A language learner’s guide to wuxia novels

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:

  1. Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin (寶劍金釵) by Wang Dulu (1939)
  2. Meteor, Butterfly, Sword (流星‧蝴蝶‧劍) by Gu Long (1973)
  3. Return of the Stormy Swallow (風雨燕歸來) by Wolong Sheng (1961)
  4. Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (天龍八部) by Jin Yong (1963)
  5. Kung-fu (功夫) by Giddens Ko (2004)
  6. Other novels and further reading



Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin (寶劍金釵) by Wang Dulu (1939)

Language difficulty: (abridged version) intermediate, (unabridged) upper-intermediate/advanced

Story

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.

Background

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.

Recommended Approach

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.



Meteor, Butterfly, Sword (流星‧蝴蝶‧劍) by Gu Long (1973)

Language Difficulty: Intermediate

mbsStory

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?

Background

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.

Recommended Approach

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.



Return of the Stormy Swallow (風雨燕歸來) by Wolong Sheng (1961)

Language difficulty: Upper-intermediatefyygx

Story

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?

Background

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.

Recommended Approach

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).



Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (天龍八部) by Jin Yong (1963)

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).

Story

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.

TLBB2Background

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).

Is there some serious literary merit? Yes, in a Greek-tragic sense. However, that pit of literary merit is surrounded by lots of juicy, juicy pulp.TLBB3

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.

Recommended Approach

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.



Kung-fu (功夫) by Giddens Ko (2004)

Difficulty: Upper-intermediate

Kung-FuStory

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.

Recommended approach

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.



Read them all!

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:

  1. Kung-fu (manhua)
  2. Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin (abridged or unabridged)
  3. Meteor, Butterfly Sword
  4. Return of the Stormy Swallow
  5. 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
  6. Kung-fu (novel)

Other novels

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.

25 books I read in Chinese last year

Input has always been the primary focus for me when learning any language. Both reading and listening are important, but since the read more Chinese or die challenge just started (it’s not too late to join!) and the fact that I have written extensively about listening already, this article will be about reading. More specifically, it will be about what I read in Chinese in 2013.

booksI wrote this article for several reasons:

  • To encourage and inspire
  • To recommend books
  • To report on my own progress

Naturally, I read a lot more Chinese than these books during 2013. This list only contains complete books, so any reading online, any articles or isolated book chapters aren’t included. This basically means that nothing I read in class is included!

I have sorted the books very roughly according to topic and I have also grouped books in the same series as one entry to reduce the length of the article. Each book includes a brief introduction, a few words what I thought about it and a very subjective rating of how difficult it was. At the very end, I have added some reflections about my reading in general.

25 books I read in Chinese last year (overview)

Fiction (general)

  • 《活著》 余華
  • 《棋王》 阿城

Fiction (science fiction or fantasy)

  • 《天觀雙俠》 鄭丰
  • 《三體》 劉慈欣
  • 《茫點》 倪匡
  • 《世界之眼(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 《世界之眼(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 《大狩獵(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 《大狩獵(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 《大狩獵(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 《大狩獵(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 《飢餓遊戲》 蘇珊·柯林斯
  • 《星火燎原》 蘇珊·柯林斯

Non-fiction (science)

  • 《空想科學読本(二)》 柳田理科雄
  • 《空想科學読本(三)》 柳田理科雄
  • 《跟狗狗一起學物理》 查德·歐澤
  • 《科幻世界的哲學凝視》 陳瑞麟
  • 《老子的部落格》 曹鴻濤
  • 《黑天鵝語錄》 納西姆·尼可拉斯·塔雷伯

Non-fiction (linguistics)

  • 《漢語音韻》 耿志堅
  • 《華語語音學》 葉德明
  • 《實用現代漢語語法》 劉月華等

Non-fiction (misc)

  • 《謝謝你離開我》 張小嫻
  • 《在世界盡頭遇見台灣》 羅聿
  • 《漢字書法之美》 蔣勳

Reflections

25 books I read in Chinese last year (reviews)


