Guides Journey

From Chinese intermediate to Chinese native webnovels in 18 months

In March 2022, I shared a post on Reddit discussing my journey from intermediate level to reading Chinese native webnovels in 18 months.

Now, in 2024, I have been learning Chinese for almost four years and to this day and I am still reading Chinese webnovels almost every day.

I’ve decided to repurpose the post on this blog so that it doesn’t get lost in Reddit with time.

The Chinese learning community, materials, and resources have moved forward and improved dramatically in the last few years. The materials I used worked for me at the time, but there are now better and more approachable options. So, when relevant, I have included suggestions for resources and materials to use instead of the ones I used back in 2022-2023.

Introduction

I’m a Cantonese heritage speaker, who grew up in an English speaking country. Until my late teens, I attended Chinese school on Saturdays, where I was taught Standard Written Chinese in the traditional writing script using Cantonese pronunciation. This knowledge was soon lost shortly after graduating.

Fast forward 10+ years, in May 2020, I decided to attempt learning Mandarin Chinese after becoming interested in Chinese webnovels.

When I first started, I was lost and overwhelmed by the number of available tools, apps, courses and resources, which led me to dip in and out of various resources, study methods and routines. It was a very chaotic beginning. I eventually settled on a routine of reading and vocabulary review daily.

Some Cantonese pronunciation and a small portion of the grammar are similar to Mandarin. Therefore, with the little I remembered from Chinese school and the similiaries between the two dialects, it sped me to an intermediate level in Mandarin Chinese in a few short months.

I didn’t follow a programme or take any official test, so it was difficult to pinpoint accurately the level I was at when I started this reading journey. From many conversations with other learners with no heritage background, I can only roughly estimate my level to be HSK 3-4. when I started this reading journey.

In this post, I want to share my experience of spending 18 months reading original Chinese novels every single day — novels I had previously not read in another language or consumed the story in another form (i.e. a TV show or movie).

I jumped straight into original Chinese work because reading something like Harry Potter in Chinese didn’t interest me. Re-reading books isn’t something that I enjoy doing, even in another language.

I also regularly watch Chinese TV, but this post will only focus on reading and passive vocabulary acquisition from intermediate onwards. Maybe I’ll talk about the other aspects in another post in the future.

Routine, method and technique

My routine was simple and I carved out a block of time each day for this.

Reviewing words using SRS (spaced repetition system) was a priority in the morning before work, this took 15-20 minutes. It was the perfect time for me: 1) my brain was refreshed and not yet tired from a day of work; 2) get it done before any distractions.

In terms of the tool I used for reviewing, I stuck to something super simple. I used the paid Pleco SRS flashcard add-on and have most settings set to the default. I reviewed the words Pleco provided me once daily. Pleco displayed the word in Chinese characters only; I recited the word out loud (recited the definition in my head if I needed to) and then asked Pleco to reveal the pinyin definition and play the audio. Using Pleco’s inbuilt scoring system, I marked how well I did.

After work or sometimes during lunch breaks, I would read for approximately 30 minutes.

I kept this very simple. I didn’t do any unknown word extraction or pre-learning; I opened the book on Chrome or Readibu and started reading with a popup dictionary.

While reading, I noted down any unknown words, and then, after my daily reading session was over, I went through that list and picked some words to add to my Pleco deck. I decided these words in a very subjective manner — literally, do I think it’s helpful to me, have I seen this before, and am I likely to see it again?

Sometimes, when I struggled with certain words, I looked up example sentences in Baidu Fanyi, wrote them down, and then wrote my own sentences using those words. If I needed further help, I asked on Discord.

The preparation

Before diving into native full-length novels, I wanted to prepare for literature-style content. I discovered a native website with plenty of short children’s bedtime stories, 七故事网. I read one short story each day for a few weeks.

I started building my own flashcard deck on Pleco by adding between 5 and 10 new words every day from the short stories I read. During this period, I focused on common words, judging each word based on its meaning and how useful it would be for me moving forward.

Reflection

七故事网 revamped the bedtime story section in 2022, and the content is now much harder than they were in 2020 – 2021. Although I enjoyed reading short stories from this website, I recommend Little Fox Chinese instead.

Other paid excellent alternatives are DuChinese, Mandarin Companion and Imagin8 Press.

