Gift ideas for Mandarin learners

Here are some books I recommend. You may still have time to buy some of these for others (or persuade others to buy for you) before Christmas.

In a departure from my usual practice, all of the images below are linked to Amazon — in part to make things easier for most readers of this site but also because I’m a bit curious to see if the potential kickbacks from that site would ever add up to enough to buy myself some books I’ve been wanting. Mainly, though, I’d like to see these books make it into the hands of more readers. This isn’t meant to be a complete list; but it’s a good start.

One of these days I’ll post about the works below I haven’t written about previously.


ABC English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary, edited by John DeFrancis and Zhang Yanyin. This is the Mandarin-English/English-Mandarin dictionary that every student needs. Suitable for all ages and levels. It’s small enough to carry with you. And at US$20 or even less it’s a bargain too. For an e-edition, get Wenlin (see below). Description. Excerpt from Mandarin –> English half. Excerpt from English –> Mandarin half.
ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, edited by John DeFrancis. The best large Mandarin-English dictionary. Entries are arranged alphabetically, by words, rather than head Chinese characters. Note: This is a Mandarin –> English dictionary and does not offer an English –> Mandarin section. For an e-edition (which does allow for the lookup of English words), get Wenlin (see below). Sample of what entries in this dictionary look like.
Chinese Biographies: Lang Lang, by Grace Wu. Pinyin-annotated biography of pianist Lang Lang, with English notes. There’s also a helpful Web site with additional resources. Ideal for beginning and intermediate students.
Chinese Biographies: Yao Ming, by Grace Wu. Pinyin-annotated biography of basketball star Yao Ming, with English notes. There’s also a helpful Web site with additional resources. Ideal for beginning and intermediate students.
The Besieged City (Abridged Chinese Classic Series), by Qian Zhongshu. Pinyin-annotated abridged version of a terrific Chinese novel. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpt.
Family (abridged and annotated edition, with full Hanyu Pinyin), by Ba Jin. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpt.
Spring (abridged and annotated edition, with full Hanyu Pinyin), by Ba Jin. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpt.
Autumn, (abridged and annotated edition, with full Hanyu Pinyin), by Ba Jin. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpts.
Basic Spoken Chinese: An Introduction to Speaking and Listening for Beginners, by Cornelius C. Kubler. Although this book is not in orthographically standard Pinyin, it’s nonetheless strong. A practical, real-world textbook that focuses on learning the language, not getting beginners bogged down memorizing character after character.
Fundamental Spoken Chinese, by Robert Sanders. Another excellent textbook. Audio files are available online. Excerpt.
The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, by John DeFrancis. Essential reading. This book will inoculate you against the absolute nonsense that many people — including all too many teachers — believe about Chinese characters. Excerpt.
Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma, by William C. Hannas. A wide-ranging, detailed book that discusses some of the drawbacks of the continued use of Chinese characters. Excerpt.
Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, by Li and Thompson. Good for the linguistically inclined. Just about the only Chinese characters in this book are on the cover, which, yes, I consider to be a good thing.
Wenlin software for learning Chinese, version 4. I use this on a daily basis. This incorporates both dictionaries listed above.
Beyond This List

Here are some things not listed above, in most cases because Amazon doesn’t stock them.

  • Pinyin Riji Duanwen, by Zhang Liqing. A book of largely autobiographical short stories, written entirely in Hanyu Pinyin (except for one brief letter in English). For intermediate and advanced learners — and for native speakers of Mandarin as well. At just US$5, plus shipping, this is the least expensive work on this list. The complete text is also available for free online, though a URL just doesn’t have that same Christmas feeling as a physical book, does it?
  • Any or all of the three volumes in Y.R. Chao’s Sayable Chinese series. For intermediate and advanced learners — and for native speakers of Mandarin as well. Note: These books are in Chinese characters and Gwoyeu Romatzyh, not Hanyu Pinyin, so for most people the learning curve is steeper than for reading something in Hanyu Pinyin. With some notes in English. Excerpt (Gwoyeu Romatzyh column only).
  • Other works on my recommended readings list, which may be available at Amazon but which may or may not fit well on a list for Mandarin learners.
  • KEY5 2011 Multimedia — a different sort of software than Wenlin but one that offers excellent Pinyin support.

