and foremost, there’s no such thing as having really bad pronunciation in Chinese and still being able to communicate perfectly. Bad pronunciation does influence communicative ability, albeit not always in an obvious manner. In short, the more complex and less predictable your utterances become, the more important your pronunciation becomes. If the listener needs to guess what sound you’re trying to produce, it’s going to be harder to understand the ideas you’re trying to convey. This is the core message in The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say. Of course, it’s true not only for tones, but all areas of pronunciation.
Why bother? If can make myself understood, that’s enough!
This is a very common attitude I’ve heard from many students, but I think it’s wrong. You can’t just say “communication is enough” and then regard pronunciation as something only for those truly interested.All mistakes in a language affects communication in some way. If you make one mistake in every sentence, you can probably get away with it, but since it’s very unlikely that your grammar, word choice and so on are all perfect, it makes sense to try to minimise the number of errors, including in pronunciation.
For communication to work properly, we need to make sure that the sounds we produce in Chinese are correctly categorised by native speakers, but we don’t need to sound exactly like native speakers to be clearly understood. To use a slightly more technical language, we could say that our speech needs to be good enough to lead to phonemically accurate judgements by native speakers, but we don’t need perfect phonetic accuracy. What does this mean in practice? It means that it’s fine if your pronunciation of Chinese initials, finals and tones is a bit off (which will leave you with a noticeable accent), but it’s not okay if they’re off by enough to make it hard for native speakers to correctly process the sounds. If you want to say “jia” but it comes out somewhere between “jia” and “zha”, you have a problem and you need to fix it.
The number of mistakes matters, as well as the mistakes themselves
Naturally, given context, the listener might still be able to understand what you’re saying, but what I’m trying to get at here is that if you burden the listener with enough problems like this, they will have a harder time understand what you’re saying. You can of course be understood with a heavy accent in a language, but usually only after the listener has become used to the way you speak or if they’re familiar with your kind of accent from previous experience.
Pronunciation is a representation of you and your Chinese ability in general
Apart from the fact that we don’t want to put to heavy a burden on the listener, the second and perhaps equally important reason that pronunciation matters is that it partly determines how other people regard you and your Chinese ability. To be judged like this is grossly unfair, but it’s still true and something we probably want to consider as second language learners. Let me explain this further.
The reason speaking (of which pronunciation is an important part) is so important is that most other language skills are mediated through speech, at least in everyday life and in real-life interaction. You might consider Tang poems as light reading for breakfast, but if you can’t talk about them, people aren’t going to be very impressed. I can say that I have studied Chinese for so and so long, learnt so and so many thousand characters and that I have read several hundred books in Chinese, but it’s still hard to believe if I speak Chinese like someone who has studied for six months. To prove the passive skills, you almost need a standardised test, which is rather abstract and might be meaningless to outsiders.
Pronunciation is not like the other skills. It strikes the listener directly in the face (the ears, to be more precise). How good your pronunciation is in general can be judged very quickly and an opinion is formed automatically by anyone who hears you. I guess this is similar to writing (and handwriting) at least back in the days before computers were used. It’s simply hard to believe that someone who writes like a five-year-old is an expert in another area of Chinese. It might of course be true, it’s just harder to believe it compared to if that person wrote perfectly.
Judging a book by its covers
We all know that we shouldn’t, but we still do, unconsciously, all the time. I think people in general tend to underestimate people who have bad pronunciation and overestimate people who have good pronunciation (according to the argument above). For instance, take a few moments to think about immigrants in your have met in your own country who speak a broken version of your native language. Even though we don’t want to, it’s very easy to think that foreigners with good pronunciation are “better” than those that have poor pronunciation, including in areas which aren’t related to speaking or even to languages at all.
Bonus: Winning the language struggle
After publishing this article, Scott Burgan pointed out to me on Facebook that there is another advantage of having good pronunciation, namely that it helps you win the language struggle. A single sentence pronounced well and at a natural pace will convince most people that they can converse with you only in Chinese instead of insisting on English. This is much harder (next to impossible sometimes) with good grammar, vocabulary, reading/listening and so on. Of course, this might also lead to the infamous binary judgement of foreigners’ language proficiency: “Either you know nothing your you are near-native”, so if your pronunciation is better than your overall ability, be prepared to ask people to repeat themselves and/or slow down!
Pronunciation matters more than you think
So, pronunciation does matter and that it matters regardless if you care or not. You might know that your Chinese is awesome, but if pronunciation is the weakest of your skills, it’s bound to have a big impact on how you are perceived by others. Since this can be very important both in a private, social situation and in a professional or business situation, focusing more on pronunciation is usually a good idea.
Of course, you will eventually reach a point where it doesn’t pay off to invest more time in pronunciation, but that’s something different (I wrote more about that in this article fossilisation). It might be hard to fool native speakers into believing that you’re Chinese, but that’s no excuse for making basic mistakes with tones, initials or finals. Simply put, people stop caring about pronunciation too early rather than too late.
The longer I learn Chinese (and anything else, actually) the more convinced I become that the minimum study time matters much more than the maximum study time. In other words, I prefer to study a little bit all the time rather than go on a rampage once a week. I have already discussed this in another article, so now it’s time to talk about how to increase that minimum time. The key to success is fairly obvious and lies in forming language learning habits. This makes sure that we learn regularly and that it becomes a natural part of our lives.
Where to start
The obvious place to start when trying to form a habit is to explore and define the habit you want to form. Why do you want it? What benefits will it bring you? What exactly does successful habit formation look like (i.e. what’s your target behaviour)? This is good not only because it helps you understand your goal, but also because it increases motivation because you want to be that better version of yourself with those benefits you just listed.
Baby steps to success
The key to successful habit formation is to take baby steps. The reason why this is a good idea is similar to the thinking behind micro goals, i.e. that if you aim low, you can’t really fail and you have no real excuse for doing so. Then you can gradually increase the volume or the strictness of your new habit until it approaches the target level.
For example, if you want to learn many new Chinese characters, don’t start with trying to learn 20 a day, because the likelihood is that you will do that for a few days and then give up. Instead, start out slow and then gradually increase the load. Actually, this isn’t only a feel-good kind of advice for weaklings, it’s actually based on neuropsychology. The reason this is a good approach is that it seems that the regularity of the action is much more important when forming habits than the exact volume and duration of the task you perform. Thus, if you want to review characters daily, get used to doing that everyday and then slowly increase the number of repetitions. It’s more important that you do this everyday than that you manage a certain number of characters each week.
Three weeks to habit formation?
I think most people have heard about the 21-day rule, which simply states that if you keep on doing something daily for 21 days, a solid habit will form. Actually, 21 this is just a number and tells little apart from that we need time to form habits. From my personal experience, I think the first two weeks after starting to form a new habit are quite easy. The following two weeks are really hard, mostly because the motivation that drove me to try to try form the habit in the first place might have worn off along with the sense of novelty.
Rather than getting hung up on numbers, we should realise that the hardest part of habit formation isn’t the first week and probably not the second either. You can usually get through this just with good reminders (use your phone, calendar, post-it notes or whatever) and some determination. After that, you need a long term plan.
Long-term plans and back-up plans
To really form a habit, we need two more things. First, we need a long-term plan that tells us what will happen after we have formed the habit. The three-week limit above is, as I said, somewhat arbitrary, and you can’t just assume that the habit will stick after three weeks and that you will need no effort to keep going after that.
Therefore, you need to plan for possible problems before they appear. This can be quite easy, making yourself accountable or setting reminders both work fine. Either way, you need to stay conscious of your habit long after the three weeks or you will risk losing it.
