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I was hoping that, after writing "Chineasy? Not", I wouldn't have to concern myself with this pedagogical bugaboo again.  Wishful thinking!  For reasons that escape me, the Chineasy juggernaut continues to rumble forward

Doesn't speak much for Babel (the UK language magazine) that they'd uncritically run a piece by ShaoLan Hsueh about Chineasy… here are three links (one, two, three) to page images for the article.  You can click on the pages to enlarge them.

This is so distressing.  It's all the same slick gobbledegook and facile pablum that we've been inundated with for the past year and more.  I don't want to repeat what I wrote about the fallacies of Chineasy in my previous Language Log post on this unpalatable subject, but I can assure you that nothing has changed.  It's still the same bundle of misconceptions and false premises that it was from the very beginning.  The only things that I can see that bring such vast amounts of publicity to Chineasy are:

1. the charismatic creator

2. an excellent designer

3. a very capable marketing team

So far as linguistic excellence and pedagogical efficacy go, Chineasy is one of the poorest products on the market.  Its fundamental premises are totally "off the wall".

It's really not worth my time to carry out a point-by-point rebuttal, but it's my duty to show how erroneous the Chineasy approach is.  Let's just take one example, 划, which Chineasy puts in the "Explanative" category.  The first panel shows a rifle with 戈 (actually a "dagger axe" ) superimposed in an utterly meaningless fashion on the central portion of the gun. The second panel shows 刀 as the handle of a knife, when actually 刀 is primarily the blade (never mind). The third panel shows the rifle with the knife floating off to the right and with a radically transformed shape of its handle (without bothering to explain how or why the change took place).  Thus, Chineasy gives us "weapon + knife = row".  What????  How in the dickens does "weapon + knife" come to mean "row".

Here's how they tell the "story" of the character:

This compound is a combination of the building blocks 'knife' and 'weapon'.  This character can mean 'row' or 'stroke'.  Just imagine a warship's rowers slicing through the water to battle.

OMG!!!!!  My head is spinning.  What is an innocent to make of this?  The problem is that people will take it in deadly seriousness because this is, after all, a Chinese character, and Chinese characters by their very nature are fraught with profundity.

What's really wrongheaded — if not downright insulting — about this is that nowhere does Chineasy tell us how to pronounce the characters it attempts to provide mnemonics for.

Against my usual Language Log principles, I have not provided phonetic annotations for the character or its components that we are discussing, since Chineasy doesn't give them.  But this is key:  what matters most about the characters, as with any full writing system, is how they are pronounced,  Yet Chineasy totally ignores that aspect of characters, which completely vitiates its cutesy visuals.

I don't want to go into all the details here, but 划 actually has three pronunciations in Mandarin:

1. huá

a. scratch; cut something with a knife or other sharp instrument

b. paddle; row with oars to move a boat; a boat that is propelled with oars

c. pay; be to one's profit

2. huà

a. divide; demarcate

b. plan

3. huai

as in 百刂[those two components should be one character that is untypable for me]劃, which is pronounced bāihuai, can also be written 擘畫/擘画/擘划 (in which case it is pronounced bòhuà) and means "deliberate and plan; arrange; deal with; repair; renovate"

To further complicate matters, 划 is both a traditional character (for sense 1b. and 1c.) and serves as the simplified form of 劃 when used in the sense of 1a., 2a., 2b., and 3.

When 划/劃 enters into words formed with other morphosyllables, it takes on other meanings that we need not go into here.

This may all be reduced to the following precept:  apart from their pronunciation and morphology, recognizing a few characters as forced pictures is useless if one is interested in learning Mandarin or any other Sinitic language.

This is part of a message that I sent to my British publisher a couple of weeks ago:

It was embarrassing and dismaying to find Shao Lan and her Chineasy materials featured so prominently in the previous Thames & Hudson 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.

I pity anyone who wastes 2 minutes or $20 on Chineasy.  If an adult does it, he / she is a fool, but if they induce a child to do it, they are leading him / her astray.

What did P. T. Barnum say about fools?

We should no longer think of Chineasy by its delusory self-designation.  Henceforth, let it be known as Chinhard.

[Thanks to Ben Zimmer]


  1. richardelguru said,

    August 15, 2014 @ 6:18 am

    "What did P. T. Barnum say about fools?"

    This way to the egress?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    August 15, 2014 @ 6:23 am

    From Silas Brown:

    The character that was untypeable for you is 㓦, and I got it by using Wenlin's "List / Characters containing components" and typing 百刂 (I first of all set "Options / Hanzi filter" to "ALL 75,000+ hanzi").

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 15, 2014 @ 8:07 am


    No, that's not the one I was thinking of (ha-ha), but your mentioning it in this context does have profound implications on several levels.

