Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Reading manga in Chinese for more than just pleasure

Before I started learning Chinese, I wasn’t too keen on reading manga (Japanese for “comics”, 漫画/漫畫 in Chinese).

However, while living in Taiwan, I had easy access to a more or less unlimited source of manga translated into Chinese. Gradually, I became aware that reading manga is a very good way to address certain problem associated with learning Chinese, especially if you learn the language in a formal environment.

Since then, I have thought quite a bit about this and I now consider reading manga to be extremely good, not only for beginner/intermediate students, but also for those on a more advanced level. In this article I will discuss some merits of reading manga.

For a much more detailed discussion about how to use comics to improve your Chinese, check this article: A language learner’s guide to reading comics in Chinese.

Seeing colloquial Chinese in written form

Most of the text in manga is dialogue and it will be fairly colloquial (depending a little on what manga you’re reading). This gives you an almost unique opportunity to see sounds, words or phrases written down that you will never find in any textbook or any dictionary. To begin with, you will be flooded with modal particles (啊,喔,啦,唉,嘛,etc.). Sure, if you socialise with many native speakers, you’re likely to learn how and when to use these anyway, but seeing them written down really helps. in formal texts, you don’t see them very often, but reading manga they sometimes appear almost in every sentence.

Also, you will encounter many onomatopoetic words (such as “bang”, “hiss” or “crash”) and you will clearly see how they are used and written, because they appear next to whatever is producing the sound. I’ve always found dictionaries lacking when it comes to descriptions of these words.

Moving over to words and phrases, there are many small words or ways of expression that will typically not be taught by your teacher or your textbook, but are still very common. Just hearing these isn’t always enough, sometimes reading them is the key to both understanding and usage.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a word written down and thought to myself “Ah, so that’s what people have been saying all the time!” In short, it’s a way to study explicitly words that you might hear all the time, but usually don’t pay attention to. In this way, reading manga will help your listening ability quite a lot, especially when it comes to understanding colloquial Chinese. Needless to say, it’s also a way to learn new slang or spoken forms.

Circumventing the Great Wall of Chinese

Reading a normal book in Chinese is intimidating if you’ve never done it before and it might still be even if you have read books before. It’s basically a literary representation of the great wall, so massive and threatening that even trying feels futile, a compact wall of texts stopping you from advancing any further.

Reading manga is a way to get around this. You don’t need to bang your head against the wall, you can instead approach normal books more slowly. Manga consists of pictures and text, which not only allows you to understand the text more easily, but it also makes the text feel less intimidating by spreading it out over many pages. In a way, it’s a lightweight novel and can be used as a stepping stone to read other texts.

Reading manga for pleasure

Even though the title of this article suggests that I should be talking about other things than pleasure, I think pleasure is important enough to bring up anyway. There are a wide variety of manga out there and since Chinese people like manga too, much has been translated from Japanese.

There are of course also comics originally written in Chinese. The point is that if you spend some time looking around, you will probably find authors and artists you really like. If you want to read a lot, you’d better like what you’re reading. As we have seen, there are several reasons to read manga that aren’t simply for pleasure, but don’t forget that pleasure is important, too.


In short, manga serves two important functions apart from being enjoyable in itself. The first is that it gives us access to language we would otherwise hardly ever see in written form, the other is that it lowers the threshold for reading books in Chinese. Reading manga just for fun is fine, but if you think about it, you’ll see that it can be very useful as well!

Continue reading: A language learners guide to reading comics in Chinese

Image credit: “Manga section, bookstore, train station, Shenzhen, China” by Cory Doctorow is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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  1. vermillon says:

    Interesting topic… I’ve been thinking of that when I was living in China, but somehow I’ve never bought any, for several reasons:
    -I’m not really a manga person. In my own language I’ve never really read any manga, except the “graphic novel” kind.
    -They’re almost all translated from Japanese. When I read a novel in Chinese, I want it to be a Chinese novel. As opposed to English which can serve as a stepping stone to access material from many places you don’t speak the language of, when I learn Chinese I want to access to material that is Chinese or not available in English.
    -I have never found a good Chinese manga… I’ve seen a few, but I’ve always found they were either for teenagers (and I know manga can be for older audience, but I haven’t found Chinese ones…)

    So as you’ve mentioned Chinese manga, could you name a few?

    If I had to choose, I’d go for Western graphic novels translated into Chinese, such as Persepolis, Maus or recently Logicomix.

  2. Sara K. says:

    Heh, as someone who keen on reading manga (and manhwa, and comics in general) prior to studying Chinese, this was quite obvious to me.

