Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Review: Mandarin Companion graded readers (Level 1)

secretgarden_book_mockup_shadowInput is extremely important when learning a language. Without having heard something, how are you supposed to be able to say it? Without having read something, how are you supposed to be able to write it? Building a passive knowledge of Chinese is essential, not only because it allows you to read and listen, but also because it is the gateway to all other knowledge.

The more you understand, the more you learn

Research tells us that the more we understand, the more we learn. If you understand almost nothing, you will learn little. If you understand almost everything, you will pick up the few bits you didn’t already know. The problem facing adult learners of Chinese is two-fold:

  1. There isn’t enough learner-oriented reading material
  2. The material that exists is not interesting enough

You need much more reading than your textbook can offer and you need it to be at roughly the same level. One way of alleviating this problem is to use more than one textbook series in parallel, but this solution is far from ideal. There is a better solution, though.

Enter: Mandarin Companion graded readersscreenshot29

A graded reader is a book with a limited difficulty, often set by a certain number of words to make it easy to read. For Chinese graded readers, the number of unique characters is the most common measurement.

Mandarin Companion offers a new series of readers, currently five books, all at the most basic level, which use only 300 unique characters. That means that they are accessible from a very early stage. I think Mandarin Companion is suitable both for beginners and intermediate learners, though:

  • Beginners can extend their reading beyond the textbook and read texts that are both interesting and capped at a certain difficulty, meaning that you can read and learn everything in these books and be quite sure you’re learning very high frequency characters and words.
  • Intermediate learners can use the series for extensive reading (i.e. the kind I mentioned above where you understand most of the text already). Even though 300 characters don’t sound like much, I think only advanced learners will be able to read through all these books without finding a single new word.

Mandarin Companion is published by Mind Spark Press and edited by John Pasden. The original stories are written by various authors (see below) and adapted by Renjun Yang.

Reading Mandarin Companionscreenshot30

In order to write this review, I read through all five books. They come in both a simplified and traditional edition, so choose whichever you prefer (I read the traditional versions) .

Before I review each volume individually, I’d like to say a few words about them as a whole. To begin with, they are all much more interesting than the average textbook, much longer and generally well-written. The language is mostly natural-sounding (given the strict limit in the umber of characters, of course) and in difference to native texts, the same words are reused over and over, which is great for learning.

Each volume consists of around 10 000 Chinese characters, so while not super long, they should last the reader a long time, depending on your reading ability. Combining all the books forms a solid step on your journey to becoming literate in Chinese. Each story is adapted from a well-known story, which has been relocated to China and populated by Chinese people (so no ten-character transliterations of words, which is a great relief).

There is also a list of words included, all hyperlinked so if you read on screen, you can find the definitions of selected words easily. Each book also comes with discussion questions, which perhaps feel more relevant if you use the books in class or in a group, but yo could also answer them and upload your texts to Lang-8 or similar. Each volume is richly illustrated with pictures of much higher quality than we’re used to in educational material, a big thumbs up!

All books can be browsed on Mandarin Companion’s homepage and the price varies from $7 to $13 depending on if you want an e-book or a printed book. I have included direct links to Amazon for each book below.

Almost 50 000 characters of beginner-friendly reading

I’m now going to introduce and briefly comment on the five stories that make up the first level. The story summaries are from the official website.

盲人国 (Country of the Blind by H.G. Wells)

coverCountryoftheBlind250x400“In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” repeats in Chen Fangyuan’s mind after he finds himself trapped in a valley holding a community of people for whom a disease eliminated their vision many generations before and no longer have a concept of sight. Chen Fangyuan quickly finds that these people have developed their other senses to compensate for their lack of sight. His insistence that he can see causes the entire community to believe he is crazy. With no way out, Chen Fangyuan begins to accept his fate until one day the village doctors believe they now understand what is the cause of his insanity those useless round objects in his eye sockets.

This s my favourite story among the five. The story is well-worth reading apart from any language-learning ambition, and the twist at the end is the same as the one I thought of when I read the original story some fifteen years ago. I think the reason I liked this book the most is also that it has a well-paced narrative, a clear structure and an interesting basic premise. I have nothing to complain about, really good!

Get the paperback from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (traditional)

猴爪 (The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs)

coverMonkeysPaw250x400Mr. and Mrs. Zhang live with their grown son Guisheng who works at a factory. One day an old friend of Mr. Zhang comes to visit the family after having spent years traveling in the mysterious hills of China’s Yunnan Province. He tells the Zhang family of a monkey’s paw that has magical powers to grant three wishes to the holder. Against his better judgement, he reluctantly gives the monkey paw to the Zhang family, along with a warning that the wishes come with a great price for trying to change ones fate…

This story also has a clear narrative and good pacing. I found the story a bit too predictable and less interesting than the Country of the Blind, but still worthwhile. If you like horror stories more than speculative fiction, perhaps this is the best book for you, although like many classic horror stories, it isn’t very scary.

