Learn Mandarin with Novels

The 4 Best Books to add to your Reading List

Past the intermediate level, learning from authentic Chinese language sources like popular music, TV, or novels is a must for becoming fluent. However, even for the most advanced learners, Chinese novels are particularly challenging to approach. Readers should be aiming to practice extensive reading – reading novels where they understand at least 98% of a text’s words. This is because researchers have proven that this is the most effective way to develop a strong language sense, reinforce existing knowledge, and unconsciously pick up new vocabulary.

However, given the complexity and linguistic depth of the Chinese language many novels have hundreds to thousands of unique words that even HSK 6 learners will not have encountered. Even more frustratingly, the number of these unique words varies greatly from novel to novel and there is little information online that outlines which books are the best for Chinese second (or third or forth) language speakers, i.e. have the fewest unique words.

Here are 4 books, ranked by the number of unique characters in each, that we recommend for Chinese language learners. Not only are these books accessible, but they are enjoyable to read. At the end of the day, reading and extensive reading in particular should be enjoyable. Don’t lose hope if you’d like to read one of the books with more unique characters; if you download a tool like Chinese Prestudy or Chinese Text Analyser, then you can easily create flashcards on words you haven’t seen before. These decks are made either by HSK level or via comparison with your existing Anki deck.

To place our 4 recommendations into context, combined they have fewer unique words (not even accounting for overlap) than Dream of the Red Chamber alone. Popular modern novels like the Three Body Problem clock in at 10,000 unique words or almost double the number of unique words of our most difficult suggestion, Cat Country.

4 Best Novels for Chinese Learners


#1 The Little Prince 《小王子》

Description: With a timeless charm The Little Prince tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behavior through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures.

Why we recommend: This is the only non-authentic (originally written in another language) piece of Chinese literature that we recommend. Li Jihong’s phenomenal translation preserves the linguistic simplicity of the original novel, which is reflected by the low unique word count, and seamlessly moves readers from adventure to adventure in the Little Prince’s world. In French, the novel is written with simple language and big ideas – Li’s translation continues this tradition, making《小王子》the perfect first Mandarin book for Chinese language learners.

#2 The True Story of Ah Q 《阿Q正傳》

Description: Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature, is an essential read for students of Chinese. His work The Real Story of Ah Q is set in the Republican Revolution of 1911 and is one of Lu Xun’s best works. The story traces the “adventures” of a man from the rural peasant class with little education and no definite occupation as he moves through his debaucherous life.

Why we recommend: Not only does《阿Q正傳》have relatively few unique words for a modern Chinese novel, but it is also one of the select pieces that has been published by Capturing Chinese. All of their books include extensive footnotes that highlight difficult vocabulary. There is no need to constantly consult a dictionary or to look up difficult characters by radical. Historical events, people, and places are also explained throughout and illustrations recreate the scenes. By already creating vocabulary lists, this edition of The Real Story of Ah Q takes care of all the preparation work for you. Instead of having to use Chinese Prestudy or Chinese Text Analyser before you read each chapter, you can just sit back, crack open your book, and enjoy one of the best pieces of modern Chinese literature.

#3 To Live《活着》

Description: This searing novel, originally banned in China but later named one of that nation’s most influential books, portrays one man’s transformation from the spoiled son of a landlord to a kindhearted peasant. After squandering his family’s fortune in gambling dens and brothels, the young, deeply penitent Fugui settles down to do the honest work of a farmer. Forced by the Nationalist Army to leave behind his family, he witnesses the horrors and privations of the Civil War, only to return years later to face a string of hardships brought on by the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. Left with an ox as the companion of his final years, Fugui stands as a model of gritty authenticity, buoyed by his appreciation for life in this narrative of humbling power.

Why we recommend: This has been one of the go to novels for Chinese learners for the past few decades and we don’t dispute that its a great pick! It is impossible to create a Chinese reading list without including To Live. While the novel isn’t the easiest to read of our recommendations, it was intentionally written with simple Chinese and a doable read for the tenacious learner. The novel will keep you engaged and you’ll end up learning a ton about Chinese history and culture.

#4 Cat Country 《猫城记》

Description: Lao She’s only work of science fiction, Cat Country, is a dark, dystopian tale of one man’s close encounter with the feline kind and a scathing indictment of a country gone awry. When a traveler from China crash-lands on Mars, he finds himself in a country inhabited entirely by Cat People. Befriended by a local cat-man, he becomes acquainted in all aspects of cat-life: he learns to speak Felinese, masters cat-poetry, and appreciates the narcotic effects of the reverie leaf—their food staple. But curiosity turns to despair when he ventures further into the heart of the country and the culture, and realizes that he is witnessing the bleak decline of a civilization.

Why we recommend: 《猫城记》is not the easiest piece out there for HSK5 or HSK6 level readers. With 5,500 unique words readers can expect to have to pre-study 10 to 15 new terms before each chapter; however, compared to The Three Body Problem‘s 10,000 unique words this is hardly a challenge at all. Cat Country makes the list because it is so damn good. Everyone at Mandarin Study Guide picked up the book and could not put it down until they finished. 《猫城记》 is a fun page turner that will help you learn a ton of Chinese along the way.

Let us know in the comments below if you’d like us to recommend additional novels for Chinese learners or would like to hear more tips and tricks on reading books in Mandarin. If you liked this post please make sure to share it, pin it, or tweet it!

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