Reading is one of the most important activities when learning a second language. It’s an important source of vocabulary, and compared with listening, it offers you much more control over your learning.
You can read at your own pace and looking up things is considerably easier than when listening. There’s also a lot more written material available for learners.
Extensive reading challenge, November 10th to 30th
This month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese is about extensive reading. That means that you should read as much as you can, preferably about different topics and in different genres, rather than spending too much time trying to understand everything in a short text. Quantity is king.
If you want to know more about the challenge, click here, or if you want to know more about Hacking Chinese Challenges, check this. You can also sign up for the reading challenge directly here.
Below, I will introduce the best free resource collections available. Here, “resource collection” means a site that offers a large number of texts, so each of these potentially offer hundreds or even thousands of hours of reading! Note that some great resources such as graded readers have been excluded because they are not free. Check out the complete list here.
This is what I did to generate this list (you can generate similar lists tailored to your needs by heading over to Hacking Chinese Resources):
Below, I have listed the best ranked resource collections, along with a direct link to the collection, a short introduction written by the person who submitted it and a link to the resource so you can vote/comment on it if you want to. If you have other resource collections, please share them! If you need an invite to Hacking Chinese Resources, let me know!
A carefully chosen selection of 80 significant Chinese texts for students wishing to develop their reading skills while improving their cultural literacy. Includes classical and modern Chinese literature, historical documents, song lyrics, children’s stories, and lists of commonly used characters, idioms, and proverbs
The Marco Polo Project is a digital community reading and translating new writing from China. The website proposes a diverse and original selection of new Chinese writing by independent journalists and intellectuals, with bilingual titles and tagging. Users can contribute to the translation of these articles, read a bilingual versions of those already translated, or use the website for Chinese reading practice.
This is a great repository of short stories for beginner and intermediate learners. Some of them also have audio and all have translations to English and word lists! I would be a little bit careful with trusting their difficulty ratings, though, I checked some stories that were meant to be beginner-intermediate that were definitely too hard form most students in this range. Still very good resource, though.
This is the Chinese website of the New York Times. It obviously contains large amounts of reading material about current issues as well as other things. The articles are available in both Chinese and English, and there is even an option to turn on parallel reading (Chinese on one side, English on the other). I can think of few better ways of easing yourself into reading Chinese news! Try using a pop-up dictionary like Pera pera as well.
The Chinese Text Project is a web-based e-text system designed to present ancient Chinese texts, particularly those relating to Chinese philosophy, in a well-structured and properly cross-referenced manner, making the most of the electronic medium to aid in the study and understanding of these texts. Note: I realise that this might not be the best resource for an extensive reading challenge, but it’s still a great reading resource!
Chinese Idioms or Chengyu are short sayings usually consisting of four characters. Unless you know the story and its common usage, a Chengyu will sound like random nonsense. Here are some Chengyu stories, as taught to chinese students, with pinyin and chinese annotation.
This site contains a huge amount of e-books in traditional Chinese. My guess is that downloading and reading them without having the original text might be illegal, but even so, it’s often great to have an electronic version of a book you’re reading in print. This allows you to find passages by searching, copying words and sentences into your SRS and so on. There are also some audio books here (recorded by amateurs, mostly).
This is a really cool website that assesses your reading ability and then offers reading suggestions based on your estimated vocabulary knowledge. I haven’t used this enough to figure out how accurate it is, so if anyone has used this more than a few times, it would be great to hear what you think about it!
This website contains a lot of short and easy-to-access articles about science and technology related articles (although they are usually very lightweight, you don’t need to actually be a professional to understand this). There are lots of sections on this site and I want to point to one in particular (apart from the front page). 小学堂 explains different science-related questions, such as how do scientists deduce the age of planets, where does the water on Earth come from and why is spicy food spicy?
This site contains a huge number of lessons, complete with texts, vocabulary, audio, exercises and much more. And it’s all free. Note that if you want to get the intermediate and advanced material, you need to click the appropriate link in the top navigation (it wasn’t possible to link to a main page or portal of some kind, doesn’t seem to be one there).
There’s a lot of great reading material out there, all free. As I mentioned, though, some of the greatest reading material, especially for beginners, isn’t free (textbooks and grader readers). For suggestions, check the article from last week.
If you have suggestions for other reading resources, please share in the comments! Please include whom the resource is for and a brief introduction so I can share it on Hacking Chinese Resources. Later this week, I’ll post an article about how to increase the time you have available for reading, stay tuned!
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!
Short answer: Chinese martial arts fiction featuring heroism, usually set in imperial China.
Long answer: A few wuxia movies, such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero, are famous in the English-speaking world. While I don’t think these movies are the most representative of the genre, they are genuine wuxia, and anyone who has seen them already has some idea of what wuxia is.