Fiction (general)

《活著》 余華

I don’t know where I read about this book first, but I’ve heard it recommended as a good book for foreigners to read if they want to get into reading Chinese novels. Anyway, the story is about a man called 富貴, an unsympathetic compulsive gambler and local rich man, and the transformation he goes through as he gambles away his entire fortune, is forced to join the army (the Chinese civil war) and gradually loses everything he loves and cares about in this world. In contrast to whoever it was that recommended the book in the first place, I don’t think this is a good book for most people to start with. If you really like realism and want to read about abject poverty and the hardships of rural life, fine, but I don’t think that’s what most foreigners want to read.

Do I recommend it? Yes (but not as your first novel in Chinese).
How difficult was it? Fairly easy.

《棋王》 阿城

This story takes place in China during the Down to the Countryside Movement (around 1970) and focuses on Wang Yisheng and how he turns from someone who thinks (Chinese) chess is interesting into a towering master of the game. The story-telling is down-to-earth and focuses on just a few episodes in detail. Even though the story is about chess, it’s also to a large extent about friendship and people in general. This novella is quite interesting, but since it contains quite a lot of very colloquial Chinese, it’s not easy to read.

Do I recommend it? Yes.
How difficult was it? Fairly hard.

Fiction (science fiction or fantasy)

《天觀雙俠》 鄭丰

This is one of the first 武俠 (wǔxiá) I’ve read and I liked it quite a lot. The story is fast-paced, thrilling and populated with interesting people and it also hides a more mysterious plot in the background. The drawback for new readers is that the language is partly mimicking an older style, which makes it quite hard to read before you get used to it. If you’re used to reading Wuxia novels, though, this shouldn’t be too difficult.

Do I recommend it? Yes.
How difficult was it? Fairly hard.

《三體》 劉慈欣

I like science fiction a lot, partly because it combines two things I love in literature: creativity and philosophy. When I say creativity, I mean that science fiction is a genre that keeps bombarding me with cool, original ideas. I’m an abstract person, okay? When I say philosophy, I mean that science fiction is a very good way of discussing almost anything relevant to human existence (see 科幻世界的哲學凝視 below). 三體 starts in a very promising way when the main character, a scientist focusing on nanotechnology, starts to see a countdown timer in his field of vision. This turns out to be systematic, but it’s only scientists in certain areas who can see the numbers. Two questions follow: Who’s projecting the timer? What happens when the timer reaches zero? Somewhat ironically, the best part of this book is actually a long flashback to the cultural revolution, depicting the life of an astronomer looking for extraterrestrial life in an age where having a doctorate could be quite dangerous. Sadly, the end of the first book in this series is really bad, coming completely out of the blue and feeling totally unrelated to the rest of the story. I will read the next two books, though.

Do I recommend it? Yes.
How difficult was it? Average.

《茫點》 倪匡

This is the second novel (or possibly third, I can’t remember) I read by Ni Kuang, which is the one name you will hear over and over if you ask Chinese people about science fiction literature. Since I have already reviewed this novel in more detail on my personal website, I will just say that this novel was quite frustrating to read. I didn’t like it very much and if you want to try Ni Kuang, you should probably read something else.

Do I recommend it?No.
How difficult was it? Average.

《世界之眼(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
《世界之眼(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹
《大狩獵(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
《大狩獵(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹
《大狩獵(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
《大狩獵(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹

I started reading The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan) in Swedish when I was thirteen and liked it a lot. However, I had soon read all that had been translated into Swedish and decided to start from book one in English. Thus, this series was among the first real novels I read in English. Little did I know that Robert Jordan planned to write books for another fifteen years and I soon became bored and stopped reading. Now that he is dead and can’t write more book, I still want to see how the story develops. Therefore, yet again, I start from scratch, reading through this epic fantasy series, this time in Chinese. This is actually perfect, because I can focus on the story and the setting (which are reasonably good), and at the same time, turn a mediocre English into a learning opportunity in Chinese. I have so far read the first three books, which are split into six in Chinese and are counted as such simply because each part is still longer than the average novel.

