If you are keen about learning Chinese, then you can incorporate reading into your learning at any level!

In this article, I will take you through the best books for each level of your Chinese learning and suggest some approaches you can take with them.

Beginner

Book cover of Tom & Jerry in Chinese

Take a trip down memory lane and get stuck into some of your childhood favourites in Chinese.

A friend of mine with beginner Chinese got his hands on a copy of 猫和老鼠 (Tom and Jerry). With Pleco to hand, he started making his way through the comic book, jotting down Pinyin and translations as he went.

The most important thing is that you stay interested. And the nostalgia buzz of your much-loved childhood classic can help with this!

Intermediate

Book cover of 读者

My experience of extra-curricular Chinese reading came a bit later than for my Tom and Jerry fan friend.

I had already learned Chinese for two and a half years when I picked up 《读者》Duzhe – a Chinese general interest magazine. I found it quite accessible as the articles are short and many are aimed at people as young as secondary school students.

Reading something meant for a young adult Chinese audience is a challenge for an intermediate learner. However, there is nothing to stop you taking as long as you need to comprehend each short piece. It may be tough, but you have a piece of total immersion in your pocket which you can take out any time!

Upper Intermediate

Book cover of Catcher in the Rye

It may seem like a big jump from reading short articles to a full length Chinese novel. But once you have a feel for the voice of the author, you will find it surprisingly easy to be carried along in its flow. Also, finishing a book written in Chinese will give you a remarkable sense of achievement!

Like with the children’s book, start with a translated text which you have read and loved in your own language. I started with The Catcher in the Rye (麦田里的守望者) – a novel that I had read at least twice in English. I know other learners have taken on some of the Harry Potter series with great success.

Reading a full length novel is a challenge. But if you are familiar enough with the plot beforehand, you can get the gist at times when you might otherwise be a bit lost.

Advanced

Book cover of 活着

At some point, you will probably want to transition into Chinese originals.

I tried a few Chinese writers but found that first step towards Chinese literature quite a daunting one. Eventually I came across Yu Hua 余华 and found his books surprisingly difficult to put down!

The two that I would recommend are 活着 (To Live) and 许三观卖血记 (Chronicle Of a Blood Merchant). Yu Hua grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and his works educate the reader on the chaos of these times, while also giving moving accounts of family life.

These two texts are both quite short and written in simple, straight-forward language – perfect for your first Chinese original.

Master

Book cover of 紅高粱家族

At this point the world is your oyster!

You may be interested for example in the work of Nobel prize winning author Mo Yan (莫言) – whose famous works include Red Sorghum Clan (红高粱家族). Although Mo Yan is a modern author, he writes in a more literary style and is a step up in difficulty from Yu Hua.

“Speed” and “Close” Reading

No matter what your level, you will get the most out of your Chinese reading by combining “speed” and “close” reading.

Speed Reading

Bear in mind that my “speed reading” of Chinese characters is still pretty slow!

What I mean by “speed” reading is just that:

I would not use a dictionary unless checking a word or character is crucial to my understanding of a large chunk. Just push through! Often with just a vague understanding of what is going on.

It is important to try this occasionally as you get an appreciation for the flow of the writing.

An added bonus is that this kind of reading can be great if you are trying to lull yourself to sleep!

Close Reading

By “close reading”, I mean doing whatever necessary to work out what is going on in each individual sentence.

By this method, you can spend a long time getting through a single paragraph, especially if you are not satisfied until you know the pronunciation and tone of each character! You will learn new words, ponder on grammar structures, gain in-depth understanding.

You might drive yourself crazy if you keep this up throughout a whole novel, and may lose out on the flow of the overall piece.

But by alternately adopting “close” and “speed” reading methods, you will get the most out of your reading in terms of fun and language-learning benefits!

You Can’t Learn Just by Reading

You cannot learn a language purely by reading! It is merely an enjoyable way of supplementing your language learning.

If you have not done so already, sign up for lessons with Practical Mandarin for a holistic, interactive classroom experience!