Google improves its maps of Taiwan

Two years ago when Google switched to Hanyu Pinyin in its maps of Taiwan, it did a poor job … despite the welcome use of tone marks.

Here are some of the problems I noted at the time:

  • The Hanyu Pinyin is given as Bro Ken Syl La Bles. (Terrible! Also, this is a new style for Google Maps. Street names in Tongyong were styled properly: e.g., Minsheng, not Min Sheng.)
  • The names of MRT stations remain incorrectly presented. For example, what is referred to in all MRT stations and on all MRT maps as “NTU Hospital” is instead referred to in broken Pinyin as “Tái Dà Y? Yuàn” (in proper Pinyin this would be Tái-Dà Y?yuàn); and “Xindian City Hall” (or “Office” — bleah) is marked as X?n Diàn Shì G?ng Su? (in proper Pinyin: “X?ndiàn Shìg?ngsu?” or perhaps “X?ndiàn Shì G?ngsu?“). Most but not all MRT stations were already this incorrect way (in Hanyu Pinyin rather than Tongyong) in Google Maps.
  • Errors in romanization point to sloppy conversions. For example, an MRT station in Banqiao is labeled X?n Bù rather than as X?np?. (? is one of those many Chinese characters with multiple Mandarin pronunciations.)
  • Tongyong Pinyin is still used in the names of most cities and townships (e.g., Banciao, not Banqiao).

I’m pleased to report that Google Maps has recently made substantial improvements.

First, and of fundamental importance, word parsing has finally been implemented for the most part. No more Bro Ken Syl La Bles. Hallelujah!

Here’s what this section of a map of Tainan looked like two years ago:

And here’s how it is now:

Oddly, “Jiànx?ng Jr High School” has been changed to “Tainan Municipal Chien-Shing Jr High School Library” — which is wordy, misleading (library?), and in bastardized Wade-Giles (misspelled bastardized Wade-Giles, at that). And “Girl High School” still hasn’t been corrected to “Girls’ High School”. (We’ll also see that problem in the maps for Taipei.)

But for the most part things are much better, including — at last! — a correct apostrophe: Y?u’ài St.

As these examples from Taipei show, the apostrophe isn’t just a one-off. Someone finally got this right.

Rén’ài, not Renai.
screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the correct Rén'ài (rather than the incorrect Renai) is used

Cháng’?n, not Changan.
screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the correct Cháng'?n is used

Well, for the most part right. Here we have the correct Dà’?n (and correct Ruì’?n) but also the incorrect Daan and Ta-An. But at least the street names are correct.
click for larger screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the correct Dà'?n (and correct Ruì'?n) is used but also the incorrect Daan and Ta-An

Second, MRT station names have been fixed … mostly. Most all MRT station names are now in the mixture of romanization and English that Taipei uses, with Google Maps also unfortunately following even the incorrect ones. A lot of this was fixed long ago. The stops along the relatively new Luzhou line, however, are all written wrong, as one long string of Pinyin.

To match the style used for other stations, this should be MRT Songjiang Nanjing, not Jieyunsongjiangnanjing.
screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the Songjiang-Nanjing MRT station is labeled 'Jieyunsongjiangnanjing Station' (with tone marks)

Third, misreadings of poyinzi (pòy?nzì/???) have largely been corrected.

Chéngd?, not Chéng D?u.
screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the correct 'Chéngd? Rd' is used

Like I said: have largely been corrected. Here we have the correct Chéngd? and Chóngqìng (rather than the previous maps’ Chéng D?u and Zhòng Qìng) but also the incorrect Houbu instead of the correct Houpu.
screenshot from Google Maps, showing how the correct Chóngqìng Rd and Chéngd? St are used but also how the incorrect Houbu (instead of Houpu) is shown

But at least the major ones are correct.

Unfortunately, the fourth point I raised two years ago (Tongyong Pinyin instead of Hanyu Pinyin at the district and city levels) has still not been addressed. So Google is still providing Tongyong Pinyin rather than the official Hanyu Pinyin at some levels. Most of the names in this map, for example, are distinctly in Tongyong Pinyin (e.g., Lujhou, Sinjhuang, and Banciao, rather than Luzhou, Xinzhuang, and Banqiao).

Google did go in and change the labels on some places from city to district when Taiwan revised their names; but, oddly enough, the company didn’t fix the romanization at the same time. But with any luck we won’t have to wait so long before Google finally takes care of that too.