Do I recommend it? No (except if you already like it).
How difficult was it? Average.

《飢餓遊戲》 蘇珊·柯林斯
《星火燎原》 蘇珊·柯林斯

I was first recommended The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) when it was first published, as a book that is excellent to encourage students to read more English. Then it turned into a book (and later film) that everybody had watched. Except me. I have too many other things to read in English, so I figured that reading the Chinese translation was the only realistic way. The book is relatively easy, fast-paced and very good if you’re after something that will keep you engaged. It’s not new, it’s not very interesting beyond the superficial story. Part two is, sadly, much worse. The first part became famous for a reason, but the second book feels much like the same thing again. Just like with Harry Potter, though, the same thing again is only fun if you’re fifteen and I’m not. Still reasonably good mass practice for reading in Chinese. I read the first novel aloud to practice reading aloud in Chinese!

Do I recommend it? Yes (but only the first book).
How difficult was it? Easy.

Non-fiction (science)

《空想科學読本(二)》 柳田理科雄
《空想科學読本(三)》 柳田理科雄

These are the second and third books in a series that focuses on how science is misused and abused in Japanese science fiction manga and anime. I read the first volume a couple of years ago and enjoyed it, but the second volume is just boring. Rather than observing and analysing the science behind super heroes and mega monsters, it focuses mostly on explaining why the numbers given for them are unrealistic. The third book is slightly better because it leaves the realm of arbitrary numbers. These books ought to be like xkcd‘s What if? but fall short..

Do I recommend it? No (but read the first book).
How difficult was it? Average.

《跟狗狗一起學物理》 查德·歐澤

I bought this book second-hand on a whim because I liked the title. It turns out to be a translation of Chad Orzel’s How to Teach Physics to your Dog. However, the physics should definitely have a “quantum” stuck to it, because this book deals almost exclusively with trying to explain quantum physics in a meaningful way without using too much mathematics. Books like this give me a glimpse into a parallel universe where I didn’t decide to switch from natural sciences to languages and education. This book is fairly easy to read language-wise, but considering that some of the concepts are all but easy, you need to really understand almost every word to benefit from reading the book.

 Do I recommend it? Yes (if you want to read about quantum physics in Chinese).
How difficult was it? Fairly hard (if you want to understand the point).

Non-fiction (philosophy)

《科幻世界的哲學凝視》 陳瑞麟

This book is also about science fiction, but that’s about the only thing it has in common with 空想科學読本 above. This book deals with philosophy in science fiction and deals mainly with the great masters of Western literary science fiction, but also includes some films, such as The Matrix and Gattaca. The book isn’t as interesting as it looks, though, at least not if you have almost all the works mentioned in it, because it feels like two thirds is about the fiction and only one third about the philosophy hidden therein. I have probably read more SF than the target reader, though, so I don’t blame the author.

Do I recommend it? Yes.
How difficult was it? Average.

《老子的部落格》 曹鴻濤

One of the first books I read in Chinese that wasn’t written either for children or foreigners was 孔子的部落格, which we used as a textbook in class at Wenzao back in 2010. In short, these books attempt to discuss classical philosophy in blog format (somewhat ironically still printed in a book, though). Since I generally tend to like Taoism much more than Confucianism, I bought the companion book shortly afterwards, but I didn’t read it until now. Sadly, I don’t think this book is very good. First, most of the text is completely irrelevant for the philosophy of 老子 and describes weather and mundane events. Second, the philosophy that is described is sometimes quite far from what I have learnt from other sources and the interpretations sound more like more fluffy versions of Confucianism.

Do I recommend it? No.
How difficult was it? Fairly hard.

《黑天鵝語錄》 納西姆·尼可拉斯·塔雷伯

I actually bought this book thinking that it was Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan (I didn’t read the description carefully enough, it’s actually The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms by the same author). I have read his Fooled by Randomness and liked it a lot, but this book is quite meaningless. It consists of aphorisms that are either impossible to understand because of the lack of context or phrases that sound deep but that really doesn’t mean much without further explanation. There are exceptions, but on the whole, this book wasn’t very good. I will keep reading the author’s books, though.

