Friday, June 13, 2014

Not your typical Chinese language textbook

Summer has hit, which for us means that my kiddos are taking a well-deserved break from formal Chinese lessons. This also means that I get to start reviewing materials and activities for next year.



This is not your typical Chinese language textbook. It’s not a textbook at all, really, more of an exquisitely beautiful book designed to teach you the meaning of Chinese characters while enchanting you with ingenious to-the-point graphics.

The book is divided into four sections 

  1. Where the author introduces herself, her method, and how to use the book
  2. This is the main part of the book—where characters are introduced as either building blocks, compounds, phrases, or advanced sentences.
  3. The classic story Peter and the Wolf is told using her method of illustrated Chinese characters (my phrase).
  4. Reference, where building block plates are listed for quick reference, and Chinese characters and phrases are indexed (by English translation only).

Her Method

If I had to describe ShaoLan’s method, I would call it illustrated Chinese characters. She takes a Chinese radical such as 人 (rénperson--her building block) and then draws an image on or behind it to illustrate the meaning of this character (i.e. 人 is turned into a walking person). 

Then, she shows other characters that make use of this radical, such as 从 (cóng, follow--a compound), and illustrates these characters also to show the new meanings  (从 becomes two walking people).

Instantly, two characters make perfect sense and become easy to remember. This, my friends, is the simple genius of this method.

What I love about this book 

·         While some of the ideas for these illustrated characters are not new (they pick up on the ancient etymology of the character; for example, 火--huǒ,fire--was once drawn to actually resemble a fire), others are ShaoLan’s own creative inventions. Check out her building block plate for 女 (nǚ, woman).  

     ✔ The graphics themselves, created by the super-talented graphics artist Noma Bar, are beautiful--simple, yet striking, in a happy color scheme. This book could easily be a coffee table book, yet it is better than your average coffee table book, because if you put it out, people will learn something.

✔ Shaolan’s notes on each character are super helpful. She explains the construction of the character and gives cultural insights to the character’s meaning. For example, she explains how the character 羔 (gāo, lamb) is a combination of lamb over a fire, which is how  lamb would be prepared in certain parts of China.  She also includes snappy little phrases that will help you remember characters. For the character 众 (zhòng, crowd): "two’s company, three’s a crowd.” 

How you can use Chineasy


✔  Supplement your daily/weekly lessons. The book is chock-full of ideas for teaching certain characters. A lot of this information is already on the web but this book brings it all together in one place with simple, yet visually appealing color graphics.

✔  Put it out on your coffee table. It’s fun for guests to browse and can be a good conversation starter. And have I mentioned how beautiful these graphic illustrations are? Your guests will be surprised that they will be able to recognize a bunch of Chinese characters in just a few minutes.

✔  Use the accompanying Chineasy website where you can listen to the pronunciation of the characters, watch a TED Talk where ShaoLan describes her method, andsee a video in which Chinese characters are animated and explained.


The bottom line

This is a really great tool for teaching Chinese characters. This likely will not be your only tool because it doesn’t teach all the characters, but its approach is super creative, beautiful, and intuitive. Shaolan, I look forward to Volume 2!

Disclaimer: Neither ShaoLan nor Harper Design gave me anything to endorse their book. My fabulous friend Jill gave it to me because she is just that awesome—thanks, Jill! 

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