Input is extremely important when learning a language. Without having heard something, how are you supposed to be able to say it? Without having read something, how are you supposed to be able to write it? Building a passive knowledge of Chinese is essential, not only because it allows you to read and listen, but also because it is the gateway to all other knowledge.
The more you understand, the more you learn
Research tells us that the more we understand, the more we learn. If you understand almost nothing, you will learn little. If you understand almost everything, you will pick up the few bits you didn’t already know. The problem facing adult learners of Chinese is two-fold:
- There isn’t enough learner-oriented reading material
- The material that exists is not interesting enough
You need much more reading than your textbook can offer and you need it to be at roughly the same level. One way of alleviating this problem is to use more than one textbook series in parallel, but this solution is far from ideal. There is a better solution, though.
A graded reader is a book with a limited difficulty, often set by a certain number of words to make it easy to read. For Chinese graded readers, the number of unique characters is the most common measurement.
Mandarin Companion offers a new series of readers, currently five books, all at the most basic level, which use only 300 unique characters. That means that they are accessible from a very early stage. I think Mandarin Companion is suitable both for beginners and intermediate learners, though:
- Beginners can extend their reading beyond the textbook and read texts that are both interesting and capped at a certain difficulty, meaning that you can read and learn everything in these books and be quite sure you’re learning very high frequency characters and words.
- Intermediate learners can use the series for extensive reading (i.e. the kind I mentioned above where you understand most of the text already). Even though 300 characters don’t sound like much, I think only advanced learners will be able to read through all these books without finding a single new word.
Mandarin Companion is published by Mind Spark Press and edited by John Pasden. The original stories are written by various authors (see below) and adapted by Renjun Yang.
In order to write this review, I read through all five books. They come in both a simplified and traditional edition, so choose whichever you prefer (I read the traditional versions) .
Before I review each volume individually, I’d like to say a few words about them as a whole. To begin with, they are all much more interesting than the average textbook, much longer and generally well-written. The language is mostly natural-sounding (given the strict limit in the umber of characters, of course) and in difference to native texts, the same words are reused over and over, which is great for learning.
Each volume consists of around 10 000 Chinese characters, so while not super long, they should last the reader a long time, depending on your reading ability. Combining all the books forms a solid step on your journey to becoming literate in Chinese. Each story is adapted from a well-known story, which has been relocated to China and populated by Chinese people (so no ten-character transliterations of words, which is a great relief).
There is also a list of words included, all hyperlinked so if you read on screen, you can find the definitions of selected words easily. Each book also comes with discussion questions, which perhaps feel more relevant if you use the books in class or in a group, but yo could also answer them and upload your texts to Lang-8 or similar. Each volume is richly illustrated with pictures of much higher quality than we’re used to in educational material, a big thumbs up!
All books can be browsed on Mandarin Companion’s homepage and the price varies from $7 to $13 depending on if you want an e-book or a printed book. I have included direct links to Amazon for each book below.
Almost 50 000 characters of beginner-friendly reading
I’m now going to introduce and briefly comment on the five stories that make up the first level. The story summaries are from the official website.
盲人国 (Country of the Blind by H.G. Wells)
“In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” repeats in Chen Fangyuan’s mind after he finds himself trapped in a valley holding a community of people for whom a disease eliminated their vision many generations before and no longer have a concept of sight. Chen Fangyuan quickly finds that these people have developed their other senses to compensate for their lack of sight. His insistence that he can see causes the entire community to believe he is crazy. With no way out, Chen Fangyuan begins to accept his fate until one day the village doctors believe they now understand what is the cause of his insanity those useless round objects in his eye sockets.
This s my favourite story among the five. The story is well-worth reading apart from any language-learning ambition, and the twist at the end is the same as the one I thought of when I read the original story some fifteen years ago. I think the reason I liked this book the most is also that it has a well-paced narrative, a clear structure and an interesting basic premise. I have nothing to complain about, really good!