Do I recommend it? No.
How difficult was it? Fairly easy.

Non-fiction (linguistics)

《漢語音韻》 耿志堅

I try to read some phonetics/phonology related textbooks in Chinese to improve my overall vocabulary in the area. This is a pretty basic overview, discussing Mandarin phonetics. I didn’t learn very much from this book and found it too basic to be interesting. If you haven’t read anything about phonetics in Chinese and want to have an easy start, this book might be okay, but there should be better options. If you’re just after reading an introduction, check 華語語音學 below.

Do I recommend it? No.
How difficult was it? Fairly hard.

《華語語音學》 葉德明

This books was used in our course in teaching Chinese pronunciation (taught by the author) last year. It’s an even more basic introduction than 漢語音韻 above, but it does include some things that book does not, such as some added perspectives on actually teaching Chinese. Still, I didn’t find the discussions about learning and/or teaching Chinese very insightful, perhaps because I’ve thought about it and read extensively on the topic before.  Still, this was probably the first book I read in Chinese about pronunciation and phonetics, and as such it served me well as a stepping stone to other articles, papers and books in Chinese about pronunciation.

Do I recommend it? No (if not as a stepping stone).
How difficult was it? Average.

《實用現代漢語語法》 劉月華等

This book is perhaps best used for reference, but I decided to go through all of it to see what I was lacking. In general, the book is quite descriptive, which is sometimes frustrating. After studying mostly generative grammar in Chinese, reading a book that mostly gives you surface forms and conditions for when to write what is confusing and you risk seeing the trees but not the forest. This book really dose work best as a reference, so reading the entire volume in one go wasn’t a good idea, even if it did highlight some interesting things I had missed.

Do I recommend it? Perhaps (but only as a reference).
How difficult was it? Fairly hard.

Non-fiction (misc)

《謝謝你離開我》 張小嫻

This book consists of a number of small stories and related observations about daily life, usually related to relationships, love, and men and women. Although I found some parts quite insightful and interesting, I can’t help but feeling deeply annoyed by any author talking about how men are and how women are. That matches neither my experience of reality nor my idea of how such things should be discussed. Even though the conclusions and insights reached here might be interesting, I found myself asking “really?” too many times in the actual description of the situation.

Do I recommend it? No.
How difficult was it? Easy

《在世界盡頭遇見台灣》 羅聿

This book is written by a Taiwanese exchange student I met in Sweden. He biked from southern to northern Sweden, collecting stories from Taiwanese expats along the way. The book tells the story of the journey itself, but more importantly, it’s a collage of life stories of Taiwanese people living in Sweden. It’s probably only interesting for people who have some connection to both Sweden and Taiwan, but it’s also interesting to see how a foreigners views my home country.

Do I recommend it? No (unless you fit the description).
How difficult was it? Average.

《漢字書法之美》 蔣勳

The story behind why I read this book is quite interesting. Last year, I spent some time mimicking native speakers together with a classmate. One of the target models we used was 蔣勳, because both his Chinese and his voice are awesome. In the video we used, he’s talking about his new book, so I thought it would be a good idea to buy and read it. It wasn’t. Reading this book without deeper knowledge of Chinese characters and calligraphy isn’t a good idea, it’s a book about an art form directed at people who understand it much better than I do. Perhaps most native speakers know enough to appreciate this book, but I don’t.

Do I recommend it? No.
How difficult was it? Hard.



Reflections

 One thing that might strike you is that I read quite a lot of translated books. The reason for this is that when I go for volume and/or speed, I want to read books that I know that I will find interesting. For instance, I wouldn’t consider reading Robert Jordan in translation if the purpose was to pick up new words or phrases. Instead, I read The Wheel of Time because it’s a series of books I can read without effort and that I know that I will find interesting, at least as far as the setting and story goes. I also read many translated books because, sadly, I haven’t found many Chinese books I really like. If you would like to recommend something, feel free to leave a comment!

