Chineasy? Not

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Last Friday, the following article appeared in The Wall Street Journal:

"A New Way to Learn Chinese:  Entrepreneur ShaoLan Hsueh aims to bridge the gap between East and West by teaching Westerners how to read Chinese".

The article is preceded by a video that begins with this note:

Entrepreneur and author ShaoLan Hsueh has devised a simplistic method for teaching English speakers to learn to read Chinese.

It is true that her system is "simplistic", but it is not true that people who use it "learn to read Chinese", despite her repeated claim that "it works."

During the last year or so, I feel as though we've been bombarded with publicity for "Chineasy".  The creator of this alleged method for learning Chinese, ShaoLan Hsueh, seems to have unlimited access to the media.  Her efforts to promote the scheme got a huge boost from a successful appearance on TED in February, 2013.

Her performance on TED is prefaced by the following remark:

For foreigners, learning to speak Chinese is a hard task. But learning to read the beautiful, often complex characters of the Chinese written language may be less difficult.

Quite the contrary, Chinese is the easiest language I ever learned to speak, but the writing system is by far the hardest I've ever had to grapple with.

But ShaoLan Hsueh's claims that written Chinese is a snap have flooded the airwaves.  Here's another example (which mixes up spoken and written language):  "Be fluent in Chinese in a flash (card)"

In this puff piece we read, quoting Ms. Hsueh:

“It’s a key, a gateway, but it’s also cool and so much fun. If you spend just five minutes on this a day, in a year you will have the knowledge of an eight-year-old Chinese child."

Though this is a dubious goal for an adult, I'm certain that, using her methods, no one would ever reach it.

I have tried to ignore this embarrassing (for the Chinese language teaching profession) campaign for the past year and more, but now I no longer can do so, since dozens of people — many of whom are otherwise intelligent and perceptive — have written to me suggesting that we now have a panacea for learning Chinese, as though Ms. Hsueh had made some gigantic breakthrough in transforming the most daunting script on earth into child's play.  Far from it, anyone who deceives him/herself into thinking that using Chineasy is a magic bullet for learning Chinese will simply be wasting his/her time.

Here's what the director of the Chinese Language Program at a major American university says about Chineasy:

"I only watched the first minute of the video. What she is teaching is not 'reading'.  At best, it will enable one to recognize a few Chinese pictographic characters in isolation.  There is technology, but the content is all wrong."

I wasn't surprised to find ShaoLan on TED, because you get a lot of sentimental, schlocky things there, but what really astonished me is that ShaoLan and her "Chineasy" (I think it should be "Chinhard") are featured on the outside and inside front cover and first page (!!!) — a bit of overkill — of the current Thames & Hudson catalog.

I have published several books and chapters from T & H, which is one of the finest art, archeology, and design publishing houses in the world, so I was deeply puzzled to find ShaoLan's misguided notions for learning Chinese featured so prominently in the T & H catalog.  It took a bit of digging, but I finally realized that there is a simple reason why T & H accepted this volume and is promoting it so energetically, and it has nothing to do with Chinese language learning.  Namely, the clever, cutesy drawings of Chinese characters featured in ShaoLan's book are by the talented Israeli graphic designer, Noma Bar.

"Chinese made easy with 'Chineasy' by Noma Bar and ShaoLan Hseuh [sic –> Hsueh]".

For those who might be interested in ShaoLan before she became the savior of all those suffering souls who seek an easy path to learning Chinese, here are a few interesting things about her background.

First of all, she used to be called Heidi Hsueh and was "co-founder and executive vice president of pAsia, operator of the largest auction Web sites in Taiwan and China."  See "Cross-strait chameleon" in the Taipei Times (Monday, April 3, 2000), p. 18.

See also "Caught in China's web", Investment Week (Feb 21, 2000).

Before that, under the name Xuē Xiǎolán 薛晓岚, she wrote a book in Chinese on the art of using Word 7.0 entitled The Word Book 95.

ShaoLan's career as an internationally renowned Chinese language maven had its humble beginnings with a B.A. in Agricultural Chemistry from National Taiwan University.  Now she's everywhere!  Just do a Google search on her name, ShaoLan, and you'll see what I mean.  One thing that stands out in the countless articles about ShaoLan and her method for learning Chinese is that they usually feature her in unusual postures and poses.  I think this tells us something about the substance of her work.

In light of our discussions about nerds and geeks (e.g., here, here, here, and here), what are we to make of a wannabe Chinese language pedagog who is fond of calling herself an "entrepreneur" and a "geek"?

So what does this all boil down to in terms of Chinese language learning?

First of all, if you employ Ms. Hsueh's methods, you won't learn any real Chinese language.  You won't know the sound of a single Chinese word.  You won't even know the sound of a single Chinese character.  You won't learn anything about Chinese grammar or syntax.  You won't be able to speak or write a single Chinese sentence.  If you doggedly persist, you might learn to recognize a hundred or so individual characters, but you wouldn't know how to pronounce them or use them in any meaningful context.

What is worse, you will be subjected to a lot of assertions that are wrong.  For instance, on her TED talk, ShaoLan says that "A Chinese scholar would understand 20,000 characters. You only need 1,000 to understand the [sic] basic literacy."  And on the Amazon preview for her book, her treatment of zì 字 ("character") and cí 詞 ("phrase" [sic] –> "word") (p. 13) is woefully inadequate.

In the Wall Street Journal article, "Ms. Hsueh describes why the symbol for the verb 'to come' looks like wheat — because wheat used 'to come' from Europe."

This is a hopelessly garbled misrepresentation of the idea that, more than three thousand years ago, the archaic character for "wheat" (mài 麥) was used to write the word for "come" (lái 來) because they sounded alike.  While we now know that the agricultural crop did come to East Asia from the west, it's an entirely different matter whether the Sinitic word itself was borrowed from a western source.  Nearly two decades ago, I wrote a very long and detailed proposal for considering the Sinitic word mài 麥 ("wheat") as having been derived from an Indo-European source. This is on pp. 36b-38a of "Language and Script: Biology, Archaeology, and (Pre)History," International Review of Chinese Linguistics, 1.1 (1996), 31a-41b.

Chinese characters are not easy, neither for Chinese nor for non-Chinese.  Chinese characters are hard.  Chineasy is an oxymoron.

[Thanks to Toby Blyth, Richard Warmington, Stephan Stiller, Mien-hwa Chiang, Stefan Krasowski, Lada Vassilieva,  and John Rohsenow]


  1. richardelguru said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 12:55 pm

    So it's Cheesy?

  2. Stephan Stiller said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

    It is interesting what the illustrator himself admits in the above-linked Wallpaper article:

    Yeah, the compounds are still a bit of a work in progress to be honest. Some of them don’t really make sense illustratively yet but we are working on it.

    Let's look at some illustrations. (You may need to reload the respective page a few times or click yourself through to get at the desired illustration.)
    1. Here are some monographemic characters. I don't find the illustrations for "woman" 女 (the character 女 superimposed over a woman's lower facial region) and "jade" 玉 (a jade-green blob covering the area of the character 玉) particularly illuminating.
    2. Here are some polygraphemic characters (there misleadingly termed "compounds"). The illustration for "umbrella" 傘 merely repeats the illustration for the "person" 人 character 5 times in an unimaginative way, failing to connect the character to the meaning (which is all that Chineasy seems to aim at); the accompanying text there is also unhelpful. Look, if you stylize the handle and use the lower 4 people to build the umbrella's spokes, you'll get something nice. But that requires distorting the character and maybe having multiple illustrations – it may not fit with the program and the original design constraints, but who said it was gonna be easy?
    3. Here are some polysyllables (these are words, but of course words can be monosyllabic). The pictures clearly just juxtapose the individual characters' illustrations (人人, 大門, …), like what is done for a lot of the polygraphemic characters ("compounds").

    Uncreative, unconvincing, unsatisfactory.

    There is something else to be said about the limits of even well-executed (visual or other) mnemonics, but that's a-whole-nother topic. And it is not clear how well one can execute mnemonics within such a rigid (or even within a more liberal) system in the first place.

  3. Nuno said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 1:50 pm

    While I have previously defended the utility of mnemonics in remembering chinese characters (especially those whith unhelpful "etymologies"), I have to agree this isn't the way to go. To all the valid criticisms you have made I'll add two more:

    1- (Unlike say the Heisig method) the book seems to be very keen on making it easy to remember those characters that are easy to remember anyways. In one of the videos she says something like "人 means person. That's hard to remember" No it's not! 鬱 is.

    2- Pointing out the pictographic origin of simple characters like 人, 木, and 马 is nothing new. Chinese teachers have been doing it for ages. (without the fancy full page illustrations) Advocating for the use of mnemonics to master more complex and difficult to remember characters is.

    "One thing that stands out in the countless articles about ShaoLan and her method for learning Chinese is that they usually feature her in unusual postures and poses. I think this tells us something about the substance of her work."

    Thanks for the good laugh.

  4. mae said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 2:47 pm

    "Swallowing Clouds: Two Millennia of Chinese Tradition, Folklore, and History Hidden in the Language" by A. Zee concentrates on just food-related characters, and promises much less than the example here. I would be interested to hear what you think of it, Victor Mair! And please forgive me if you have already posted and I missed that post.

  5. J. M. Unger said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

    Pardon my being a little snarky, but perhaps the best approach is to learn to speak Chinese well from pinyin materials, and just claim you're (legally) blind. If your uncanny ability to move around without a cane or guide dog arouses suspicion, just say that you're doing it by sonar, like some Daoist gongfu master. :-)

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 4:20 pm


    I'll tell you what I think if you provide a link to Zee's work.

  7. Janet Williams said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

    When my western adult students asked me about Chineasy, I would tell them they are expensive flash cards. Thankfully my students make their own flashcards.

    The pictures are cute. They can be helpful if you are a visual learner. I was shocked to see ShaoLan Hsueh is now being treated as a Chinese language expert, glorified, for examples, by Financial Times magazine and The Sunday Times. I've seen lazy and ignorant journalism since last year about the promotion of this Chineasy 'phenomenon'.

  8. Bobbie said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 6:26 pm

    M. Unger suggests learning to speak Chinese and pretending to be blind (or visually impaired.) That makes a lot of sense for being able to converse in Chinese without being able to read it. It also removes the dependency on most visual cues. I mention this because there are specific areas of the brain that handle speech versus visual recognition. Some impaired people can speak fluently yet are unable to write in whatever language they have learned…. not just for Chinese.
    Sadly, ShaoLan's website also states that she would like to be able to help dyslexic students and welcomes suggestions.

  9. valency said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 6:28 pm

    One might descant on precisely why those who are the best at self-promotion, are invariably the worst at what they purport to be able to do. Does the part of the brain responsible for the instincts for shameless self-promotion hypertrophy, leaving no room for anything else?

  10. Darryl McAdams said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 7:15 pm

    This Chineasy approach, whereby you have these silly pictures that try to make sense of the characters, is not at all novel to Chineasy. I have a book, at least 15 years old, that does the exact same thing. But, unlike Chineasy, it's not a slick, Web 2.0 thing.

  11. Stephan Stiller said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 7:34 pm

    I agree that there is a place for mnemonics, but I see their function mainly in providing a bridge until the material in question has solidified in memory; also most people won't be able to apply them large-scale (and keep everything straight). (I won't write more about this since this is a complex topic.) Character confusions, complex components, and semantic components are among the things are hard for Chinese characters.

    I think it's mostly a bias in whom we encounter. Other things being equal, self-promoters are more visible, and it's quite easy to become famous these days.

    (And to multiple commenters: The idea to use mnemonics is an old one indeed.)

  12. David Dunn said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 8:49 pm

    Some come and wheat are related:

    Here is the pronunciation in Mandarin

    Lai 25 – i.e. rising tone Mai 42 i.e. falling tone

    but in the more ancient language of Cantonese and Taiwanese
    they would be

    Cantonese Lei 33 – i.e. middle even tone Mak 2 i.e. low short tone
    and in Taiwanese
    Lai 33 middle even tone and Beh 2 short low tone

    So what we can probably say is ShaoLan Hsueh doesn't know Taiwanese
    which means she is less linguistically capable in Chinese languages than the vast majority of people from Taiwan, but may be skilled at promoting her bogus methodology.

  13. valency said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 9:52 pm

    @Daryll McAdams

    And I have the latest edition of a 35-year old book called "Remembering the Kanji" by James Heisig which does the exact same thing for Japanese. It even has a wikipedia vanity page writeup as follow.

    The course teaches the student to utilize all the constituent parts of a kanji's written form—termed "primitives", combined with a mnemonic device that Heisig refers to as "imaginative memory". Each kanji (and each non-kanji primitive) is assigned a unique keyword. A kanji's written form and its keyword are associated by imagining a scene or story connecting the meaning of the given kanji with the meanings of all the primitives used to write that kanji.

    Sounds like Ms Hsueh's method in a nutshell. (And no, it doesn't work very well, because it simply displaces the problem from remembering the meaning of a Kanji, to remembering the recommended mnemonic association, which is often often difficult to remember and slippery in the mind.)

  14. Ken said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 9:54 pm

    @Darryl McAdams: This Chineasy approach, whereby you have these silly pictures that try to make sense of the characters, is not at all novel to Chineasy.

    It reminds me of one of my favorite children's books, Curious George Learns the Alphabet. D is for Dinosaur, with a picture where the capital and small 'd' form the dinosaur's body.

    I also found the proto-Sinai glyphs slightly helpful in learning the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets, and it even helped with some Cyrillic letters like Ц. Of course there's fewer basic symbols to learn.

  15. phspaelti said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 1:04 am


    Actually that is completely unfair to Heisig and "his" method. Despite the abuse heaped on it by Unger (and VM) it is a perfectly valid method. Heisig isn't selling snake-oil, just a blue-print for a lot of hard work.
    Hsueh's "method" is just clap-trap.

  16. Simon P said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 1:15 am

    @David Dunn: "So what we can probably say is ShaoLan Hsueh doesn't know Taiwanese which means she is less linguistically capable in Chinese languages than the vast majority of people from Taiwan, but may be skilled at promoting her bogus methodology."

    The one saying that they are related because of sound was Professor Mair, not ShaoLan. So it's him you should be accusing of incompetence if you think that's incorrect. ShaoLan said they are related because wheat came from Europe.

    The way I've heard it is that 麥 was the original character for "come" (because of the radical) and 來 was originally just "wheat" and thet they switched. I wonder if there's any truth to that?

    On the original topic: Is it possible someone managed to invent a program less effective and more hyperbolically promoted than Rosetta Stone? That's a more difficult feat than learning to read Chinese.

  17. maidhc said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 2:08 am

    The frustrating thing about Chinese is that it seems you're either totally fluent or completely ignorant. I wish there was some way to get a little bit of Chinese.

    To start with I have no clue about how to look something up in a Chinese dictionary. I have a Pinyin dictionary, and between that and Google Translate I can make a stab at things, but going from character to Pinyin is an obstacle. There are a few websites that supposedly do this, but I haven't found them to be very reliable.

    Since I live outside China, many times if there is a transliteration of a character, it is maybe Cantonese, which is not supported by Google Translate. Or some other topolect.

    If I had loads of free time I would love to take a few years and study Chinese intensively, but I don't. I think there would be a market for a program that would help people just get by with a minimal amount of Chinese. Same as if I went to Sweden, I wouldn't be able to talk in Swedish, but I could read the signs and learn to recognize a few common and useful words.

  18. Simon P said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 3:26 am

    The most useful way to look up Chinese characters is using a smartphone. You can write them with your finger, though you need to understand stroke order (but that's not that hard to learn). If you buy Pleco there's even an OCR function, so you can look a character up by just taking a picture of it. It's pretty easy.

  19. JQ said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 3:32 am

    @David Dunn

    來 is Loi4 in Cantonese

    Lei4 is the "proper" Cantonese word for come but has no character – 口黎 is used

    Though you do have a point that it still sounds nothing like mak6

    Is the etymology of the two characters certain or is there some controversy?

  20. Guy said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 6:29 am

    Yes if you need to look up a Chinese character, I definitely recommend a touchscreen phone.

    You can either write the character with your finger or there are some apps (e.g. Pleco) which also use visual recognition i.e. you take a picture with your phone camera and the app will tell you what character that is. Particularly useful for Chinese learners who aren't yet familiar with Chinese stroke order!

    Btw – aren't loi4 and lei4 just two different pronunications of the same character (來) in Cantonese? I've also found it strange they use a different character to represent the second pronunciation. The character for listen (聽) can be pronounced ting or teng in Cantonese but the same character is always used. Go figure…

  21. Stephan Stiller said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 6:55 am

    @ Simon P
    I hope that someday one of the LL authors will write about the money-making machine Rosetta Stone.

    嚟 (lai4, lei4) and 來 (loi4) are probably related, but there is free variation only between lai4 and lei4. One cannot interchange them with loi4. I guess in this case the "literary" 來/loi4 (which doesn't exist as an independent word in Cantonese but occurs as a bound morpheme in a good number of Cantonese words) is different enough for people to be wanting to use two separate characters. But it would indeed be nice to differentiate some of the other such morpheme pairs too for orthographic clarity.

  22. mae said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 7:37 am

    Link to "Swallowing Clouds" by Zee:

  23. Stephan Stiller said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 7:40 am

    Allright folks, this is ludicrous: Go to this NPR article and click through to picture 3 for "deer" 鹿. That Chineasy picture is simply an oversized character 鹿 indiscriminately and in its entirety attached to a deer's head! I think as far as mnemonic value is concerned, that marks a record low.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 8:15 am

    Right, Stephan! Ditto for the ladybug (what is that thing on her head?) that begins the sequence of six characters illustrated in the article. And, while we're at it, the horse — though cute — completely distorts the graphic origins of the the character by making the mane into the body and turning the tail into who knows what? A fifth leg? The horns of the sheep have migrated down to the nose. The head of the cow looks badly bandaged. And then, in the sixth drawing, that poor, bandaged / trussed cow's head is placed under who knows what? A beret — to become a prison???

    About the best that can be said for these drawings is that Noma Bar — when tasked by ShaoLan with producing a set of characters whose true origins neither he nor she were clear about — had decent design skills and a wry sense of humor.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 8:32 am


    I don't think it's at all fair to say that Unger heaped abuse on Heisig's method, and I can't recall that I've ever done so either. Unger has expended a fair amount of effort to explain mnemonics and its application. He has a whole chapter on it in Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning (University of Hawai'i Press, 2004), and see also this: "A Mnemonic Code for Sino-Japanese Characters (Kanji) Based Entirely on their Readings," Computer Processing of Chinese and Oriental Languages, 1.2 (1983), 135–44. For a much more nuanced and sensitive assessment of Unger on Heisig, see this comment:

    @Simon P

    The usual understanding is that 來 (now "come") was originally a pictogram of a wheat plant, and that it was borrowed to represent the homophone for the verb "come". Later, to disambiguate the characters for the two words, some strokes were added to the bottom of the character for "wheat", yielding 麥.

    The Old Sinitic pronunciation of 來 is currently reconstructed as something like mrək (with a circumflex on the vowel). Historical phonologists now hypothesize that the liquid was rhotic, but it used to be thought of as a lateral, and I still think of it that way. So, if the original word for "wheat" sounded like mlək, the consonant cluster would have contained the initials for both "wheat" and "come" — if we posit that they subsequently diverged into the m- for "wheat" and l- for "come".


    Thanks for sending that link. I just glanced through the parts of the book that are available there, and I can say that it is indeed a charming and literate book. However, it is poorly informed about transcription systems, topolects, the true origins of the individual characters, the relationship between language and script, and much else beside. For example, Zee claims that it would be easier for Martians to understand Chinese than other human languages. A quick retort to that dubious assertion may be had by pondering the cover of Jim Unger's book cited in my reply to phspaelti above:

    A linguistically far more reliable handbook for the novice is James McCawley's The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters (University of Chicago Press, 1984), which I highly recommend.

  26. J. M. Unger said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 9:00 am

    1. In my chapter on mnemonics, I pointed out that Heisig had reinvented a wheel known for centuries by mentalists and magicians. His method "works" to help one memorize kanji and their readings in the same sort of way that Big Blue "works" when it wins chess games: the apparatus helps you get the result you want, but not by doing what a human being does when s/he learns how to read Japanese or win at chess under normal conditions. Just as it would be a huge waste of time to study the program structure of Big Blue as a textbook of chess, so too there are better ways to become a skilled reader of Japanese than to follow Heisig's method of kanji memorization.

    2. The cover of my paperback was meant to poke fun at the notion that Chinese characters are language-transcendent ideograms. I wanted the publisher to stick a blurb on the back beginning, "Chinese characters: If the little green guys from Mars can't grok 'em, what makes you think people can?" but they opted for something tamer.

  27. Peter Peverelli said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 9:24 am

    The trick is to start young.
    I started learning Chinese when I was 14 (1970). I did so for 3 years, before I was ready to go to university (1974).
    Because of the preparation, I did well during my freshman year and was selected to be one of the first Dutch students to study in China for a year (1975-76).
    That laid a very sound foundation for my current mastering of the language.
    I published a book about that year in China recently, entitled 'One Turbulent Year – China 1975'. It is available on Amazon.