The beginning… (Sept 2020)

Month & Year: September 2020
Pleco deck word count: ~1,700

At the end of September 2020, I decided to embark on the native novel journey and started my first native novel.

At the time, I had around 1,700 words in my Pleco deck, which I had collected from day one of my learning journey. As someone with a Cantonese heritage background who’s not following any second language programme, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact level. I would say it was around HSK3-4 when I started this reading journey.

I started with a Chinese children’s novel called 《舒克和贝塔历险记》, which a native recommended to me. He told me that this series was very popular during his childhood, and almost every native would know the characters from this series.

Following on from 《舒克和贝塔历险记》, I discovered other children’s novels. I went on to read 《大林和小林》,《秃秃大王》,《小布头奇遇记》,《小布头新奇遇记》 and 《没有风的扇子》.

Despite all these books being targeted at children 6-7 years old, I found them to be really difficult. I read these very slowly; sometimes, I had to spread a chapter over two days. As the weeks went by, it slowly became easier and easier as I learned more words and became more familiar with various grammar and sentence structures.

Reflection

Looking back, I felt that I jumped into native books too early, as I had a really tough time at the beginning.

During those few months, I discovered Little Fox Chinese and wished I had discovered it earlier.

With what I know now, I recommend reading and listening to as much of the Level 3-5 Little Fox Chinese content as possible before jumping into native books. In fact, it’s possible to jump straight into reading more advanced children’s novels or simple adult novels after consuming most of the content from Little Fox Chinese.

The level 5 lessons on Little Fox Chinese contain approximately 2,500 unique characters and all the basic grammar of the Chinese language. The knowledge and experience gained from these lessons are good enough stepping stones into simple literature.

3 months later…

Month & Year: Mid-December 2020
Pleco deck word count: ~3,500

With three months of experience, I decided to up my game and started a slightly more sophisticated children’s book series called 《笑猫日记》 by 杨红樱.

It was a huge step up due to the more mature writing style, less repetition of the same words, and the increased usage of chengyus (”成语” – Chinese idioms).

At the beginning of the series, I only managed to read one chapter a day (approx 2k characters), which took me around 30 minutes before I felt completely drained. As I learned more words and my literacy ability improved, it became less draining, and occasionally, I managed to read two chapters during my 30-minute daily reading session. I ended up reading 6 《笑猫日记》 books in 3 months.

It also helped that I read from the same series for a long period of time as I got used to her writing style, and many of the same words and chengyus were repeated throughout the series.

Reflection

Even many years later, I still adore this series and would recommend it to all learners. Despite being a children’s series with talking animals as the main characters, the series does not have a “childish” feel as it touches on subjects in a mature manner that even an adult would find interesting and compelling.

From a language learner’s perspective, this series is quite challenging as it contains a large number of chengyus (”成语” – Chinese idioms). However, all the chengyus used in the series are common ones used in everyday conversations and in literature. So it is definitely worthwhile to put in the effort to learn them.

Even today, I still believe children’s books are helpful for language learners to bridge the gap between native content and content for learners, particularly for those interested in fiction. I understand they are not everyone’s cup of tea, so there are some easier novels for adults that are accessible for anyone with ~1,500 word knowledge.

Another 3 months later… (6 and half months after I started my first native novel)

Month & Year: Mid-March 2021
Pleco deck word count: ~5,300

After another three months, I decided to up my game and started an urban fantasy children’s series called 《幻想大王》 by 杨鹏.

The added fantasy elements and longer paragraphs made this quite a step up from 《笑猫日记》. In addition to the fantasy elements, each book in the series is a standalone story with a unique setting. The first few chapters of each book were always a huge struggle as I was flooded with a large amount of new vocabulary.

Despite the challenging initial chapters, my reading pace did pick up with time and practice.

I read four books from the series before moving on to something else.

2 more months later…I started to dip my toes in the adult webnovel world…

Month & Year: May 2021
Pleco deck word count: ~6,300

Almost nine months after I first started reading native novels, I decided to try a relatively simple but long interstellar cultivation webnovel,《重生之极品皇子妃》 by 叶忆落, which I discovered many months prior. Initially, chapters are about 1,500 characters in length, but they increase to 3,000 characters after chapter 70.