Sometimes, I see ‘wuxia’ translated into English as ‘tales of chivalry’. Wuxia stories are not ‘tales of chivalry’. ‘Chivalry’ is based on a medieval European code of conduct for knights, who were almost always of noble lineage, and was about maintaining the feudal system. Most wuxia heroes come from the peasant class, and would not mind taking the aristocracy down a notch. The ‘xia’ in ‘wuxia’ does not mean ‘chivalry’, it means standing up for what is right. To give you a sense of what ‘xia’ really means, note that Batman’s Chinese name is 蝙蝠俠(‘The Bat Xia’) and that Spiderman’s Chinese name is 蜘蛛俠 (‘The Spider Xia’). Comic book superheroes are much closer than Sir Lancelot to being wuxia. Just because many wuxia stories are set in medieval China does not mean they are the equivalent of tales set in medieval Europe.
If one must find an equivalent in medieval Europe, the obvious one is Robin Hood, though I’d like to note that in Robin Hood, King Richard is usually depicted as a good guy, whereas in wuxia fiction, the emperor of China is generally, at best, a neutral party or a very grey character.
Over at Yago, I compared wuxia to Star Wars, mainly because it’s a good way to explain what wuxia is in few words. However, I think the best equivalent to wuxia in the English-speaking world is the Western genre. In fact, some Americans even call wuxia stories ‘Easterns’ The similarities include:
A historical setting
The government is corrupt or otherwise non-functional, so common people have to take care of justice themselves
Frequent use of gorgeous natural scenery
Interaction among different ethnic groups, including a dominant nation (China/United States) whose boundaries are constantly shifting, tribal nations (Khitans, Miao, Uyghurs, Navajo, Lakota, Cheyenne, etc.) and characters from other nations (Korea, Portugal, India, France, Mexico, Russia, etc.)
The focus is generally on personal vendettas and debts of gratitude, not trying to save the world
Being strongly tied to a specific culture/country. Though there are spaghetti Westerns and wuxia books/comics/TV shows from southeast Asia, Westerns are almost always strongly tied to the United States, and wuxia stories are almost always strongly tied to China. Other genres, such as science fiction and romance, are not married to a particular culture/country.
However, any comparison between wuxia and non-Chinese fiction must be limited, because wuxia arose in the Chinese-speaking world, and it could have arisen nowhere else. Wuxia rides on Chinese-speakers’ history, ethics, medicine, ecology, philosophy, hopes, dreams, and nightmares.
For more description, head over to TVTropes (though note that I do not agree with everything said there). Wuxia in Chinese-speaking society
While there is debate about when/how the wuxia genre emerged, most people would say that it reached maturity in Republican China in the 1920s and 30s, when it was the most popular genre of Chinese fiction. Wuxia was part of the national conversation about how to be Chinese in the modern age. For example, a prominent 1920s’ writer, Xiang Kairan, was also involved in promoting traditional Chinese martial arts and incorporating ideas from science and European athletics. I think this period of Chinese history left a powerful mark on wuxia, even decades later, in both the openness to new ideas, and the cynical outlook.
Of course, as with any popular genre of fiction, there have been people saying that it is bad influence: it’s too violent, it’s anti-Confucian, it’s just for juveniles, etc. As a non-Chinese person, I don’t completely get the stigma of wuxia, but then again, popular genres such as science-fiction, romance, and YA get stigmatized outside of the Chinese speaking world.
Even after the People’s Republic of China banned wuxia, and the Republic of China (Taiwan) put it under heavy censorship, wuxia continued to be wildly popular – if anything, government censorship made wuxia even more appealing. Where wuxia writers had the freedom to do so (Hong Kong), they sometimes used wuxia as a platform to criticize politics and society.
Though wuxia TV shows and movies continue to be very popular, wuxia novels (from which most TV shows and movies are adapted) supposedly went into decline in the 1980s. What this really means is that, instead of being a mainstream genre, it became a thing mainly for geeks (though mainstream readers are generally still familiar with the ‘classic’ wuxia novels). Why is wuxia relevant to Chinese learners?
Here is one reason: wuxia is so deeply woven into Chinese-speaking culture that at times you won’t understand what people are saying without some familiarity.
Here is an example; in the movie Seven Days of Heaven, which is a Taiwanese movie set in contemporary Hong Kong and Changhua, a character at one point says 「小龍女從法國打電話回來了」 which roughly means “Xiaolongnü is calling from France”.
Most adult Chinese learners would wonder what ‘Xiaolongnü’ means. However, most native Chinese speakers over the age of 10 know exactly who Xiaolongnü is: she’s a is a mysterious beauty and dangerous sword fighter who grew up in the Tomb of Living Death (活死人墓). In addition to fighting with swords, she can use poison gold needles, and attack people with the sashes of her sleeves. In spite of her chronological age, she always looks like she’s sixteen years old – it’s implied that her body does not age because she’s not entirely alive. She’s like Sleeping Beauty, except she’s not asleep and is a dangerous martial artist.
So why is this movie dropping a reference to Xiaolongnü? It’s more poignant (and succinct!) to say ‘Xiaolongnü’ than to say ‘the person who is so much at the center of your existence that you wouldn’t want to live without her, yet she is beyond your reach’.