Second, and perhaps most important of all, you need a back-up plan. This is where most people go wrong. They only plan for how to form the habit and what to do when they succeed. It’s all or nothing. If they fail, it’s over. This isn’t good at all, because you might very well fail. When you fail, you need a plan.
The easiest way to get around this is to make yourself accountable. For instance, you can promise someone to treat them to a nice dinner every time you forget to do whatever you have promised to do. This means that failing once will be bad for you, but failing twice will be twice as bad. After failing once, you have very strong incentives not to fail again. There’s no such thing as all or nothing.
Rewards and punishments
Even the most basic course in behaviour therapy will tell you that rewards and punishments are key to behaviour change in general. This isn’t something I have experimented a lot with myself, but I will share one insight about each before I round off this article. Rewards tend to be more useful than punishments, but you need to make the rewards immediate and linked to the behaviour in question. What works as a reward for you is entirely individual, of course.
Punishments can be very powerful as well, but be aware that they do tend to increase the stress level. For instance, I once had to finish a freelance writing project and gave my dad $1000 and said that he could keep it if I hadn’t finished the project in two weeks. After not having done anything for two months, I finished it all with time to spare. A bit forced, but it still worked. However, as this excellent animation shows, rewards and punishments don’t always work as we think they do.
Habit formation and behaviour change are of course extremely complex topics and there are lots of books written about the subject. In this article, I have tried to outline some of the basic concepts and some practical tips that I’ve found to work well for language learning. Try them out! If you have other suggestions or links, please share in the comments. People work differently, so even if this works for me, something else might work better for you.
I also found these articles about habit formation for language learners:
Even though 2014 has been here for more than a month, the year of the horse just started. I like horses quite a lot and view this as an auspicious sign indeed! As i have done previous years, I will take the opportunity to step back a bit and look at this website from a distance and share with you some thought of what was and what will be on Hacking Chinese. Of course, I’m also interested in your opinion!
- What did you think of Hacking Chinese in 2013?
- What do you expect from Hacking Chinese in 2014?
As usual, the plans I detailed for 2013 didn’t all come true. It’s true that I have written quite a lot and almost certainly will be able to publish a book or two in 2014, but I spent way too little time on such projects last year. Not only that, I seem to be overly cautious by nature. I consider each step a little bit too carefully before taking it. Still, 2013 wasn’t all wasted opportunities and squandered time:
- I published 56 articles on Hacking Chinese
- I arranged three Hacking Chinese meet-ups
- I did a big site update in March
- I’ve tweaked the website numerous times
- I started financing the site using ads
- The number of visitors more than doubled
- 359 learners signed up for the weekly newsletter
- I tweeted 1676 times about learning Chinese
- I got 2547 new followers on Twitter
- I’ve received 1104 new likes on Facebook
My personal top ten articles from 2013
An interesting aspect of publishing articles on Hacking Chinese is that it’s sometimes very hard to predict which articles will become popular. I have already shared the most read articles from 2013 on Twitter, so now it’s time to look at which articles I think were the most important this year. There’s some overlap with the popular vote, but not much:
- Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps
- Learning the right chengyu the right way
- The Cthulhu bubble and studying Chinese
- 21 essential dictionaries and corpora for learning Chinese
- Dealing with near-synonyms in Chinese as an independent learner
- You might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old
- Phonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters
- Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
- Standard pronunciation in Chinese and why you want it
- You shouldn’t walk the road to Chinese fluency alone
Hacking Chinese in 2014
I haven’t been very good at finishing major projects, but considering that I will both have more time to spend and that I have already done a lot, I expect more stand-alone products to be published in 2014 (this probably means mainly e-books about learning Chinese, and “more” means more than nothing). I have lots of ideas, so don’t be surprised if I produce other, perhaps rather unexpected products!
The main difference between 2014 and any previous year is that it’s time for me to see how realistic it is to spend time working with Hacking Chinese in the future. After I graduate, I need to earn my living somehow, and if you like what I do here enough, I might be able to keep spending significant amounts of time on Hacking Chinese. Thus, my goal is to spend more time on Hacking Chinese, not less. This comes with one very important question:
If I spend more time on Hacking Chinese, what do you want me to do?
Obviously, the “hidden” condition here is that I will charge for some extra services or products I add. The basic website as it is now will always be free, but if I invest more time than I currently do, it will need to be financed somehow. I don’t know yet if this will be through subscriptions, crowd funding or directly by products you can buy on the site, such as e-books; I might try all of these. If you have any feedback regarding this, send me an e-mail!
Another major issue I need to solve is how to maintain the site technically. I have numerous ideas for cool ways of making the site better and offering cooler ways of learning Chinese, but some of them requires coding, something I can only pretend to know the basics of at the moment (I know enough to make simple modifications to what other people have already done).
One alternative is for me to spend a few months learning to program for the web, but actually, I would much rather spend that time teaching people Chinese, writing e-books and so on. Therefore, I’m also looking for someone who might be able to help me out with the technical aspects of the development of the site, please send me an e-mail if you’re interested! I don’t expect you to work for free, but as long as I don’t have any significant income from the site, I won’t be able to compete with other employers in terms of salary either.
If I’m not making much money from the site, why do I keep spending so much time? Because I like it! I receive massive amounts of positive support from readers and every single donation, e-mail, comment, like and retweet matter! So, if you like Hacking Chinese and what to keep me happy, you can:
Tones are, without doubt, one of the hardest parts of Chinese to master and many students struggle with them even long after leaving the beginner stage of learning. Understanding the basics of tones in Chinese isn’t that hard and most people can do it relatively quickly with the right kind of instruction and some practice, but it’s not easy to translate this knowledge into actual speaking ability. I also make tone mistakes sometimes, although I have become much better at spotting them and the number of mistakes keeps on falling.
I believe that mastering tone pairs is crucial for all students. In this article, I will do two things: First, I will explain why tone pairs are so useful. Second, I will give you more tone combinations that you can possibly wish in the form of tone sorted HSK and TOCFL vocabulary lists.
One problem with they way tones are normally taught is that way too much time is spent on single-syllable words. This becomes an even bigger problem if the third tone is taught as a full falling-rising tone, which will lead to problems because that’s not the way it’s normally pronounced. Therefore, the best way of practising tones in Chinese is to move to words consisting of two syllables as soon as possible.
Naturally, you can also practice sentences and intonation, but that’s something different and if you find tones are hard to grasp in the first place, reading a long sentence and superimposing intonation certainly won’t make things easier Mastering tone pairs is a must!
Practising Chinese tones in pairs
The reason disyllabic words are great is that most tone changes(sandhi) rules apply, but a single word is still short enough to be focused on properly. It also makes sense to focus on these words because modern Chinese has a very strong preference for disyllabic words, meaning that if you know all possible combinations really well, getting pronunciation in sentences right is mostly a matter of practise.
What I mean by this is that if you don’t get the basic two-syllable combinations, you might not learn to produce correct sentences at all, regardless of how much you practise. If you do learn how to handle disyllabic words, you will probably be able to produce good sentences simply by paying attention and speaking more Chinese since you already have the basics down.
If you’re a complete beginner or feel that you don’t know the basics at all, I suggest you head over to Sinosplice and check John’s Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills. He offers a few examples for every tone combination, as well as explanations and audio.
Another thing to remember is that your tones might not be as good as you think. I think all students should try doing a blind test at least once, meaning that the listener doesn’t know or guess the right answer and can’t pretend to understand. You will most likely find that there are problems you weren’t aware of, even if you’ve studied Chinese for a while (some problems are really hard to spot without feedback). You can use my tone bingo game for this, which is very good at catching pronunciation problems and is quite fun as well.
This is not enough, we need more!