Get the paperback from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (traditional)

秘密花园 (The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett)

coverSecretGarden250x4001Li Ye (Mary Lennox) grew up without the love and affection of her parents. After an epidemic leaves her an orphan, Li Ye is sent off to live with her reclusive uncle in his sprawling estate in Nanjing. She learns of a secret garden where no one has set foot in ten years. Li Ye finds the garden and slowly discovers the secrets of the manor. With the help of new friends, she brings the garden back to life and learns the healing power of friendship and love.

I liked this story, mostly because the characters were interesting and not as bland as they tend to be in many textbooks. I haven’t read the original, but I think this adaptation is most suitable for younger readers. I like the theme of exploration, both in the physical sense of exploring the estate and in the figurative sense of finding out the truth about the secret garden.

Get the paperback from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (traditional)

六十年的梦 (“The Sixty-Year Dream”, Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving)

coverSixtyYearDream225x360Zhou Xuefa (Rip Van Winkle) is well loved by everyone in his town, everyone except his nagging wife. With his faithful dog Blackie, Zhou Xuefa spends his time playing with kids, helping neighbors, and discussing politics in the teahouse. One day after a bad scolding from his wife, he goes for a walk into the mountains and meets a mysterious old man who appears to be from an ancient time. The man invites him into his mountain home for a meal and after drinking some wine, Zhou Xuefa falls into a deep sleep. He awakes to a time very different than what he once knew.

This is the weakest story of the five and the only one I can’t wholeheartedly recommend. I found the premise interesting, but the story lacked an interesting plot and more felt like the main character experiencing a series of disconnected events that built up to nothing in particular.

Get the paperback from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (traditional)

卷发公司的案子 (The Red Headed League by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

coverSherlockHolmes250x400Mr. Xie was recently hired by the Curly Haired Company. For a significant weekly allowance, he was required to sit in an office and copy articles from a book, while in the meantime his assistant looked after his shop. He had answered an advertisement in the paper and although hundreds of people applied, he was the only one selected because of his very curly hair. When the company unexpectedly closes, Mr. Xie visits Gao Ming (Sherlock Holmes) with his strange story. Gao Ming is certain something is not right, but will he solve the mystery in time?

I’ve read and liked most of the original Sherlock Holmes stories and I have read several children’s versions in Chinese as well. I wish I had read this one instead! It’s much more suitable for learners than any book for Chinese children. The story is a typical Sherlock Holmes story where we follow the confused Watson as Holmes expertly solves another mystery. An interesting and neatly paced story and a good read in general.

Get the paperback from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (traditional)

Room for improvement

I’m very enthusiastic about graded readers in general, but no review would be complete without also covering a few areas where there’s room for improvement. The most glaring examples of this is that there is no audio. John has told me that they plan to release audio, but until it’s there, this remains the only real drawback with this series of graded readers. The rest I have to say could be considered nitpicking.

For instance, the glossary sometimes feels like it’s been based only on word frequency, meaning that some phrases that are far from obvious are left unexplained, while some easy words you can find in any dictionary are included. I would have liked to see more notes for these types of phrases that I guess most beginners will struggle with. To show you what I mean, here are two examples:

陳方遠很奇怪,他覺得自己的走路聲很小,江天雨怎麼聽到的?

奇怪 here means 觉得很奇怪, but this isn’t explained. If you look the word up, it means “strange”, but this sentence doesn’t mean that he (陳方遠) is strange.  This usage is normal in Chinese, but not in English. I would have either avoided it or explained it. Students usually learn this much later than many of the words that are explained. Here’s another example:

如果你們想讓我別打你們,就應該聽我的

This is another sentence that would have benefited from an explanation. 聽我的 means that other people should do as you say, but with a beginner’s understanding of Chinese, this sentence just means that they should listen to him. Again, annotation for these types of sentences would have been more useful than some of the words that are currently included.

Conclusion

In summary, Mandarin Companion fills a gap and does it very well. I recommend all beginner and intermediate learners to get at least one book and try it out, then get the rest of them (except perhaps the Sixty-Year Dream). I would have liked audio, though, and my recommendation will be even more wholehearted when audio versions are released. Still, these are graded readers and as such, I warmly recommend them!

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

Sign up for my free crash course in how to learn Mandarin:

Share this article:

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

14 comments

  1. maggie says:

    They sound great – but I also would be more interested if there was audio. From time to time I see people suggesting using Chinese audio books. Anyone got any good recommendations for these? And importantly WHERE do you get them? I’m not quite sure if by ‘audio book’ people mean a book with a CD – or if you have to read them online.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think audio book normally means just audio, no text, although using both is of course useful. You can find specific titles by searching on Google, but I’ve found many through 凤凰FM.

    2. Kyle says:

      Another possibility is 懒人听书. The main site is http://www.lrts.me/ and there’s also an app.

      You can stream directly from the site or download if you login (using QQ/微信). Great resource.

  2. John Pasden says:

    Olle,

    Thanks a lot for the review! The points you appreciated about this series are precisely the reasons my partner Jared and I decided to create these graded readers. I’m particularly pleased that your favorite one is 《盲人国》 because that story was sort of my baby. (It’s the closest we can get to sci-fi at Level 1. But I’m certainly not giving up on sci-fi at higher levels!)

