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.

Wuxia, a key to Chinese language and culture

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:

  1. What is wuxia?
  2. Wuxia in Chinese-speaking society
  3. Why is wuxia relevant to Chinese learners?
  4. Some notes on the language in wuxia
  5. How to get started with wuxia


What is 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”.

xiaolongnv

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.

A big poster depicting Xiaolongnü across the street from Taipei Train Station. Generally, if you see a beautiful maiden wearing a white dress who looks like she’s from pre-modern China, you’re probably looking at Xiaolongnü.

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

  1. Find a native speaker to talk to.
  2. Ask them which wuxia stories they have read/seen.
  3. Ask their opinion about those stories (for example, if you are a beginner, you can ask questions like 你喜歡嗎?)
  4. Ask them to describe an wuxia story to you.
  5. 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:

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:

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.

Advanced learners

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.

Movies/TV

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.

stateofdivinityThis 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.

當初我們四兄弟之所以加入日月神教,本想在江湖上可以行俠仗義,有所作為。哪知道任教主他性情暴戾,威福自用。當時我們四兄弟早萌退意,直到東方教主繼位更是寵信奸佞,誅除教中元老。我四人更是心灰意冷,決意隱居梅莊,並要看守要犯。一來,可以遠離黑木崖,不必與人勾心鬥角。二來,可以閒居西湖琴書遣懷。十二年來也可以說是享盡清福。不過人生在世,憂多樂少。人生本來就是如此了。

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.”

Wuxia novels

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.

Review: The Geography of Thought: How East Asians and Westerners Think Differently… And Why

Do the Chinese think differently than we do? Are cultural differences only something superficial or are there deeper, more fundamental differences between people in East Asia and the West? The first time I returned to Sweden after an extended stay in Taiwan, questions like these weren’t the most common ones asked by family and friends, but they were certainly the most interesting that I spent the most time thinking about.

gotLanguage, culture and cognition

I have of course encountered these questions many times since, but this semester was the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to actually investigate them based on something other than my own personal experience.

In a course called “語言、文化與認知” (Language, culture and cognition), we’ve been reading mainly two books dealing with these three topics and how they are related. The first is Richard E. Nisbett‘s The Geography of Thought and the second is Language, Mind and Culture by Zoltan Kövecses. Both are quite interesting, but Nisbett’s book is much easier to read and probably also more interesting for the average Chinese student, which is why I have chosen to write this recommendation.

Even though Hacking Chinese  is mostly about how to learn, I sometimes think it’s necessary to step outside this fairly narrow range. This typically happens when I encounter something which I think is very important but hard to find online (such as my guide to Pinyin traps and pitfalls), or when I find something which is related to learning Chinese and is so interesting that I think it’s worth recommending to everyone. This article is a prime example of the second type.

How East Asians and Westerners Think Differently

Title: The Geography of Thought: How East Asians and Westerners Think Differently… And Why
Author: Richard E. Nisbett
Year: 2004
Pages: 288
Publisher: Free Press
ISBN: 978-0743255356
Buy: Amazon

The full title of this book is The Geography of Thought: How East Asians and Westerners Think Differently… And Why. This explains quite well what the book is about, even though almost all the words used are quite vague. East Asians in this case means Chines, Japanese and Koreans. Westerners typically mean America, but can be extended to the rest of the Anglosphere, and occasionally also to Europe. The author is not after making detailed points about the differences between people from specific countries, he’s after the big picture. The really big picture, actually.

Although the author isn’t afraid to generalise, but this book isn’t pure speculation. Rather, it’s based on a large number of studies into culture and cognition, many of them conducted by the author and his colleagues. The speculations are educated guesses based on these results. Looking at the evidence from these and other studies, the author discusses and tries to answer the following questions (from page xix):

  • Science and Mathematics – Why would the ancient Chinese have excelled at algebra and arithmetic but not geometry, which was the forte of the Greeks? Why do modern Asians excel at math and science but produce less in the way of revolutionary science than Westerners?
  • Attention and Perception – Why are East Asians better able to see relationships among events than Westerners are? Why do East Asians find it relatively difficult to disentangle an object from its surroundings?
  • Causal Inference – Why are Westerners so likely to overlook the influence of context on the behavior of objects and even of people? Why are Easterners more susceptible to the “hindsight bias,” which allows them to believe that they “knew it all along”?
  • Organization of Knowledge – Why do Western infants learn nouns at a much more rapid rate than verbs, whereas Eastern infants learn verbs at a more rapid rate than nouns? Why do East Asians group objects and events based on how they relate to one another, whereas Westerners are more likely to rely on categories?
  • Reasoning – Why are Westerners more likely to apply formal logic when reasoning about everyday events, and why does their insistence on logic sometimes cause them to make errors? Why are Easterners so willing to entertain apparently contradictory propositions and how can this some- times be helpful in getting at the truth?

It might seem like an impossible tasks to discuss all these topics and attempt to find a few common sources or underlying structures for all of them in one single book, but this is what Nisbett has done and this is why I think this book is worth reading for people who live in China or study Chinese. At first, Rather than writing a detailed summary of the book, I’m simply going to link to an already existing summary written by Dr. John D. Eigenauer:

Summary of the Geography of Thought

Although it’s very hard to compress all the arguments of the book into a summary of less than 2000 words, this is still a very good attempt. Of course, it won’t detail empirical support or illustrate with examples, but it should definitely be enough to let you decide if you think the book is worth reading. If you feel very brave, there is a Chinese translation called 思维的版图.

