Will Reading Chinese Poems Improve my Chinese?

Will Reading Chinese Poems Improve my Chinese?

This poignant question was poised by an eager Chinese learner on Quora. The short answer; No, reading Chinese poems will do little to improve your Chinese.

The truth of the matter is that Chinese poetry can be very beautiful. Diligent students of hanzi know that many Chinese characters are full of meaning and nuance. When written as prose, the characters combined with words and context weave a story of deeper meaning, insight, and reflection. I must confess there have been occasions after reading, pondering, and ultimately comprehending a poem, it was as if I had uncovered a hidden treasure that brought not only peaceful satisfaction but seemed to convey wisdom of the ages.

With that in mind, it may be no wonder that some instructors with advanced Chinese levels may extol the virtues of Chinese poetry and even require their students to become diligent pupils of the classics. While the rewards can be sweet, reading Chinese poetry is not an optimal way to improve your Chinese.

For a very SIMPLE (and I emphasize simple) example, consider the following poem that is included in the first semester Chinese text books for 1st graders in Shanghai.


远看山有色

《画》

远看山有色,

近听水无声。

春去花还在,

人来鸟不惊。

 

 


If you could read this, congratulations! It’s a nice poem isn’t it? It causes you to stop for a moment and reflect on the beauty and tranquility of the scene with beautiful, colorful mountains, quiet streams, spring flowers still in bloom, and birds unfrightened by the approach of people. Amazingly, it is also one of the most simple poems in existence. Of the 20 characters in the poem, 18 are found within HSK level 3 while the other 2 are at HSK level 4 (无 and 惊). Despite the simplicity of this poem, here is why it it’s not very helpful to learning Chinese.

  • It’s too short. By nature poems are short and are intended to be slowly chewed and digested. Poems are not designed to be long, however reading longer texts greatly aide in language acquisition because there is greater repetition, leading to the next reason….
  • No repetition. Research suggests that it requires 10-20 encounters with a word before they are truly learned and much more to learn how it is used with different word pairs and in different contexts. Poems cannot offer this type of repetition.
  • It does not reflect how people talk or communicate in daily life. Do we speak English the same way poems are written in English? Not unless your name is Longfellow. The same goes for Chinese. It’s rich and beautiful, but people do not speak like this in everyday life.
  • Low context. Usually there is little context given within the poem or the context is vague. As result, it becomes unclear if or how the words/characters/phrases are used in everyday life.
  • Frequent use of obscure characters. This is more common when reading classical poetry. Characters arise that refer to very specific parts of a soldiers weapon or perhaps you’ll learn the very specific character for duckweed: “萍” (both true stories). The only time you will run across some of these characters is when you are reading “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” or… classical poetry. You frequently will spend more time with a dictionary and translating in order to comprehend the passage. In the end you may understand what you read, but you’ll likely forget the characters you were exposed to.

Being able to read Chinese poetry is wonderful! However instead of looking at Chinese poetry as a step to better Chinese, it would be better viewed as a reward for hard work.

4 Comments

  • Kai Carver Posted September 28, 2015 12:33 pm

    Hahaha yeah, learning poems is in my top 5 Dumb Ways to Learn Chinese that I have tried (soon to be a major self-non-help title in all bookstores). One justification for it is the specious “That’s how kids learn, so we adult foreigners should do the same”. What could go wrong? 🙂

    By the way, I can’t download any samples, for example here:
    http://mandarincompanion.com/products/the-country-of-the-blind/
    I wanted to recommend your books to a friend and show them a sample.

  • Eliot Posted January 25, 2016 7:06 am

    Hi Jared,

    A friend of mine in China and I are working together to make some online study materials for Chinese learners. Poetry is definitely difficult, so we’re starting a series of “translated poems,” that is, poems translated into modern Mandarin. Our first poem is here: https://epicmandarin.com/content/one-poem-a-day/li-shangyin-untitled/. (Site is still very young.)

    As for the problems with poetry:

    1 & 4. Our “translated poems” are longer and have more context.
    2. We have a spaced repetition system that lets you make cloze deletion flashcards for pretty much any word in the poem. The audio and visuals always come back according to the SRS cycle, creating contextual repetition. We’ll also repeat words throughout different poems in the series.
    3 & 5. Since our poems are translated into “modern Mandarin,” they use language more appropriate to daily life.

    You guys have been an inspiration.

    Eliot

  • David Lloyd-Jones Posted June 21, 2016 3:41 am

    Jared,

    You speak good sense on language on all sorts of issues, and everything you say about the limitation, the non-magic, of poetry here seems to me correct.

    At the same time, poetry is a part, albeit a small part, of any language. The occasional poetic turn of phrase is going to be necessary if you’re ever going to actually speak the language — as opposed to laboring along parroting phrase books.

    Isn’t the thing to be said about poetry “Just a taste for now. As much — or as little — as you like once you’re in a position to judge for yourself”?

    Cheers,

    -dlj.

    • Jared Turner Posted June 21, 2016 8:52 am

      Hi David, thanks for the comment. I think it is safe to say that in English and Chinese language, we don’t speak the way poetry is written. However, as you point out, “if you are ever going to actually speak the language” reading will be incredibly helpful to build fluency.

      I think Chinese poetry for second language learners can be summed up in the last sentence of the article; “Instead of looking at Chinese poetry as a step to better Chinese, it would be better viewed as a reward for hard work.

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *