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The ultimate guide to starting Mandarin Chinese for danmei webnovels

Have you ever considered learning Mandarin Chinese to read a danmei web novel? Are you wondering if that’s even feasible or worth it? Let me assure you that it’s worth your time and completely achievable, and many have already succeeded, including myself.

You’re not alone on this journey.

The danmei genre has come a long way since The Untamed boom in 2019. It has gained a massive readership outside of China and has attracted many publishing houses to publish translations in many languages and distribute them all over the globe.

But you’re not here for the translations (fan- or official-). You’re here because you want to read the raw version of these mind-blowing webnovels. Isn’t that right?

So, I’m going to show you some accessible ways you can get started and steps you can take to eventually reach the goal of reading your first danmei novel.

I will focus mainly on the passive skill of reading, but I recommend dedicating time to listening, speaking and writing, as they will also contribute to overall language proficiency.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with any company. These are my own personal views, written from my experience and observation of other learners.

Introduction to Mandarin Chinese

What is Mandarin Chinese?

Chinese is an umbrella term for the different variations of the spoken language in China. When people refer to the term “Chinese,” they often mean Mandarin Chinese.

You may also have heard of Cantonese or other variations and wonder which you should learn. Mandarin Chinese is the official spoken language of China and one you should learn, not just for the purpose of consuming danmei content, which is often produced in Mandarin Chinese, but also for the general usefulness of this language skill.

Standard Accent vs Other Accents

China is a vast country with many different accents, and it can be confusing which accent you should be familiarising yourself with.

Generally speaking, it doesn’t matter too much which accent you learn, as once you’re listening is advanced enough, it’s pretty easy to become familiar with a variety of accents, but for the purpose of consuming danmei content, you should stick with the Mainland Standard Mandarin accent (more northern than southern accent). This is extremely easy to achieve as most resources and content from mainland China will likely use the Standard Mandarin accent.

Simplified vs Traditional

You may have heard of these two terms and need clarification on which to learn.

First of all, simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese refer to the writing systems and do not affect the meaning and pronunciation of words—like a very extreme version of British vs. American spelling.

In terms of which writing system you should learn for danmei, I suggest sticking with simplified. The main reasons for choosing simplified over traditional are:

  • Most popular danmei are published on Mainland platforms in simplified Chinese.
  • Most audio dramas are published on Mainland platforms with only simplified Chinese subtitles.
  • Converting traditional to simplified using an AI is around 99% accurate, whereas the other way round, it’s much lower.
  • Once you have high proficiency in reading simplified Chinese, it would only take a few months to familiarise yourself with traditional Chinese — you don’t need to start from zero.

Writing characters & stroke orders

In today’s digital age, where much communication is done digitally, the ability to handwrite characters from memory is not as important as it once was. With the ultimate goal of consuming danmei content in mind, the skill of writing characters from memory isn’t all that useful.

Many learners find the action of handwriting characters an excellent method to improve their character recognition and ability to differentiate similar-looking characters. Use it to enhance your character recognition, but it isn’t an essential focus if you feel you don’t need it.

What is HSK and TOCFL?

HSK (汉语水平考试 – Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) is China’s standardised Mandarin Chinese proficiency test for non-native speakers such as foreign students and overseas Chinese.

TOCFL (Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language) is Taiwan’s proficiency test, equivalent to HSK.

These tests are required for those who want to study or work in China or Taiwan respectively.

If moving to China or Taiwan to work or study isn’t on your bucket list, then you don’t need to worry about taking these tests. There is plenty of material catering to these programmes, so following the courses is a good option for those who prefer guided studies.

So, to summarise…

  • Learn Mandarin Chinese.
  • Stick with the Standard Mandarin accent.
  • Focus on the simplified writing style (for now).
  • Handwriting is optional, but it could be helpful for character recognition.
  • Don’t worry about HSK or TOCFL, but worth a consideration for those who prefer guided studies.

How to get started

Building a good foundation is the first step to success. I’m sure you want nothing more than to pick up the Chinese version of the danmei translation you just read (I know that feeling!) but trust me, it’s worth the wait!

Many months of steady progress is more effective and less painful than immediately jumping into the deep end. With a good foundation, you’ll be able to read very simple danmei webnovels in no time!

For the absolute beginner

Do you have absolutely no clue where to start with Mandarin Chinese, or are you unsure if this is right for you? Then download HelloChinese, a great Mandarin Chinese learning app — available on Android and iOS. The free lessons will be enough to provide you with a taster and will help you decide if this is a language for you.