When I read in English “I thought mentioning [something] was just like saying ‘Voldemort’”, I understand it because I’m familiar with the plot of Harry Potter. The most popular wuxia stories have also reached the stage where Chinese speakers will drop references to them and expect to be understood.
Name-dropping manifests something deeper: wuxia is an integral part of Chinese-speaking culture. You will probably never encounter enough name-drops to justify learning about wuxia for that reason alone … but wuxia is thoroughly Chinese in a way that no other genre of fiction is, which makes it an excellent vehicle for getting into the minds of Chinese-speakers.
I have learned a great deal about the subtler nuances of the Chinese language by reading lots of wuxia, some of which I don’t think I could have picked up by reading literature-in-translation.
Wuxia offers many paths to get to know Chinese culture better – for example, I can look up the various places mentioned in the novels and improve my understanding of Chinese geography, I can look up the herbs used and learn something about Chinese traditional medicine and botany (that’s how I learned about a very cool plant called ‘gastrodia‘), I can look up the actors who play Characters Y and Z, and see what other TV shows/movies they acted in… and so forth. Of course, I ignore all this most of the time I do because there are only so many hours in a day, but I think that because wuxia connects to so many aspects of Chinese culture and society, it is an excellent node for one’s knowledge web.
Then there is the way that being familiar with wuxia changes my relationship with native Chinese speakers. When I reveal that, yes, I have also read [famous wuxia novel], it cuts down the mental distance between us. Some native Chinese speakers think this is wonderful, others are not comfortable with the fact that I’ve shared that part of their head space, but it always makes me less of an outsider.
However, by far the most important benefit wuxia has for me is that it makes me much more motivated to study Chinese. I think the above reasons are enough for all Chinese learners to at least learnabout 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.
Not all of these terms mean the same thing (for example, some only apply to young people who die, and some only apply to old people who die) so you should look at the dictionary entries. Of course, the best way to learn these terms is to see them in context.
Classical Chinese has a way of sneaking into wuxia, and occasionally there’s even entire poems written in Classical Chinese. I have an easy technique for dealing with classical poetry – ignore it. It’s never interfered with my enjoyment of the novels. As far as Classical Chinese words being mixed with Mandarin – you can learn it like you would learn other unfamiliar vocabulary, or you can ignore it.
Finally, the language difficulty runs the whole range from novels which consist mostly of simple short sentences to works full of sophisticated wordplay. Obviously, the former is a much better place to start. How to get started with wuxia?
‘How to start’ depends on your level of Chinese, but first, an exercise that is suitable for learners at all levels:
Ask native speakers about wuxia
Find a native speaker to talk to.
Ask them which wuxia stories they have read/seen.
Ask their opinion about those stories (for example, if you are a beginner, you can ask questions like 你喜歡嗎？)
Ask them to describe an wuxia story to you.
Repeat with another native speaker.
After doing this exercise with a few native speakers, you’ll have a pretty good idea which wuxia stories tend to be sources for name-drops…
For beginning learners
No, you cannot read a wuxia novel or watch an wuxia movie without subtitles, at least not yet … but you can still learn about wuxia. There are some online English-language resources about wuxia:
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.
Go read a novel or watch a TV show or play a computer game.
But which one?
I think advanced learners main concern should not be the difficulty of the language, but how accessible the story itself is. Is the story fast-paced and suspenseful, or does it drag a lot at the beginning (i.e. is it The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre/倚天屠龍記 where the main protagonist isn’t even mentioned once in the first 250 pages of the novel)? Does the story require familiarity with wuxia tropes, Chinese history, etc., or could my mother get it (if she suddenly knew Chinese)? Is it a good story?
These are concerns for intermediate learners too, of course.
And just like beginning learners, advanced learners should also have some background knowledge, especially before tackling the more difficult novels.
I think this list offers a decent introduction to wuxia movies.
I have not seen too many wuxia TV shows, but one show I cannot recommend highly enough for advanced learners is State of Divinity (笑傲江湖) starring Jackie Lui (呂頌賢). People who have seen far more wuxia TV shows than I claim it’s one of the best ever made. I would go so far as to say, if you’re only going to watch one Chinese language TV drama of any genre in your entire lifetime, it should be this one.
This famous scene (YouTube) is great for studying the kind of language which appears often in wuxia stories, but it will make a lot more sense with a little context: Linghu Chong had been driven out of the Huashan sect. His greatest wish is to be accepted back by his sifu, Yue Buqun, leader of the Huashan sect, and to marry his daughter, Yue Lingshan, with whom he had developed the ‘Chong-Ling Sword Technique’. In the mean time, Ren Yingying had saved his life, so he feels he has to repay this debt of gratitude by freeing Ren Yingying and her father Ren Woxing from Shaolin Temple. Of course, many people object to releasing Ren Woxing because he is a megalomaniac. A deal has been struck that Ren Woxing and his daughter can go free if he wins two out of three duels. So far, he has won a duel and lost a duel…
This quote from episode 24 not only captures the essence of the TV show, but represents the mood of many, many, many wuxia stories.
