The Best Books for Intermediate Chinese Readers

Reading is always one of the best ways to learn a new language and culture. However, vocabulary, grammar and especially Chinese characters prevent a lot of beginner to intermediate Chinese speakers from diving into the world of Chinese literature.

What you need are just good recommendations and some strategies.  

Forget about Children’s story books. They are neither simple or sweet for beginners. They might be full of imagination and fun , but they will be filled with words you’ll never use in real life, and the wild and crazy narratives might make you lose your train of logic.

Start with graded books published for language learners, then move on to modern authentic books. “Modern” is very important, because the language used in the book will be handy since you can use them your daily life. 

Graded Books

1. Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series: level 1 to 3

These books are original stories orclassic stories re-written by professional authors and annotated by Chinese teachers with vocabulary and structure notes.

Level 1 uses a 300 words base. Level 2 uses a 500 word base and level 3 uses a 750 word base. These books are appropriate for beginner to low intermediate Chinese speakers. The stories are usually either mysteries, tales of romance, and stories based on news in China. 

2. Readings in Chinese Culture Series by Huang Weijia & Aoqun

This series is composed of short essays written by a Chinese couple who are both Chinese professors in the US. The narratives are usually light-hearted and playful. They contain good articles to read to better understand China, its history, heritage and culture in the 60’s.

For the first book, each article is around 500 words, perfect length for a bed reading.

3. Graded Chinese Reader 500 words and 1000 words

Published in 2013 and 2016, these two books contain selected short novels from contemporary Chinese literature. Every word is marked with Pinyin, and structure is explained with concrete examples. The 500 word reader one is designed for HSK 3 level students and 1000 words for HSK 4 level students. 

Authentic Chinese Books

Real fulfilment comes from reading just like a native Chinese person. There will be a time when you might be able to appreciate books written in Chinese for Chinese people. When that day comes choose literature that is written in simple, standard and beautiful modern Chinese. 

1. Comic Books by 幾米 (Jī Mǐ)

These are excellent comic books for adults. His books are full of beautiful paintings, and elegant text, with well-designed plots, and special perspectives. It will not take you too long to finish one, and each book is worthy of multiple reads.

There are multilingual translated versions for several of his books, too.

2. Border Town

边城(Biān Chéng: Border Town)by 沈从文 (Shén Cóngwén)

If you want to read about a poetic China and Chinese romance, this will be the perfect novel.  

Shen Congwen writes using sensitive, fluid and very accessible language. Some people like to compare him to the American literary legend, William Faulkner. 

The English translation by Jeffery Kinkley is also beautiful. You can easily find a bilingual versions of this book.

3. 1988: I Want to Talk with the World

1988: 我想和这个世界谈谈(1988: Wǒ xiǎng hé zhège Shìjiè Tǎntan, 1988: I Want to Talk with the World)by 韩寒 (Hán Hán)

This is a good novel to get a glimpse into the thoughts on love, death and loss in the 80’s. Han Han has a reputation of writing in an ironic, humorous, and profound way. There are always a few lines in each chapter that will make you laugh. He is a productive writer as well. If you like the style, you can wander through all of his collection.

Three Reading Strategies

I have to admit, it’s hard to read in a foreign language. Frustration can easily come up. Here are a few tips to avoid frustration

1. Ambiguity and Tolerance

Sometimes you won’t understand everything in a book. If you can understand 30% at the first try, give yourself a round of applause. Congratulations! Use the context, and tolerate new words. Avoid looking up every new word you come across unless it really matters (most of the time it doesn’t). Keep your flow going. Do not interrupt it. 

2. Understand the Story and Background First

Sometimes it isn’t just about the language, but the context. Try to read some background about the book in the language you are most comfortable with. Take advantage of movies based on the novels. Once you are familiar with the context of the story, reading will be much easier.

3. Focus on the First Sentences

Authors are usually most proud of their beginnings, where they can show their inspirations. Therefore, spend the most time and energy on those first lines, and you will be able to improve your writing skills as well!

Enjoy and Read on! Remember to share your reading stories with us!

Wang Rong (Emily) is a cofounder of GoEast and writes columns for the GoEast Blog on Chinese language learning, Chinese culture, and life in China as a language specialist. She holds a BA degree in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language and a MA in Comparative Literature. She has been teaching Chinese to foreigners since 2007 as a tutor and a professor in Universities.