猴爪 (The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs)
Mr. and Mrs. Zhang live with their grown son Guisheng who works at a factory. One day an old friend of Mr. Zhang comes to visit the family after having spent years traveling in the mysterious hills of China’s Yunnan Province. He tells the Zhang family of a monkey’s paw that has magical powers to grant three wishes to the holder. Against his better judgement, he reluctantly gives the monkey paw to the Zhang family, along with a warning that the wishes come with a great price for trying to change ones fate…
This story also has a clear narrative and good pacing. I found the story a bit too predictable and less interesting than the Country of the Blind, but still worthwhile. If you like horror stories more than speculative fiction, perhaps this is the best book for you, although like many classic horror stories, it isn’t very scary.
秘密花园 (The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett)
Li Ye (Mary Lennox) grew up without the love and affection of her parents. After an epidemic leaves her an orphan, Li Ye is sent off to live with her reclusive uncle in his sprawling estate in Nanjing. She learns of a secret garden where no one has set foot in ten years. Li Ye finds the garden and slowly discovers the secrets of the manor. With the help of new friends, she brings the garden back to life and learns the healing power of friendship and love.
I liked this story, mostly because the characters were interesting and not as bland as they tend to be in many textbooks. I haven’t read the original, but I think this adaptation is most suitable for younger readers. I like the theme of exploration, both in the physical sense of exploring the estate and in the figurative sense of finding out the truth about the secret garden.
六十年的梦 (“The Sixty-Year Dream”, Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving)
Zhou Xuefa (Rip Van Winkle) is well loved by everyone in his town, everyone except his nagging wife. With his faithful dog Blackie, Zhou Xuefa spends his time playing with kids, helping neighbors, and discussing politics in the teahouse. One day after a bad scolding from his wife, he goes for a walk into the mountains and meets a mysterious old man who appears to be from an ancient time. The man invites him into his mountain home for a meal and after drinking some wine, Zhou Xuefa falls into a deep sleep. He awakes to a time very different than what he once knew.
This is the weakest story of the five and the only one I can’t wholeheartedly recommend. I found the premise interesting, but the story lacked an interesting plot and more felt like the main character experiencing a series of disconnected events that built up to nothing in particular.
卷发公司的案子 (The Red Headed League by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
Mr. Xie was recently hired by the Curly Haired Company. For a significant weekly allowance, he was required to sit in an office and copy articles from a book, while in the meantime his assistant looked after his shop. He had answered an advertisement in the paper and although hundreds of people applied, he was the only one selected because of his very curly hair. When the company unexpectedly closes, Mr. Xie visits Gao Ming (Sherlock Holmes) with his strange story. Gao Ming is certain something is not right, but will he solve the mystery in time?
I’ve read and liked most of the original Sherlock Holmes stories and I have read several children’s versions in Chinese as well. I wish I had read this one instead! It’s much more suitable for learners than any book for Chinese children. The story is a typical Sherlock Holmes story where we follow the confused Watson as Holmes expertly solves another mystery. An interesting and neatly paced story and a good read in general.
Room for improvement
I’m very enthusiastic about graded readers in general, but no review would be complete without also covering a few areas where there’s room for improvement. The most glaring examples of this is that there is no audio. John has told me that they plan to release audio, but until it’s there, this remains the only real drawback with this series of graded readers. The rest I have to say could be considered nitpicking.
For instance, the glossary sometimes feels like it’s been based only on word frequency, meaning that some phrases that are far from obvious are left unexplained, while some easy words you can find in any dictionary are included. I would have liked to see more notes for these types of phrases that I guess most beginners will struggle with. To show you what I mean, here are two examples:
奇怪 here means 觉得很奇怪, but this isn’t explained. If you look the word up, it means “strange”, but this sentence doesn’t mean that he (陳方遠) is strange. This usage is normal in Chinese, but not in English. I would have either avoided it or explained it. Students usually learn this much later than many of the words that are explained. Here’s another example:
This is another sentence that would have benefited from an explanation. 聽我的 means that other people should do as you say, but with a beginner’s understanding of Chinese, this sentence just means that they should listen to him. Again, annotation for these types of sentences would have been more useful than some of the words that are currently included.
In summary, Mandarin Companion fills a gap and does it very well. I recommend all beginner and intermediate learners to get at least one book and try it out, then get the rest of them (except perhaps the Sixty-Year Dream). I would have liked audio, though, and my recommendation will be even more wholehearted when audio versions are released. Still, these are graded readers and as such, I warmly recommend them!