A review of some Chinese learning resources
I’ve been learning to read Chinese for about 12 months. It’s very rewarding, but it can be a bit difficult to know which resources are good. To that end, I’m going to list the ones that I found helpful. I’m mainly aiming this at intermediate learners — (pre-2022) HSK4-ish, or so, but I include books that I used right at the start.
Three notes. Why, you might ask, are you in 2023 still reading books? Because I like not looking at screens constantly. Two: if you have additions, let me know. One thing to note is that I like cheap books, so good but expensive books I probably won’t buy. If you happen to know readers of Chinese history for intermediate people, please share. Ditto websites I’ve missed. Third, this is all Mandarin or putonghua — I’m also trying, with much less success, to learn the basics of spoken Cantonese. To the best of my knowledge, there are basically no good Cantonese-for-reading books. Please correct me if I’m wrong!
In no order. Laziness precludes me from giving author and publisher info but in each case googling the title will return the book. Purpleculture.net is my go-to for decent priced decent books. I just listed everything I own — some are only obliquely for language learning.
Newspaper Readings: The U.S.A. in The People’s Daily
This is both interesting and good. It says it’s for students who’ve done 1.5–2 years of Chinese in college. However, each reading has a very extensive English vocabulary — I read all the stories pretty easily when roughly at HSK4 (albeit having more experience with newspaper reading than a typical such student would have.) If you can get it cheap, do!
Galaxy Awards 1: Chinese Science Fiction Anthology
VERY highly recommended. Qua pedagogical device, it’s so-so — reasonably, since it isn’t meant to be. It’s a bilingual collection of award-winning recent Chinese sci-fi stories. In truth, the reason to get it is primarily the stories, which are great; the language practice is secondary. Reading full-blown sci-fi stories is a ways away for the intermediate reader.
Colora il mondo: 涂色世界
As above. Also, this is bilingual Chinese/Italian, so obviously you need to be able to read a bit of Italian. I read a couple from this and they’re good.
Futugrammi: 未来文字 (Italian Edition)
As above, but haven’t started yet.
McGraw-Hill’s Classic Chinese Reader
Cool book, maybe. It has more poems than my other Classical Chinese books. It’s not a textbook, just a reader. Also, it has simplified characters. And a bunch of the content is myths.
New HSK: Complete Vocabulary Lists: Word lists for HSK levels 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
If you like books, you should think about getting one that lists the HSK words. This is okay — it’s a bit big.
Short Stories in Chinese: New Penguin Parallel Text
Didn’t love this — the stories didn’t grip me. But not bad practice, if difficult.
Analects of Confucius (Classics of Ancient China): A Philosophical Translation
Unsure — it has Chinese and English. It would have been improved with glosses of each word. It has extensive intro essays the philosophical content of which I’m unsure about.
DAO de Jing: A Philosophical Translation
Beginner’s Mandarin Chinese Dictionary: The Ideal Dictionary for Beginning Students [Hsk Levels 1–5, Fully Romanized]
Collins Chinese Dictionary
Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words — Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-stories
HIGHLY recommended for the beginner. For one, all the vocab is in the back so you don’t have to fuss with a dictionary. For two, for roughly the very six months of learning, at least for me, practice is thin and so it’s good to be able to actually read some Chinese early to get motivation up. Otherwise, it’s just memorizing.
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words
As above. I basically bought this and the previous one as soon as I started learning and read this aspirationally (and with dictionary) when around HSK3. Not a bad thing to do if you don’t mind lots of dictionary work.
Classical Chinese For Everyone
Nice book, mostly covers philosophy which is good if you like philosophy.
Reading & Writing Chinese: Simplified Character Edition
HIGHLY recommended. I think this is a must. I think there are two schools re whether you should learn words or characters; this is a guide for the latter.
Chinese Character Fast Finder: Simplified Characters
HIGHLY recommended. I love this book. It’s a way to look up words based on their appearance that doesn’t require one to know radicals, stroke count, and so on. I would consider it the most essential book on this list.
Chinese Traditional Culture Comic: Zhuangzi Speaks The Music of Nature
Only recently got and started — as I understand, it’s a retelling of parts of Zhuangzi in modern Chinese. I don’t know about fidelity, but seems neat.
Journey to the West Book
This is in the same series as the above book (both from purpleculture). Same applies — the story is entertaining so far.
Chinese for Economics and Trade (I)
Unsure. Got it recently, it’s pretty advanced.
An Elementary Course in Scientific Chinese: Reading Comprehension Vol 1
Nicer — it’s one of the more beginner friendly books, and has nice interesting readings about science stuff that are inherently interesting and good for vocab.
Times: Newspaper Reading Course of Intermediate Chinese
Too hard for me!
Learning About China From Newspapers — Elementary Newspaper Reading (Book 1)
Great. When I got this I started to feel things come together. It taught me the relevant vocab for newspapers. Not super easy but somewhat accessible.
Introduction to Classical Chinese (with Answer Key to Exercises and 1 MP3)
Didn’t get excited by this. Didn’t find the readings all that interesting.
Okay — I completed the course, and I’m sure it was helpful but I can’t really think of either positive or negatives. One thing to note is that the course is nowhere near enough to get started reading even simple things. For some Duolingo courses I think it is.
In truth, I never used it. It seems kind of expensive and I was worried, based on the free stories, that the stories were kind of light and not newsy. And I want newsy. Could be wrong.
My number one recommendation! I read this for two hours each day and it’s been the most helpful resource for learning. I just opened up a story at random:
This is a real story, not edited. The app tells you the HSK number of the words. I find I can read stories like this with understanding (albeit not getting everything) even without using the dictionary (you click to get the definition of a word). And that’s pretty exciting!
Even better, it has a decent free tier, but the premium is cheap.
I’m sad to say I didn’t love this. Sad because it seems like a great idea and the company does really helpful blogs about issues in Chinese culture. I’ll probably try it again but at least on a laptop I found the interface a bit slow. Also, I try to minimise screen time and this doesn’t do that.
The online dictionary I use the most.
Pinyin browser addons
There are a few of these but none I’ve really completely got on with.
GREAT! Download a pinyin keyboard, search for the first ideogram (obviously this only works for two character words) then, because we’re learning beginner vocab, your phone might be nice enough to call up the word you’re looking for.
Chinese is a more accessible language than one might think. These are just the resources I happened to hit upon — there are probably other, probably better, ones out there. But I think if you have a good memory for symbols, and (lots of!) patience, then HSK list+500 character reader+Learning About Chinese From Newspapers+Todai+1 year+autcomplete dictionary=a very solid level to build on, and the start of being able to engage with Chinese on your own.