If you’re too lazy to read the summary linked to above, here’s my summary of the summary (but please don’t base any comments or start a discussion based on this very limited text, it’s merely here to give you a rough idea what the book is about):

In summary, the book starts in ancient Greece and China, discussing how the predominant philosophies, discussing the individualism (personal agency) of the west in contrast to the collectivism (collective agency) of the East. The Greeks understood things as linear and simple, devoid of context, whereas the Chinese regarded the world as a complex place in constant flux, with objects best understood by their relationship to each other, rather than as separate entities.

Nisbett then traces the origin of these different modes of thought to the socio-economic and cultural factors that gave rise to these two very different civilisations (an archipelago focusing on maritime trade versus an agricultural empire). Then, the book moves into the present day, looking at how East Asians and Westerns perceive the self in contrast to the collective, using numerous studies to support the claim that East Asians are more interdependent than Westerners, who tend to be more individualistic. The key concept in East Asia is harmony, where collective goals are held as more important than individual goals.

The next chapter shows how ancient philosophy actually does reflect the way people think today, using several studies to show that East Asians are more sensitive to substance rather than shape, are better at perceiving relationships between objects rather than the objects themselves, and focus more on context than Westerners do. Westerners view themselves as protagonists in an autobiographical novel, whereas East Asians are more like supporting roles in numerous other novels.

Next, the author moves on to the topic of causality, arguing that East Asians pay more attention to context (the other boys made him do it) rather than attributes intrinsic to the person (the bad seed). Westerners see overly simplistic causal chains where East Asians see opaque complex systems. This theme of relationships versus objects is further deepened in the next chapter, which presents studies showing that Western children learn nouns much faster than verbs, whereas the opposite is true for East Asians. Similarly, East Asians tend to group words based on their relationship to each other rather than on the categories they belong to.

In the next chapter, Nisbett turns to rationalism and reasonableness, arguing that the former is very important in the West, whereas East Asians traditionally favour the latter. Westerns strive to resolve dilemmas and paradoxes, whereas East Asians strive for compromises or can accept what to a Westerner looks like two mutually exclusive opinions.

In the final “real” chapter of the book, the author discusses how these differences manifest themselves in different areas of modern life, such as law, science, education, business, philosophy and so on.

Finally, in the epilogue, the author looks forward, discussing what effects this has for cognitive and social psychology as well as for the world in general. Will we see a clash of civilisations or will globalisation lead to a convergence of ideas?

My recommendation

Personally, I found The Geography of Thought very interesting. Before I talk about that, though, I want to say a few words about my thoughts on cultural differences in general. In the introduction to this article, I wrote that people often ask me about the differences of people here in Taiwan and people in Sweden. My basic approach has always been to treat cultural differences as important on a statistical average level, but not necessarily on an individual level. In other words, it matters more who you are than what culture you grew up in. Like so:

scatterThis image roughly represent my view of cultural differences. As we can see, people in Taiwan and Sweden (or wherever) differ from each other, but the differences between individuals can be much bigger than the difference in averages between the two groups.

However, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for highly significant and interesting statistical differences between cultures. If we look at all Taiwanese people and all Swedish people, we will certainly find a lot of differences, although these might not apply to all of the individuals in those two groups. This is what people perceive as being the difference between the way people act and think in different countries.

Connecting the dots

The reason I like The Geography of Thought is that it connects the dots. Over the years, I have collected a large number of observations of how Taiwan (the East) is different from my native Sweden (the West), both through direct observation and through reading about the experience of other people. However, these are usually just independent data points (dots). The Geography of Thought helped me connect these together and gave me a glimpse of the big picture.

Naturally, to arrive at this big picture, some sacrifices need to be made. There are indeed several articles that discuss and criticise The Geography of Thought, sometimes because of the sweeping statements about “the West” and “the East” (how can you even discuss something which is so vaguely defined?), sometimes because of the conclusions the author arrives at (claiming that the author overreaches in his ambition to find a common denominator for the observed data). This doesn’t bother me too much, though. I don’t read this book to write a thesis in social psychology, I read it because I want that bigger picture which is so hard to get at.

Thus, I recommend this book because I really think that it offers a valuable insight into how Asians and Westerners think differently. It’s not a handbook in intercultural communication, but I dare say that most people who have had at least some exposure to the cultures of East Asia will find it interesting.

However, the book hasn’t changed my basic approach, I still think that people are people, regardless of their cultural background. I think there are certainly differences between how we perceive the world around us, but I think that the similarities are much bigger than the differences. Still, as I said earlier, these differences are important, and in The Geography of Thought, Nisbett makes an excellent attempt at discussing them and explaining the underlying patterns that make us think differently.

If you want to read the entire book, you can buy it from Amazon here.

14 extra songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

This is the third part in my miniseries about listening to music in Chinese. So far, the following articles have been published. It is likely that there will be more articles in the future when I have discovered more great music I want to share, but since I have covered most of the music I want to cover, I’m not likely to write more about it soon.

  1. Why learning Chinese through music is underrated
  2. 12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
  3. 13 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
  4. 14 extra songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons (this article)

If you still want more music, you should be fine on your own. You can also check out this list from Chinese to Learn. It contains lots of songs with introduction to the artist, lyrics and so on. Also, don’t forget to check the comments to the other articles. There are some good stuff in there I simply don’t have room for (I don’t want to make these articles overcrowded).

The following is the same introduction as that found in the previous article, included here for clarity.

Click here to skip directly to the music.

Not everybody will like everything, but you will like something

The purpose of this article is to get you started on using Chinese music to learn Chinese Therefore, I’ve picked a wide variety of music and included links to YouTube versions of these songs. There might be better versions out there with more suitable subtitles and so on, but the goal here is to introduce you to good music, not teach you the lyrics.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/ba1969

I have used four criteria when selecting the songs:

  1. I think they are good in some way (which is not related to lyrics)
  2. They are unique in some way (voice, instruments, style)
  3. They represent a genre which isn’t mainstream
  4. They have interesting lyrics

Note that I don’t claim that all songs and artists are famous (although most are) in China. Neither do I claim that they are all good for language learning purposes (I might not even like listening to them, but you might!). The goal is to find music you like, which is, in my opinion, more important than finding the perfect song for language learning. If you like all kinds of music, then pick a song I’ve written “clear Mandarin” or similar next to.

If you want to recommend other artists or songs to me or other readers, please leave a comment!

10 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

黑豹 – 无地自容

There seems to be a number of fairly famous bands who made lots of good rock music roughly two decades ago. I find this much more agreeable than most modern rock music I’ve listened to. Also check out 崔健, who has already been mentioned in this article.

 

MATZKA – M.A.T.Z.K.A

Taiwanese reggae! This was the first time I heard someone singing in Mandarin with a Jamaican accent (which is obviously adopted when singing). The song contains some Taiwanese, but is almost entirely in Mandarin. 讚!

Yaksa – 末路

The intro says metal core, but the comments on YouTube says this particular song isn’t metal core, but that the rest of the album is. Since I don’t have a clue what metal core is, I’ll just avoid the debate. For the purpose of this article, it’s enough to say that this song is quite good and sounds like normal rock to my ears.

唐朝 – 封禅祭

More rock, but this time heavy metal. I have listened to a fair number of their songs and this one stands out. I find it clearer and more pleasant to listen to than the others. The lyrics are reasonably easy to hear as well (even though the singer has the characteristic metal touch).

韩磊 – 向天再借五百年

This ballad is about as powerful as it gets and feels very Chinese. Not necessarily favoured by the kids of today, but ask their parents!

万能青年旅店 – 大石碎胸口

This band is great. Pop with a touch of rock and perhaps a shade of jazz. Some songs are (almost) only instrumental, but others are suitable for language practice, such as this one. I like almost all songs on this album, which is called 万能的喜剧.

回聲樂團 – 巴士底之日

This is about as close as I can get to what I think of as modern “rock”. As such, it serves as a base for finding more music in this direction. I find it difficult to explain exactly why I like this particular song, but for some reason, I do.

1976 – 顏色

Post-rock. This is far from being the best post-rock produced in the Chinese speaking world (check Sugar Plum Ferry for instance). The problem is that most of this music is instrumental and thus not very good for language learning. If you have other suggestions, let me know!

盧廣仲 – 早安晨之美

Pop and about as 愚蠢 (stupid, silly) as it gets, but it’s still enormously popular (and, I admit, a bit catchy). I have a feeling this is the kind of music many like, but don’t own up to in public. Very clear Mandarin, here with on-screen lyrics.

草莓救星 – 想不到

Rock of the softer variety. Also has on-screen lyrics and relatively clear mandarin. I should also add that this music video is awesome, well worth watching even if you don’t like the music.

孙楠 – 拯救

I’ve always been a sucker for piano in pop music. That combined with the singers voice makes this otherwise not so memorable song quite memorable. Actually a ballad I like!

苏阳 – 贤良

I thought the beginning of this song was a bit boring the first time I heard it, but since it was recommended to me as being unique in several ways, I kept listening anyway. That was fortunate, because the song only gets better and better, not only as the song progresses, but also the second, third and tenth time listening to it. It’s some kind of folk song, but with modern elements. Don’t miss the lyrics (and the video).

Planet map/星球地图 (?)

I can’t really find any information about either the artist or the song, but it’s pretty good. It’s some kind of electronica/pop.

龚琳娜- 忐忑

This shouldn’t really be included on this list, simply because it’s impossible to use for language learning (or anything else for that matter). I include it for it’s weirdness and because it’s, for some strange reason, popular.

13 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

This is the third part in my miniseries about listening to music in Chinese. So far, the following articles have been published. It is likely that there will be more articles in the future when I have discovered more great music I want to share.

  1. Why learning Chinese through music is underrated
  2. 12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
  3. 13 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons (this article)
  4. 14 extra songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

The following is the same introduction as that found in the previous article, included here for clarity.

Click here to skip directly to the music.

Not everybody will like everything, but you will like something

The purpose of this article is to get you started on using Chinese music to learn Chinese Therefore, I’ve picked a wide variety of music and included links to YouTube versions of these songs. There might be better versions out there with more suitable subtitles and so on, but the goal here is to introduce you to good music, not teach you the lyrics.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/sraburton

I have used four criteria when selecting the songs:

  1. I think they are good in some way (which is not related to lyrics)
  2. They are unique in some way (voice, instruments, style)
  3. They represent a genre which isn’t mainstream
  4. They have interesting lyrics

Note that I don’t claim that all songs and artists are famous (although most are) in China. Neither do I claim that they are all good for language learning purposes (I might not even like listening to them, but you might!). The goal is to find music you like, which is, in my opinion, more important than finding the perfect song for language learning. If you like all kinds of music, then pick a song I’ve written “clear Mandarin” or similar next to.

If you want to recommend other artists or songs to me or other readers, please leave a comment!

13 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

龙神道 – 心在指引方向

Reggae! Apart from this, also check out Matzka. Perhaps I’m not a great fan of reggae ordinarily, but I still find it very pleasant to listen to.

前進樂團 – 對不起我的中文不好

No list with music for learning Chinese would be complete without these guys. A song about not speaking Chinese very well and being misunderstood. Easy lyrics for everybody.

P.K.14 – 多麼美妙的夜晚

This is a recommendation from commenter Scott in my first music recommendation post and is some kind of indie rock. Thanks guys, this band is awesome!

果味VC – 超音速列車

Saying that this is more of the same stuff is a bit unfair, but there are indeed similarities, so if you like the above PK14, you might want to try this out as well. Thanks to Laurenth who mentioned this band in the comments to this article.

張宇 – 月亮惹的禍

More rock similar to 崔健 and 黑豹. Fairly mainstream, but still good. As I’ve said before, there’s much more out there if you like this. Clear pronunciation and easy to sing along with.

春秋 – 猎人

This is one of two worthwhile metal bands I’ve found (the other is 唐朝). I’m not a connoisseur of metal and these two bands sound quite similar to me. Both are good!

黄丽玲 – 失恋无罪

A mixture of standard Chinese ballad and rock song, which turns out okay. If you’re not into ballads, do at least listen to tho chorus before you dismiss the song entirely.



任贤齐 – 对面的女孩看过来

This song seems to be quite popular among Chinese learners, perhaps because it’s reasonably pleasant to listen to, is quite melodious and invites the listener to sing along. Not a personal favourite, but still deserves a place here.

蘇打綠 – 小宇宙

Pop performed by an artist who seem to be a model example of what at least Taiwanese girls like. What makes it stand out from the rest is the singer’s voice. The chorus is quite catchy, even though the verses are a bit boring.

熊寶貝樂團 – 年年

Peaceful and pleasant singer/songwriter pop. The text should be easy to learn, even though it might be slightly hard to pick up simply because of the softness of the singing in general.

Tizzy Bac – 俄羅斯輪盤

Happy and energetic pop with touches of more traditional instruments. This song made the list for its upbeat tone and the good feeling it generates.

張懸 –  寶貝

This song is cute and extremely popular. I include it because it’s a beginner friendly and simple (actually, I have to admit I like it, too, but I’m not sure why).

S.H.E – 中國話 (官方版MV)

Lastly, I’d like to include this song after Sara’s comment here. This isn’t really my cup of tea, but I have to agree with here that it should be included because 1) it deals specifically with learning Chinese and 2) it’s popular and if you’ll score thousands of points if you pull off the tongue twister in a KTV. Enjoy!

12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

This is the second part in my miniseries about listening to music in Chinese. So far, the following articles have been published. It is likely that there will be more articles in the future when I have discovered more great music I want to share.

  1. Why learning Chinese through music is underrated
  2. 12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons (this article)
  3. 13 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
  4. 14 extra songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

The following is the same introduction as that found in the previous article, included here for clarity.

Click here to skip directly to the music.

Not everybody will like everything, but you will like something

The purpose of this article is to get you started on using Chinese music to learn Chinese Therefore, I’ve picked a wide variety of music and included links to YouTube versions of these songs. There might be better versions out there with more suitable subtitles and so on, but the goal here is to introduce you to good music, not teach you the lyrics.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/sraburton

I have used four criteria when selecting the songs:

  1. I think they are good in some way (which is not related to lyrics)
  2. They are unique in some way (voice, instruments, style)
  3. They represent a genre which isn’t mainstream
  4. They have interesting lyrics

Note that I don’t claim that all songs and artists are famous (although most are) in China. Neither do I claim that they are all good for language learning purposes (I might not even like listening to them, but you might!). The goal is to find music you like, which is, in my opinion, more important than finding the perfect song for language learning. If you like all kinds of music, then pick a song I’ve written “clear Mandarin” or similar next to.

If you want to recommend other artists or songs to me or other readers, please leave a comment!

12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

The Last Successor – 释放

The description gives this as progressive rock (which I’m not really sure I agree with) and power metal (which seems much more accurate). I had to search a while before I found any nice metal in Chinese, most likely because I don’t really enjoy the genre in English either.

伍佰 & China Blue – 單程車票

A bit silly, perhaps, but still full of optimistic energy. The text isn’t very hard, but it relatively long. Also a song which is easy to sing along with.

柯受良 – 大哥

This song was very popular roughly ten years ago. Pronunciation is distinctly Taiwanese, but still clear. I remember that I found the text quite difficult, but that was a long time ago.

那英 – 我的幸福刚刚好

This is a song I shouldn’t like, because neither do I like other songs like this nor do I like any other songs I’ve heard by 那英, this is the only one. I think it’s mainly because of her voice, so sexy!

范逸臣 – 國境之南

This song is from the Taiwanese film 海角七號 (Cape no. 7) and I find it beautiful because of it’s simplicity. The artist has made several other nice songs, but also lots of fairly nondescript pop.

鄧麗君 海韻

Teresa Teng (her English name) has been and still is very popular all over Asia. The songs are seldom exciting, but her voice is pleasant to the ear and her pronunciation is very clear. This is one of my favourites:

陳奕迅 – 十年

Quite mainstream, but still good. Pronunciation is clear and I like the lyrics very much, which makes this song nice to sing along with. This is my favourite KTV song.

Nuclear Fusion G – Space Exploration

This is some kind of industrial metal, fairly close to things I like a lot in English (KMFDM for instance). It’s not that good, but again, China is more diverse than you think. You probably need the lyrics to hear what this song is about, though.