Both when I learnt tones myself and when I teach other people, I find that this is often not enough. After having discussed this with a number of classmates, it seems like both students and teachers alike have this problem: In order to practise tone pairs, we sometimes have to come up with a large number of examples of any given combination, which is not easy, especially not if we want to use known or familiar words!
However, this problem is solvable, because it is possible to write a script that sorts a word list according to the tone combinations. Since I lack the necessary coding skills to write such a script, I approached my good friend Magnus Falk with this problem to see how hard it would be to achieve. No problem, he said.
It actually turned out to take longer than he thought, but we now have a script that works fairly well. We still haven’t worked out how to implement the script on the website yet, but if you really want to play around with it on your own, all necessary files are available on GitHub (the tone sorter is written in Python). If you just want more tone combinations than you’ll ever need, just keep on reading.
More tone combinations that you will ever need
If you download and run the script yourself, you should be able to sort any word list by tone, but since most people probably don’t need that and it would be too much trouble to explain exactly how it works, for now I will provide you with a very large number of tone combinations you can use for either learning or teaching tones.
First, I offer the complete lists for both HSK (simplified) and TOCFL (traditional), sorted by tone combination. You can download the lists here:
- The entire HSK list (simplified) as a CSV text file
- The entire HSK list (simplified) as an Excel file
- The entire TOCFL list (traditional) as a CSV text file
- The entire TOCFL list (traditional) as an Excel file
Please note: These lists are based on the official lists, so any errors are (probably) not mine, unless the sorting itself is wrong. They should be mostly correct, though, the only common problem I have seen is for phrases, but they are quite rare and not the main issue here.
The lists contain words with more than two syllables as well, so if you want to practise three-syllable words, you just need to download the files. The polysyllabic words are of course also sorted by tone! The list also contains monosyllables, but mostly for the sake of comprehensiveness, I can’t really see why anyone would need them.
Second, I for quick reference, I have provided the first 50 combinations of each tone combination below for quick reference. This should be more than what most people need, but if you do want more for some reason, you can just use the download links above. Here’s an index of the words listed in this article. Simply click the combination you want; click “back” in your browser if you want to go back to this navigation.
T1 + T?
T2 + T?
T3 + T?
T4 + T?
|T1 + T1|
|T1 + T2|
|T1 + T3|
|T1 + T4|
|T1 + T0|
|T2 + T1|
|T2 + T2|
|T2 + T3|
|T2 + T4|
|T2 + T0|
|T3 + T1|
|T3 + T2|
|T3 + T3|
|T3 + T4|
|T3 + T0|
|T4 + T1|
|T4 + T2|
|T4 + T3|
|T4 + T4|
|T4 + T0|
|T2 + T1|
I don’t know about you, but I know started reading novels in Chinese way too late. This was partly because I thought it was scary and more difficult than it actually was, but also because I lacked a good approach and a strategy to overcome the difficulties reading native material implies.
Looking back at how I learnt English, it strikes me that there is a powerful way of getting used to reading novels in a foreign language, namely to reread something you have already read before and like a lot, but now you read in the target language.
We have perhaps left the times when comprehensible input was a buzzword, but it’s still a useful concept when talking about listening and reading. Simply put, it means that you have to understand what you read in order to benefit from it (input should neither be too easy nor too hard, but just above the level of the student).
However, it’s often misunderstood to mean that you have to understand everything that is said, which is definitely not true. In my opinion, you need to understand the gist, because without that, you’re just looking at pretty symbols and if meaning is not involved, I doubt there’s much point (or indeed pleasure) in reading. Understanding the key message is enough, it’s okay if you don’t understand all the adjectives, adverbs and descriptions of people and places. Dialogues tend to be important.
There are many ways of making incomprehensible input comprehensible. As independent language learners, we can’t really make use of some common methods such as creating word lists, creating interesting preparation tasks, substituting difficult words for easier ones and so on, because they typically require a teacher. However, one very effective way of reducing the difficulty of a text in Chinese is if you’re already familiar with the content.
Not ready for a novel yet?
The method described in this article works for all lengths of texts. You can read a short news article in English first and then read the same article in Chinese. Another place to check out is the Marco Polo Project, where enthusiasts translate articles from Chinese into various languages (mostly English).
Read the Chinese translation of a novel you have already read and liked immensely
I started learning novels in English with Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time fantasy series. This was when I was twelve and realised that it took ages for the translator to translate new books into Swedish; I simply wasn’t prepared to wait that long. I had read a few books and wanted more, but rather than wait a year or so, I decided to read the series in English. To reduce the shock, I decided to read from the beginning, including the books I had already read in Swedish before.
This turned out to be a very good idea indeed. Reading a few books in English covering what I had just read in Swedish was a really good way of being able to read novels in English even though my English really wasn’t up to the task at the time. The fact that it then took the author fifteen years to finish the series (or, rather, for him to die so someone else could finish it for him) isn’t my fault.
Why is it a good idea to read the Chinese translation of a book you have read and like in English?
- You know for a fact you like the book. Naturally, you should choose a book you want to reread, perhaps something you read and loved a long time ago and want to experience again. Action-packed adventure novels are great. This guarantees that you’re motivated to read. No-one can recommend books to yourself better than yourself. If you choose a book I have read, you might simply not like it, which will severely reduce your motivation to read it.
- You have already read the book, so you know what it’s about and you know what’s going to happen. Your task is to see how this is expressed in Chinese. You will not encounter characters you don’t understand, a setting that makes you confused or subtleties in the plot you overlook, because you know most of this when you start reading. If you’ve forgotten, you can always read a summary online (Wikipedia is your friend). If your Chinese is already quite good, you can skip this step and re-experience books you’ve mostly forgotten but don’t really wan to reread in English.
- You avoid regional, dialectal and stylistic language, as well as cultural references you might not get. Normally, I would say that reading about culture in a rich and varied language is a good idea, but it can be overwhelming for someone who has never read a novel in Chinese. For instance, wuxia novels that take place in ancient China aren’t written in a language you can transfer directly into your everyday Chinese and many novels set in modern China are sometimes written with a certain style that might not be familiar to you at all. Of course, you need to learn about these aspects sooner or later, but you will have enough of a challenge facing the basic language of the novel. Simply put, reading a translated novel is easier.
Thus, reading your first novel in Chinese turns from impossible to merely difficult. It will take hard work to get through (depending on your current level, of course), but it’s definitely easier to do it this way than choosing random book your Chinese friend recommends to you.
A few words about the language in translated novels
You should be aware that some translations aren’t very good (in fact, some are terribly bad). I don’t mean that they are bad in the sense that the translator fails to capture the soul of the original novel and used another language to express it expertly, instead I mean that the Chinese in the translation is not good. This is probably because the translator was paid too little and just rushed through, translating sentence by sentence, sometimes even word by word. Therefore, when reading some translated novels, you can feel the English behind the sentences. Obviously, this is bad for us as readers, especially if we want to learn Chinese along the way. That translated novels will not sound exactly like first language novels is kind of obvious and I don’t think that’s a problem, but at least the language should be natural and correct.
The best way of checking this as an intermediate learner is to simply ask a native speaker, preferably one who reads a lot, and see what they think. Remember, you’re not really interested in the quality of the translation; what you want to know is if the Chinese is good or not, so just let them read a few pages and ask what they think about this as potential reading material. If you buy books online, there are usually previews available you can use for this.
Also, note that reading your first novel in Chinese is about reading practise. It’s about understanding words, piecing them together into sentences and get the general idea of what’s going on. This is not the time for memorising sentence patterns and detailed studying of syntax.
What novel to choose
This might be obvious, but choose a novel that is interesting for what happens or because who’s in it rather than because the way it’s written. Action, mystery, adventure and fantasy stories are all very good.
