Chineasy: The new way to read Chinese - review

This clever book started out fun, but there's no disguising that learning Chinese is difficult. Very difficult, says Will Butler-Adams, the MD of Brompton Bicycle.

by Will Butler-Adams
Last Updated: 25 Mar 2014

Ni-hao' ('hello') is about as far as I have ever got with Mandarin, which is pretty pathetic, as Taiwan, China and Hong Kong are all important suppliers as well as markets for us at Brompton.

The perceived wisdom is that if you find the Chinese language hard work, just wait until you have a crack at the written word.

So, imagine my delight when I stumbled across Chineasy, which offers a new visual method designed to make reading Chinese characters fun and easy. The author, ShaoLan Hsueh, a calligrapher's daughter who describes herself as 'part geek, part entrepreneur, part dreamer', started the project out of a desire to teach her own children to read and appreciate the Chinese language, and to see if she could tackle the enormous task of deciphering the Chinese language of her childhood.

She reckons that by mastering one small set of building blocks you can quickly learn to read several hundred Chinese characters and phrases, and gain a deeper understanding of the historical and cultural references of the vocabulary. I'm an engineer; I'm good with building blocks. This sounds promising, I thought.

It started out so well. Right from the first page, Chineasy makes sense, using delightful illustrations and simple explanations for each character.

The first is 'person'; handily, it looks like the profile of a man walking. Put two of those characters together and you get 'to follow'.

Add a third on top and you get 'crowd' (two's company, three's a crowd). This isn't so hard. Not only am I learning to read Chinese characters, but I'm learning the words at the same time.

By the time I got to 'mermaid' (a combination of the symbols for person and fish) and 'bark' (dog plus mouth) on page 26, I thought I'd cracked it and was wondering what all the fuss was about.

Brompton launched in Taiwan seven years ago and Hong Kong soon after - a great way to test the Chinese appetite for our product. We opened our first Brompton Junction shop in Shanghai 18 months ago and in Beijing at the end of last year. We now sell around 3,500 bikes a year in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, and we'll be opening an office in Hong Kong next year, sending out two of our staff.

Even though there are several different spoken Chinese dialects, such as Mandarin or Cantonese, they all share the same written characters; it is only the pronunciation of these characters that will differ from one dialect to another.

As I was flicking through Chineasy, I couldn't stop thinking about the gasps of wonder and looks of amazement that I'd get from colleagues on my next trip to Taipei when I started interpreting signs and restaurant menus.

Unfortunately my initial self-confidence began to wane by the time I got to page 115 and attempted to decipher the character for 'belly', a combination of the symbols for flesh and soil. The problem being that the character for flesh looks nothing like flesh, and soil doesn't look at all like soil. And I couldn't for the life of me work out why the character for 'at' would be made up of 'talent' and 'soil'.

The links between the words and the symbols started to get pretty tenuous and were it not for the increasingly complex visuals imposed on the characters I would be pushed to see any connection at all.

By page 152, I was expecting to be able to read advanced sentences such as 'the brat is clapping his hands' or 'the rich girl stinks' (rather odd phrases for what is essentially a textbook).

Ten pages later, the author is so confident that it will all be making sense that she presents us with the story of Peter and the Wolf to read. I admit it: I'm lost and even the animation doesn't seem to add up.

So is Chineasy easy? Well, no, but it is a good buy for anyone who does business or has an interest in the People's Republic and needs help scaling the Great Wall of Language.

It won't teach you instantly to read Chinese but it will give you a simple and graphic insight into how the language has evolved and, through this, an insight into a culture so different from our own. Even if you struggle through it, as I did, it's a fascinating and intriguing read.

My nine-year-old daughter, a ferocious reader, has already stolen my copy and loves it. She wants to take it into school as some of her classmates are Chinese; I'm sure she'll grasp the concept of Chinese ideograms with much more ease than me.

- Will Butler-Adams is the managing director of Brompton Bicycle.

BOOK:

Chineasy: The new way to read Chinese

ShaoLan Hsueh

Harper Design, £12.95

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