刀郎 – 冲动的惩罚

I tend to dislike slow-paced Chinese music, but this song has something special. I like his voice and the lyrics is also quite clear. Not a song that I can’t stop listening to, but still worthwhile.

侃侃 – 滴答

This song is simple in every possible way, but therein also lies its beauty. Thanks to Hugh Grigg for this one, see his translation of the lyrics here.

王菲 – 但願人長久

More Faye Wong, this time a song I had to include because I think it’s the one song where she really manages to use her voice to perfection. Don’t worry if you don’t understand the text, it’s a poem in classical Chinese.

凤凰传奇- 月亮之上

Again, this could have been extremely boring, but because of the singers voice, it stands out. Rhythmical and suitable for singing along with. Unsure how to categorise this, but perhaps R’n’B with a local touch?

That’s it for now, I’ll be back later with more! Don’t forget to leave suggestions in the comments!

A language learner’s guide to reading comics in Chinese

This is a guest post about reading comics in Chinese, written by Sara K. It was written as a natural follow-up to her previous article, but instead of talking about reading in general, this time she introduces comics for Chinese learners. I also enjoy reading  comics, but rather than trying to write something mediocre myself, I hand over the pen to an expert. Enjoy!

Olle Linge has already said why reading comics are good for language learning (Reading manga for more than just pleasure), so this article is about how to use comics for language learning.

I have read comic books ever since I learned how to read, I came into Chinese-language comics with a broad knowledge of the medium to support me, and even so, I had to learn how to best use the comics in my studies. There are two main issues:

  1. Picking a comic (this is very important, and also difficult to do without broad knowledge of what is out there)
  2. Being comfortable with the comic book medium

This article mostly focuses on (1), but I will first address (2).

Attitude

Many people look down on comics because they are for kids, porn, silly, or are simply degenerate. To people who have such an attitude, I say this: if you are more concerned with building highbrow-culture credentials than language learning, that is your choice, but if you refuse to read comics because they are too lowbrow for you, you are denying yourself a very useful tool for language learning. Many people are concerned, not about their own attitudes, but the attitudes of others. I think such fears are often exaggerated, but in some situations they are valid, so here are my suggestions:

  1. Read in private
  2. Use book covers (you can make your own out of scratch paper). This is a good idea anyway – it keeps the comics in good shape.
  3. Stick to comics which are obviously for grown-ups yet are obviously not porn. For example, The Drops of God (神之雫), an international bestseller about wine, is a good choice in this category.

Kids comics, of course, are not only okay, they are wonderful. Kids comics generally will have simpler language, even pinyin or bopomofo (the phonetic script used in Taiwan). And many kids comics are enjoyable for readers of all ages. There are too many kids comics out there for me to offer a comprehensive overview, but here are two places to start:

  1. Doraemon (哆啦A夢), perennially popular with the children of Taiwan (and Japan too, of course)
  2. Shonen Jump, the most popular comic book magazine in the world (though only the second most popular comic book magazine in Taiwan – I’ll discuss the most popular comic book magazine in Taiwan later in this article). It is the origin of phenomenal hits such as Dragonball (七龍珠), One Piece (航海王), and Death Note (死亡筆記本), among others. There is plenty of information about Shonen Jump on the web.

And finally, porn is also okay. There is no shortage of it, at least in traditional characters. There is comic book porn catering to many different tastes, including female tastes. And porn tends to be short – good for people intimidated by long works. Unfortunately, it might be hard to find porn suited to one’s tastes outside of Taiwan/Hong Kong – in Taiwan/Hong Kong, of course, one simply needs to enter the over-18-years-old section of a comic book shop and browse.

Comic grammar

Like film, there are a set of well-known conventions used in comic books to convey the story – usually referred to as ‘comic grammar’. Most people learn comic grammar by reading lots of comic books – the same way people learn film grammar or television grammar. I have met people in both the United States and Taiwan who cannot ‘read’ comics in their native language because they have not picked up comic grammar (they don’t actually use the term ‘comic grammar’, but that’s what they mean).

Even though comic grammar is not uniform throughout East Asia, or even just in the Chinese-speaking world (for example, Hong Kong comic grammar is not identical to Taiwanese comic grammar), the similarities are strong enough that anyone who has read lots of East Asian comics shouldn’t have a problem with this when they start reading comics in Chinese. On the other hand, this could be a bit challenging for somebody who had not read many East Asian comics. If this is an issue, or if one simply does not want to pick up comic grammar at the same time one is trying to pick up Chinese, I suggest reading either a) kids comics (simpler comic grammar) or b) manhwa (Korean comics), as manhwa tends to have more straightforward comic grammar than manga (Japanese comics) and manhua (comics from the Chinese-speaking world).

What do you want from comics?

Answering this question is the first step to picking appropriate comics. For example, if you simply want to feel more comfortable reading Chinese, I would advocate reading a long comic book series full of cliffhangers – sticking to one cast of characters is generally easier than reading a bunch of short unrelated works, and cliffhangers keep one motivated (Shonen Jump, mentioned earlier, is a good source for this type of thing).

On the other hand, if one wants to expand one’s flexibility (being able to read a wider range of texts), I would advocate reading a bunch of stylistically different works to get exposed to as many kinds of Chinese as possible. Creative Comics Collection, Taiwan’s most popular manhua magazine (it outsells the Taiwan edition of Shonen Jump), is great for this. It’s full of short works which address topics as different as rooftop gardens, the history of Taipei, the different types of dragons used to ‘guard’ temples, a house built for use by the Japanese imperial family, and bathing habits in Ancient Greece (by the way, all of these topics appeared in the same issue).