    Point well taken about 《六十年的梦》. One of the objectives was to create a story that relates directly to Chinese history and the whole country’s rapid development in the past century (while at the same time cleverly sidestepping any sensitive topics). The plot suffered a little as a result, partly because we were faithful to the original plot of Rip Van Winkle.

    If any of your readers have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer them here. I’m the editor-in-chief, and also responsible for the corpus analysis, research, and editing that went into the creation of these graded readers.

    1. Hi John,

      Regarding your comment “It’s the closest we can get to sci-fi at Level 1. But I’m certainly not giving up on sci-fi at higher levels!” – any plans to release any higher level graded readers any time soon?

      Cheers,
      Benson

  3. Peter Palme says:

    Olle, thanks for the excellent review. I can only recommend this approach to all who would like to learn to read Chinese as well as improve their Chinese at the same time. Extensive Reading is definitely a very effective approach. I was able to read my first mandarin companion after learning the 1000 most frequently used words on Memrise. It took me 32 hours of net study time. There is a faster way and I will work on a Memrise course to help others to achieve the same. The Chinese Breeze series come with audio (CD). But I haven’t missed the audio part so far.

  4. Birgit says:

    Thank you for the great review. Just bought the paperback edition of Country of the Blind, thanks also to the team of Mandarin Companion!

  5. Shannon says:

    Glad to see this review! I’ve been looking at these books for some time (I love Sherlock Holmes) having stumbled across them on Amazon. I appreciate you posting more about them! I really want to work on improving my Mandarin reading these next few months and so I’m definitely looking for materials to help me along.

  6. Dave says:

    I’ve read “The Secret Garden” and Sherlock Holmes adaptation. Both well done, fun to read, and a great learning experience. I’ve also picked up some other readers, they do things slightly differently than Mandarin Companion, but that’s OK. I think it is important to have a wide variety of reading materials and Mandarin Companion is raising the bar in quality materials for those learning Chinese. GOOD JOB!

  7. Kai Carver says:

    Nice to have your review, Olle! I read 猴爪 and 盲人國 and quite liked them. In fact, it felt like a bit of a breakthrough to be able to enjoy reading a sizable bit of Chinese text. I read them in traditional Chinese, on the Kindle for convenience, though I’d prefer to read paper. There were a couple simplified-instead-of-traditional character mistakes, but no matter. The Kindle app built-in online dictionary for traditional unfortunately sucks. And navigation to the glossary and back didn’t work well on my Kindle app on iOS and Android. None of that matters, really. It was great fun! I also read the stories out loud to a Chinese speaker, which was excellent practice. She often fell asleep, but that just gave me more chances to practice pronouncing Chinese aloud.

  8. Cindy says:

    I started secret garden but I was at Chapter four in less than half an hour. The book is too easy for me, (I ought to be hsk level 5, although I haven’t taken an hsk test yet). But I can’t wait for higher levels! I think level 2 will be more appropriate for me, since I still struggle with some basic grammar issues. Any idea when level 2 will be released? This year, next year?

  9. Sharon says:

    I have read all the ebooks. And I am addicted to graded readers. How can I buy the chinese breeze books in mainland China???

  10. leeshin12 says:

    i have heard that mandarin Chinese is easy compared to other form of Chinese language.i think this book will be useful
    translation

  11. John says:

    This afternoon I spend 1.5 hours reading 盲人国. I’m pleasantly surprised! Finally a graded reader that is both useful, enjoyable and fit for purpose. Moreover its available on Kindle (I read it on my phone using the app) which has a real advantage over paper version, in that you can use PLECO OCR to add any unknown words instantly to your flash card list. I’m near HSK 5 level. As Ollie noted, even at my level its still useful. You can read continuously for 1.5 – 2 hours and not feel tired like your reading a text book. Also it becomes much easier to start “scan reading”, something which i struggle with.

    Its evident the authors put a lot of effort to ensure the story and language flows. The choice of language used (noting its strict limitations) does indeed sound very natural and I like the subtle introduction of basic grammar points such as 不是 … 是. The select choice of cartoon style pictures judiciously placed in the text does break it up, a quick glance reinforces what you have just read.

    I suppose they could add a few explanations points at the end of it, some sentences are not so “beginner level”. Coincidentally the only sentence where i had to have a second look was as you noted Ollie was the ..很奇怪. Also some words appear to be over-used like 一直. However, I am just being pedantic, not a concern at all. The lack of audio is a touch disappointing. Even mp3 downloads from their website read by a native speaker would be beneficial.

    My fear is, as with the Chinese Breeze series the authors may lose interest in writing a level 3 or 4 book. It would be an ideal companion to their excellent Grammar Wiki!

    Overall, one of the best non-textbook style material for learning Chinese I have seen.

    @John (if you read this):
    I think it would be very sensible to write just one level 3 and 4 book rather that trying to complete all books in that level. That way, you and your colleagues can gauge the response, feedback from readers whilst at the same time, lower intermediate students have some useful material. 🙂

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *