The story started in February 2013 when I gave a TED talk in Long Beach, California revealing a personal project of mine called Chineasy. It was a methodology for teaching Chinese, which I originally started to develop as a hobby in order to teach my own children how to read Chinese.
The Chinese language has long been considered the most difficult major language to learn, largely on account of the vast number and complexity of the characters. Being a Taiwanese native now living in London, I am acutely aware of this fact. When I began to teach my British-born children Chinese, I realized just how difficult Chinese characters are for a native English speaker to learn. It was like torture for my kids! So I spent many years looking for a fun and easy way to teach them how to read Chinese. After years of searching, I realized that none of the methods out there were engaging or efficient enough. So I did what any entrepreneur would do, I created my own method called “Chineasy” to learn how to read Chinese characters.
Chineasy breaks down thousands of Chinese characters into a few hundred base building blocks. When these building blocks are combined, they form compounds that can in turn be combined to create phrases. Through this method learners can quickly build a large vocabulary of characters with very little effort.
In the past years, I broke down thousands of common Chinese character and analysed how they are constructed. The process is just like a little boy breaking down lots of Lego ™ models (a fire station, a boat and maybe a space shuttle). This boy then started classifying Lego ™ bricks and soon he realised that no matter how fancy and complicated the models are, they are all built out of the same set of Lego ™ bricks.
Similarly in Chinese, most characters are built out of roughly 100 ‘building blocks’. I designed a programme on my computer and then started prioritising the most common and useful building blocks. In my computer programme I identified the correlations between each character until my screen was full of tiny characters.
I then started using charming illustrations to help you memorise the ‘building blocks’. Please don’t be horrified by the terminology here. In Chineasy ‘building block’ means some basic and common character you need to learn. After knowing how to recognize those ‘building blocks’ you can then carry on ‘constructing’ loads of more characters. I called those newly constructed characters ‘compounds’, meaning the characters which are composed of two or more ‘building blocks’. Both ‘building blocks’ and ‘compounds’ are characters.
An independent Chinese character is the smallest grammatical unit in Chinese language, but many characters can never occur alone, always forming compounds with other characters. For example, when we put fire (火) and mountain (山) together as a phrase, it means volcano (火山). By putting fire (火) and mountain (山) and mouth (口) together, we create ‘crater’ (火山口).
This is where most westerners get confused. In English ‘crater’ is one word but in Chinese, crater is made out of three characters. See the examples below.
mountain = 山
What you should do is to treat building blocks, compounds and phrases as part of the vocabulary you need to accumulate when learning Chinese.
In Chineasy, you will see illustrations across building blocks, compounds and phrases. You will also learn to pronounce those words by using Pinyin, the Chinese pronunciation system indicated along with the illustrations. I also tell you historical and cultural stories to help you understand and remember how those words were formed and used.
In Chineasy, we teach a mixture of traditional and simplified forms - whichever we think makes the most sense according to the system we designed. If you read carefully, we always point out the counterpart (either traditional or simplified) so that you can learn both.
In fact, quite a lot of Chinese characters are the same in their traditional or simplified forms. Take the phrase 天安門/天安门 (Tiananmen) for example, the characters 天 (sky) and 安 (peaceful) are the same in their traditional and simplified forms.
In general, people from Mainland China and Singapore use simplified Chinese, whereas people in Taiwan and Hong Kong use the traditional form. However saying that, more and more native Chinese people are able to read both forms thanks to the increasing popularity of instant Messaging apps that allow people to type in both forms.
I have had many different people ask me how I develop the beautiful illustrations that make Chineasy so effective and unique.
The truth is that is a long and thought out process, these illustrations are much more than pretty pictures! Each character we create has to follow the same three guidelines: they have to look stunning, be stylistically consistent with what we have produced before and, most importantly; they have to be educationally effective.
Before we even start designing our team researches the definition, origin and history of the character. We then move on to the applications (for example, how to build more characters and phrases) and finally we consider how to make stories out of them. After this research, our designers create their different interpretations of the character. We always have several versions and numerous drawings for each. Between us we then discuss, debate and bounce ideas back and forth. When we come across a challenge (which happens with nearly all of them), we discuss, sleep on it and play around with different combinations of colours, or designs.
Finally, whenever a new illustration is created, I show it to my children. If they can guess the answer immediately, I know we’ve got it right. If they struggle, we go back to the studio and do it all over again.
Chineasy Building Blocks refer to the basic and common characters you need to learn, and by learning them, they also allow you to 'construct' more characters. For example:
building block: 日 (sun); compound character: 晶 (日x3; sparkles)
Chinese characters are often classified according to their radicals. In other words, they can be used to look up characters in a Chinese dictionary. There are around 214 radicals. Radicals can exist as a character on its own or may appear in any position in a character, such as the radical 口 on its own means ‘mouth’; it also appears in the character 吃 (口 + 乞) for ‘eat’.
Some of the radicals work as an indicator of the meaning of the character. For example:
radical: 日 (sun) character: 旦 (sunrise - something to do with the ‘sun’)
character: 早 (morning - something to do with the ‘sun’)
Most of our essential Chineasy building blocks are among 214 radicals - it’s not a coincidence because most radicals are considered as common Chinese characters.