Automaticall generated version in simplified Chinese:当初我们四兄弟之所以加入日月神教，本想在江湖上可以行侠仗义，有所作为。哪知道任教主他性情暴戾，威福自用。当时我们四兄弟早萌退意，直到东方教主继位更是宠信奸佞，诛除教中元老。我四人更是心灰意冷，决意隐居梅莊，并要看守要犯。一来，可以远离黑木崖，不必与人勾心鬥角。二来，可以閒居西湖琴书遣怀。十二年来也可以说是享尽清福。不过人生在世，忧多乐少。人生本来就是如此了。
“When we four brothers first entered the Sun Moon Cult, we thought we could carry out heroic deeds all over jianghu. Who knew that Ren Woxing was so violent, and so hungry for power? Long after we four brothers had been disillusioned, Dongfang Bubai became the leader, and he loves wickedness even more. He executed all of the elders, and we four became even more disheartened. We decided to retreat to Plum Villa, and guard the prisoner. Firstly, far from Heimu Ya, we did not have to participate in all of the internecine struggle and backstabbing. Secondly, we could quietly live by Xihu, and fill our days with music and books. We can say that we have had twelve happy years. Nevertheless, in life the sorrows are many, and the joys are few. That is the nature of life.”
It’s hard to tell which novels are more or less suitable as an introduction to wuxia if you haven’t read them, and if you’ve read a bunch of wuxia novels, you are not a newcomer. That’s why, in my next article. I will introduce five wuxia novels which are good starting points for learners of Chinese who have never gotten into wuxia before. Stay tuned!
Naturally, I read a lot more Chinese than these books during 2013. This list only contains complete books, so any reading online, any articles or isolated book chapters aren’t included. This basically means that nothing I read in class is included!
I have sorted the books very roughly according to topic and I have also grouped books in the same series as one entry to reduce the length of the article. Each book includes a brief introduction, a few words what I thought about it and a very subjective rating of how difficult it was. At the very end, I have added some reflections about my reading in general.
I don’t know where I read about this book first, but I’ve heard it recommended as a good book for foreigners to read if they want to get into reading Chinese novels. Anyway, the story is about a man called 富貴, an unsympathetic compulsive gambler and local rich man, and the transformation he goes through as he gambles away his entire fortune, is forced to join the army (the Chinese civil war) and gradually loses everything he loves and cares about in this world. In contrast to whoever it was that recommended the book in the first place, I don’t think this is a good book for most people to start with. If you really like realism and want to read about abject poverty and the hardships of rural life, fine, but I don’t think that’s what most foreigners want to read.
Do I recommend it? Yes (but not as your first novel in Chinese). How difficult was it? Fairly easy.
This story takes place in China during the Down to the Countryside Movement (around 1970) and focuses on Wang Yisheng and how he turns from someone who thinks (Chinese) chess is interesting into a towering master of the game. The story-telling is down-to-earth and focuses on just a few episodes in detail. Even though the story is about chess, it’s also to a large extent about friendship and people in general. This novella is quite interesting, but since it contains quite a lot of very colloquial Chinese, it’s not easy to read.
Do I recommend it? Yes. How difficult was it? Fairly hard. Fiction (science fiction or fantasy)
This is one of the first 武俠 (wǔxiá) I’ve read and I liked it quite a lot. The story is fast-paced, thrilling and populated with interesting people and it also hides a more mysterious plot in the background. The drawback for new readers is that the language is partly mimicking an older style, which makes it quite hard to read before you get used to it. If you’re used to reading Wuxia novels, though, this shouldn’t be too difficult.
Do I recommend it? Yes. How difficult was it? Fairly hard.
I like science fiction a lot, partly because it combines two things I love in literature: creativity and philosophy. When I say creativity, I mean that science fiction is a genre that keeps bombarding me with cool, original ideas. I’m an abstract person, okay? When I say philosophy, I mean that science fiction is a very good way of discussing almost anything relevant to human existence (see 科幻世界的哲學凝視 below). 三體 starts in a very promising way when the main character, a scientist focusing on nanotechnology, starts to see a countdown timer in his field of vision. This turns out to be systematic, but it’s only scientists in certain areas who can see the numbers. Two questions follow: Who’s projecting the timer? What happens when the timer reaches zero? Somewhat ironically, the best part of this book is actually a long flashback to the cultural revolution, depicting the life of an astronomer looking for extraterrestrial life in an age where having a doctorate could be quite dangerous. Sadly, the end of the first book in this series is really bad, coming completely out of the blue and feeling totally unrelated to the rest of the story. I will read the next two books, though.
Do I recommend it? Yes. How difficult was it? Average.
This is the second novel (or possibly third, I can’t remember) I read by Ni Kuang, which is the one name you will hear over and over if you ask Chinese people about science fiction literature. Since I have already reviewed this novel in more detail on my personal website, I will just say that this novel was quite frustrating to read. I didn’t like it very much and if you want to try Ni Kuang, you should probably read something else.
Do I recommend it?No. How difficult was it? Average.
I started reading The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan) in Swedish when I was thirteen and liked it a lot. However, I had soon read all that had been translated into Swedish and decided to start from book one in English. Thus, this series was among the first real novels I read in English. Little did I know that Robert Jordan planned to write books for another fifteen years and I soon became bored and stopped reading. Now that he is dead and can’t write more book, I still want to see how the story develops. Therefore, yet again, I start from scratch, reading through this epic fantasy series, this time in Chinese. This is actually perfect, because I can focus on the story and the setting (which are reasonably good), and at the same time, turn a mediocre English into a learning opportunity in Chinese. I have so far read the first three books, which are split into six in Chinese and are counted as such simply because each part is still longer than the average novel.
Do I recommend it? No (except if you already like it). How difficult was it? Average.
《飢餓遊戲》 蘇珊·柯林斯 《星火燎原》 蘇珊·柯林斯
I was first recommended The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) when it was first published, as a book that is excellent to encourage students to read more English. Then it turned into a book (and later film) that everybody had watched. Except me. I have too many other things to read in English, so I figured that reading the Chinese translation was the only realistic way. The book is relatively easy, fast-paced and very good if you’re after something that will keep you engaged. It’s not new, it’s not very interesting beyond the superficial story. Part two is, sadly, much worse. The first part became famous for a reason, but the second book feels much like the same thing again. Just like with Harry Potter, though, the same thing again is only fun if you’re fifteen and I’m not. Still reasonably good mass practice for reading in Chinese. I read the first novel aloud to practice reading aloud in Chinese!
Do I recommend it? Yes (but only the first book). How difficult was it? Easy. Non-fiction (science)
《空想科學読本（二）》 柳田理科雄 《空想科學読本（三）》 柳田理科雄
These are the second and third books in a series that focuses on how science is misused and abused in Japanese science fiction manga and anime. I read the first volume a couple of years ago and enjoyed it, but the second volume is just boring. Rather than observing and analysing the science behind super heroes and mega monsters, it focuses mostly on explaining why the numbers given for them are unrealistic. The third book is slightly better because it leaves the realm of arbitrary numbers. These books ought to be like xkcd‘s What if? but fall short..
Do I recommend it? No (but read the first book). How difficult was it? Average.
I bought this book second-hand on a whim because I liked the title. It turns out to be a translation of Chad Orzel’s How to Teach Physics to your Dog. However, the physics should definitely have a “quantum” stuck to it, because this book deals almost exclusively with trying to explain quantum physics in a meaningful way without using too much mathematics. Books like this give me a glimpse into a parallel universe where I didn’t decide to switch from natural sciences to languages and education. This book is fairly easy to read language-wise, but considering that some of the concepts are all but easy, you need to really understand almost every word to benefit from reading the book.
Do I recommend it? Yes (if you want to read about quantum physics in Chinese). How difficult was it? Fairly hard (if you want to understand the point).
This book is also about science fiction, but that’s about the only thing it has in common with 空想科學読本 above. This book deals with philosophy in science fiction and deals mainly with the great masters of Western literary science fiction, but also includes some films, such as The Matrix and Gattaca. The book isn’t as interesting as it looks, though, at least not if you have almost all the works mentioned in it, because it feels like two thirds is about the fiction and only one third about the philosophy hidden therein. I have probably read more SF than the target reader, though, so I don’t blame the author.
Do I recommend it? Yes. How difficult was it? Average.
One of the first books I read in Chinese that wasn’t written either for children or foreigners was 孔子的部落格, which we used as a textbook in class at Wenzao back in 2010. In short, these books attempt to discuss classical philosophy in blog format (somewhat ironically still printed in a book, though). Since I generally tend to like Taoism much more than Confucianism, I bought the companion book shortly afterwards, but I didn’t read it until now. Sadly, I don’t think this book is very good. First, most of the text is completely irrelevant for the philosophy of 老子 and describes weather and mundane events. Second, the philosophy that is described is sometimes quite far from what I have learnt from other sources and the interpretations sound more like more fluffy versions of Confucianism.
Do I recommend it? No. How difficult was it? Fairly hard.
I actually bought this book thinking that it was Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan (I didn’t read the description carefully enough, it’s actually The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms by the same author). I have read his Fooled by Randomness and liked it a lot, but this book is quite meaningless. It consists of aphorisms that are either impossible to understand because of the lack of context or phrases that sound deep but that really doesn’t mean much without further explanation. There are exceptions, but on the whole, this book wasn’t very good. I will keep reading the author’s books, though.
Do I recommend it? No. How difficult was it? Fairly easy. Non-fiction (linguistics)
I try to read some phonetics/phonology related textbooks in Chinese to improve my overall vocabulary in the area. This is a pretty basic overview, discussing Mandarin phonetics. I didn’t learn very much from this book and found it too basic to be interesting. If you haven’t read anything about phonetics in Chinese and want to have an easy start, this book might be okay, but there should be better options. If you’re just after reading an introduction, check 華語語音學 below.