Or perhaps we’ll have a new president who will revive Tongyong Pinyin and Google will throw out all its good work.

Taimali signage examples

Tai Fong Rd. ???Here are some signs in Taimali (Tàimál? / ???), Taidong County, Taiwan. In all cases of distinctive spellings, they’re in Tongyong Pinyin, even though they should have been replaced by Hanyu Pinyin years ago. When the change to Tongyong Pinyin was implemented, however, signs under national control (e.g., highway signs) were switched relatively quickly throughout the country. This, however, has not been the case with the switch to Hanyu Pinyin, especially in the south.

Note that the “Taimali” in the sign for the Taimali Railway Station is on a sticker rather than on the original sign. This is a bit odd, given that this is spelled exactly the same in all of the romanization systems commonly seen in Taiwan: Hanyu Pinyin, Tongyong Pinyin, MPS2, and bastardized Wade-Giles. So maybe what’s under the sticker was just an error. Taiwan’s signs certainly have their share of typos too. (Sometimes the authorities will even use a sticker to “correct” the right spelling with something else.)

Click any of the images below for a larger version.

two signs reading Taimali Railway Station ?????? / Jinjhen Mountain ???

closeup of two signs reading Taimali Railway Station ?????? / Jinjhen Mountain ???

directional highway signs reading ?? Jhiben / ??? Dawu

street signs reading ??? Rih Sheng Rd. / ??? Min Cyuan Rd.

street signs reading ??? Rih Sheng Rd. / ??? Tai Fong Rd.

shot of the Taimali Railway Station, showing jinzhen flowers drying on the road

Now on Weishenme Zhongwen zheme TM nan?

Earlier this year a Mandarin translation of David Moser’s classic essay Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard appeared on the Web. And then it disappeared. With the permission of both the translator and the original author, I’m placing this work back online.

It’s available here in two versions:


Maybe I’ll make a Pinyin version too one of these years.

Google Translate’s Pinyin converter: now with apostrophes

Google has taken another major step toward making Google Translate‘s Pinyin converter decent. Finally, apostrophes.

Not long ago “阿爾巴尼亞然而仁愛蓮藕普洱茶” would have yielded “Āěrbāníyǎ ránér rénài liánǒu pǔěr chá.” But now Google produces the correct “Ā’ěrbāníyǎ rán’ér rén’ài lián’ǒu pǔ’ěr chá.” (Well, one could debate whether that last one should be pǔ’ěr chá, pǔ’ěrchá, Pǔ’ěr chá, Pǔ’ěr Chá, or Pǔ’ěrchá. But the apostrophe is undoubtedly correct regardless.)

Also, the -men suffix is now solid with words (e.g., 朋友們 –> péngyoumen and 孩子們 –> háizimen). This is a small thing but nonetheless welcome.

The most significant remaining fundamental problem is the capitalization and parsing of proper nouns.

And numbers are still wrong, with everything being written separately. For example, “七千九百四十三萬五千六百五十八” should be rendered as “qīqiān jiǔbǎi sìshísān wàn wǔqiān liùbǎi wǔshíbā.” But Google is still giving this as “qī qiān jiǔ bǎi sì shí sān wàn wǔ qiān liù bǎi wǔ shí bā.”

On the other hand, Google is starting to deal with “le”, with it being appended to verbs. This is a relatively tricky thing to get right, so I’m not surprised Google doesn’t have the details down yet.

So there’s still a lot of work to be done. But at least progress is being made in areas of fundamental importance. I’m heartened by the progress.

Related posts:

The current state:
screen shot of what Google Translate's Pinyin converter produces as of late September 2011

Taiwanese romanization used for Hanzi input method

Since I just posted about the new Hakka-based Chinese character input method I would be amiss not to note as well the release early this year of a different Chinese character input method based on Taiwanese romanization.

This one is available in Windows, Mac, and Linux flavors.

See the FAQ and documents below for more information (Mandarin only).

Táiw?n M?nnány? Hànzì sh?rùf? 2.0 b?n xiàzài (?????????? 2.0???) [Readers may wish to note the use of Minnan, which is generally preferred among unificationists and some advocates of Hakka and the languages of Taiwan’s tribes.]

source: Jiàoyùbù Táiw?n M?nnány? Hànzì sh?rùf? (?????????????); Ministry of Education, Taiwan; June 16, 2010(?) / February 14, 2011(?) [Perhaps the Windows and Linux versions came first, with the Mac version following in 2011.]