    Some links for those who might be interested in pursuing the topic of P. T. Barnum's alleged views on fools:

    See the next to the last paragraph here:

    Google search

  4. Victor Mair said,

    August 15, 2014 @ 8:13 am

    From a leading authority on Chinese language pedagogy:

    I hate to see you wasting your talents on confronting the fraud that is Chineasy. This is a business venture that depends on the ignorance of its customers. While deplorable, it is just like Rosetta Stone and other products that promise the clueless that they can learn a language without actually studying it.

    It is really astounding how persistent this pandering to an unreasonable desire is–but there are industries based on unreasonable desires.

    The results of purchasing this book to the customers: 1) they will take a look at it and set it aside, 2) they will read it and discuss Chinese characters with their friends, 3) they will study it and discover that they actually cannot read Chinese, upon which they will think that everyone who has actually learned Chinese is a genius, 4) they will decide that learning Chinese is impossible.

  5. JB said,

    August 15, 2014 @ 10:20 am

    "If an adult does it, he / she is a fool, but if they induce a child to do it, they are leading him / her astray."

    The first time I read this sentence, I thought the slashes were line breaks, like some kind of free verse:

    If an adult does it, he
    She is a fool, but if they induce a child to do it, they are leading him
    Her astray.

  6. Eric said,

    August 15, 2014 @ 12:54 pm

    It is major strike against Babel that it carried this. It gives apparent linguistic backing to something that is a complete mess as anything other than an art project. No one who understands the processes involved in learning a language or learning to read can possibly take this seriously.

  7. Max said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 1:32 am

    I propose "chimpossible" since it is not merely hard to learn Chinese with this tool (it's hard even without it) but actually impossible

  8. KWillets said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 12:35 pm

    Is it aimed at the overseas Chinese parent market? I imagine that parents who already know their characters might not notice that it doesn't have pronunciation.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 3:21 pm


    Whether in Taiwan, Singapore, Mainland China, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, North America, or elsewhere, all worthy teachers and responsible parents will want their children to begin the study of Chinese characters with the assistance of phonetic annotation.

  10. KWillets said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 6:21 pm

    @Victor we agree on that, but I'm trying to picture a situation where people would forget to follow that maxim. In particular I'm wondering what the author was thinking.

    It seems like every student of Chinese goes through this "I'm going to publish a book of drawings to illustrate characters" phase. Here's an entire Pinterest page of them, for example:

  11. Alex Leibowitz said,

    August 17, 2014 @ 12:34 am

    I think you're making much ado about nothing. These sorts of "shortcuts" will always exist — so I agree with Victor Mair's authority. I do think, there's one other possibility — someone will buy this, become more interested in Chinese, and start using other resources to help her study. If it gets people interested in the language, that's a good thing, and whatever money they spend on it ends up being a sort of beginner's mistake.

    Also, I read the last post, and I take issue with your claim (seems a little more like a boast) that learning spoken Chinese is easy. I've been at it for 2 years, and it's very challenging. Before I started trying to learn Chinese, the only languages I'd studied had been for reading knowledge (except for some French in high school), and learning Chinese has made me appreciate (maybe I'm just not as good at this as I thought) how difficult it is to really become *fluent* in a foreign language.

    Learning vocab may not be too difficult. Learning to read an alphabetic language takes about a year. Learning to read a language like Chinese or Japanese might take 2 or 3 years. But learning how to speak a language both fluently and correctly is at least a ten year endeavor in my opinion. Unless you're a crazy perfectionist like Julien Godefroy and can get yourself to go at it for 8 hours a day.

    It just is very unfair, I think, to put that burden on people of telling them, "You can learn this language in a year or so." I've worked with lots of people teaching ESL, and all of them want that quick fix, but I always tell them that learning a language is like practicing an instrument. You need to put time into it every day, and it will take many years before you start to really master it.

    The result of my experience is that I know longer believe it when I hear of people who say they're fluent in several languages. They may be able to speak several languages with more or less competency, but to acquire native-speaker level in any language is very difficult, I think.