Do I recommend it? No. How difficult was it? Fairly hard.
This books was used in our course in teaching Chinese pronunciation (taught by the author) last year. It’s an even more basic introduction than 漢語音韻 above, but it does include some things that book does not, such as some added perspectives on actually teaching Chinese. Still, I didn’t find the discussions about learning and/or teaching Chinese very insightful, perhaps because I’ve thought about it and read extensively on the topic before. Still, this was probably the first book I read in Chinese about pronunciation and phonetics, and as such it served me well as a stepping stone to other articles, papers and books in Chinese about pronunciation.
Do I recommend it? No (if not as a stepping stone). How difficult was it? Average.
This book is perhaps best used for reference, but I decided to go through all of it to see what I was lacking. In general, the book is quite descriptive, which is sometimes frustrating. After studying mostly generative grammar in Chinese, reading a book that mostly gives you surface forms and conditions for when to write what is confusing and you risk seeing the trees but not the forest. This book really dose work best as a reference, so reading the entire volume in one go wasn’t a good idea, even if it did highlight some interesting things I had missed.
Do I recommend it? Perhaps (but only as a reference). How difficult was it? Fairly hard.
This book consists of a number of small stories and related observations about daily life, usually related to relationships, love, and men and women. Although I found some parts quite insightful and interesting, I can’t help but feeling deeply annoyed by any author talking about how men are and how women are. That matches neither my experience of reality nor my idea of how such things should be discussed. Even though the conclusions and insights reached here might be interesting, I found myself asking “really?” too many times in the actual description of the situation.
Do I recommend it? No. How difficult was it? Easy
This book is written by a Taiwanese exchange student I met in Sweden. He biked from southern to northern Sweden, collecting stories from Taiwanese expats along the way. The book tells the story of the journey itself, but more importantly, it’s a collage of life stories of Taiwanese people living in Sweden. It’s probably only interesting for people who have some connection to both Sweden and Taiwan, but it’s also interesting to see how a foreigners views my home country.
Do I recommend it? No (unless you fit the description). How difficult was it? Average.
The story behind why I read this book is quite interesting. Last year, I spent some time mimicking native speakers together with a classmate. One of the target models we used was 蔣勳, because both his Chinese and his voice are awesome. In the video we used, he’s talking about his new book, so I thought it would be a good idea to buy and read it. It wasn’t. Reading this book without deeper knowledge of Chinese characters and calligraphy isn’t a good idea, it’s a book about an art form directed at people who understand it much better than I do. Perhaps most native speakers know enough to appreciate this book, but I don’t.
Do I recommend it? No. How difficult was it? Hard.
One thing that might strike you is that I read quite a lot of translated books. The reason for this is that when I go for volume and/or speed, I want to read books that I know that I will find interesting. For instance, I wouldn’t consider reading Robert Jordan in translation if the purpose was to pick up new words or phrases. Instead, I read The Wheel of Time because it’s a series of books I can read without effort and that I know that I will find interesting, at least as far as the setting and story goes. I also read many translated books because, sadly, I haven’t found many Chinese books I really like. If you would like to recommend something, feel free to leave a comment!
I see two major categories of books for 2014. First, I want to continue exploring Chinese science fiction. I actually have quite a lot of it available at home already, I just haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. I should also finish the 三體 series, which is so far the most promising Chinese science fiction I’ve read so far. Second, I want to read more 武俠. I have quite a lot of novels available in this category as well, so I have no good excuse for not reading. I think 武俠 has the huge advantage that the plot is usually quite interesting and filled with events and characters that are important even if your Chinese isn’t good enough to actually appreciate the finer nuances of the language. In fact, we’re going to look closer at 武俠 next week with a guest article by my book-loving friend Sara, who has already published an article about reading comics in Chinese as well as one about reading in general. Stay tuned!
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!
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:
Picking a comic (this is very important, and also difficult to do without broad knowledge of what is out there)
Being comfortable with the comic book medium
This article mostly focuses on (1), but I will first address (2).
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:
Read in private
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.
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:
Doraemon (哆啦A夢), perennially popular with the children of Taiwan (and Japan too, of course)
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.
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:
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.
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)
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.
Stepping into literary Mandarin, especially when sprinkled with Classical Chinese, can be daunting. Comics can ease one into literary Chinese by…
…offering a lot of context (specifically, the artwork)
…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.
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
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.
This is a guest post about reading in Chinese, written by Sara K. Reading is one of the best ways of picking up new vocabulary once we reached an intermediate or advanced level, but it’s also necessary to read a lot to be able to write Chinese properly. Reading also enables us to understand word usage and brings us closer to the culture behind the language. I’ll now let Sara talk about her approach and experiences of reading in Chinese. Enjoy!
