How to read Chinese at any language proficiency level
When learning a new language, a lot of emphasis is placed on speaking and listening. After all, language is all about communication, right? While getting out there and having conversations with native speakers is an excellent way to improve your language skills, reading in your target language is an equally critical part of language acquisition.
Reading is one of the fastest ways to expand your vocabulary and pick up natural language patterns in context. Unlike conversation practice, reading does not require any travel, tutors or language partners and can be done from anywhere at your own pace. The best part is that reading in your target language opens up a whole new world of exciting literature and cultural insights.
Many students of Mandarin Chinese are put off by the idea of reading because of the number of characters they believe is required to achieve literacy. In fact, reading is an activity you can enjoy from very early on in your Chinese studies. If you know how to read Chinese, then it’s an (enjoyable) piece of cake.
Here’s where to find level-appropriate Chinese reading material for beginner, intermediate and advanced learners.
Beginner: HSK 1 – 3 (0 – 600 words)
We all have to start somewhere. Reading in Chinese can be daunting if you only know a few hundred characters. Luckily, there’s a wealth of resources out there for beginner learners ready to explore the exciting world of Chinese literature.
Here’s where to start.
Children’s picture books
Children’s books often use basic vocabulary, simple sentence structures and lots of repetition, making it perfect for beginner language learners.
You may feel a little silly reading children’s stories as an adult, but keep an open mind. You’d be surprised at how genuinely interesting some children’s books can be!
Look out for bilingual Chinese-English picture books like this series.
When it comes to finding level-appropriate reading material as a beginner, curated articles are a great option. There are many websites and apps that offer graded news articles:
Chinese Readers’ Guild – This website is a fantastic resource for anyone looking to improve their Chinese reading skills. Chinese Readers’ Guild offers beginner, intermediate and advanced reading material on a variety of interesting topics, such as Chinese culture, entertainment, food, health, history, news, travel and idioms. Articles include full English translations, audio, a pop-up dictionary and support for both simplified and traditional characters.
Chinese Reading Practice – Kendra Schaefer curates interesting Chinese articles for beginner, intermediate and advanced readers over at Chinese Reading Practice. Each article includes some useful notes on key vocabulary, side-by-side English translation, Pinyin support and pop-up translations.
Du Chinese – Du Chinese is a very popular Chinese reading practice app. Some lessons are available for free, but you’ll need a premium subscription to access all content. The newbie lessons are perfect for absolute beginners.
Decipher Chinese – Practice your reading with short daily HSK-graded news articles. To read the simplest article on this app comfortably you’ll need about 300 words (HSK 2).
The Chairman’s Bao – The Chairman’s Bao offers graded news articles from HSK 1-6. This is a subscription based service and lessons include text, audio, as well as explanations of key grammar points.
Pleco – Pleco is a fantastic free Chinese dictionary that also offers some really useful paid add-ons such as Graded Chinese Readers and selections from the Chairman’s Bao. These are affordable one-time purchases and a good alternative to monthly subscriptions.
The YoYo Chinese character reading course – This course uses three original Chinese language comic books to help you learn how to read words and complete sentences.
There’s no better feeling than finishing your first book in your target language. Graded readers such as the Chinese Breeze series makes this goal achievable for beginner Chinese learners.
Listening to music in your target language is an enjoyable way to pick up new vocabulary and improve your listening skills. Song lyrics are great for beginner readers because they tend to rely on repetition and thoughts are often expressed succinctly.
Check out the MSG music playlist for some song recommendations.
Social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram are useful sources of bite-sized texts for reading practice. Follow accounts by native Chinese speakers and try your hand at translating their posts and captions. Look up any words you don’t know and add them to your flashcard deck for review.
Intermediate: HSK 4 (600 – 1,200 words)
The intermediate level can be a tricky stage for reading. Most of the graded readers and curated article websites listed in the section above offer material specifically aimed at intermediate learners.While curated articles are an excellent way to practice reading and expand your vocabulary, you may be keen to sink your teeth into a full length novel once you are at a comfortable intermediate level.
For many learners, 活着 (To Live) by 余华 is the first Chinese book they read. This novel is relatively simple to read, and tells a moving story that will keep you captivated. To Live has been named one of China’s ten most influential books of the last decade.
If you’re not quite ready for a longer text, reading poetry is a fun and rewarding way to supplement your Chinese language learning.
Advanced: HSK 5 & 6 (1,200+ words)
Now for the good stuff. Once you’ve upgraded to native adult material, the world is your proverbial oyster. You can choose to tackle novels (小说), man hua (漫画), news articles or whatever material strikes your fancy.
At this level, the most difficult part is finding interesting reading material. Here’s where to look.
Amazon Kindle – While Amazon’s selection of Chinese language ebooks is somewhat limited, you really can’t beat Kindle for ease-of-use and access. If you have an Amazon.cn account, you’ll have a far wider collection to choose from.
Recommended read: Virus (病毒) by 蔡骏
Purple Culture – If you prefer physical books to ebooks, Purple Culture is a great option. Here you’ll find a wide range of Chinese language books, including novels, non-fiction, children’s books, magazines and textbooks. Purple Culture is based in Hong Kong, but offers worldwide shipping.
WeChat Read (微信读书) – WeChat’s eBook app allows you to buy ebooks and share recommendations with your friends. One of the major hurdles I encountered with this app is that you need a WeChat ID to log in. If you don’t already have a WeChat account, you will have to find a friend who uses WeChat to verify your account.
Haodoo (好读) – If you are learning traditional characters, you can check out Haodoo for a good variety of free Chinese language ebooks.
Jinjiang Literature City (jjwxc) – Jinjiang publishes serialized webnovels and fanfiction. The quality of novels you find here can be a bit hit or miss, but jjwxc is a good place to look if you are interested in less mainstream genres like danmei (BL). Jinjiang uses a VIP system, which means that later chapters are locked behind a paywall.
I like to read The New York Times articles in Chinese translation. You can switch to Chinese text (simplified or traditional) by clicking on the preferred option at the top of online articles, as shown below.
For news from China, check out 人民网.
Elzette Wilkinson is the founder of Fluency Pending, a language learning blog dedicated to sharing tips and tricks for successful language learning. Check out Fluency Pending’s guide on How to Learn a Language on a Budget and introductory Afrikaans lessons. Follow Elzette on Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook for useful resources for learning a new language (and the occasional picture of Frank, her pug).