    That said, which manga do you like (or manhua or manhwa)? I actually, mysteriously, have yet to read any manga in Chinese – only manhwa and manhua. Mainly because I generally prefer contemporary manhwa to contemporary manga (though there are exceptions, and there are of course the excellent manga classics to read), and so little manhua has ever been published in English that I haven’t really *had* an opportunity to read a lot of manhua before (BTW, manga = Japanese comics, manhwa = Korean comics, manhua = comics originally written in Chinese).

    1. Olle Linge says:

      @Sara: Is this division commonly accepted? I’ve never read anything from Korea, but I’ve always used manhua and manga interchangeably, I mean manhua is just manga written in pinyin. If there is a division, I wasn’t aware of it. I thought I had reviewed more manga than I actually have, but it turns out Black Jack is the only one I have published something about. I read quite lot of different stuff, some of Miyazaki’s films turned into comics, some Hetalia, some other things I don’t ever remember what they were called. Do you have any suggestions? I should read more.

      @Snapp: Almost everything I read was paper editions, but there are plenty of sites that offers free manga online. Here are some (though I don’t know which one is best or if there are better, perhaps someone else can help?):


      @Matt: See the links above, perhaps you can find something there? I watched Full Metal Alchemist (the anime) long before I started learning Chinese and liked it quite a lot. Perhaps I should start looking up old favourites and see if they exist as comics? That certainly sounds like a good idea. Do you have any suggestions? I generally like creative settings (such as Full Metal Alchemist). I wish the Chinese wrote more stuff like this. Perhaps they do and I’ve just been too lazy to find it. 🙂

  3. Snapp says:

    Where do you find Chinese manga online?

  4. Matt says:

    Since I’m just starting out with native material, manga is my primary source for reading right now and I’m really enjoying it. I started out with some Pokemon since I thought it would be easiest, but it was too boring so I switched to Dragonball, which has been great so far (I’m 6 volumes in). The level is appropriate for lower-intermediate learners and the storyline is great, much better than the animated show would lead you to believe. It’s actually incredibly funny.

    I would like to read some Chinese manhua but don’t know where to start…so I was planning on continuing with translated Japanese stuff when I’m done, next up is Death Note, Detective Conan, and Fullmetal Alchemist (hopefully none are too hard). What did you like reading, Olle?

    I’m not sure about where to find stuff online but there’s a thread on Chinese forums that has a few scans up: http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/27354-grand-comic-reading-project/

  5. Sara K. says:

    The manga/manhwa/manhua/etc. division is commonly accepted, though there are certainly grey boundaries (“nouvelle manga” comes to mind). Of course, this mostly applies to comic book fans. People who are not comic book fans spend a lot less time reading, talking, and writing about comic books, so their usage of terms referring to various kinds of comic books is much less consistent.

    As for manhwa … I wrote a two-part guest blog feature explaining why Evyione: Ocean Fantasy is awesome, which you can read at:


    There are of course plenty of other excellent manhwa available in Chinese and/or English, Evyione: Ocean Fantasy (人魚戀人) just happens to be a personal favourite.

    As far as manhua – my favorite so far is definitely 射鵰英雄傳 by 李志清, adapted from the novel by 金庸 – though because it is set in medieval China, it uses a lot of vocabulary one does not find in everyday conversation.

    As for manga – I don’t know what your tastes are, so here is a list of various manga I consider excellent that I think would appeal to a wide range of people:

    20th Century Boys (二十世纪少年) – a group of boys create a story about how a villain will try to take over the world and a group of heroes have to stop him. When they grow up, they discover that the story they made up is becoming true.
    Rose of Versailles (凡爾賽的玫瑰) – a French nobleman has many daughters and no sons, so he decides that his youngest child is a son, not a daughter, and raises her as a man so she can fulfil the family’s traditional role as the guards of the French royal family.
    Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (JoJo的奇妙冒险) – this is a mostly straightforward story of good vs. evil – it’s the way that the two sides fight (they rely more on wits than on brawns) which makes this so engaging
    Antique Bakery (西洋骨董洋菓子店) – it is hard to write a blurb for this, so I will just say that most people who have read it consider it one of their most beloved manga (including me)
    Maison Ikkoku (相聚一刻) – loser college student lives in a boarding house run by a widow. He falls in love with her of course. This is a comedy.
    7Seeds (幻海奇情) – a group of teenagers who have never met each other wake up in a jungle. They have no idea how they got there, who each other are, or why they are there (there is a lot more to this than that, I am just trying to avoid spoilers)
    Banana Fish (戰慄殺機) – 1980s gangster. Some people (including me) like it / love it mainly because of the action, suspense, and the drugs, other people love it because of the tender relationship between the two main characters, and some people love it for both. I suspect you would enjoy at least one of these aspects.
    Nana (Nana) – Extemely popular shojo (girls’) manga. I think it is so popular because manages to connect to the kind of daydreams girls have – but also manages to be realistic in certain ways (hard to describe)

    I hope this list gives you ideas!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      It certainly gives me ideas! Thanks a lot both for the explanation and the recommendations. I haven’t read any comics in Chinese since I left Taiwan, but I should definitely try to find more and your list will help. Thanks. 🙂

  6. Harland says:

    How do you get away from the stigma of manga? I’m a full-grown man, I can’t be seen reading this stuff. I mean, come on, Dragonball? That is intended (by the word of its creators) for boys aged 9-12. I’ve already been a young boy and read children’s literature, I don’t need to go there again.

    If your answer is “what do you care what other people think?” then I’m going to have to ask you if you’ve ever actually lived in China. It does, in fact, matter what other people think. There’s this concept called “face” that applies. Some of us aren’t English teachers with disposable jobs. If the solution is to read manga at home with the doors locked and the window shades drawn, then nah, won’t be doing that. The one good point is that in China I won’t be perceived as a weeaboo!

  7. Sara K. says:

    Maybe you should read manga/manhwa/manhua written for grown-ups. Of my manga recommendations, the following were written for an adult audience: 20th Century Boys, Antique Bakery, Maison Ikkoku. 7Seeds and Nana are aimed at an older teen / 20s demographic and are also definitely not for kids (too much nudity/sex). Actually, Banana Fish is so violent and graphic that it also is not for anyone younger than a teenager as well (it is definitely the most violent manga I recommended). The only titles I recommended which truly are for people of all ages are Rose of Versailles and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure.

    Evyione: Ocean Fantasy looks, at first, like a children’s title, even though it really not, especially the later volumes (again, on the grounds of violence/nudity/sex).

    射鵰英雄傳 should be a pretty safe choice, as the original novel is considered a classic of modern Chinese literature. Indeed, when people saw me reading it, they thought I was reading the novel itself unless they took a closer look.

  8. Harland says:

    射鵰英雄傳 sounds great…but honestly, with the limited space in my brain, I avoid learning any Chinese that I’ll never use. It’s great for my personal development and all, but “Ye Olde Mandarine” lies in the same part of the culture as Classical Chinese. If the average Zhou doesn’t know what it means, then why should I?

    As a man who just turned 41 last week, I often feel left out of the whole Chinese learning thing. I wish I could be like Matt, who is probably 15, and who will speak better Chinese by the time he turns 18 than I ever will. 🙁

    I honestly wish I could take three or four years out of my life and go back to college and do nothing but learn Mandarin, but I’m in my prime earning years and the opportunity cost is just too great. It’s already enough that I study an hour a day and yet I can get a CET-6 translator for 2000 yuan per month. I tried to convince the home office to hire a teacher for me, but they compared the cost of an hourly tutor to the cost of a full-time translator and told me “don’t bother!”

    1. Alexander says:

      Another option that has less stigma maybe than manga is the Chinese Breeze (汉语风)series from the Peking University Press. Some of the lower level books are a little.. sophomoric? but anything above the 500 word level is quite good. They also all include a CD for listening + some comprehension questions

  9. Adrian says:

    Where do you find Chinese manga online?

    Good article, I had the same thought, where to find online. I’d like the text as text (so I can lookup words more easily) rather than embedded in the manga image.

  10. Sara K. says:

    I am (usually) against illegal scans these days – while the creators of bestselling manga do not need more sales, illegal scans cut into the ability of less popular creators and their publishers to make enough money to continue their work, which means less work is created (or stops getting translated into other languages, etc.). That said, I still buy used copies and borrow copies, but at least the supply is restricted, so it has a much lower impact than online scans.

    That said, there is the website, YesAsia.com. You can buy a lot of comics in Chinese, it’s a lot cheaper than buying comics in English (usually), and if you order more than 39 USD worth of stuff, international shipping is free.


    How about Kosaku Shima (島耕作)? It is a manga about a fictional Japanese businessman which is very popular with real Japanese businesspeople, and considering how easy it is to find in Taiwan, I suspect a lot of Taiwanese businesspeople like to read it too. I do not think it would be embarrassing to be caught reading something that so many Asian businesspeople read, and I suspect a lot of the vocabulary would be useful for someone who wants to use Chinese for business purposes. I have only read a little myself, but I liked what I read.