  28. Eric said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 9:24 am

    A few more points (from the website) that reveal it is a defective product.

    1) The example flashcard for 日 claims it is a 'rare' word–quite wrong. In all four of the corpus-based Chinese frequency lists I have access to, 日 is one of the top 1000 most common words–even in spoken corpora. If we switch to just characters in written corpora, it is in the top 500. This is emphatically NOT rare.

    2) The website provides the character 从 with the definition 'follow'. This of course is not wrong, but it definitely not the most common/useful meaning for beginners to learn.

    3) Again with 从, note that it's simplified form (vs. traditional 從), whereas other characters (e.g., 門) are presented in their traditional forms. What's going on? ShaoLan explains: "In Chineasy I teach a mixture of simplified and traditional forms – whichever we think makes the most sense according to the system I designed." So the system ignores the difference between simplified and traditional–learners of course do not have that luxury.

    Chineasy also has a Kickstarter page on which they've raised £197,626 (!!). Products in the working include: flashcards, a book, phone cases, postcards, tattoo stickers, and an app. In other words, if there is a way to monetize this endeavor, ShaoLan is pursuing it. This should clear any doubts that the main goal is to help people learn language–the main goal is clearly profit. Fine, but I wish media would be more skeptical of a method whose only evidence for effectiveness is the creator's personal claim that 'It works!' (The main reason to believe this claim appears to be the exclamation point.)

  29. Vanya said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 9:29 am

    @maidhc "The frustrating thing about Chinese is that it seems you're either totally fluent or completely ignorant. I wish there was some way to get a little bit of Chinese

    Most expats I knew in China were neither fluent nor completely ignorant. It's not that hard to learn to passively read 300-400 characters and combinations to navigate around most public street signs, storefronts, basic menu items and maybe even the more generic newspaper headlines. Neither does picking up basic conversational Chinese require a life time of effort. Unfortunately, as levels of English fluency in China continue to rise, the benefits of knowing "a little Chinese" are diminishing, and increasingly foreigners are conceivably opting for trying hard for fluency or not bothering at all.

  30. Vanya said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 9:37 am

    So the system ignores the difference between simplified and traditional–learners of course do not have that luxury.

    Nor do readers. That's insane.

  31. blahedo said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 2:19 pm

    I find the evolution of her name to be interesting. The oldest name Prof. Mair gives is "Xuē Xiǎolán", which reads very straightforwardly in Pinyin, but when she reinvented herself as "ShaoLan Hsueh", she's using different transcription for the X in her two names—as I recall, "Hs" is correct Wade-Giles for that sound and "Sh" is an ad-hoc transcription of the same sound (or good Wade-Giles and Pinyin for a *different* sound). Right?

    Perhaps she's banking on the fact that "Hsueh" will have a familiar-looking last name pattern for Americans who know other (possibly second- or third-generation) Chinese, but then why "ShaoLan"? Perhaps she is aiming for a sweet spot of "Chinese enough to be credibly an expert in Chinese, but not so Chinese as to look inaccessibly foreign".

  32. Eric said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 2:57 pm

    @blahedo–I think you may have mis-parsed regarding the name 'change' (or I'm unclear). My understanding is that, previously, when her audience was Chinese, she simply used her Chinese name (in characters), no need for Pinyin. The significant change is just from using 'Heidi' to using 'ShaoLan'–this could well be a business decision, as you suggest, but it need not be.

    I find her disregard for romanization systems in spelling her name interesting–and not unique. Many Taiwanese are only familiar with characters and Bopomofo, neither of which help for spelling in roman letters, so they can be quite creative in choosing an English spelling for their names. Likely, ShaoLan just kept the same spelling she'd been using for her surname (Hsueh) and chose a spelling for her given name that got roughly the right pronunciation out of English speakers. (I don't mean to defend her exactly. On her website she refers to the 'Pinyins' (sic) for words–she clearly has no credentials to legitimatize her as the world's authority on teaching and learning Chinese as a foreign language.)

  33. maidhc said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 4:31 pm

    Thanks for the tips about Pleco. I will look into it.

    If stroke order is easy to learn, where is a place I could learn it? Because something like this seems rather complicated.