In order to close the circle,I’m now rereading The Wheel of Time in Chinese. Obviously, it isn’t my first novel in Chinese, but it’s still interesting to return to a series I never finished as a teenager, now in a new language. I don’t think Robert Jordan is a great writer in general, but I am interested in the plot. The curiosity over how the series ends keeps me motivated to read the next page. It remains to be seen if it keeps me motivated through ten thousand pages, but it’s worked well so far!
In the first article about learning Chinese through wuxia, Sara K. explained what wuxia is, why it’s relevant for Chinese learners and how to get started with wuxia. This second article is focused entirely on the “how to get started” bit and introduces a few wuxia novels. Hopefully, this guide will help you chose your first wuxia novel, or, if you’re already familiar with the genre, it might give you suggestions for what to read next!
One of the hardest things about getting into Chinese fiction for Chinese learners is that they simply do not know what to read. This is especially big problem for Chinese learners who want to try wuxia, since most of them know little about the genre.
In the last article, I explained what wuxia is and why Chinese learners should know about it. Here, I present five novels that I consider to be good starting points for Chinese learners who want to try wuxia.
A special problem with wuxia is that many novels have slow beginnings – which can be a particularly big problem for people who are struggling with the language. A classic example of a novel with a slow beginning is The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre (倚天屠龍記). The main protagonist, Zhang Wuji, is not even mentioned in the first 250 pages, and in my opinion the story is really slow until almost halfway through the novel.
That said, the last section of the novel is a heck of a roller-coaster, and the scene where a certain character sticks a sword into someone’s chest is definitely one of the five most famous moments in all of wuxia fiction, but I would advise even advanced learners to stay away from it until they’ve read at least a few other wuxia novels. That’s why this list is biased towards novels that I think start at a relatively quick pace.
In this article, I will introduce the following novels:
- Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin (寶劍金釵) by Wang Dulu (1939)
- Meteor, Butterfly, Sword (流星‧蝴蝶‧劍) by Gu Long (1973)
- Return of the Stormy Swallow (風雨燕歸來) by Wolong Sheng (1961)
- Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (天龍八部) by Jin Yong (1963)
- Kung-fu (功夫) by Giddens Ko (2004)
- Other novels and further reading
Language difficulty: (abridged version) intermediate, (unabridged) upper-intermediate/advanced
When some martial artists come to murder Yu Shulien’s father, she swiftly and single-handedly kills them all.
Meanwhile, Li Mubai, who possesses the ‘precious sword’ in the title, has decided that, if he can’t marry an excellent martial artist, he will never marry. One of his friends tells him about Yu Shulien, and says that she will marry anyone who can beat her in a duel. Li Mubai doesn’t believe this, but he goes to duel her anyway. He finds that she is a fine swordswoman, and promptly falls in love with her.
Then he finds out that his friend made up the marry-whoever-beats-her-in-a-duel bit. In fact, she is already engaged to marry Meng Sizhao, and he gave her a nice golden hairpin. This is a great disappointment to Li Mubai.
Then the enemies of Yu Shulien’s family try again…
Thus begins a tale of love and revenge.
Wang Dulu was one of the most popular wuxia writers of the 1930s. He strongly influenced all wuxia writers who followed him.
His most famous work is the ‘Crane-Iron Pentalogy’, of which Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin is the second novel. Readers do not need to know anything about the first novel, Crane Frightens Kunlun (鶴驚崑崙), to enjoy Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin, and I think Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin is better. The other three novels are Sword Force, Pearl Shine (劍氣珠光), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍), and Iron Rider, Silver Vase (鐵騎銀瓶).
You can read more about the pentalogy here.
Why This Novel Got on the List
First of all, this is such an influential novel that being familiar with it helps one appreciate later wuxia novels, just as reading Asimov and Heinlein helps one appreciate later science fiction novels.
Second, this was originally published in a newspaper, and Wang Dulu wrote it so that new readers could jump into the story without reading the first few chapters. How does he do this? About once ever chapter or two, there is a brief recap, which usually goes like this:
Character A: What is going on?
Character B: It all started when… [recap]
This is excellent for Chinese learners. If there is something the reader didn’t quite understand, and it’s important, it will get mentioned in a recap.
Additionally, each chapter title is a summary of what happens in that chapter. Though the chapter titles are written in classical Chinese, they still let readers preview what they are going to read about in that chapter.
Also, for an wuxia novel, the language is relatively easy. There is some archaic vocabulary, but 95% of the archaic words can be ignored. The sentence structure is simpler than many other wuxia novels.
Furthermore, the beginning of this novel moves quicker than most wuxia novel beginnings – Yu Shulien kills off her father’s assailants before page 20.
And finally, this novel made it to the list because it’s one of my favorites.
In traditional Chinese characters, there is an abridged version of this novel combined with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (I presume Sword Force, Pearl Shine is included too) called 臥虎藏龍－重出江湖版. I have read the first chapter of the abridged edition, and language-wise, it is easier than the original (and the original itself is not that hard). It’s also a lot shorter. I think the abridged version is an excellent choice for intermediate Chinese learners.
However, advanced Chinese learners should just go straight to the unabridged novel (available in both simplified and traditional characters).
The most famous adaptation of the Iron-Crane pentalogy is of course is Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (that, by the way, is another reason this novel made it to the list). While it’s a good movie, and it introduces the main characters of Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin who live long enough to be in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I don’t think it’s the best place to start. It’s not particularly easy language-wise, there are major spoilers for the preceding novels, and I think Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin is simply a better story. That said, beginning Chinese students who want to get a feel for wuxia and don’t mind using foreign language subtitles might want to watch the movie.
There is also a manhua adaptation by Andy Seto. Though the manhua is called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the first couple volumes are actually based on Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin (note: I haven’t read the manhua, so this is second-hand information). The manhua is available in English, French, and of course Chinese.
Language Difficulty: Intermediate
This has possibly the most famous opening of any wuxia novel (I’m borrowing this English translation from Wikipedia):
“A shooting star burns but briefly, but while it burns what other star in the heavens is as bright, as brilliant. When a shooting star appears, not even the stars in the enduring constellations can match its light. The life of a butterfly is delicate, even more fragile than flowers, but alas it lives only in the spring. It is beauty, it is freedom, it is flight. Although its life is short, it is fragrant. Only swords, in comparison, are eternal. A swordsman holds his light, his brilliance, and light in his hands, but should the sword feel emotion will its brilliance be as short as that of a meteor.”
An alternative translation of the opening is available here.
I think this is one of the harder passages in the novel, so if you can read the above in the original Chinese, you are ready to read this novel.
Meng Xinghun is a sentimental and very sensitive guy, who wants to be sweet, gentle, and most of all, do the right thing. Alas, he is forced to work as an assassin. The fact that his profession is so at odds with his personality makes him profoundly unhappy. He tries to drown his sorrows with various addictions (for example, he’s alcoholic), but this doesn’t work, so he tries to drown himself in a more literal way. However, his suicide attempt is thwarted by the woman who pulls him out of the river and, immediately after saving his life, runs off. Might this woman represent a ray of hope in Meng Xinghun’s gloomy existence?
Gu Long is the most famous of all Taiwanese wuxia writers, and is generally ranked as the second most popular wuxia writer of the 20th century. He studied foreign literature at Tamkang University, and combined traditional wuxia (he was a fan of Wang Dulu) with the influences of foreign writers such as Jack London, Ian Fleming, Nietzsche, Ernest Hemingway, etc. to form his own style.
Lots of TV shows and movies have been adapted from his works, as well as some manhua, and more than 20 years after his death, there are still new adaptations coming out.
This specific novel is being adapted into a MMORPG, called ‘Butterfly Sword Online’, not to mention many TV/movie adaptations.
Why This Novel Got on the List
Gu Long simply must be represented on a list like this, because he is one of the most popular writers, and because he is the easiest to read. Lots of short paragraphs and short sentences. Some of his novels are mostly dialogue. His works can be read at a lower level of Chinese than pretty much any other wuxia writer.
That said, Gu Long novels are written for educated native speakers, so encounters with Cthuthlu can happen, especially in his earlier works which tend to have more complex language. However, I think novels from the middle of Gu Long’s career are generally fine for intermediate learners and above.
The biggest problem that Chinese learners have with Gu Long, however, is not with the language, but with the content – many people simply don’t like his novels.
If you do like his novels – congratulations, you now have a lot of relatively easy material that you’re motivated to read. If you don’t like his novels, it’s better to try to read a more difficult novel that you actually do like than to try to force your way through something you don’t like.
So why this Gu Long novel? It is one of his most famous novels, and it seems to work with a wide range of readers. Furthermore, it’s shorter than most of his other famous novels, and is not a part of long series.
Some people love this novel, some people hate it, but I think few people would say it’s boring.
This novel so easy to read that I would actually expect the TV/movie adaptations to be harder to understand than the novel itself (unless one’s listening skills are way ahead of one’s reading skills). Therefore, my advice is to go straight to the novel. You might not like it, but even if you don’t, you’ll learn something.
Tao Yu is back, he’s a huge threat to everyone in the martial arts world, and he’s getting stronger every day. Can the protagonists defeat him before it’s too late?
This is the sequel to the much more famous Swallow and Dragon (飛燕驚龍), which was one of the most popular novels of the 1950s. Wolong Sheng, along with Gu Long, is considered one of the four great wuxia writers of Taiwan. Wolong Sheng had much less formal education than most major wuxia writers, yet he was an avid reader of wuxia (another Wang Dulu fan!)
In his heyday, his novels were so popular that some people would try to look over his shoulder as he wrote the next instalment for the newspaper because they needed to know what happened next that badly. Indeed, the fact that so many people in Taiwan had to read the latest instalment before they ate breakfast was known as ‘Wolong Sheng’ or ‘Yuchai Meng’ syndrome (Yuchai Meng/玉釵盟 is one of his most famous novels).
Why This Novel Got on the List
Since Wolong Sheng is one of the major writers, I think it’s good to represent him here. And out of all of the Wolong Sheng novels I’ve read, Return of the Stormy Swallow is the easiest. That’s partially because it has such a straightforward story – my blurb is so short because I don’t feel I need to say more. It’s also relatively easy from a language perspective – the sentences and paragraphs in this novel are shorter than in most other Wolong Sheng novels. Furthermore, the story moves pretty quickly.
Now, some people might wonder why I chose the sequel instead of the first novel, Swallow and Dragon. I admit that this novel did not make it to the first draft of this list precisely because it’s a sequel. Yet the sequel happens to be easier, and personally, I like the sequel more than the first novel. You don’t have to read Swallow and Dragon first because everything you need to know is covered in Return of the Stormy Swallow. That said, Return of the Stormy Swallow has tons of spoilers for Swallow and Dragon.
I do not think anybody will suggest that Return of the Stormy Swallow is a great literary achievement. That said, I do think it is entertaining, and well suited for building Chinese reading skills. If you need a novel with relatively simple grammar/language/plot, but cannot stand Gu Long, this is a good alternative.
Since I am not aware of any adaptations of this novel, I guess you just have to read it. That said, it might be helpful to read a summary of Swallow and Dragon first (here is an overview in Chinese).
Language Difficulty: Advanced
I think, of all of the music written for this story, this song best conveys the atmosphere (note: the song is in Cantonese).
Duan Yu, is the prince of a small kingdom called Dali (present day Yunnan Province). He runs away from home because he is a Buddhist pacifist, and his father wants to teach him martial arts. After running away, he gets into a lot of trouble.
Qiao Feng is the leader of the Beggars’ Sect, the largest organization of martial artists. After certain information about his past emerges, he gets into a lot of trouble.
Xu Zhu is a monk at Shaolin Temple. He observes a demonic game of go (圍棋) in which the player who is losing the game would get plunged into their own personal nightmare and eventually choose to commit suicide in other to stop the horror. Being a monk, Xu Zhu cannot just stand there and let someone kill himself, so he randomly puts down a piece to break the spell. Ah, but by randomly placing a piece in a demonic game of go has consequences…
Imagine that Oedipus Rex and the Odyssey were combined into a single story, but it was set in Song dynasty China, and written as a serial novel with lots of cliffhangers to make readers buy the next issue. That should give you a sense of what Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils is like.
I’ve met a few people who say that this is their favorite wuxia novel. Furthermore, it has been adapted into movies, multiple TV series, a manhua, and one of the most popular Chinese MMORPGs ever. In English, the MMORPG is called ‘Dragon Oath’ and was listed as one of the highest-revenue online games worldwide by Forbes.
Jin Yong is the most popular Chinese novelist of the 20th century. People love to analyze and interpret his works so much that it has become an entire branch of study, known as ‘Jinology’ (金學). I’ve found two ‘Jinology’ books dedicated just to this single novel: 天龍八部欣賞舉隅 and 無人不冤，有情皆孽：細說天龍八部
His key works are considered mandatory reading for all educated Chinese speakers (though I know in practice some just watch the TV series). And as his longest novel, Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils is definitely one of his key works.
In other words, this one novel is probably more popular than all of the other novels on this list combined.
Why this Novel Got on the List.
Since Jin Yong is practically the god of wuxia, I had to put one of his novels on this list. The two big problems with picking a Jin Yong novel for Chinese learners is a) they tend to have very slow beginnings (like The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre) and b) the language is difficult. However, Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils has a fast-paced beginning for a Jin Yong novel, and in spite of being his longest, it’s possibly the easiest to read (by contrast The Fox Volant of Snow Mountain, his shortest novel, is one of the hardest).
For one thing, this novel is repetitive – in a good way. You know the really famous ‘No, I Am Your Father’ moment in Star Wars? That happens about four times in this novel. Repetition is good for language learning (and it makes it easier to follow the story if the same things happen over and over again).
Jin Yong uses a lot of chengyu, which is wonderful, because they get repeated often enough that I actually learn them. Reading Jin Yong has probably done more to drill chengyu into my head than anything else.
It is longer than War and Peace, but also a lot more pulpy. This novel was originally a newspaper serial. Guess what sells newspapers? Eye-gouging, people committing adultery, women killing their husbands, men killing their fiancees, Buddhist monks breaking their sacred vows, incest, melting an iron mask onto somebody’s face, people committing suicide in front of their children, etc. (I compared this to Oedipus Rex for a reason). The novel is intended to shock and titillate its readers, while stringing them along with suspense.
Some things did shock me … and eventually, it got to the point where all of the stuff which was supposed to shock and tug my heartstrings had me laughing out loud, which proves that I am a bit like Duan Yu’s half-sister Princess A’zi (阿紫).
Another reason I picked this novel is that, if I had to pick the one Jin Yong novel which offers the most insight into Chinese-speaking culture, I would pick this one. It’s partially because of the shock/titillation factor (for example, this novel will help you understand traditional Chinese attitudes towards incest), but much of this novel is also about what makes somebody Chinese. Are Chinese people Chinese because their ancestors are Chinese, or are they Chinese because they have embraced Chinese culture? And is deciding who is Chinese and who is not Chinese important at all?
Finally, this is one of the most parodied of all wuxia stories, so reading this will help you understand when people are making fun of wuxia.