From here, I am going to split this into three sections:

  1. Colloquial Chinese
  2. Literary Chinese
  3. Non-fiction Chinese

Of course, the most important thing is motivation. 7Seeds (幻海奇情), a post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure manga by Yumi Tamura, does not fit any of the categories I describe (well, it might fit under ‘colloquial’). However, even though it does not fit well into any of the categories discussed below, if you want to read 7Seeds really badly – then go ahead and read it. Don’t stop yourself from reading something you’re really interested in, even if it doesn’t align with my suggestions.

Colloquial Chinese

Many comics use very colloquial language, but not all. For people who are primarily interested in colloquial Chinese, I have two general suggestions: comedies and manhua.

In every language I have ever used, comedies tend to have the colloquial language of any form of fiction. I think it is because humor often requires very natural language in order to work. I know I have picked up much more Chinese slang from reading comedic comics than all other comics combined – and comedies only make up a minority of my comic-book reading. For example, I learned that 復古 (fùgǔ) means ‘retro’ by reading the manhwa 瑪麗的外宿中 (Mary Stayed Out All Night).

I also think that, for the most extremely colloquial language, one should look at manhua (comics from China/Taiwan/Hong Kong/Singapore). Sure, some manhua are written awkwardly (no language is immune to bad writers), and some translations are so good that they do not feel like translations at all. But, on average, I would say that manhua better reflects natural speech than comics in translation (I would say the same of comics originally written in English vs. comics translated into English). For example, Taiwanese manhua not aimed at children occasionally throws in some bopomofo (the phonetic script used in Taiwan), whereas I have never seen this in a comic in translation.

Speaking of bopomofo, that raises another issue – region. Ideally, one would read manhua from whatever region one is interested in. For example, as someone who is studying Taiwan-Mandarin, Taiwanese manhua is the obvious choice for me. People with a strong interest in Guangdong should pick up humor manhua from Hong Kong. Ask people from whatever region you are interested in if there are any good local cartoonists.

And of course, another reason to favor manhua, particularly manhua from one’s region of interest, is culture. One cannot master a language without knowing a lot about the culture, and manhua best reflects the culture of Chinese-speakers. Comics in translation can also contribute to cultural knowledge – Japan has such an overwhelming influence on Taiwanese culture that one has to know quite a bit about Japanese culture to understand Taiwanese culture – and translation choices also reveal culture. Nonetheless, I think serious language learners who want to try comics should at least try manhua to get the maximum benefit.

Finally, another way to use comics for colloquial Chinese is to combine them with idol dramas. This is a way to integrate reading and listening skills – start with the format one is more comfortable with, and then experience the story in the format one is less comfortable with. Here is a list of idol dramas which I know have a manga or manhua equivalent (though some of the manga/manhua exist only in traditional or only in simplified characters).

  • 流星花園 ‘Meteor Garden’ (Hana Yori Dango / Boys Over Flowers by Yoko Kamio)
  • 蜜桃女孩 ‘Peach Girl’ (Peach Girl by Miwa Ueda)
  • 薔薇之戀 ‘The Rose’ (Bara no Tameni by Akemi Yoshimura)
  • 戰神 ‘Mars’ (Mars by Fuyumi Soryo)
  • 橘子醬男孩 ‘Marmalade Boy’ (Marmalade Boy by Wataru Yoshizumi)
  • 惡魔在身邊 ‘Devil Beside You’ (The Devil Does Exist by Mitsuba Takanashi)
  • 花樣少年少女 ‘Hana Kimi’ (Hanazakari no Kimitachi e / For You in Full Blossom by Hisaya Nakajo)
  • 惡作劇之吻 ‘It Started with a Kiss’ & 惡作劇2吻 ‘They Kiss Again’ (Itazura na Kiss by Kaoru Tada)
  • 櫻野3加1 ‘My Best Pals’ (櫻野3加1 by 俞家燕)
  • 籃球火 ‘Hot Shot’ (籃球火 by俞家燕)
  • 微笑 Pasta ‘Smiling Pasta’ (微笑 Pasta by 俞家燕)
  • 旋風管家 ‘Hayate the Combat Butler’ (Hayate the Combat Butler by Kenjiro Hata)
  • 命中注定我愛你 ‘Fated to Love You’ (命中注定我愛你 by 海澄 & 櫻炎)
  • 我的億萬麵包 ‘Love or Bread’ (我的億萬麵包 by 俞家燕)
  • 泡沫之夏 ‘Summer’s Desire’ (泡沫之夏 by 明晓溪)
  • 華麗的挑戰 ‘Skip Beat’ (Skip Beat by Yoshiki Nakamura)
  • 絕對達令 ‘Absolute Boyfriend’ (Zettai Kareshi / Absolute Boyfriend by Yuu Watase)

There are sometimes trade-offs between entertainment and language learning. For example, my favorite drama and comic on this list is Mars, but because of the frequent silent pauses in the drama, it is not the best choice for language acquisition (likewise, I would say the comic book does not have particularly colloquial language). I find Fated To Love You very entertaining … but about 10% of it is in Taiwanese, which makes the drama less than ideal for improving Mandarin-listening skills. On the other end, I think Hana-Kimi is great for language acquisition because it is repetitive and the language is very natural … on the other hand, it is repetitive and some sections of the manga are really boring (I prefer the drama). I have not read/watched everything on this list, but of the ones I do know, I would say that It Started With A Kiss / They Kiss Again offers the best combination of entertainment and language acquisition value.