I’ve been studying Chinese for 2-3 years. During that time, I’ve made my share of mistakes and stumbles, and I’ve done a lot of trial and error to discover the most effective studying methods. Here, I present how I read continuous texts in Chinese. such as books, comics, the lease to my apartment, newspaper articles, etc. I will go over the steps that I use, how I modify my steps for different situations, how I benchmark, and other issues. I am not suggesting that my approach is the best or ideal for every learner – rather, my intent is to give fellow learners ideas about how to develop their own approach to reading Chinese.
Read the text, or a portion of the text, once cold. No notes, no looking up things up in reference books, just trying to enjoy it.
Read the text or that portion of the text again. This time I make notes of any vocabulary or anything else that I want to look up in a reference, but I do not actually look at references until I are done reading the text. I like to make the notes right in the text itself so that when I actually open my references later, I can see exactly what the context for that word or phrase is. If one does not want to mark the text itself (perhaps it’s a borrowed copy) one can make the notes on a separate piece of paper.
After the second reading, I look up whatever I marked. Nowadays I turn my notes into cards for Anki without fleshing them out on paper, but in the past I would write out the full explanations on paper.
Now read the text for a third time. When using paper notes, I did this as soon as I have finished looking everything up in references and completing the notes. Using Anki, I wait until I have reviewed the cards for a few cycles before re-reading the text.
This full approach was very helpful to me when I was at an intermediate level. At that time, I felt I needed to re-read the texts to help the new language stick in my brain – and I advise all beginner and intermediate learners to re-read texts. Re-reading texts is also helpful for advanced learners. However my time is not unlimited, so usually I think reading fresh text is a better use of my time so I can see words being used in many different contexts. I still use this approach – I just take out steps. For example, I often do the following –
Read the text cold and mark anything I don’t understand or am uncertain about.
Later go through my markings, take note of the context, look things up in references, and turn them into Anki cards.
Notice that in this shortened version I am only reading the full text once (I of course re-read the bits I marked).
One of my basic principles is to never interrupt reading to look things up. I want to get involved in the text, and having to pull out a dictionary every time I see a word I don’t know breaks the flow. Once in a while, if there is a word that is showing up over and over again, is clearly very important, and I have no idea what it means, I might pull out the dictionary in the middle of reading, but that rarely happens.
Of course, I decide which of the above steps to include based on why I am reading a text. Here are the most common situations:
On a Break: Sometimes I want to focus on skills other than reading, or I just want to take a break from difficult texts. So I pick texts which I find enjoyable and relatively easy. I just read the texts once cold, without markings – putting in any more effort would defeat the purpose of taking a break.
Casual: These would also be texts which I am mainly reading for enjoyment, not expanding my Chinese – but if I do not consider myself ‘on break’ I will still mark whatever I don’t know, look up things in references, and make Anki cards out of them. The bulk of my reading practice these days is like this – it has to be enjoyable and not excessively difficult for me to be able to put in the many hours it takes to become truly comfortable reading Chinese.
Pushing my level: This is when I am picking a difficult text so I can increase my Chinese proficiency (though I always pick a text which I am also interested in for its own sake – there are too many interesting things to read in Chinese for me to waste my time on a text I don’t care about). I am far more likely to add steps when the main purpose is to expand my Chinese – and if I feel overwhelmed, I will do the full approach described above.
Specific purpose, example 1: I plan to write an essay about a text in Chinese. I will probably make the markings and Anki cards and re-read the text at least once (after a few rounds of reviews on Anki), even if it’s not challenging.
Specific purpose, example 2: I have a prescription for some medicine, and the English instructions are so badly written that they are unreliable (this really happened to me). Even if I am 95% sure of what the Chinese instructions say, I would probably put in extra effort to be absolutely certain that I understand what my prescription says (such as talking with a fluent Chinese speaker to check my comprehension)
There are many other situations where something other than language acquisition goals might affect the way someone approaches a text.
To benchmark reading speed, I need a set of texts which have equivalent length and difficulty, preferably of a type which I have also read in my native language (English). Thus, when I compare the speed I take to reach each text, I am comparing apples to apples, and I can also compare to my English reading speed. The set of texts I use is a manhwa called Goong (我的野蠻王妃 ). Each volume is of a similar length and has similar language, and a new Chinese-language volume gets published once in a while. I had actually been reading Goong in English before I started studying Chinese, so I know how long it takes to read a volume in English – but this is a personal choice.
Unfortunately, no two texts are completely equivalent, and many factors can interfere with the accuracy of the measurement. Each learner should find their own texts which personally works for them. Aside from comics, other good sources of long series of texts with consistent length and difficulty include: novels (each chapter can be counted as a separate text), series of novels, newspapers, magazines,, and blogs (if it is a very consistent blog). Olle Linge says that he uses the novel The War of the Worlds and reads it 10 pages at a time. If you have any other ideas about good series of texts to use for benchmarking, please comment.