Even though this is relatively easy by Jin Yong standards, it is still by far the hardest novel in this list. Furthermore, Jin Yong is a brilliant composer of words, and it’s hard to appreciate just how good his prose is if you haven’t read quite a bit of other Chinese-language fiction.
That said, the very first novel I read in Chinese was a Jin Yong (after having read lots of comics in Chinese). While I do not recommend it, it is possible to start with his works, and starting with Jin Yong actually worked out pretty well for me.
If you haven’t read Jin Yong before, I strongly recommend first reading the manhua adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, or watching one of the TV series, to learn some of the story and get some exposure to the language. As far as I know, only the MMORPG is legally available in English.
The second edition and third edition are a bit different, in particular, the ending is different. I myself have only read the second edition, but since most fans say the second edition is better (as in, Taiwanese wuxia fans start fuming when I mention thethird edition), I recommend sticking with the second edition. If you get a copy which was published before 2003, it is second edition (if you somehow end up with the first edition, I’ll be extremely impressed, because I don’t think I’ve ever found a copy of the first edition).
This novel is also available in large-print editions for people whose eyes struggle to with regular-sized print.
Furthermore, this is an incomplete but otherwise excellent resource for people who try to read the novel.
The narrator lives in 1980s Changhua, Taiwan. He loves reading wuxia novels. One day, he meets an old man who is martial artist and offers to accept him as a disciple. Might our narrator turn into an wuxia hero himself?
Why This Novel Got on the List
Like Return of the Stormy Swallow, this novel was not on my original list. I had initially disqualified it because it has tons of references to Jin Yong and Gu Long novels, and without familiarity with those stories, it’s not possible to appreciate some of the humor of this novel. That said, I changed my mind about this because some people who know hardly anything of stories of Jin Yong / Gu Long have read and enjoyed this novel. While I still think it’s better to read this after reading some Jin Yong and Gu Long novels (or at least watching the adaptations), apparently it’s not necessary to do so.
Besides, you could read this novel, then go read some Jin Yong / Gu Long, and then read this novel again. You’ll be able to read this novel a second time with a fresh perspective, and of course reading the same thing twice is very good for improving your Chinese.
Giddens Ko is the most popular active fiction writer in Taiwan today, and he’s also very popular in China, so I think it’s good for all Chinese-learners to know about him. And, of all of the Giddens novels I’ve read, I like this one the most.
This is much shorter than most famous wuxia novels, and the language is also relatively easy. And the fact that it’s set in the 1980s rather than the 18th century might actually help readers who are new to wuxia.
Finally, unlike the other novels on this list, this novel is available online for free at the writer’s official website.
I still strongly recommend reading at least one Gu Long novel before reading Kung-fu, since quite frankly, novels such as Meteor, Butterfly, Sword are not harder than this novel, and it will help you appreciate it.
There is a lovely manhua adaptation of Kung-fu, which I recommend to people who do not feel confident enough to take on the novel itself. Actually, a good approach might be the read the manhua first, and then only read the novel itself after reading some Gu Long and Jin Yong novels. There is also a movie adaptation which will be released in the summer of 2015.
I think any one of these novels would individually be a decent introduction to wuxia. However, if one is having trouble picking one, one could just read them all. I think reading all five of these novels would give one a good sense of what wuxia is.
If a Chinese learner does decide to read them all, this would be my recommended order:
- Kung-fu (manhua)
- Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin (abridged or unabridged)
- Meteor, Butterfly Sword
- Return of the Stormy Swallow
- Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (this is a bit of a stretch, but if you were able to read the above three novels, then I think you should be able to read Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils if you’re willing to invest the effort in the extra scaffolding
- Kung-fu (novel)
Here are some novels which did not make it to the list because a) they are too difficult and b) even if one is fluent in Chinese, I do not think these are the best choices for people who’ve never read an wuxia novel before. But I think one should still be aware of these novels to have a better appreciation of just how diverse the genre is and, of course, to stimulate your curiosity:
The Bride With White Hair (白髮魔女傳) by Liang Yusheng (1957)
The White-Haired Demoness is one of the most famous characters in all of wuxia, and certainly the most iconic female character. Even though this novel was written in the 1950s, it continues to be very influential, with the newest film adaptation set to hit theaters in February 2014. I don’t think it’s a good novel because, well, much of the writing is mediocre. But it is a great novel because the White-Haired Demoness herself is such a memorable figure … not to mention the fact that the novel is, even after all these years, a very refreshing departure from ‘standard’ wuxia. This is required reading for all wuxia fans and anyone who’s interested in gender dynamics in Chinese-speaking cultures. If you try to read the novel and get impatient, my advice is to go straight to the last third – all of the good stuff (and the stuff which makes the novel famous) is in the last part.
I have written more about The Bride with White Hair here.
Happy Heroes (歡樂英雄) by Gu Long (1971)
Gu Long thought that wuxia novels might be focusing too much on anger, hatred, revenge, violence, etc. So he wrote a wuxia novel that’s primarily about joy and companionship. And it works. For example, one of the protagonists has discovered the most comfortable bed in the entire world, so his goal in life is to arrange affairs so he can spend as much time lying in bed as possible. This is actually my favorite Gu Long novel. I did not put it on the list because I think it’s too atypical, but I definitely think it’s worth checking out, especially if you get tired of angsty/gory wuxia.
Tang Dynasty Dragon Duo (大唐雙龍傳) by Huang Yi (1996)
This is the most popular wuxia novel (in Taiwan/Hong Kong) of the 1990s. At around seven thousand pages, it is the longest novel I have ever read. And I think it’s worth it.
I have written more about Tang Dynasty Dragon Duo here.
Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero (多情浪子痴情侠/天觀雙俠) by Zheng Feng (2006)
This might be the most popular wuxia novel of the first decade of the 21st century – it is very popular in China and Taiwan. While Zheng Feng’s later novels diverge more from standard wuxia, I’m listing this one because a) it’s the most accessible and b) it’s the most famous. I even considered this novel for the list of first five wuxia novels to read, but I ultimately pulled it from the list because it has too many wuxia in-jokes while being harder to read (language-wise) than Kung-fu. For example, much of the Mongolian sequence in Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero is a parody of a certain famous wuxia novel.
I have written more about Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero here.
The Nine Provinces (九州) by Jiangnan (2005)
Jiangnan is currently one of the most popular, if not the most popular, wuxia writer in China today. I need to put this novel on the expanded list because I have never read anything else like it – even Jiangnan himself says that this novel is a ‘betrayal’ of wuxia because he messes with so many tropes of the genre.
I have written more about The Nine Provinces here.
About Sara K
Sara K. has been studying Mandarin since Fall 2009. She grew up in San Francisco, California, and writes It Came From the Sinosphere for Manga Bookshelf, and has her own personal blog, The Notes Which Do Not Fit. She has previously written two articles on Hacking Chinese: A language learner’s guide to reading comics in Chinese and Approaches to reading in Chinese.
The read more Chinese or die challenge is in full swing (and no, it’s not too late to join), so to keep people inspired and perhaps also help you find reading material, several articles focusing on reading will be published here on Hacking Chinese, all of them written by people other than me. This first article about wuxia is a very good example of an article that I could never have written myself, because although I read a lot, I don’t read much wuxia. Sara K., on the other hand, does. After reading this article, I know I want to read more wuxia and I hope that you will too. Of course, even if the focus this month is on reading, don’t forget that wuxia isn’t limited to books and comics!
This post is split into five parts:
- What is wuxia?
- Wuxia in Chinese-speaking society
- Why is wuxia relevant to Chinese learners?
- Some notes on the language in wuxia
- How to get started with wuxia
Short answer: Chinese martial arts fiction featuring heroism, usually set in imperial China.
Long answer: A few wuxia movies, such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero, are famous in the English-speaking world. While I don’t think these movies are the most representative of the genre, they are genuine wuxia, and anyone who has seen them already has some idea of what wuxia is.
Sometimes, I see ‘wuxia’ translated into English as ‘tales of chivalry’. Wuxia stories are not ‘tales of chivalry’. ‘Chivalry’ is based on a medieval European code of conduct for knights, who were almost always of noble lineage, and was about maintaining the feudal system. Most wuxia heroes come from the peasant class, and would not mind taking the aristocracy down a notch. The ‘xia’ in ‘wuxia’ does not mean ‘chivalry’, it means standing up for what is right. To give you a sense of what ‘xia’ really means, note that Batman’s Chinese name is 蝙蝠俠(‘The Bat Xia’) and that Spiderman’s Chinese name is 蜘蛛俠 (‘The Spider Xia’). Comic book superheroes are much closer than Sir Lancelot to being wuxia. Just because many wuxia stories are set in medieval China does not mean they are the equivalent of tales set in medieval Europe.
If one must find an equivalent in medieval Europe, the obvious one is Robin Hood, though I’d like to note that in Robin Hood, King Richard is usually depicted as a good guy, whereas in wuxia fiction, the emperor of China is generally, at best, a neutral party or a very grey character.
Over at Yago, I compared wuxia to Star Wars, mainly because it’s a good way to explain what wuxia is in few words. However, I think the best equivalent to wuxia in the English-speaking world is the Western genre. In fact, some Americans even call wuxia stories ‘Easterns’ The similarities include:
- A historical setting
- The government is corrupt or otherwise non-functional, so common people have to take care of justice themselves
- Frequent use of gorgeous natural scenery
- Interaction among different ethnic groups, including a dominant nation (China/United States) whose boundaries are constantly shifting, tribal nations (Khitans, Miao, Uyghurs, Navajo, Lakota, Cheyenne, etc.) and characters from other nations (Korea, Portugal, India, France, Mexico, Russia, etc.)
- The focus is generally on personal vendettas and debts of gratitude, not trying to save the world
- Being strongly tied to a specific culture/country. Though there are spaghetti Westerns and wuxia books/comics/TV shows from southeast Asia, Westerns are almost always strongly tied to the United States, and wuxia stories are almost always strongly tied to China. Other genres, such as science fiction and romance, are not married to a particular culture/country.
However, any comparison between wuxia and non-Chinese fiction must be limited, because wuxia arose in the Chinese-speaking world, and it could have arisen nowhere else. Wuxia rides on Chinese-speakers’ history, ethics, medicine, ecology, philosophy, hopes, dreams, and nightmares.
For more description, head over to TVTropes (though note that I do not agree with everything said there).
Wuxia in Chinese-speaking society
While there is debate about when/how the wuxia genre emerged, most people would say that it reached maturity in Republican China in the 1920s and 30s, when it was the most popular genre of Chinese fiction. Wuxia was part of the national conversation about how to be Chinese in the modern age. For example, a prominent 1920s’ writer, Xiang Kairan, was also involved in promoting traditional Chinese martial arts and incorporating ideas from science and European athletics. I think this period of Chinese history left a powerful mark on wuxia, even decades later, in both the openness to new ideas, and the cynical outlook.
Of course, as with any popular genre of fiction, there have been people saying that it is bad influence: it’s too violent, it’s anti-Confucian, it’s just for juveniles, etc. As a non-Chinese person, I don’t completely get the stigma of wuxia, but then again, popular genres such as science-fiction, romance, and YA get stigmatized outside of the Chinese speaking world.
Even after the People’s Republic of China banned wuxia, and the Republic of China (Taiwan) put it under heavy censorship, wuxia continued to be wildly popular – if anything, government censorship made wuxia even more appealing. Where wuxia writers had the freedom to do so (Hong Kong), they sometimes used wuxia as a platform to criticize politics and society.
Though wuxia TV shows and movies continue to be very popular, wuxia novels (from which most TV shows and movies are adapted) supposedly went into decline in the 1980s. What this really means is that, instead of being a mainstream genre, it became a thing mainly for geeks (though mainstream readers are generally still familiar with the ‘classic’ wuxia novels).
Why is wuxia relevant to Chinese learners?
Here is one reason: wuxia is so deeply woven into Chinese-speaking culture that at times you won’t understand what people are saying without some familiarity.
Here is an example; in the movie Seven Days of Heaven, which is a Taiwanese movie set in contemporary Hong Kong and Changhua, a character at one point says 「小龍女從法國打電話回來了」 which roughly means “Xiaolongnü is calling from France”.
Most adult Chinese learners would wonder what ‘Xiaolongnü’ means. However, most native Chinese speakers over the age of 10 know exactly who Xiaolongnü is: she’s a is a mysterious beauty and dangerous sword fighter who grew up in the Tomb of Living Death (活死人墓). In addition to fighting with swords, she can use poison gold needles, and attack people with the sashes of her sleeves. In spite of her chronological age, she always looks like she’s sixteen years old – it’s implied that her body does not age because she’s not entirely alive. She’s like Sleeping Beauty, except she’s not asleep and is a dangerous martial artist.
So why is this movie dropping a reference to Xiaolongnü? It’s more poignant (and succinct!) to say ‘Xiaolongnü’ than to say ‘the person who is so much at the center of your existence that you wouldn’t want to live without her, yet she is beyond your reach’.
When I read in English “I thought mentioning [something] was just like saying ‘Voldemort’”, I understand it because I’m familiar with the plot of Harry Potter. The most popular wuxia stories have also reached the stage where Chinese speakers will drop references to them and expect to be understood.
Name-dropping manifests something deeper: wuxia is an integral part of Chinese-speaking culture. You will probably never encounter enough name-drops to justify learning about wuxia for that reason alone … but wuxia is thoroughly Chinese in a way that no other genre of fiction is, which makes it an excellent vehicle for getting into the minds of Chinese-speakers.
I have learned a great deal about the subtler nuances of the Chinese language by reading lots of wuxia, some of which I don’t think I could have picked up by reading literature-in-translation.
Wuxia offers many paths to get to know Chinese culture better – for example, I can look up the various places mentioned in the novels and improve my understanding of Chinese geography, I can look up the herbs used and learn something about Chinese traditional medicine and botany (that’s how I learned about a very cool plant called ‘gastrodia‘), I can look up the actors who play Characters Y and Z, and see what other TV shows/movies they acted in… and so forth. Of course, I ignore all this most of the time I do because there are only so many hours in a day, but I think that because wuxia connects to so many aspects of Chinese culture and society, it is an excellent node for one’s knowledge web.
Then there is the way that being familiar with wuxia changes my relationship with native Chinese speakers. When I reveal that, yes, I have also read [famous wuxia novel], it cuts down the mental distance between us. Some native Chinese speakers think this is wonderful, others are not comfortable with the fact that I’ve shared that part of their head space, but it always makes me less of an outsider.
However, by far the most important benefit wuxia has for me is that it makes me much more motivated to study Chinese. I think the above reasons are enough for all Chinese learners to at least learn about wuxia, but I think the possibility of turning into a wuxia fan is the biggest reward. If you turn into a wuxia fan – as I did – you suddenly have enough material that you’re motivated to read/watch to keep you going for a long, long time, and since very little of it is available outside of Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai/Indonesian/etc., you have to read/watch it in Chinese (unless you understand one of those other Asian languages).
Not everyone loves wuxia, and if reading/watching a couple stories fails to pique your interest, then drop it. But if you don’t try, you can’t know whether or not wuxia suits your tastes.