Literary Chinese

Stepping into literary Mandarin, especially when sprinkled with Classical Chinese, can be daunting. Comics can ease one into literary Chinese by…

  1. offering a lot of context (specifically, the artwork)
  2. having a high story-to-word ratio (if you read Chinese at the speed of a snail, it is much more satisfying to read comics than pure prose because the story moves much more quickly)

Jumping into literary prose will be much easier if one has already been exposed to the language through comics, doubly so if you read a manhua adapted from a novel and then read the original novel.

While I suggested that people interested in colloquial Chinese should consider manhua, I strongly urge that people who want to use comics to pick up literary Chinese use manhua. Do not consider comics in translation without a compelling reason. Imagine a comic about Japanese shoguns rendered in Elizabethan English, and I think you can understand the problem (I am one of the three people in the world who likes the Viz adaptation of Ooku, but even I would not recommend it to somebody trying to improve their literary English).

The limitation with using comics to pick up literary Chinese is that the vast majority of literary manhua out there is either based on classics (such as Journey to the West) or on wuxia novels. That’s great if classics and/or wuxia is what you want to read, but if you are more interested in Lu Xun or Chiung Yao, it’s not so helpful (yes, I know there is at least one manhua adaptation of Lu Xun out there, but I do not know how to get a hold of it, so it’s useless to me). On the other hand, all of the four major classics have been adapted to manhua multiple times, so one can probably find an adaptation one likes. As far as wuxia, Jin Yong, Gu Long, Wen Ruian, and Huang Yi have all had at least one of their novels adapted into manhua, by artists with different styles, so there is a fair amount of variety there too.

If one is considering using manhua to improve one’s literary Chinese, but do not know where to start, I not-so-humbly suggest looking at my series of blog posts at Manga Bookshelf: The Condor Trilogy in Manhua. For the record, I think Lee Chi-Ching’s The Eagle-Shooting Heroes is the best manhua for studying Chinese out of all the manhua I discussed at Manga Bookshelf. It has the highest art-to-words ratio (lots of context), is the most faithful to the original work, and has the simplest comic grammar (for people who are not experienced comic-book readers). It’s also the easiest to acquire.

Non-fiction Chinese

East Asian culture values cramming as many facts as possible into one’s head. To facilitate this, Japan has produced a lot of non-fiction manga, such as ‘The Manga Guide to Biology’, and many of these manga have been translated into Chinese (at least traditional characters … but considering that Chinese views on cramming facts into people’s heads are not much different from Japanese or Taiwanese views, I would be surprised if there was nothing available in simplified characters). As with Literary Chinese, comics can ease one into using more advanced language before wading into pure prose.

In addition to comics which are actually non-fiction, one can always try to find comics on the topic of interest. Want to read the type of Chinese used in corporate workplaces? Try Kosaku Shima (島耕作), a manga about the adventures of a Japanese salaryman. It’s not ideal, since it’s about a Japanese corporation, but I don’t know of any manhua about the trials and tribulations of, say, a Taishang in Guangdong (though I think if somebody published such a manhua, and it was of at least decent quality, it would sell quite well).

The culture’s the thing

One thing that is emphasized at Hacking Chinese is holistic learning. Part of holistic learning is putting the language and the culture together. I managed to improve my Chinese so much through comics partially because I already had a handle on manga and manhwa – I knew the territory, I was just using a different language. I did not have a handle on manhua. While its close relationship to manga certainly helped me, diving into manhua was like exploring some trails in rural Taiwan without a guidebook or map – just having hearsay, one’s sense of direction, and the occasional signpost to point the way.

Of course, manga and manhwa is what kindled my interest in manhua in the first place … and manga led me to Taiwanese idol dramas … and in Taiwanese idol dramas I would often see the places I visit in my travels around the island … and the combination of manhua and Taiwanese television led me to wuxia and … there are so many directions I can go with this that I have to choose carefully. Notice that I am forming the kind of web which is at the heart of holistic learning. It does wonders for my motivation. It also helps me pick up the language at a more technical level too – for example, I find it is so bizarre that Owain, an 18th-century European in a Korean manhwa, would use such a distinctly Chinese chengyu as 杞人憂天 (the man of Qi who feared the sky might fall) that it helps me remember that chengyu. It shows how the chengyu are so integrated into the language that translators will ascribe it to characters who would never, in reality, know about those allusions.

So, to get the most language learning out of comics, one should make an effort to learn about both comics culture and the culture of Chinese-speakers. To that end, here are some links:

  • Manga Bookshelf – a good place to browse to learn about manga and manhwa, and now I have a weekly column there, “It Came from the Sinosphere,” in which I sometimes discuss manhua
  • This thread at Chinese Forums has good information about how to order Chinese-language comics online, as well as a discussion of manhua.
  • There is Baka-Updates Manga, which is the database I check when I want to look up what comics are available in Chinese, what is the Chinese title, which character set, etc (if the title is listed with traditional characters, it’s available in traditional characters; if the title is listed with simplified characters, it’s available in simplified characters). It also includes user reviews and has computer-generated recommendations.

And here are some articles about manhua in English:

Notice that I am not linking to any of the zillion websites of comic book scans (at least in Chinese – Baka-Updates Manga is a database of English-language scans, but it also happens to be a really good database for getting information about Chinese-language comics too). Most of those scans are taken straight from published editions, which is disrespectful of the artists, editors, translators, etc. If you would not be okay with your work being distributed online without your permission, then don’t use the scans websites.