  34. Victor Mair said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 4:51 pm


    Stroke order is not easy to learn. There are a lot of ambiguities about the sequence of strokes in a character, whether they cross, whether they are connected, how many there are, their actual shape, etc., and Chinese will argue over all of these things. I suspect that, for these reasons, shape-based entry systems for computers and shape-based look-up systems for dictionaries, etc. have never become broadly popular the way phonetic inputting has.

  35. Stephan Stiller said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 7:20 pm

    To view what Eric is referring to, go here. (I can't find a sample flashcard, but I think this is what you/Eric meant. That page also has the "Pinyins" Eric mentions.) Whoever wrote this was probably mistaking 日 (rì, sun) for 曰 (yuē, say), which is the Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) character for "say". Their "Set 1 → building blocks" page has the correct frequency indication for 日, namely "common".

    I think given what the book writes ("Chineasy teaches mainly traditional Chinese", p. 11), they might have changed their initial approach when they realized that simplified characters are simpler to illustrate.

  36. Dave Cragin said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 10:01 pm

    I definitely agree that Chinese is relatively easy to speak. Most words are just 1, 2 or 3 syllables and all multi-syllable words are single syllable words put together. If you can say the 1 syllable words, you can say the multi-syllable ones.

    Also, Chinese has comparatively few sounds to learn. Kane’s book “The Chinese Language” notes that Chinese only has 405 syllables. When distinguished by tone, there are only 1200 syllables (i.e., not every syllable has every tone). If you are a singer, you can likely master the tones more easily, but even a non-singer like me can do so with practice. (writing is much harder because one syllable can be represented by many different characters).

    In addition, words and verbs in Chinese never change, so you don’t have to memorize conjugations, word endings, cases, grammatical gender, etc. Hence, you need to learn each word just once.

  37. Stephan Stiller said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 10:10 pm

    @ Dave Cragin
    Yes, though I would replace "speak" with "pronounce" as far as your specific statements are concerned. What you mean is for example "the pronunciation of a polysyllabic word is generally the pronunciation of its constituent syllables strung together". Basically, Mandarin has little morphology affecting a syllable: the syllable is the unit of Mandarin morphology (with only very minor exceptions). As for "learning words", their meanings aren't necessarily compositional, so there is more work involved.

  38. Joe Davis said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 11:03 pm


    If you have an Android device, then try Hanping Chinese Dictionary (paid version includes Chinese handwriting recognition) or Hanping Chinese Camera (which includes Chinese OCR).

    They both come with 30-day money-back guarantees.

  39. Simon P said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 12:12 am

    @David Cragin: "all multi-syllable words are single syllable words put together"

    That's hardly true. A word like 技術員 consists of three syllables, neither of which is a word (as far as I know). I don't know how many syllables are words, but it's very, very far from "all". Some characters, like 蝴, are completely dependent and only ever occur together with a specific other character.

  40. Karen Jia said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 1:17 pm

    I'm the founder of Cominda Academy, a learning company. I also teach kids and adults Chinese. I wrote all 7 of my textbooks. I have to say I'm relieved to see this blog about Chineasy. Normally I encourage my students to leverage whatever tools they can lay their hands on, but I'm not planning on mentioning Chineasy.

  41. Jeff W said,

    March 22, 2014 @ 1:13 pm


    Re: stroke order

    Something like this video (“Chinese character stroke order rules”) might help. (The person who posted that video has posted other videos about writing specific characters and analyses of other characters (which seem well-researched to me but I’m no expert).)

    I recently started learning to read Cantonese—mostly food items to read menus. (I had in mind McCawley’s book, mentioned above, a copy of which I bought over 20 years ago, and don’t have around at the moment.) I realized that I really knew a character only if I could write it and so I incorporated writing into my learning, using the input method on my Smartphone (as suggested by others). I had a vague idea about stroke order (probably less than what the video I linked to above conveys) but did not try to “memorize” the stroke order rules. Instead, every time I learned a character, particularly when I first started, I’d go to the Arch Chinese site, enter the character, and learn its stroke order—as Victor Mair says, there are a lot of ambiguities about the sequence of strokes, so I figured “Why guess?” So now I have a pretty good idea of what the stroke order is for most characters I learn when I first see them, though (obviously) definitely not all.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    March 26, 2014 @ 7:09 am

    Lame Economist review of the book:

    "Two things make the two main Chinese languages, Mandarin and Cantonese, so fiendish to master. First, they are tonal, so a rising, falling or dipping pitch changes a word’s meaning. Second, they have no alphabet, relying instead on ideograms, or characters, to represent each word. To be literate requires memorising thousands of characters, compared with manipulating no more than 33 letters in most other major languages."