I see two major categories of books for 2014. First, I want to continue exploring Chinese science fiction. I actually have quite a lot of it available at home already, I just haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. I should also finish the 三體 series, which is so far the most promising Chinese science fiction I’ve read so far. Second, I want to read more 武俠. I have quite a lot of novels available in this category as well, so I have no good excuse for not reading. I think 武俠 has the huge advantage that the plot is usually quite interesting and filled with events and characters that are important even if your Chinese isn’t good enough to actually appreciate the finer nuances of the language. In fact, we’re going to look closer at 武俠 next week with a guest article by my book-loving friend Sara, who has already published an article about reading comics in Chinese as well as one about reading in general. Stay tuned!

Review: The Phonology of Standard Chinese

Title in English: The Phonology of Standard Chinese
Author: Duanmu, San (端木三)
Year: 2007
Pages: 361
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0-19-921579-9
Buy: Amazon

Tags: Standard Chinese, Phonology, Pronunciation, Theory
Level: Advanced students, anyone interested in linguistics

Taking the step from practical understanding of Chinese pronunciation to a more theoretical approach can either be hard and boring or challenging but entertaining, depending on who you are and how you go about taking the step. If you have a background in linguistics and read articles about phonology for fun, you only need an good introduction to Chinese phonology and you’ll be fine. However, if you’re not an expert in a related field already, understanding Chinese phonology might be very hard indeed. There are many descriptions about Chinese pronunciation for beginners and much more about phonology for those who are already experts, but there is little in between. If we want to bridge this gap, what should we do?

I think The Phonology of Standard Chinese by Duanmu San is the perfect choice for anyone who wants to add a theoretical edge to their knowledge about Chinese phonology, almost regardless what background you have. If you have some linguistics under your belt already, this book will take you into the fascinating world of Chinese phonology, but even if you have no knowledge at all, you will still be able to learn a lot, albeit with slightly more effort required (remember that Wikipedia is your friend).

Before I list the reasons why I think this book is excellent, I will say a few words about for whom it’s excellent. This book is for advanced students and/or anyone who is interested in linguistics. This book will teach you very few things that are of immediate practical use, so if you’re an intermediate student who want to polish your pronunciation, this is not the book for your. If you’re interested in understanding the sounds of Mandarin from a theoretical point of view, then read on.

I have many reason for liking this book.

  1. It’s a brilliant introduction. I’ve read this book twice already, the first time being roughly a year ago when I wrote my bachelor thesis about tone instruction. At that time, I had read little theoretical literature about Mandarin and jumping straight into doctoral theses and scientific articles is quite difficult. I survived partly because of The Phonology of Standard Chinese since it helped me sort out the basic concepts.
  2. It’s well written, well researched and well presented. Put briefly, this book contains so much information that it’s extremely hard to summarise. As a starting point for further reading, I can’t imagine a better option. The author gives us a comprehensive overview of the topic and does so in a clear, eloquent way. The bibliography spans roughly twenty pages and there should be more to read than anyone could possibly desire.
  3. The author tells a story. In this book, Duanmu doesn’t merely present the current research and his own development of those ideas, he tells a story of how the understanding of the phonology of Standard Chinese has evolved. Of course, he puts the main emphasis on current theories, but he still enables the reader to follow along and understand why certain theories were abandoned or why the way linguists regard a certain concept has changed.
  4. It’s about more than just Chinese. I’ve always been a little bit interested in linguistics, but not very much. This is probably because I haven’t had teachers who were able to present the subject well enough to attract my attention. This book does so, however. Reading this book makes me think that generative linguistics is pretty cool and something I would like to read more about. Also, the ideas in this book covers more than just Chinese. The author makes frequent references to English and other languages.

I think I’ve made my point. This book belongs in the bookshelf of any serious, advanced learner or anyone who is interested in phonology. It is a gateway to much, much more and possible the best introduction you can find. If you want to read more, you can always check the author’s bibliography, which contains many articles and book chapters in PDF format, free for download. That’s no substitute for reading The Phonology of Standard Chinese, however. The ideas in this book might be available elsewhere, but it’s hard to imagine that so many ideas can be summarised on so few pages in a better way than this.

Appendix

If you want to know more about what this book is actually about, I’ve provided the chapter titles below. You can also check the book on Amazon, which offers a preview.

Chapter 1 – Introduction
Chapter 2 – The sound inventory
Chapter 3 – Combinations and variations
Chapter 4 – The syllable
Chapter 5 – Words and compounds
Chapter 6 – Stress
Chapter 7 – The word-length problem
Chapter 8 – The word-order problem
Chapter 9 – the -er suffix
Chapter 10 – Tone: Basic properties
Chapter 11 – Tone 3 sandhi (T3S)
Chapter 12 – Rhythm in poetry
Chapter 13 – Connected speech and other dialects
Chapter 14 – Theoretical implications

Review: Chinese Synonyms Usage Dictionary

Title in English: Chinese Synonyms Usage Dictionary
Title in Chinese: 漢語近義詞用法詞典
Author: Teng Shou-hsin (鄧守信)
Year: 2009
Pages: 533
Publisher: 書林出版有限公司
ISBN: 978-957-445-322-1

Tags: Vocabulary usage, Synonym distinction, Vocabulary study, Style guide
Level: Upper intermediate, advanced

Having successfully overcome the problems one encounters as a beginner student, one soon realises that Chinese (or any other language radically different from one’s native language) presents a tricky problem. When I learn English as a native speaker of Swedish, I might know how to say something in Swedish and then ask what the corresponding word might be in English. Often, there is a corresponding word and I learn it. Learning Chinese doesn’t work like that, though, because there are almost never any such thing as a “corresponding word”. Words might be translated successfully, but only in a given context. Change the context and the translation might become weird, misleading or wrong.

This is where books like Chinese Synonyms Usage Dictionary by Teng Shou-hsin come in handy. In this comprehensive volume, the author sets out to explain a large number of near synonyms and their usages. He does so in an elaborate and detailed way, usually spending at least one page (but often more) on any given group of synonyms. These explanations are structured as follows. First, each of the words are explained individually in English, including examples in Chinese, with transcriptions and translations to English. Then, the difference between the words are highlighted and a comparison table included. This table presents various ways the words might be used and then notes if a given word can or cannot be used in this way. So, we might learn that a certain word is formal, literary, can work as both a verb and a noun (but not an adjective). There are also additional examples to show what kind of sentences a given word can occur in. Entries typically look like this:

In all, there are around 700 synonyms described in this book, which makes it quite likely that those typically causing problems for you will be present, so I suggest this book as reference literature. However, I think it’s even more useful as a way to study vocabulary. The reason I recommend this book for upper intermediate and advanced learners is that it’s probably more helpful when sorting out problems rather than when learning the words the first time. Browsing through this book, I know almost all the words, but reading the explanations, I can truly feel how new connections are being created in my Chinese language web. It enhances what I already know, adds to it and makes me more confident about how to use the words.

One of the major advantages of this book is that the descriptions and discussions are detailed enough to be truly useful. This is not a mere dictionary that will give you a brief definition, no, here you get several sentences describing the word and how it’s used. The English is impeccable, which is more than can be said of most other books on learning Chinese. The comparisons at the end of each synonym group are extremely useful, to-the-point and often highlights what you really need to remember. I find the tables less useful, but that might be because I use this book more as a way to actively study vocabulary rather than for reference.

In summary, this Chinese Synonyms Usage Usage Dictionary is well worth the money. It deserves a place in any upper intermediate or advanced learner’s library. Or to be more honest, this book is perfect to keep handy wherever you tend to have a few minutes to spare (in the kitchen, on your bedside table, in the bathroom). Occasionally reading a little bit about confusingly similar words in Chinese will gradually improve you vocabulary. I can think of no other book or website that does the job as well as the author of this book does here. Check it out!