Top 5 Books for Learning Chinese
If you’re reading this, I don’t need to tell you how difficult it is to learn Chinese. For me, learning Chinese was a long journey, one spent using a myriad of resources, from reading HSK-based textbooks to watching Chinese movies on Netflix.
One list that I wish I had read before learning Chinese—and eventually writing my own Chinese themed novel—was a list of the best books for people learning Chinese. These aren’t books directly meant to teach Chinese (after all, that’s what the textbooks are for) but rather books that are meant to enhance your studies and encourage you to keep learning Chinese. Here are few books that give a deeper meaning to the Chinese language and provided more context to many of the Chinese phrases you’re bound to learn.
Full disclosure, I wrote Bao in honor of my experience learning Chinese. I began my Chinese studies not knowing how to say “hello” in Chinese. Today, I am an HSK 3 speaker who can read, write, and speak about 700 Chinese words. Bao is a Chinese inspired novel that focuses on a main character, a computer programmer, who thought he had lost everything. Faced with panic attacks and mental breakdowns, he builds a human being named Bao; a humanoid robot that looks like any other middle-aged white man, except Bao only speaks Chinese.
The novel progresses with the main character doing his best to learn Chinese, in order to try and communicate and to better understand his new humanoid friend. From China to Chinatown, the two go on a journey together, one gaining a deeper understanding of a new culture, the other a deeper understanding for himself.
Based on the word Bao, which means precious or treasure in Chinese, the novel Bao is meant to remind us what’s most precious. Ironically, the reminder as to what makes human’s precious comes from something not human at all.
This was one of the earliest books I read on the Chinese language. Written by one of the most well-known Chinese authors in modern history, Yu Hua, China in Ten Words has fallen under the radar as one of his lesser-known books, but a perfect read for anyone looking for more insight into Chinese culture.
Delving into the story of ten different Chinese characters, the book highlights the rich history intertwined into some significant Chinese characters. If this book doesn’t encourage you to incorporate writing characters into your Chinese studying, I don’t know what will.
At the very least, it’s a great way to make sure you at least know ten Chinese words.
If anything, this novel reminds us that we’re not alone in struggling through our language learning, particularly given it’s written by someone who knows a thing or two about languages. Written by Deborah Fallows, a person with a PHD in linguistics from Harvard, the book explores her struggles and observations trying to learn Mandarin.
As an honorable mention, China Airborne is a book written by her husband James Fallows, one of the foremost figures in Asian-American relations of the past three or so decades. While China Airborne doesn’t speak a great deal to learning Chinese, it does detail some of the earliest workings as to how the United States and China began working together.
Discussing many of the historical events that would ultimately shape China’s future, Red China Blues is a well-known account of a Westerner learning Chinese and immersing themselves in Chinese culture. In the early 1970s, the author was one of the first Westerners (technically she’s Canadian) to enroll at Peking (Beijing) University.
The book chronicles her journey as a Chinese-Canadian spending her early years in a growing China. More candidly, it details her experiences living through some prominent Chinese events (Tiananmen Square primarily) and what becomes her disenchant with Maoism.
Red China Blues is still banned in China to this day.
5. Oracle Bones
If Peter Hessler sounds familiar, he is the author of four books on China, so that’s likely part of the reason. His most famous novel is one of the most renown Chinese based novels written by a westerner: River Town. That book, in the same fashion as his other three novels, focuses on his experiences interacting with “everyday” people throughout China.
Hessler began his career in the peace corps, which would eventually result in River Town. I highlight Oracle Bones as it delves into perhaps some more topical issues than his other novels, but really any of his novels do as a great starting point, as all of then provide edifying and engaging Chinese narratives.
Paul Nyhart is an author and video producer residing in the United States. He began learning Chinese in his early 30s, and today is an HSK 3 Chinese speaker. His studies inspired him to publish his novel Bao, which was also the impetus for his podcast The Story of Bao. Both can be found on his website, storyofbao.com