Some notes on the language in wuxia
I should also note that the Chinese in an wuxia novel is going to be a bit different from, say, contemporary conversational Mandarin, just as the language in a Tolkien novel is a bit different from what you’ll hear in a California high school. For example, just this morning I was watching a TV show, and I repeatedly heard ‘他圓寂了’. That a literary way of saying ‘he’s dead’. Reading/hearing the much plainer＇他死了＇ is also common in wuxia (in fact, it’s more common than ‘他圓寂了’), but it’s still an example of how the language can be different.
I learned the language simply by reading, looking up stuff I didn’t understand, and putting the new expressions into my SRS. However, it might be a good idea to learn many different ways of saying ‘die/kill’ in Chinese, because it’s generally important when a character dies. I think learning other specialized vocabulary is generally not necessary to understand the story (and if it is necessary, it will probably get repeated a lot).
Here’s a list of terms which mean ‘die’ or ‘kill’ which I’ve extracted from wuxia novels:
Editor’s note: I have added links to the relevant entries on youdao.com.
(Notice the pattern in the above three words)
(Notice the pattern in the above two words?)
(Notice the pattern in the above two words?)
(Notice the pattern in the above six characters/words?)
Not all of these terms mean the same thing (for example, some only apply to young people who die, and some only apply to old people who die) so you should look at the dictionary entries. Of course, the best way to learn these terms is to see them in context.
Classical Chinese has a way of sneaking into wuxia, and occasionally there’s even entire poems written in Classical Chinese. I have an easy technique for dealing with classical poetry – ignore it. It’s never interfered with my enjoyment of the novels. As far as Classical Chinese words being mixed with Mandarin – you can learn it like you would learn other unfamiliar vocabulary, or you can ignore it.
Finally, the language difficulty runs the whole range from novels which consist mostly of simple short sentences to works full of sophisticated wordplay. Obviously, the former is a much better place to start.
How to get started with wuxia?
‘How to start’ depends on your level of Chinese, but first, an exercise that is suitable for learners at all levels:
Ask native speakers about wuxia
- Find a native speaker to talk to.
- Ask them which wuxia stories they have read/seen.
- Ask their opinion about those stories (for example, if you are a beginner, you can ask questions like 你喜歡嗎？)
- Ask them to describe an wuxia story to you.
- Repeat with another native speaker.
After doing this exercise with a few native speakers, you’ll have a pretty good idea which wuxia stories tend to be sources for name-drops…
For beginning learners
No, you cannot read a wuxia novel or watch an wuxia movie without subtitles, at least not yet … but you can still learn about wuxia. There are some online English-language resources about wuxia:
- Chinese Culture Wuxia Web, hosted by the Taiwanese government
- Wuxia Wikia (currently very incomplete)
- Wuxiapedia, hasn’t been updated in years, but still informative
- A desciprion of a wuxia fight scene written by… me
You will learn something about Chinese-speaking culture, and it might motivate you to study Chinese harder, just as looking at photos of delicious food might motivate you to improve your cooking skills.
You can also look into the limited range of wuxia available in English (or any other language you understand). Movies are most likely to be available in English.
For intermediate learners
For lower-intermediate learners, my advice is pretty much the same as for beginning learners, though one can be a little bolder – for example, checking out the Chinese version of one of the above websites, or trying to read/watch a bit of wuxia in Chinese.
At the upper-intermediate level, there are a lot more options. Some suggestions are:
- Read some comic books
- Try to watch a TV show
- Try one of the easier wuxia novels
I think it’s good to read comics and/or watch a TV show/movie before proceeding to novels, because a lot of things which happen in wuxia stories are much easier to understand visually than verbally, especially to people who are new to ideas such as 輕功.
I think that ‘reading a wuxia comic book’ and ‘reading an easier wuxia novel’ are roughly equivalent in difficulty. It of course depends on the comic book and the level being compared, but a comic book adapted from a Jin Yong novel is going to be at least as hard to read, if not harder, than a Gu Long novel.
Go read a novel or watch a TV show or play a computer game.
But which one?
I think advanced learners main concern should not be the difficulty of the language, but how accessible the story itself is. Is the story fast-paced and suspenseful, or does it drag a lot at the beginning (i.e. is it The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre/倚天屠龍記 where the main protagonist isn’t even mentioned once in the first 250 pages of the novel)? Does the story require familiarity with wuxia tropes, Chinese history, etc., or could my mother get it (if she suddenly knew Chinese)? Is it a good story?
These are concerns for intermediate learners too, of course.
And just like beginning learners, advanced learners should also have some background knowledge, especially before tackling the more difficult novels.
I think this list offers a decent introduction to wuxia movies.
I have not seen too many wuxia TV shows, but one show I cannot recommend highly enough for advanced learners is State of Divinity (笑傲江湖) starring Jackie Lui (呂頌賢). People who have seen far more wuxia TV shows than I claim it’s one of the best ever made. I would go so far as to say, if you’re only going to watch one Chinese language TV drama of any genre in your entire lifetime, it should be this one.
This famous scene (YouTube) is great for studying the kind of language which appears often in wuxia stories, but it will make a lot more sense with a little context: Linghu Chong had been driven out of the Huashan sect. His greatest wish is to be accepted back by his sifu, Yue Buqun, leader of the Huashan sect, and to marry his daughter, Yue Lingshan, with whom he had developed the ‘Chong-Ling Sword Technique’. In the mean time, Ren Yingying had saved his life, so he feels he has to repay this debt of gratitude by freeing Ren Yingying and her father Ren Woxing from Shaolin Temple. Of course, many people object to releasing Ren Woxing because he is a megalomaniac. A deal has been struck that Ren Woxing and his daughter can go free if he wins two out of three duels. So far, he has won a duel and lost a duel…
This quote from episode 24 not only captures the essence of the TV show, but represents the mood of many, many, many wuxia stories.
Automaticall generated version in simplified Chinese:当初我们四兄弟之所以加入日月神教，本想在江湖上可以行侠仗义，有所作为。哪知道任教主他性情暴戾，威福自用。当时我们四兄弟早萌退意，直到东方教主继位更是宠信奸佞，诛除教中元老。我四人更是心灰意冷，决意隐居梅莊，并要看守要犯。一来，可以远离黑木崖，不必与人勾心鬥角。二来，可以閒居西湖琴书遣怀。十二年来也可以说是享尽清福。不过人生在世，忧多乐少。人生本来就是如此了。
“When we four brothers first entered the Sun Moon Cult, we thought we could carry out heroic deeds all over jianghu. Who knew that Ren Woxing was so violent, and so hungry for power? Long after we four brothers had been disillusioned, Dongfang Bubai became the leader, and he loves wickedness even more. He executed all of the elders, and we four became even more disheartened. We decided to retreat to Plum Villa, and guard the prisoner. Firstly, far from Heimu Ya, we did not have to participate in all of the internecine struggle and backstabbing. Secondly, we could quietly live by Xihu, and fill our days with music and books. We can say that we have had twelve happy years. Nevertheless, in life the sorrows are many, and the joys are few. That is the nature of life.”
It’s hard to tell which novels are more or less suitable as an introduction to wuxia if you haven’t read them, and if you’ve read a bunch of wuxia novels, you are not a newcomer. That’s why, in my next article. I will introduce five wuxia novels which are good starting points for learners of Chinese who have never gotten into wuxia before. Stay tuned!
Continue reading the next article: A language learner’s guide to wuxia novels…
About Sara K
Sara K. has been studying Mandarin since Fall 2009. She grew up in San Francisco, California, and writes It Came From the Sinosphere for Manga Bookshelf, and has her own personal blog, The Notes Which Do Not Fit. She has previously written two articles on Hacking Chinese: A language learner’s guide to reading comics in Chinese and Approaches to reading in Chinese.
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