  12. Jared said,

    August 17, 2014 @ 4:57 pm

    I'm curious how the "Chineasy method" would handle something as elementary as colors: 黑, 藍, 綠, 紅, 黃, 紫…what pictographic clues or clever illustrations would be used to help a Chinese learner to read (though obviously not pronounce) these? Maybe the author has covered this; I have not purchased her book.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    August 17, 2014 @ 7:51 pm


    Oh, I'm sure that she could do it very easily. For instance, for "red" she might have her designer draw a beautiful red rose on the cheek of a fetching maiden, then superimpose the character 紅 on top of the rose. That's about as much sense as most of her "stories" make.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2014 @ 7:15 am

    Part of a message from my editor at Thames & Hudson:


    …I'm not entirely surprised that you as a Chinese linguist find the book inadequate. I had nothing to do with our taking it on here, nor have I read the book – have you, actually? – so I have no opinion on the matter. All I can say – to your chagrin no doubt – is that it has been tremendously well-received internationally. Maybe, even if it's inadequate, it will motivate buyers of the book to proceed further and really try to learn the language and script properly…


    Part of my reply to him:


    Chineasy is cute and clever, and, from a design standpoint, it is appealing, as any book from T & H must be, but from the standpoint of pedagogy, it is a total disaster. Yes, I've forced myself to read Chineasy, so as to try to understand her method, and I must say that every minute of the experience was painful — except for the pretty drawings, which have nothing to do with learning Chinese.


  15. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2014 @ 9:04 am

    @Alex Leibowitz

    No, I'm not "making much ado about nothing", and no, Chineasy is not an innocent "'shortcut'". Chineasy is deceiving people, wasting their money (which is not so important if they're relatively well off), wasting their time (which is not good under any circumstances), and — in some cases — is harming them. I've seen people get all excited about how easy it's going to be to learn Chinese from some quick fix method like Chineasy, then become seriously deflated when it doesn't work at all, neither for reading, nor for speaking.

    You're right that very few non-native speakers ever attain native fluency in any language, even ones that are fairly close to their own (such as French or German, much less Danish, for an American). But I do know dozens of Americans who speak Japanese with virtually native fluency. I also know about a dozen Americans whose Mandarin is very good, but only two or three whose spoken Mandarin is indistinguishable from that of a native speaker. I'm not at that stage, but I've delivered scores of lectures in Mandarin in China without undue suffering or misunderstanding on the part of the audience, can interact in Chinese society in all sorts of situations, and sometimes can fool people into thinking that I'm Chinese (it's always fun to have a phone conversation with somebody and hear the shock in their voice when, at the end, they find out that I'm a LAOWAI).

    I've always been puzzled by how so many people can attain very high levels of fluency in Japanese, while so few can do it in Mandarin. I really don't know the answer to this enigma, but perhaps Language Log readers can offer suggestions.

    In general, my experience is that only people who spend a fair amount of time in the country where a language is spoken can become fully fluent in it, and they also have to avoid hanging out with expats who speak their own language.

    I have elsewhere (see the link at the end of this paragraph) described how I learned Nepali — total immersion during Peace Corps training in Columbia, Missouri. From the day we started learning Nepali, not a word of English was spoken in the classes. I still remember very vividly the first three pairs of sentences we learned in Nepali. That was a thrilling experience — to jump right into a language and never look back. After spending two years in Nepal without speaking English for more than ten days during the whole period, my Nepali was close to native fluency level. I even dreamed in Nepali!

    I have a colleague who knows the following languages: English, Mandarin and several other Sinitic topolects, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Tibetan, Russian and several other European languages…. I can tell you that he has been extremely diligent about learning each one of these languages, hiring the best tutors and meeting with them regularly for hours each week for years on end, reading stories, novels, essays, and magazines in each one of them (BTW, he is a professional multilingual translator, so his job is to learn and use languages, and learn and use them well, which he does, and he is handsomely paid for his skills). Indeed, my colleague's accomplishments are extremely impressive; I've often characterized him as a language learning machine. Yet I can't vouch for his having native fluency in any of these languages — he's probably pretty close to it in Vietnamese and Korean, but he is very good in all of them.

    Aside from good methods (which I've described above and in various Language Log posts), another thing that I think is very important in learning a language is to have nurturing teachers, not sadistic ones who like to make you suffer (believe me, there are plenty of the latter and too few of the former). One of my good friends went to one of America's very best universities and had a passion for learning Mandarin, but his teachers told him that he was tone deaf, had no affinity for Chinese, and should give up after only a few weeks into the introductory course. My friend ended up in the hospital because of that. After recovery, a kinder, gentler teacher took him under her wing and brought him along skillfully, to the point that my friend is now one of the fastest and best speakers of Mandarin in America, and is a distinguished professor of Chinese history at a top university.

    So what does all of this boil down to in terms of the questions that you have raised? It is possible to attain native spoken fluency in Mandarin — under the right conditions — and it is a lot easier to do that than to be able to read Chinese like a native. I also have to say that I've never met any foreign speaker of Mandarin or other Sinitic topolect, no matter how good their spoken language is, who could write Chinese like a native.

  16. Lance said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 7:14 am

    These guys seem to be trying to provide a much-needed antidote to the Chineasy mess. This post on 高興 was a breath of fresh air amidst all the junk out there.

    Hopefully they're able to complete the dictionary they're working on.

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