25 books I read in Chinese last year

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

booksI wrote this article for several reasons:

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

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

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

25 books I read in Chinese last year (overview)

Fiction (general)

  • 《活著》 余華
  • 《棋王》 阿城

Fiction (science fiction or fantasy)

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

Non-fiction (science)

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

Non-fiction (linguistics)

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

Non-fiction (misc)

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

Reflections

25 books I read in Chinese last year (reviews)


Fiction (general)

《活著》 余華

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

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

《棋王》 阿城

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

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

Fiction (science fiction or fantasy)

《天觀雙俠》 鄭丰

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

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

《三體》 劉慈欣

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

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

《茫點》 倪匡

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

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

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

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

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

《飢餓遊戲》 蘇珊·柯林斯
《星火燎原》 蘇珊·柯林斯

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

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

Non-fiction (science)

《空想科學読本(二)》 柳田理科雄
《空想科學読本(三)》 柳田理科雄

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

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

《跟狗狗一起學物理》 查德·歐澤

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

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

Non-fiction (philosophy)

《科幻世界的哲學凝視》 陳瑞麟

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

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

《老子的部落格》 曹鴻濤

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

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

《黑天鵝語錄》 納西姆·尼可拉斯·塔雷伯

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

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

Non-fiction (linguistics)

《漢語音韻》 耿志堅

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

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

《華語語音學》 葉德明

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

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

《實用現代漢語語法》 劉月華等

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

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

Non-fiction (misc)

《謝謝你離開我》 張小嫻

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

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

《在世界盡頭遇見台灣》 羅聿

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

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

《漢字書法之美》 蔣勳

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

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



Reflections

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

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