The writing style in this webnovel is straightforward and simplistic. However, the number of unknown words and expressions was overwhelming. There were definitely words that repeated, but the story took the characters all over their world, which introduced a new setting, new storylines, and new themes, resulting in new sets of words every 50-100 chapters.

I had many ups and downs while reading this; some days, I read two chapters with ease, and then other days, I struggled with just one.

At the same time, I also read two children’s books,《我的狼妈妈》 and 《我的狐狸妹妹》and a few short adult webnovels: 《我男朋友好像有病》,《狐狸尾巴露出来了》,《当你走进图书馆而书里夹了一枚书签》.

Reflection

Picking a webnovel as long as 《重生之极品皇子妃》was a mistake so early in my learning journey. Motivation to keep going was a key aspect, and I personally found completing novels a form of that motivation. I took a total of 6 months to finish 《重生之极品皇子妃》and during those months, I had many down moments, and the feeling of “never-ending” was very de-motivating.

Long-form webnovels are a form of narrow and broad reading. They are a form of narrow reading because the writing style is generally consistent, and many words are repeated throughout. Due to their length, the story is often very expansive in setting and themes, providing a broad range of vocabulary to learn.

Many learners do enjoy long-form webnovels and don’t mind the time it takes to complete them. If you enjoy progression-style novels and want to invest a period of time reading one webnovel, I would recommend webnovels by 叶忆落. I’ve since read a few of her webnovels and found them all to have a similar simplistic writing style.

Her webnovels are all tagged as danmei (”耽美” – Chinese boy love), but the focus on their relationship and romance is extremely minimal. Power progression, hunting for artefacts and beating enemies are much more important than romance.

6 more months later…I was fully in the webnovel world…

Month & Year: October 2021
Pleco deck word count: ~8,000

By October 2021, just over a year after I started this journey, I found native content for adults, that was light on complicated themes like fantasy, became much more accessible. I also learned how to navigate a few webnovel platforms to search for content.

Reflection

Novels with historical settings were completely out of the question at that time. Firstly, the language used in those is quite different from modern language, which adds additional complexity, particularly for a second language learner. Secondly, in 2021, I wasn’t aware of any easier historical setting webnovels, but eventually, my dear friend Wolfi found 《小九》by 许半仙. I also later discovered some other accessible historical novels, such as 《他会不会去跳江?》by 长烟.

Looking back, if I had known about the easy historical setting webnovels I just mentioned, I would have been able to read some after a year of reading consistently every day. Instead, I was too afraid to try a historical setting webnovel, so I didn’t try any till after 24 months of reading!

If you are interested in historical setting webnovels, and have many months of reading experience, consider giving 《小九》by 许半仙 and 《他会不会去跳江?》by 长烟 a try!

After 18 months (March 2022)

Month & Year: March 2022
Pleco deck word count: ~9,000

18 months after I started reading native novels daily, I had reached around 9,000 words in my deck and had read roughly 4 million characters worth of Chinese content.

Reflection on the journey

During those 18 months, my reading speed increased dramatically. Unfortunately, I didn’t record my reading speed or kept any logs; therefore, any improvement was based on feeling and the amount of content I was able to get through during my daily reading sessions, which were approximately 30 minutes.

Around 16 months after starting my journey, I checked my reading speed and found myself at around 200 characters per minute — so in 30 minutes, I could read around 6,000 characters. When I first started, I struggled to finish 1,500 characters in 30 minutes, so this was essentially an improvement of three times the speed.

The amount of time I could focus on a piece of text without feeling drained also increased. After 18 months of reading every single day, I was able to read for as long as I wanted, as long as the content didn’t contain too many unfamiliar words, grammar, and sentence structures.

After 18 months, I had learned ~2.8k characters and was at a level where I could comfortably read (with the help of a dictionary) some slice-of-life modern novels. Novels with a small amount of fantasy or supernatural elements were also manageable. Anything heavy on unfamiliar themes, like ancient martial arts, high fantasy, and sci-fi, was still quite difficult. This was an area that required more work.

General FAQ

Why did you read webnovels instead of published books?

There are two main reasons; firstly, it’s ease of access. Reading from a website allowed me to use tools such as Zhongwen or Readibu. Webnovels are also very cheap to purchase, e.g. a 700k character webnovel costs $3-$4.