Pinyin refers to the phonetic system for transcribing the sound of Chinese characters into Latin script. Each syllable corresponds to one Chinese character which can be either a building block or compound character in Chineasy definition. Each syllable is composed of an initial (consonant), a final (vowel) and a tone.
There are 21 initials, 36 finals and 4 different tones plus one neutral tone in Mandarin Chinese. Those tones can be either indicated by tone marks or numbers. Here is the syllable ‘ma’ with tone marks.
Chinese is a tonal language so it’s important to bear in mind that when a syllable is pronounced in different tones, it has different meanings. In Chineasy, we use the numerical tone-marks system to indicate the tone used in a Pinyin (syllable) so you will notice that each Pinyin has a number beside it. For example, the character for ‘fire’ is 火 and its pinyin is huo3 (as pronounced in third tone). 火 is classified as a building block in our Chineasy system. You can see more details about the character on the page here.
Firstly, some building blocks never occur alone, e.g. 宀 (roof), 辶 (walking), 艹 (grass) , they are always used to form compounds with other characters. So although an independent character may have its own meaning when it is partnered with another to become a compound, the whole meaning of the character will change.
Secondly, the meaning of independent character can change depending on its use, eg. noun, verb, measure word, pronoun etc…. The same situation exists in English. For example, vocabulary ‘light’ could mean ‘something weighs very little’, ‘someone who is not important', or ‘the electromagnetic radiation that is visible to the human eye’ depending on the context. The same as Chinese!
Finally, Chinese is very similar to English in a lot of ways. We have multiple words for the same thing. For instance, in English you can call a toilet a loo, bathroom, ladies, gents, water closet (alright that one isn’t as common) and restroom. All of them have the same basic meaning, but their use is dependent on the speaker’s age, location, upbringing etc. The same is true of Chinese. Our language has evolved and developed over thousands of years so we also have a very large vocabulary. If you know a different way of writing a certain character it is most likely correct, but so is ours.
Hopefully! At the moment Chineasy aims is to teach everyone to read and write Chinese, but in the future who knows! Perhaps we will launch Japaneasy as well. Only time will tell.
There are a lot of great online dictionaries. Here are a few of them.
Yes! So far we have published two books: Book I (Chineasy The New Way to Read Chinese) and Book II (Chineasy Everyday). Both books can be studied as a stand-alone book but they also complement each other.
Chineasy The New Way to Read Chinese: (Orange cover)
There are around 440 words taught in the book, and for most words, we talk about the story and history behind them. So far the book is available in 18 different language editions.
Chineasy Everyday: (green/blue cover)
This follow-up volume, which requires no experience of the first, expands the scope to include all facets of Chinese life and culture in eleven central sections. Each begins with an overview of key characters before a presentation of the subject using those characters as a basis, providing insight into how Chinese thinking has shaped its language and civilization in a way that anyone can understand and appreciate. The book is available in 4 different languages so far, including English, German, Dutch and Russian.
The English edition (of Book I and Book II) is available in both UK and US English. The publisher for our UK edition is Thames & Hudson and the US edition is published by Harper Design. Besides different publishers, another difference between UK and US edition is that UK edition uses British spelling (e.g. colour), and vice versa (e.g. color).
Both books are also available in ebook format - you can purchase Chineasy ebook on iTunes and Amazon. For more details about the books, check out our ‘Products’ page.
Our other products include Chineasy Flashcards, Postcards, Memory Game and Notebook.
Flashcards: There are total 60 cards in a set. Each card comes with two sides: side A and side B. Side A contains one building block, three compounds, illustration, pinyin and English, and side B is just purely Chinese words.
Postcards: There are 100 cards in a set. Each card comes with two sides: side A and side B. Side A contains a character illustration, and side B explains the meaning of the character and a space where you can write down a short message and receiver’s address if you want to post the card through the mail.
Memory Game: There are 60 cards in a set. This Memory Game is a fun way to learn characters and enhance visual memory. You match each Chineasy illustration with its Chinese character, and before you know it you’ll have learned to read 30 Chinese Words!
Notebook: It comes as a set of three A5 Notebooks – each with a different graphical cover. Inside the notebook, it provides grids to practise Chinese characters and some plain pages for you to keep notes of any kind.
You can check out our ‘Products’ page to find out more!
Lastly, we continue to develop new products which aim to help you to learn Chinese in a fun and engaging way. Meanwhile, if you get some exciting ideas for us, feel free to Contact us.
There will be! We know that we live in a digital age and the plan is to get an App out to help everyone to learn Chinese with us anytime anywhere. Stay tuned!
I am always thrilled to receive requests for interviews, though unfortunately, I cannot accept them all (although I do try). To request an interview, simply fill out a Contact us form. We will do our best to get back to you as quickly as possible.
Chineasy is a project created and funded by ShaoLan. It is not backed by any financial institution or wealthy individuals. It is a social environment for people to learn and enjoy. To keep creative control of Chineasy, we unfortunately, at this time, do not intend to partner with any third parties. However, if you would like to send us a proposal via our Contact us, we will always read and consider it.