I find it very encouraging when I know that I am encountering fewer and fewer unfamiliar vocabulary, so I benchmark it. Like benchmarking for speed, I need a set of texts with equivalent length and language difficulty. When I took paper notes, it was obvious when the notes were becoming fewer and fewer for each chunk of text. Now that I use Anki instead of paper notes, I use a different tag for every chunk. For example, I read an 8-volume edition of The Giant Eagle and Its Companion (神鵰俠侶 ). I used different tag for each volume. I could have also chosen to make tags for each chapter, or for every 20 pages. By tagging each equivalent chunk of text, I can track whether I have to look up more or fewer things per chunk. For example, according to Anki, theses are the cards I made for each volume of The Giant Eagle and Its Companion:
Volume 1: 105 cards
Volume 2: 74 cards
Volume 3: 80 cards
Volume 4: 92 cards
Volume 5: 74 cards
Volume 6: 60 cards
Volume 7: 60 cards
Volume 8: 73 cards
Now, notice that sometimes I had to look up more words than for the previous volume. Yet I had to look up 88 words per volume on average for the first half of the novel, but only 72 words per volume on average for the second half of the novel. If you’re wondering why I looked up so few words, it’s because this is the sequel to The Eagle-Shooting Heroes (射鵰英雄傳), which I read first. For the just first chapter of The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, I had to look up 82 words.
Sometimes there is a major vocabulary spike for a certain chunk. For example, if a story which mostly takes place on land has a scene which takes place at sea, I might have to look up a lot of vocabulary related to seafaring, and which would cause a vocabulary spike. But the overall long-term trend is downward. Measuring and seeing the downward trend is very satisfying.
Dealing with the glossing problem
When I read in my native language (English), particularly when I’m a little tired, I have a lot on my mind, or I am reading for a long period of time, I have a tendency to let things the words enter and exit my mind before I register them. For a long time, this was not an issue in Chinese because a) I did not have the stamina to read Chinese for long periods of time without break b) I read Chinese extremely slowly and c) reading Chinese required a lot of my mental faculties. However, I can now read Chinese for hours non-stop, my reading speed in Chinese has increased greatly (at least for works of fiction), I stumble on far fewer unknown characters/words/idioms, and it requires less of my mental faculties. So, if I’m not careful, I can read 10 pages of Chinese text and have none of it sink in.
In a way, it is a wonderful problem to have – it means that my Chinese reading skills are approaching my English reading skills. However, it is still a problem. What I do is that after each page or so, I try to summarize in my mind what happened. If I can’t make a summary, then I know that I need to be more focused, and I might even make myself re-read the page. This almost always slows me down, which is frustrating, but it’s better to read slower and absorb it than to fly through it. If I get involved in the story, I’ll stop doing the mental summaries because it is no longer necessary.
If you have any other suggestions on how to deal with the glossing problem, please comment.
The most important thing
The most important thing is to find a text that you are really motivated to read.
There is a comic – Evyione: Ocean Fantasy – which I loved when I first read it, but was never continued in English. Then I discovered that it had been translated into Chinese as 人魚戀人 – and that the Chinese-language edition went beyond where the English-language edition stopped. Even though the Chinese was significantly above my level, I was a lot more interested in reading it that whatever I was reading at the time in Chinese. So I dropped my short-term study goals had a kamikaze experience. It was the most challenging experience I ever had reading Chinese. I developed the approach described in this article so that I could handle Evyione (some refinements came later, of course).
And it was so worth it. I went from frequently feeling discouraged when I saw written Chinese to seeing any text in Chinese – no matter how difficult – as something I could handle if I had enough time and put in the effort.
If you cannot find any text for which you have a strong motivation, do some research on Chinese-language literature and pop culture. Particularly pop culture – I am amazed at how ignorant I used to be of Chinese-language pop culture. and I think most Chinese language courses do not do enough to introduce students to the pop culture. There was a time when there seemed to be nothing I really wanted to read in Chinese; now it seems like I’ll never have enough time to read all of the things I want to read in Chinese (many of which are not available in English). Do whatever you need to do to get a Chinese-language text that you are really motivated to read in your hands.
If you want to learn more about Chinese-language pop culture, you could follow my new column, It Came From the Sinosphere, at Manga Bookshelf, where I write about Chinese-langauge pop culture every week. There is also my article on reading comics in Chiense, which will be published here on Hacking Chinese in roughly a week..
Your own approach
I have shaped my approach based on my goals, my learning style, and the texts I am dealing with. These factors are obviously going to be different for every Chinese learner. My purpose in writing this article was to explain my approach to reading Chinese so that other Chinese learners could get ideas of things they could try to integrate into their own approach to reading. For example, I wish somebody gave me the idea of extracting vocabulary to make Anki cards earlier so I would have quit making paper notes sooner.
On the other hand, I think there might be situations where paper notes are more appropriate than Anki (for example, if somebody needs to have a good comprehension of a text within two days and has limited computer access during that period of time), so maybe somebody out there finds the idea useful. So rather than a prescription, I think of this as a series of ideas laid out on a table for anybody to take – some of them are not going to be useful for a particular learner, but there might be a helpful new thought or two.
My own reading approach continues to evolve as my goals, my Chinese proficiency, and the texts I’m working with change – so please comment about how you approach reading Chinese. I would appreciate some helpful new thoughts myself.
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.