Chineasy or not? – How effective is Chineasy in helping you learning Chinese characters

It has been sometime since last year a company, and now a book called “Chineasy” developed by ShaoLan Hsueh has drawn a lot of attention in the Chinese learning world. Many students have asked me if they should buy Chineasy. Admittedly I have never read this book, but only watched ShaoLan’s Ted talk, and knew her method was not something particularly new. This week I finally decide to read it and see how in depth Shaolan Hsueh has gone in teaching characters. As I’m reading through this book, the more I read, the more I realize this is a picture book for people just wish to get an idea what Chinese characters are like.

Is this a beautiful book? Yes, it is. Is this a useful book? No, I’m afraid not. It may be useful for children, or for people to get a basic understanding of what Chinese characters really are, but if you are a serious Chinese learners, I’m afraid this is not a book to go. Let me first point out that only very little amount of Chinese characters are pictograms such as the ones demonstrated in this book. As a Chinese teacher, I think this book will bring more confusions than benefits based on the following criticisms I have:

1.The author has mixed the simplified and traditional characters throughout the book, which can be very confusing. It seems that whichever is easy to explain, whichever is chosen. We all know that there are two versions of the Chinese characters: simplified (mainly used in mainland China) and traditional (used outside China like Taiwan, Singapore, etc). As you can imagine, there is quite a difference between the simplified and traditional characters. When learning characters, you need to decide which version to learn: simplified or traditional. In Chineasy, the author has randomly introduced simplified characters and traditional ones, for the easiness of explaining. This is not helpful. I chose some characters from the book below. As a simplified characters learners, you will not encounter these characters, only their counterparts in the ().

東(东) 來(来) 門(门) 馬(马) 這(这) 買(买) 賣(卖) 鴨(鸭)


2. The majority of characters in the book is far from the commonly used characters. In fact, many of them are hardly used in daily life. They may be interesting to know, but the chance of you using them is very little. Below are a few examples.

One thing she is right is that you do not need to know tens of thousand Chinese characters to get by. You need a good knowledge of about 2,000 common used characters or maybe less. However, the most used characters are not introduced in the book. Instead of the characters in the book, I would suggest you to learn the most commonly used 140 Chinese characters first. You will be rewarded more.

Characters that most Chinese wouldn’t know (some I don’t even know):

Characters that are not commonly used:

啖 – an very formal word for eat. I’m surprised the author didn’t introduce the much more often used word “吃” for eating
凤凰 – phoenix
冯 – a surname


3.The ones that are commonly used, you do not need illustration. For example, do you need illustrations to remember the following 15 characters (introduced in the book with illustrations)? Chances are that if you learn with a teacher and write yourself for 20-30 minutes, you will memorize these characters with ease.

一  = one       二 = two       三  = three    大 = big        太 = extremely (big)

上 = up          下 = down    女 = female 小 = small      少 = few

日 = sun        月 = moon    木 = tree      人 = person   天 = sky

4. Knowing single character IS NOT reading literacy. Far from it. Recognizing single characters is the first step to a long journey. Chinese characters rarely come on its own. Most Chinese words are composed by two characters. Only by knowing these words not the individual characters you can make sense. Otherwise, all you know is random signs.

5. Will the drawing work? To some extent, they will. It’ll help you memorize maybe 50-100 characters, but I doubt if you can memorize anything more. The truth is not all characters can be understood through this manner. Only very little amount of Chinese characters are pictogram such as ones shown in this book. The rest unfortunately needs you to learn by doing the hard work of writing and repeating yourself.

Taking from the book, here are the sentences shown at the end. Let me put them here without the illustrations. Do a small quiz on yourself and see if you can read these phrases easily (if you can, then great. The method worked. If not, then it hasn’t worked for you):

好美的公主          雨水太多                 小子拍手

好臭的汉             美少女                     林夫人五月回去

Finally, I want to say this way of learning characters by associating a story or image with it is not new. How else do you think foreigners have learned Chinese characters in the past? Most people in language courses start learning characters this way. The nice part of ShaoLan’s work is that she is able to present it more appealingly by using pictures and illustrations. One thing I’m glad is that the book seems to draw so much attention that many more people are getting interested to learn Chinese.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, this might be a book for children, or for those who are just interested to learn about Chinese characters. If you are a serious Chinese learner, the progress you can get with the book I’m afraid will be very limited. I really advise you to pay attention to your teacher, pick up your pen and write yourself, make your flashcard and repeat and repeat. At least you know that works.

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