    Also … could you use book covers? If someone is close enough to peek over your shoulder, couldn’t you explain that you are reading it to improve your Chinese?

  11. Anton says:

    Where would you recommend to get manga in Chinese if you don’t live in China? Are they sold anywhere in for example Sweden, either online or in stores? I’ve seen manga in Japanese in several stores in most cities, but in Chinese is a further specialty that I doubt many stores have. Can they be ordered somewhere relatively cheap? Or are scans on the net the way to go?

  12. Sara K. says:

    Like I already said, if you live outside of the Chinese speaking world, YesAsia.com is the best way to get Chinese-Language comics (unless you live in a city with a large Chinese-speaking population, such as San Francisco, where other options are available – such as the public library).

    I strongly advise against scans. It’s one thing if a group of fans translated some comics which were not formally translated into Chinese – but as far as I know, most scans are from formally published editions, which is basically stealing the work of the translators (and editors, the original artist, etc.) I suspect that many people here might consider becoming translators some day, so they should respect other translators’ work.

  13. Sara K. says:

    And sorry for the double post – but I just had another idea – if you know anyone in your area who is a native Chinese speaker (Mandarin, Cantonese, does not matter) they might either a) have their own Chinese comic book collection or b) know somebody in the area who does. If you can borrow Chinese-language comic books that way, not only is it extremely cheap, they can advise you which comics are good, and you have somebody to talk about the comics in Chinese with.

  14. Matt says:

    As a man who just turned 41 last week, I often feel left out of the whole Chinese learning thing. I wish I could be like Matt, who is probably 15, and who will speak better Chinese by the time he turns 18 than I ever will. 🙁

    Don’t I wish! In fact, I’m 27 and my Chinese is still quite poor.

    As for reading manga in public, I’m a grown-ass man and I really couldn’t care less about what other people think of me. I can’t speak on the mainland, but I currently live in Taiwan and on the contrary people often strike up conversations with me about Dragonball because they have read it or find it interesting that I’m able to read it (great conversation starter for people usually too shy to speak to a foreigner). On the topic of face, I’ve never really felt like it applied to me–as a foreigner, I’m almost always treated with an incredibly high level of respect and even deference. Besides, I’m sure everyone immediately realizes I’m reading it because more advanced material is too difficult for me.

    But above all, Dragonball–and a lot of other manga, I’m sure–is just plain good entertainment. If I could read Lu Xun et al, I would, but in the meantime I’m going to find whatever ways I can to enjoy my exposure to Chinese. Sure beats reading a textbook!

  15. Pan Blurray says:


    Matt: Reading Manga (or consuming any element of Japanese culture) is nowhere near as common in China as it is in Taiwan. Infact, if you find older Manga in used bookstores here it is generally pushed in Taiwan in traditional characters. When I lived in Taiwan, where I started learning Mandarin, I would read Manga far for frequently. I’ve picked up a few books here, because they are much easier to read on the bus or something like that, but the selection is much more limited than in Taiwan. As for comics that were originally published in Mandarin, I haven’t found any that are worth suggesting.

    Harland: While to some extent I just want to tell you to stop making excuses, I’ve had plenty of classmates in my Mandarin classes in China and Taiwan your age or older. I do understand the situation of not wanting to look foolish in-front of your coworkers or higher-ups and I think that, if your Mandarin is decent or when it gets to be, you should just try reading magazines. There is a decent magazine in China called 信睿 Thinker, and obviously things related to whatever area you are working in would be helpful too.

    I think reading comics can be very helpful for learning Chinese though, because, as this post said, it uses a lot more standard vernacular for formally written pieces. If you don’t want to bother looking up all the words you don’t know it can still be somewhat understandable for you, and you can review the words you know, the sentence structure, and the different final particles. You might feel silly, but when learning a language we all have to go back to kindergarten for a little while.

  16. Scott says:

    This is a great article and it touches on all the elements of why reading 漫画 has become my preferred study method. My complete set of Dragonball books has taught me countless colloquial phrases and 成语, not to mention that the story is a fun read no matter your age. The characters are all very well-developed and represent themselves in fitting speech patterns: precocious kid, stuck-up teenage girl, dirty old man, bumbling would-be robbers, etc. This series in particular is fairly beloved by the collected Chinese inner child. I am shameless by nature, but I’ve never had an unpleasant conversation started with strangers or peers when they see me reading Dragonball or similar series (I’m 25). The foreigner card lets you get away with a bit, so I suggest not taking oneself too seriously. I have taken on a pretty intense collecting habit for 漫画,and would like to offer a few more suggestions:
    Dr. Slump (I.Q. 博士)same author as Dragonball, a sight-gag comedy about an android girl and her creator.
    Crayon Shinchan (蜡笔小心)a comedy about a perverted 5-y/o and the shenanigans he puts his family through.
    Ranma 1/2 (乱马1/2) A martial arts comedy about a boy suffering a curse which turns him into a female whenever he gets wet.