Ready to commit

After you’ve had a taste and decided you want to commit, here are some options you can take to continue your journey:

  1. Little Fox Chinese is a brilliant free resource where lessons are presented as animated short stories with native audio. Go through as many lessons as you can manage while supplementing grammar studies using Chinese Grammar Wiki (more about this resource below).
  2. Purchase premium access to HelloChinese, which allows you access to all the lessons and graded readers. If you can consistently learn with HelloChinese, then 6 months will be more than enough. This is an excellent option, particularly if you find the available resource choices overwhelming and don’t want to formulate your own study plan.
  3. Textbooks are also great options for self-learning; popular textbook series include HSK Standard Course, Boya Chinese and New Practical Chinese Reader.
  4. YouTube channels are a great way to supplement your learning. Check out Grace Mandarin, ShouShouChinese and Chinese Zero to Hero.
  5. Those who find self-directed learning challenging or prefer seeking professional guidance may find investing in private lessons or enrolling in a language course beneficial.

Structured learning, in whichever way you choose, will be highly beneficial at this early stage. Doing your own thing or jumping ahead may not be the best approach until you have built this solid foundation—it’s like forming that all-important golden core when cultivating.

Tools and resources you must know about

Below are tools that you must know about

  • Pleco is a Chinese dictionary mobile app with some additional paid features. I highly recommend purchasing the basic bundle, which includes a flashcard system, document reader, advanced OCR, additional dictionaries and human audio recordings.
  • Chinese Grammar Wiki is exactly as the name suggests — a knowledge base of Chinese grammar. The explanation and examples are excellent and perfect for honing your grammar knowledge.
  • Browser popups Chinese to English dictionaries, such as Zhongwen and Zhongzhong, are great tools because they help you quickly find the definition of any Chinese word you encounter while browsing the internet.

Forming a review habit

It’s helpful to form a habit of reviewing vocabulary and/or sentences early on. This can be done using a method called spaced repetition system, also known as SRS.

SRS is a tried and tested method for memorising information. Check out this video to learn all about this method and how it can help in language learning – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVf38y07cfk

I highly recommend setting up your own review system and creating your own cards from day one. Don’t solely rely on the ones provided by apps like HelloChinese because you’ll want to eventually move away from those.

SRS Tools

Reviewing cards can be done digitally using tools that will do all the SRS calculations for you. Two popular tools among Chinese learners are Pleco (with the flashcard add-on) and Anki. I use Pleco and absolutely love how easy it is to add new cards.

Pleco

Pleco is a Chinese dictionary app (mentioned above) with some additional paid features, including an SRS flashcard addon.

Pros: Pinyin, definition, and audio are available for over 100,000 words. Creating cards with everything you need is quick and easy.

Cons: There is no option to create custom cards with images, videos, and other types of content, and it is difficult to create sentence review cards.

Anki

Anki is a popular SRS software with the ability to sync between desktop, web and mobile.

Pros: It is highly customisable and flexible, with a large number of plugins and pre-made decks available. It is brilliant for sentence cards or cards with other media types, such as images and videos.

Cons: There is no in-built pinyin, definition, or audio; therefore, it requires extensive set-up using plugins and other tools.

Be careful when searching on the app stores as there are multiple apps with the name “Anki”.

FAQ

Should I download a pre-made deck of Chinese words on Anki?

There are many learners who use pre-made decks; however, they should never be used in isolation. Words alone will not help you achieve the goal of reading danmei webnovels. Understanding grammar and sentence structures is also critical.

Creating your own deck from guided studies such as HelloChinese, a course, or a textbook is a more sustainable approach.

You can review a pre-made deck in addition to other studies, but be careful not to be burned out by too much content.

A little bit each day is much better than too much at once.

Is listening important?

Yes absolutely. Have you already forgotten about the amazing danmei audio dramas that have zero subtitles translated?

Many of the resources I have recommended in this post are also great for listening practice. It will be challenging to work on character recognition and listening at the same time, so you can focus on reading first and then work on listening at a later stage.

I’ve finished everything you’ve mentioned in this post, what do I do now?

Great question! Check out the reading guide on Heavenly Path.

When can I read my first danmei?

Many factors, including language background and time, will affect the length of time you need to study before a simple danmei becomes accessible.

With consistency, you should expect to read your first danmei within 6-12 months.

Once you’ve formed a solid foundation of 1,000 character knowledge (equivalent to HSK 4 if you’re following the program), the Heavenly Path reading guide will help you reach that goal!

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