Monday, April 14, 2014

Stories from Chinese History, Volume 1 by Hsi-chien Wu, Kuo-kuang Ma, and Teh-ming Yeh

An educational and entertaining text for intermediate readers
If you want to learn how to read modern Chinese characters there’s no shortage of books to teach you. If you’re interested in learning traditional Chinese characters, however, good texts are few and far between. This is especially true at the intermediate level. Beginners have a fair number of options for instruction, and advanced students can just read actual Chinese books, but intermediate readers may find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Very few books fit successfully in the goldilocks zone between beginning and advanced, but Stories from Chinese History, Volume 1 is one instructional text that does the job and does it well.

The book contains 20 short stories set in various periods of Chinese history, ranging from ancient to modern. Each story is two to three pages long and accompanied by 20-30 vocabulary terms and about a half dozen idioms. The stories are sufficiently challenging. Above and beyond the vocabulary terms provided, intermediate readers may find themselves consulting a dictionary for two or three words per paragraph, yet for the most part one can still make out the general gist of the text without any added help. This is just what an intermediate text should be—not too easy, not too tough. For writing practice, each story is followed by 20 questions. Ten of these are terms you are asked to use in a sentence. The other ten are questions about the story’s content, which can generally be answered by drawing or paraphrasing sentences from the story itself.

I have the first edition of the book, which was published in 1978. It uses the Yale method of romanization rather than the standard pinyin romanization most readers today are familiar with. So when the vocabulary terms are presented and defined, their phonetic spellings may seem a little odd. This doesn’t really hinder your ability to benefit from reading the Chinese text, however, and students at this level probably won’t have much trouble figuring out pronunciation from an unfamiliar romanization scheme. A second edition was published in 1994, which I have not seen, but according to its description on Amazon it also uses the Yale method.

The content of these stories is both entertaining and educational. They are based on the lives of real historical personages, but there’s also a strong element of folklore to them. They’re like the Chinese equivalent of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. Each story trumpets a defining personality trait of its main character and gives a sample situation exemplifying that trait. Often the protagonists of the tales are children who would grow up to be great men. As you work to decipher the text, you’re also learning about Chinese history and culture, which makes the experience more fun and rewarding. As a bonus, the book is well illustrated with a watercolor painting for each story.

This book provided me with valuable practice in reading traditional characters, and I also enjoyed the stories themselves. I plan to move on to the second volume in this series and read another 20 more.

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