Beginning to learn to read Chinese

I’ve been doing language exchange for several months. I think I can pronounce words in Chinese ok, now. I’m looking at starting to learn to read. I also want to be able to type. I don’t really write in English much, other than to myself and on an occasional piece of paperwork. So I don’t really see the point in learning to write. Learning stroke order, and trying to write neat enough would just take a lot of extra time. Since writing (in elementary school) is the only class I ever failed, I don’t want to spend the time learning to write.

The book I read from for language exchange has the characters, too. But, they seem very complicated to start with. How do people start learning to read? I’ve seen a couple book reviews. Do people just get one of those books and start memorizing? Any suggestions on books that either don’t have stroke order, or don’t use much space on it? I saw a review of one CD-ROM, but I don’t know how useful spending that extra money is, since I don’t want to learn to write.

Also, if anyone has a critique of my opinion of learning to write, I’d appreciate that, too.

Oh, I know pinyin and BPMF. I like the idea of using BPMF to learn to read, since that’s what people here use to learn how to say the symbols.

Yeah, basically… :slight_smile: That, plus reinforced learning by seeing the same characters over & over again each day. You eventually learn to recognize the ones you use/see/need most often, then grow from there.

As for stroke order & radicals, if you don’t know how to properly write & construct the separate parts of a character, you really will have to memorize several hundred thousand individual lines to be literate, and it will always look like chicken scratch… That’s much harder than just learning the few dozen “building blocks” and then assembling them in the right places. It’s really not that hard once you get started. Soon you realize they just write the same stuff over & over again but in a different configuration.

Knowing how to properly construct characters not only helps you write legibly, it helps you learn new characters more quickly, guess likely pronunciation for characters you don’t know, and be able to more easily identify or recreate a character you want to look up or ask about.

After years of Japanese study & finally beginning Chinese on my own, I actually learned a lot from this book: “Reading and Writing Chinese: Traditional Character Edition” by William McNaughton and Li Ying. Another book (also available in confusing crappy HTML format at, is the Chinese Character Dictionary by Rick Harbaugh. That may be a bit much for a beginning reader, but it can be interesting & helpful.

You CAN learn to read without learning to write, but I think that will lead to mistakes because you’ll THINK you know the character, but it’ll be something else. Plus, writing helps cement it in your brain.

My Chinese reading/writing ability has improved dramatically over just a few months simply by forcing myself to write Hanzi. I’m shocked at classmates who hand in homework entirely in PinYin (they’re constantly confused by similar words because they don’t realize the characters are different … on the other hand, the Japanese students & I are confused if we DON’T have the character to reference). If you already know BoPoMoFo, great! Takes up less space in your notes :slight_smile:

I definitely read more Chinese & Japanese than I can recreate by hand, but that’s getting better the more I force myself to write here. Even Chinese & Japanese native speakers are beginning to have trouble writing by hand - too much reliance on computers. Typing (fairly easy w/Windows, easier w/Mac) is easier & still helps you learn, but it’s a poor substitute for the retention you get from repeatedly scribbling things down yourself.

Most bookstores also have those character workbooks for elementary school kids. Seems to work for them :slight_smile:

My first basic Chinese reader/novel will be available on in a week or two, depending on how fast they get the proofs back to me. I’m not promising you a thrilling read, mind you, but it’s a lot of high-frequency words that do tell a connected story in chapters (the whole book is about 10,000 characters in all). If you think of it is a bit of a melodrama it goes down better. :slight_smile: The plotline is not originally mine, but I adapted it to the Taiwan environment and for the use of learners of Chinese.

Each right-hand page is characters; the corresponding Pinyin is on the next (left) page, so that you can easily turn the page to check something but don’t have the Pinyin staring you in the face saying “Look at me, not the characters.” Full glossary as well.

So far I’ve got it only in simplified characters, but I’ll be putting out a traditional character version as soon as I have time to do the formatting work.


  • congrats on the book

  • what’s the title?

  • will you have interm or adv level readers? I’m at a plateau and I’m not sure how to proceed from here (just a little bit under newspaper level, but trying to avoid stumbling thru one with a dictionary for hours on end).

Thanks, JB.

I will be bringing out more and more of these readers in the future (although it’s a lot more work than it would seem if you just look at the book). Seems like we’re set back a few days this time around, though, as I just tore open the package that contained the proof copy and found that they had sent me someone else’s book! :doh: (and not even one I particularly wanted to read…) I have the translation rights for Volume 2 in this series and will start adapting it as soon as this one is really finished (seems like forever!)

Hopefully they will get the right copy out to me soon.

Remember, though, what I’m working on is deliberately repetitious (well past the level you would find in “real” reading materials) and are intended specifically for students to learn to read with. Well, they’re readers, full stop! I usually call TPRS the “da3 si3 fa3” when explaining it to Chinese teachers – the “beat it to death” method – and the readers are particularly deadly on the beatings. That said, the repetition is what the brain needs to really learn the grammar and the characters, and I must say that as a beginner in Russian, for example, I enjoy reading these books (even though I already know the story line really really well by now!) just because I can read them for the most part and learn things as I go along.

You don’t need to be able to write to be able to type – pinyin and tone, choose from the list. If anything, it’s more like reading. So long as you stick to the (inefficient) phonetic input methods, at least.

Other than that I have nothing to add except that yeah, it’s going to be really hard to remember anything to begin with, but it gets easier surprisingly quickly.

Just out of curiosity, is it possible to write in Chinese words in IPA form?

I’m kinda toying with translating into English some Chinese folk tales for fun, but would like to avoid pinyin messiness. The names should sound relatively true, but accessible. Like if I wanted to say Old Zhao, but my audience would think Zhao is too weird or how do you pronounce Zh or Q (as in Qin). OK, IPA would be my own use, but what how could you romanize easily?


MPS-II or Yale are good options. I prefer the former. Both avoid the Q, X, Zh structure of HYPY as well as the awful assignment to the letter C. The drawback is that some of spellings are vowel-less, which will confuse readers. Perhaps a HYPY & Wade-Giles hybrid would work better for the avg English reader.

A comparison table can be found on cranky’s website: … atzyh.html