  17. Scott says:


  18. Malte says:

    Thanks for this interesting article. It just reminded me of my last months from my first year in China. I ordered the whole Dragonball Series online (42 Mangas) and as I had nothing else to do I read them all day. Took me about a month to finish them all but it was so much fun and such a good feeling to be able to read something that’s kinda like a book. Later on I started with Conan as it had more difficult vocabulary.

    I also can recommend watching Animes in Chinese.

  19. Elaine Gardner says:

    Hi Ollie! I’m older and have been trying to learn this beautiful language for probably 2 years now. Unfortunately, I’ve had a LOT of interruptions, mainly health/medication-related, but since my Son moving to China has been put on hold for right now; I’m no longer in a rush to try and cram as much learning as possible into a short amount of time. To be honest, (and maybe part of it is my age ?), I’m finding I’m actually learning MORE taking a more relaxed attitude these days. I’m also having more fun, experimenting with different things like your WordSwing app and I have more Chinese children’s books, manga and “readers” than I’ll probably ever get around to using! I’m also going to be helping out a young couple I’ve gotten to know in Taiwan who have started their own company-actually, they’ve been doing it for awhile, but they’re trying to reorganize it, make it a real course and something they can do full-time. I’ve often referred them to your sites for questions or suggestions. ?. Recently, I got dragged into freelance writing and researching again and because it’s an extremely heavy, involved subject, and can be nerve-wracking, I am often “escaping” into my Chinese studies or reading. As I told my friends yesterday who were concerned about me-I NEED it. I’ve ALWAYS, from a turbulent childhood to a chaotic & often over-active adulthood, used learning and reading as an escape. Some people turn to drugs and alcohol in my former profession (I was an ER Doc ?. Put myself through Medical School as a single Mom with 3 kids and several jobs. Then, I lost everything after an accident, spinal injury and divorce. And that’s only a tiny snippet!), I turned to books. I lost most everything in a Fire about 5 years ago. The Fire Dept asked me if I needed to save anything, they probably could before everything went up in flames. “My cat and my books”. Unfortunately, I lost my cat, but they saved most of my library. (I had firemen coming by for months asking if they could borrow books they had seen ?. They also brought me a month-old abandoned kitten, who now seems to understand Chinese more than English. My Chinese friends have bugged me to get her on Weibo..maybe one day soon ?)
    I DO, obviously have a question. One of my tutors, (my first one, a lovely young man who’s considered a “genius” in China and who I watched go from college grad at 18, to CFO, to now working as a professional translator after going through a prestigious program in Beijing.) has sent me most of these books and manga anthologies. I’m having particular problems with one, a very old series called SanMao. Because these were done in the ‘40’s -‘60’s, they are a mix of mainly traditional, but some have been updated to simplified. Although these ARE my favorites, Weiwei, my tutor, as well as my friends in Taiwan, are now saying I might want to pack these away for awhile because they could do more to confuse me. Weiwei thought they had all been updated-they haven’t. He’s concerned i’m Spending too much time learning out-dated language that isn’t even used anymore. I, however, am enjoying the “puzzle” aspect and just got the paid pack of Outlier in Pleco. The etymology fascinates me and I have also been learning some Chinese calligraphy with a sweet elderly lady, the grandmother of one of my son’s friends who is also a retired professor. Of course, SHE thinks it’s great that I’m trying to read SanMao!
    I really respect your views on these things and would love to hear what you think before I start on a set Weiwei sent me last year. The history and culture in these books also fascinate me; but if you think it could also interfere with my, probably upper-beginner learning level, I’ll back off for now.
    What says the learned Ollie? ?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’d say interest trumps utility, although I agree with them that it can be confusing. I would much prefer newer material if your goal is to improve Mandarin for communicative purposes. If you’re more after enjoyment, then do whatever you like best!

  20. Jorge Arraño says:

    Hi, could you suggest any manga (or Manhua) for beginners in Traditional Chinese (actually, I live in Taiwan)? I love to read, but the class book (level 1) is so dull.

    PD: great article!

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