Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Best of Hacking Chinese 2020

We’re now a few weeks into 2021 and it’s time to summarise 2020 here on Hacking Chinese. Last year was a bit different, because we also celebrated 10 years of Hacking Chinese in November, which means I’ve already reflected and reminisced more than usual recently.

Thus, I will keep this article brief and focus on articles here on Hacking Chinese. Yes, I did start a podcast last year, along with many other things, but I feel that I’ve talked about that a lot already.

Below, I present the five best articles by popular vote (as measured by page views) and the five best articles according to me. It’s not uncommon that articles I rather like end up being unpopular and vice versa, so this is a good opportunity for me to highlight articles I think more people ought to read!

Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to listen to this article:

Available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, Overcast, Spotify and many more!

Before we do that, though, here’s a list of previous New Year summaries on Hacking Chinese for those of you who want to see development overtime, which is almost never as one planned it:

How was your 2020? For many, it was a very unusual year, mostly in a bad way, but hopefully you made some progress towards your goal! Please leave a comment below if you feel like summarising your 2020 and maybe look forward to the rest of 2021 as well!

Best of Hacking Chinese 2020 – Editor’s choice

Below are my favourite articles from 2020. I have included a short introduction to the article, as well as a link to the article itself. In case there is a podcast episode for that article, I have linked to that as well!

Many people believe that add information is always beneficial when learning and teaching. However, this is often not the case, as on overload of information can be distracting an decrease the chances of learning something. Using colour to represent tones in Mandarin is such an example. Colour has its uses for making tones easier to see (for many people, colours are easier to see than small diacritic marks), but there’s no evidence to show that adding colour actually makes tones easier to learn.

Does using colour to represent Mandarin tones make them easier to learn?

This is a central question for both Chinese students and teachers. Should you focus on spoken Chinese first? That is, after all, the way native speakers learn. It can also be argued that the spoken language is the true language, and that the written language is in some ways a more static and artificial reflection of it (even though many Chinese people probably don’t agree with that). And if you do decide to delay learning the written language, how much should you delay it? This article was covered in the very first episode of the Hacking Chinese Podcast.

Should you learn to speak Chinese before you learn Chinese characters?

HSK is the most prevalent proficiency test for students of Chinese. Some students focus exclusively on HSK, taking courses and studying books dedicated to passing certain levels on the exam. But did you know that lots and lots of important and very common vocabulary is entirely left out of the exam? Some of this is likely to be included in the new versions of the HSK that we’re likely to see this year, but I’m confident some of these categories will be left out of the next version of HSK as well! This was covered in episode 2 of the Hacking Chinese Podcast.

What important words are missing from HSK?

Hacking Chinese was launched partly because I felt frustrated by the way Chinese was taught. Back then, I wasn’t sure if I was just unlucky or if Chinese language education really left a lot to wish for. Today, I know my experience was far from unique and I have had time to gather a much more complete image of how Chinese is taught in classrooms across the world. This article is a rant-in-disguise (although not a very good disguise). It covers twelve things regarding how Chinese characters are taught that go against what we know about sound pedagogy and sometimes also common sense. This was covered in episode 3 of the Hacking Chinese Podcast.

How to not teach Chinese characters to beginners: A 12-step approach

This article combines so many things I love: Chinese, teaching and games. It’s also one of the few articles I’ve written and published in both Chinese and English, including audio versions (although not on the podcast). I’m not surprised that this article doesn’t rank that well compared to other articles from 2020, simply because there are many, many more students than teacher, and this is one of the times where I simply wrote something for Chinese teachers instead of students. You can check the Chinese written and spoken version of the article here: 文字冒险游戏及其在对外汉语教学中的应用

Text adventure games and how to use them in the Chinese language classroom

Best of Hacking Chinese 2020 – Popular vote

Now over to you! Or to all visitors, actually. I don’t know why these articles are popular, but I can hazard an educated guess. Did you like these articles, or where there others you liked more?

Even though there are many beginners out there, there are also many intermediate students, and most of them have felt stuck at some point. You’ve fought your way through the beginner stages and have arrived on what looks like an endless plateau of intermediate learning. I’m happy this article was read by so many and I hope that it can cheer up intermediate learners and guide them across the plateau!

How to get past the intermediate Chinese learning plateau

Just like the previous article, this one deals with a problem most students are familiar with. The real challenge with learning characters in the long term isn’t really to learn characters, but to keep the characters you have learnt apart and distinct in your memory. All student (and native speakers) mix up characters. In this article, I present my best advice for how to deal with this problem!

Dealing with Chinese characters you keep mixing up

While this title sounds very clickbaity, it is actually entirely accurate and can be taken at face value. By buying the right kind of earphones, I really did double the amount of Chinese I listen to! I’m glad this article became so popular, but I hesitated a long time before actually writing it. I thought it was too small a thing to write an article about and that it would be obvious to most people. But then I thought, if I learnt this trick after learning Chinese for thirteen years, it’s likely that many of you would benefit from it as well. And that seems to have been the case!

The simple trick I used to double the amount of Chinese I listen to

I’m somewhat surprised this ended up being the second most popular article published in 2020. Sure, it took a ridiculous amount of time to write this and I’m still proud of the review, but I didn’t think everybody else would find it so interesting. Naturally, the most reasonable explanation is that people hear about Skritter and search for it online. This review ranks very high on various search engines, which is why it keep receiving almost as much traffic today as it did when it was first written. I did my very best to give a balanced view of Skritter. If you use Skritter, do you think I succeeded? If you don’t use Skritter, maybe you should check the review!


There’s so much information floating around online about Chinese characters that its hard for beginners to make heads or tails of it. In this article, I attempted to bring order to the chaos and sort approaches to learning Chinese characters into five levels, starting with the outrageously misleading and directly detrimental to your character learning and ending with some kind holy grail of palaeographical purity. This article was shared widely,  including by John Pasden over at Sinosplice, who remixed it a bit to explain his take on the same question.

5 levels of understanding Chinese characters: Superficial forms to deep structure

Popular pages

I only considered pages above, but there are pagen on Hacking Chinese that are much more popular than the articles I write. Here are the top five most visited pages (disregarding the front page, blog and archive pages):

  1. Articles for beginners
  2. Articles for intermediate learners
  3. Unlocking Chinese: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners
  4. Hacking Chinese: A Practical Guide to Learning Mandarin
  5. Articles about listening ability


I always set over-ambitious targets for Hacking Chinese and almost never accomplish half of what I aim to do. I’ll try to be a bit more realistic this time. Here are a few projects I’m working on:

What would you like to see more of on Hacking Chinese?

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