Hakka romanization used for new Hanzi input method

Chinese character associated with Hakka morpheme ng?iTaiwan’s Ministry of Education has released software for Windows and Linux systems that uses Hakka romanization for the inputting of Chinese characters.

This appears to be aimed mainly at those who wish to input Hanzi used primarily in writing Hakka, such as that shown here.

See also Taiwanese romanization used for Hanzi input method.


Key Chinese updated, adding new Pinyin features

The program Key, which offers probably the best support for Hanyu Pinyin of any software and thus deserves praise for this alone, has just come out with an update with even more Pinyin features: Key 5.2 (build: August 21, 2011 — earlier builds of 5.2 do not offer all the latest features).

Those of you who already have the program should get the update, as it’s free. But note that if you update from the site, the installer will ask you to uninstall your current version prior to putting in the update, so make sure you have your validation code handy or you’ll end up with no version at all.

(If you don’t already have Key, I recommend that you try it out. A 30-day free trial version can be downloaded from the site.)

Anyway, here’s some of what the latest version offers:

  • Hanzi-with-Pinyin horizontal layout gets preserved when copied into MS Word documents (RT setting), as well as in .html and .pdf files created from such documents.
  • Pinyin Proofing (PP) assistance: with pinyin text displayed, pressing the PP button on the toolbar will colour the background of ambiguous pinyin passages blue; right-clicking on such a blue-background pinyin passage will display the available options.
  • Copy Special: a highlighted Chinese character passage can be copied & pasted automatically in various permutations.
  • Improved number-measureword system: it now works with Chinese-character, pinyin and Arabic numerals.
  • Showing different tones through coloured characters (Language menu under Preferences).
  • Chengyu (fixed four character expression) spacing logic: automatic spacing according to the pinyin standard (Language menu under Preferences).
  • Option to show tone sandhi on grey background (Language menu under Preferences).
  • Full support of standard pinyin orthography in capitalization and spacing.
  • Automatic glossary building.

Some programs, such as Popup Chinese’s “Chinese converter,” will take Chinese characters and then produce pinyin-annotated versions, with the Pinyin appearing on mouseover. Key, however, offers something extra: the ability to produce Hanzi-annotated orthographically correct Pinyin texts (i.e,, the reverse of the above). If you have a text in Key in Chinese characters, all you have to do is go to File --> Export to get Key to save your text in HTML format.

Here’s a sample of what this looks like.

B?n bi?ozh?n gu?dìngle yòng? Zh?ngwén p?ny?n f?ng’àn? p?nxi? xiàndài Hàny? de gu?zé? Nèiróng b?okuò f?ncí liánxi? f?? chéngy? p?nxi?f?? wàiláicí p?nxi?f?? rénmíng dìmíng p?nxi?f?? bi?odiào f?? yíháng gu?zé d?ng?

Basically, this is a “digraphia export” feature — terrific!

If you want something like the above, you do not have to convert the Hanzi to orthographically correct Pinyin first; Key will do it for you automatically. (I hope, though, that they’ll fix those double-width punctuation marks one of these days.)

Let’s say, though, that you want a document with properly word-parsed interlinear Hanzi and Pinyin. Key will do this too. To do this, a input a Hanzi text in Key, then highlight the text (CTRL + A) and choose Format --> Hanzi with Pinyin / Kanji-Kana with Romaji.

In the window that pops up, choose Hanzi with Pinyin / Kanji-kana with Romaji / Hangul with Romanization from the Two-Line Mode section and Show all non-Hanzi symbols in Pinyin line from Options. The results will look something like this:

GIF of a screenshot from Key, showing an interlinear text with word-parsed Pinyin above Chinese characters. This is an image of the text after being pasted into Microsoft Word.

This can be extremely useful for those authoring teaching materials.

Furthermore, such interlinear texts can be copied and pasted into Word. For the interlinear-formatted copy-and-paste into Word to work properly, Key must be set to rich text format, so before selecting the text you wish to use click on the button labeled RT. (Note yellow-highlighted area in the image below.)

screenshot identifying the location of the button that needs to be pressed to make the text RTF