As far as finding Chinese-language comics on the ground, there are lots of ways to get them in Taiwan. I have an article at Manga Bookshelf about Guanghua Digital Plaza, but that’s hardly the only place to get comics in Taiwan (if have specific questions about acquiring comics in Taiwan, feel free to ask).

Outside of Chinese-speaking territory, acquiring Chinese-language comics is more difficult and, often, more expensive, but there are still options. For example, the San Francisco Public Library has a significant collection of comics in Chinese, and many libraries in California and Nevada can get those comics within days through (see a list of Link+ member libraries here). But possibly the best option is other people. Ask the Chinese speakers in your area if they or somebody they know has a collection of comic books in Chinese. There is a significant chance that the answer is ‘yes’. Comic book collectors often love turning somebody else into a comic book fan. Not only is borrowing comics very inexpensive, the collector can give recommendations, answer questions, and talk to you about the comics in Chinese. That’s a great approach for the holistic learner.

I wrote this article to be a sketch-map of Chinese-language comics. Now it’s your turn to go out there and explore. Bon voyage.

About Sara K
Sara K. has been studying Mandarin since Fall 2009. She currently lives in Taoyuan County, Taiwan, but grew up in San Francisco, California. She writes It Came From the Sinosphere for Manga Bookshelf, and has her own personal blog, The Notes Which Do Not Fit.

Pros and cons with travelling to learn a language

I’ve heard many people say that travelling is the best way to learn a language. This is true, but only to a certain extent. In essence, travelling is excellent to help you convert theory into practice, to use what you’ve learnt  in real situations. However, learning new things while travelling is in many ways inferior to learning them at home or in a classroom. I think travelling is useful, but I think it’s overrated as a tool to learn Chinese.

Travelling is good to practice what you already know, but not so good when it comes to learning new things

Mastering a language is largely about learning new words and how they combine to form meaning, and travelling is simply a bad environment for learning lots of words (see my article on the importance of having a large vocabulary). For that to be effective, you need lots of study time, access to the internet and preferably a suitable study environment..

Five real advantages with travelling to learn languages

Even though I opened with a somewhat negative tone, I think there are some true advantages with travelling, things that can be reproduced in other ways, but comes together beautifully when travelling.

1. Master what you have already studied

This is perhaps the most important advantage. Regardless of much time you send studying at home, you really need to use the language in real situations if you want to reach any speaking level beyond the basic. In the beginning, it takes time to find the right words, you need to think before finding out the correct word order. With practice, this becomes easier (you can practice this at home, too, check this word game to increase fluency). Travelling is good because it forces you to practise a lot, especially if English can’t be used in the area you’re travelling in.

2. Learn word usage and cultural context

A classroom is a fixed position with very clearly defined roles. Real life is not. Travelling means that you will encounter lots of different people in different situations. You will hear different kinds of Chinese and you will use the language yourself. Dictionaries can tell you what a word means, but they won’t explain when they are used. Just because you know that 主义 (主義) means “idea”, that doesn’t mean that you can use that word any time you would use “idea” in English. Travelling forces you into many different kinds of situations which will enable you to hear more Chinese and adjust your mental models of the language.

3. Improve your listening ability

Although this can be achieved if you live abroad and simply pay attention, travelling is also an excellent way of improving listening ability. You will move through different regions, perhaps with different accents. Hearing these helps you get used to them and to understand them. Additionally, when you check a train connection or book a room somewhere, you really need to hear what other people are saying. Nodding and smiling works when you’re close to home and you know what you’re doing, but when travelling, many encounters become listening comprehension tests.

4. Understand the culture and the people

Perhaps you won’t spend more time speaking Chinese when travelling as compared with living in a Chinese-speaking environment, but you’re guaranteed to speak with more different kinds of people. Forget your classmates and your close friends! To understand people, their customs, manners and culture, you need to experience them first hand. These are perhaps not included in pure language ability, but it’s still essential if you have any ambitions of really understanding Chinese.

5. Boost your self confidence

Every time I’ve left the safety of home to go travelling, I’ve felt my self-confidence rising. I notice that I know lots more than last time and that things generally flow much more smoothly. At least in Taiwan, most natives are very encouraging, which means that they will praise your Chinese to the hills even if you can only say 你好. Also, they ask you the same kind of questions, so after a while you get really good at explaining who you are, why you are studying Chinese and so on. That feels good! Be careful, though, because this praise is excellent to boost self-confidence, but it’s a bad way to assess your language level.

Travel alone or in a very small group

If one of your main goals with travelling is to learn more Chinese, you have to go about it the right way. Travelling on bike around the countryside with your English-speaking Chinese friend might not teach you anything at all. You speak English with your friend, and he or she takes care of all communication with the natives. Here are some useful variants:

  • Travel alone – The advantages are obvious, you really have to do everything on our own and you will learn accordingly. The downside is that it’s quite tough sometimes and not everybody is suited to travelling alone.
  • Travel with non-Chinese speakers – This is also excellent. Having your parents with you or some visiting friends, not only do you have to take care of most conversations with natives, but you will also have to translate a lot.
  • Travel with Chinese speaking friends – This depends entirely on what kind of friends you have, but if you’re lucky, you will get to see many things you would never have seen otherwise. Native speakers may also function as guides, both to language and culture.

By way of conclusion, I’d like to say that yes, travelling is a powerful tool to learn a language. However, it’s useful in a way most people don’t realise. You won’t learn a language very quickly if you just travel around randomly, but by doing so, you will enhance what you already know and convert theoretical knowledge into practical skill.