  43. APOLLO WU said,

    March 26, 2014 @ 8:41 am

    This is very true. Tonal languages tend to add another way of communication. I was frustrated to learn the tonal representation in the Thai language too. I believe using tone to represent meaning was invented by ancient people so as to keep them using monosyllabic syllables for a little longer. However, it could arrest the use of bisyllabics. Non alphabetic language with meaning embedded in characters at the expense of creating a lot of homophones is a unwieldy indeed as the meanings in a language is a unlimited open system. We get new Chinese words for new chemical elements from time to time. Although the creation of new characters has been slow, but they certainly create a lot of problem in data-processing. Come to think about the problems confronted by the continue use of the Character system, I can summarize them into to one word — ' Chaos' or ‘乱’ in Chinese.

  44. Stephan Stiller said,

    March 26, 2014 @ 8:44 am

    The review in the Economist cited in Victor Mair's comment has some mild reservations at the end. The review in Management Today is more critical, but it – like all other reviews – recommends the book.

    I'm wondering when the first negative review will appear. And what the dynamics for reviews in journalism is. There are scholarly outlets for opinions on language learning materials. I'm curious when a review informed by linguistics or cognitive science will come out.

  45. J. M. Unger said,

    March 26, 2014 @ 9:00 am

    I don't believe any people, ancient or otherwise, ever _invent_ phonemic features like tone. If I'm not mistaken, the Baxter-Sagart view is that tone in Sinitic arose as a compensatory feature in the articulation of certain syllables that would otherwise have been become homophonous with others when certain sound changes occurred, e.g. the reduction of syllable-initial clusters of two consonants (possibly with an intervening schwa) to single consonants, loss of syllable-final *-s, etc. Regular sound changes do not require human will to happen.

  46. Ben said,

    March 26, 2014 @ 2:17 pm


    Wenlin is good, it will draw the characters for you so you can see the stroke order exactly. It also has an excellent Chinese – English dictionary and a few other features. It runs on any version of Windows, but also in Linux under Wine. I've been using it for 10+ years and still use it every day.

  47. Xiyangyang said,

    March 26, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

    Yes the "all multi-syllable words are single syllable words put together" is incorrect, and a system such as Chineasy encourages people to believe that every character has a distinct meaning, that that the multi-syllable word will use the character because of that meaning. This is no more a universal truth with Chinese than it is with English syllables- not every English syllable has a clear distinct meaning, and not every English syllable is a word on its own.

    One other bad thing I didn't see mentioned about Chineasy is the non-standard pinyin, which is just plain confusing. It appears from their description that they had problems representing pinyin tones in the font they chose, so they went with a system of small superscript tone numbers! Placing ease of typesetting above ease of learning.

  48. Dave Cragin said,

    March 26, 2014 @ 9:54 pm

    Simon P & Xiyangyan – Point taken – I shouldn't have said "all." My point was for learners of Chinese, many of the common multisyllable words are composed of single syllable words – something that occurs much less often in English.

    And as in English, just because you know "all" and "right", you don't necessarily know the meaning of "alright." However, if you can say "all" and "right", you can say "alright." Similarly, in Chinese, if you can say 2 one syllable words, you generally can say a 2 syllable word with those syllables, (but you still need to learn the meaning).

    Stephan more eloquently stated this latter point, "Mandarin has little morphology affecting a syllable: the syllable is the unit of Mandarin morphology"

  49. Shaolan Hsueh said,

    March 27, 2014 @ 2:43 pm

    I'm glad to see my book prompting so much discussion and debate! For those of you who haven't had a chance to read it for yourselves yet, please email me at if you would like a review copy.

  50. Victor Mair said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 9:14 pm

    Part of a message sent to my British publisher:


    It was embarrassing and dismaying to find Shaolan and her Chineasy materials featured so prominently in the previous T & H catalogue. You can imagine my chagrin when I opened the inside front foldout cover of the current catalogue and saw that her materials are being featured yet again….

    Nobody can even begin to learn Chinese with Chineasy.


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