Secondly, it’s the type of content that interests me. I like to read danmei (”耽美” – Chinese boy love) novels, which are always published as webnovels before they are licensed into another forms.

How much time did you spend on reading and reviewing words each day?

The amount of time I spent each day changed over time.

I started by reading only 10 – 15 minutes a day, and once I became more comfortable, I increased that to 30 minutes a day. I read for 30 minutes each day for the first two years of reading. During the first two years, I added no more than 20 new words to my deck each day. My daily review took approximately 15 – 20 minutes.

Now, at a very advanced reading level, I don’t dedicate a fixed amount of time each day to reading. I just read when I have time, which could range from 30 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes. As for new words, I only occasionally add new words to my deck. I’m also not as disciplined as I was once. I have missed reviewing my deck many, many times.

Is reading only 30 minutes a day enough?

Of course, it’s enough. The key isn’t the amount of time spent each day; it’s the consistency of reading every single day.

I, like many others, have other commitments and priorities. Reading in a foreign language is also very taxing on the brain. I simply didn’t have the energy and time to read more than 30 minutes each day.

Language learning is a marathon, not a sprint.

And a little each day is better than loads at once; otherwise, you could risk burnout. Burnouts could significantly impact your journey, resulting in long breaks or even stopping completely. If you want to succeed, avoid burnout whenever possible.

9k words don’t seem like it’s enough to read native content

That was just the number of words I had in my flashcard deck; it doesn’t represent the number of words I know. Many words are naturally learnt while consuming content, and many words are also combinations of characters I was already familiar with. Consuming content in any form is natural space repetition.

I’m not a heritage speaker; this is impossible

That is definitely not true. There’s a massive Discord community with thousands of learners, all learning and reading Chinese novels daily. Many with no Chinese background have achieved similar or better results than me in a shorter amount of time.

If you still don’t believe me, you must read my friend Mogu’s post on her journey! She started reading native content written for adults after only four months of learning Chinese. After only 1.5 years of starting Chinese, she had read 6 million characters worth of Chinese webnovels, which roughly amounts to 15,000 pages of regular books.

It took me 18 months to read 4 million, and I started with a Cantonese heritage background and prior reading experience. She went from completely zero knowledge of Chinese to 6 million Chinese characters read in 18 months! It’s definitely possible!

Key takeaways

Patience & perseverance is key

The journey from 1,000 to 3,000 characters is a difficult and frustrating one, especially if you want to read Chinese literature. I’m not going to lie; I’ve wanted to quit many times, but I’m so glad I pulled through. It was so worth it in the end.

Don’t rush

It’s tempting to rush to the best work, but don’t do it; just take your time. The number of unknown words, frustration with the inability to comprehend complicated sentences, and slow reading speed can be extremely demotivating and might even result in stopping the learning journey completely.

The Chinese learning community has moved forward drastically since 2021, with more and more learners taking on an immersion approach and stepping into native content much earlier than previously. The knowledge and experience have led to an increasing amount of accessible content being discovered. A highly complex science fiction novel or a translated novel are not the only options available.

Take that first step

You might find it challenging and daunting to pick up a completely brand-new native novel that you’ve never read before in another language, but it honestly isn’t as scary as it seems. The difficult part is actually finding a suitable novel and taking that first step. The first few chapters might be a bit difficult, but trust me, it will get easier after a few chapters.

Another alternative is to select a novel with an adaptation that you’ve already consumed. Many TV shows, donghua (动画 – Chinese animation) and manhua (漫画 – Chinese comic) are adaptations of published novels and web novels.

Reading a translated novel doesn’t have to be the only option. Enjoying content created in your target language for the native speaker of that language is part of the great experience and wonder of language learning.

Some extra tips

Listening is important

As mentioned in the introduction, the focus of this post is on reading. However, listening is also super important. Whether you’re watching a tv show, listening to an audiobook or a podcast, listening tremendously helps with passive vocabulary and grammar acquisition and retention.

Watching TV dramas will also enable you to familiarise yourself with common themes and tropes and even start learning vocabulary from your favourite genres.

Use your vocabulary

Actively using vocabulary makes a huge difference in retention, so if you’re able to use what you learn from reading when speaking and writing, then go for it.

Conclusion

Language learning is like opening doors, but in order to discover the world behind those doors, you must step through it. So take that step, walk through those doors, explore and discover the world behind them.

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