Reading is undeniably one of the most effective ways to improve your Chinese skills. Mountains of research show the impact of reading on language development, especially in a foreign language. But reading Chinese can be hard, leaving you looking for the best Chinese reading apps.
For us second language learners, research shows that reading at high levels of comprehension, ideally at an extensive reading level of 98%+ comprehension, will not only improve your reading skills, but also improve your writing, listening, and speaking skills.
However, reading in Chinese has its own unique challenges – the most common of which is encountering an unfamiliar character. There is simply no way to sound it or to decode it; you either know it or you don’t.
Thankfully, there are a growing number of Chinese reading apps available to help Chinese learners, like you and I, read in Chinese, even when it’s difficult! We’ve done an extensive review of these smartphone apps so you can decide which will work best for you.
Chinese Popup Dictionaries – Good or Bad?
Before we start with the reviews, we want to make sure you know how to use these apps, *ahem*, responsibly.
Most importantly, we should always strive towards reading comprehensible texts appropriate for our level. This is when learning is most efficient! If you’re reading at below 90% comprehension, or where 1 in 10 words are unknown, consider looking for something easier.
A good place to start is with the Mandarin Companion Chinese graded readers, which are written specifically for Chinese learners like you. Of course, sometimes there is just nothing at your level or, for whatever reason, you need to read something that may be challenging. This is when these pop-up dictionary apps come in most handy.
However, research shows that popup dictionaries have their time and place. You can’t just “click your way to fluency”, so we offer these two general guidelines for using Chinese popup dictionaries.
- Elementary learners: use popup dictionaries sparingly. Studies have found little learning benefit for lower level learners because at this stage, the overall grasp of the language is low – more time is spent understanding the looked-up words and phrases in English as opposed to understanding the text in Chinese. Yes, you can get through a Chinese text but you won’t learn much from it. Stick to texts at your level where you don’t need to constantly use the popup dictionary function.
- Intermediate learners and above: popup dictionaries can make reading more accessible and lead to learning gains. At this stage, you already have a solid foundation in Chinese, and so popup dictionaries become more of an aide rather than a crutch by helping you with paragraphs and sentences that you already largely understand.
At Mandarin Companion, John and Jared devoted a whole episode on the You Can Learn Chinese podcast that picks apart this subject. For a deeper dive, have a listen so you can make an informed approach.
Apps and Evaluation Criteria
We’ve searched high and low for the best Chinese reading apps for reading in Chinese and have identified these 6 as the strongest candidates.
- Du Chinese
To compare the best Chinese reading apps, we have used the following criteria.
- What you can read – The content that is available on the app and what you can import into the app.
- Key features – The functionality that is important to you as a Chinese learner.
- Ease of use – How easy it is to use the app along with any problems.
- Pricing – What is free, what is paid, and what is worth it.
Readibu is a freemium app targeted at Chinese-learning bookworms. It’s feature-rich and an excellent choice for reading webnovels.
What you can read
In the Book Discovery tab, there is a limited selection of books that can be searched by HSK level, completion status, genre, and protagonist gender. This database draws books directly from a handful of Chinese novel websites such as Qidian. However, you also have the option of importing Chinese content by copying and pasting any URL into the app.
Unfortunately, Readibu only supports web pages. It cannot import PDF’s, ePubs, or any other ebook or digital formats. The developer has plans to support other formats, but this may be a long way off.
Readibu excels in vocabulary management. After tapping on a character, the English definition, pronunciation, and transliteration pop up. The app keeps track of words you’ve tapped, as well as how many times you’ve tapped them. You can also ‘favorite’ words into a special category, exportable as a CSV/TSV file to your flashcard app.
Being built for language learners, Readibu also boasts a wide range of other Chinese-specific reading features:
- A popup dictionary with pronunciation and English definitions
- HSK difficulty analysis
- Web Novel discovery
- Simplified and Traditional Chinese conversion
- Sentence translation (Premium)
- Word visualization (Premium)
- Proper name highlighting (Premium)
- Offline downloading (Premium)
The automatic conversion between Simplified and Traditional opens up a wider range of content for those studying traditional characters. While we have not tested its accuracy, this is nonetheless a useful feature for all those studying traditional characters!
The HSK analysis graphs a text’s difficulty by HSK level, making it a simple visual metric of content accessibility.
Ease of use
While reading, Readibu is quite responsive – it doesn’t suddenly crash or stutter on long chapters. As a result, it’s easy to open up a page and start reading, with the app even providing shortcuts such as automatically pasting URLs from your clipboard.
However, Readibu has its fair share of bugs, likely due to having just one developer. Opening the app or loading a long chapter can take anywhere from a few seconds to a minute. There’s also a small logical error – books in the Discovery tab have a fixed order, making it time-consuming to scroll down to find new content.
The battery drain is also unexpectedly high – more akin to a mobile game than a reading app! Additionally, for readers who enjoy listening wirelessly: Readibu works with wired headphones but doesn’t support Bluetooth. Audio pronunciation will play from your phone’s speakers even if you have Bluetooth headphones connected.
Readibu’s free core version includes: a pop-up dictionary, audio word pronunciation, tap tracking, content difficulty analysis, Simplified-Traditional conversion, and Pinyin/Zhuyin support.
The five-dollar monthly subscription unlocks sentence translation, proper noun underlining, a pinyin/definition pop-up quiz, offline reading, and image visualizations for words.
For intermediate and above learners who can already understand basic native content, Readibu will work great. Unless you’re a very dedicated reader or tackling a difficult text, the free version should suffice. But if you’re a lower level reader, most available books will be too difficult and you should consider the other apps on this list.
My vocabulary is pretty large, so I mostly just need the pop-up dictionary for characters like 舵 that always seem to elude me. Occasionally, I’ve had need to translate more complex sentences, such as a description of potion brewing in one of my favorite webnovels《修真聊天群》.
I love the convenience of Readibu – with just a few taps, I can export new words I’ve encountered to my flashcard deck or view the length of an upcoming chapter.
Regardless of your choice, make sure you’re reading with a charged phone! Otherwise, you may have to wait a couple minutes for your page to load, Premium or not.
While it’d be even more amazing if Readibu supported PDF and ePub file formats, the above features make it my favorite reading app for Chinese.
A giant amongst Chinese learning apps, if you don’t already have Pleco on your phone, download it now! This dictionary app has many additional features for reading in Chinese which we’ll cover here.
What you can read
Pleco sells dozens of in-app graded readers, including our Mandarin Companion graded readers, for a range of levels spanning from HSK 1 to 6.
Pleco has three key functions in the app that are all a little bit different in what you can read.
The Clipboard Reader (free) allows you to paste any Chinese text into it.
The Document Reader (paid) allows you to import almost every common file format such as text files, Word documents, and PDFs.
The Optical Character Recognizer (OCR) (paid) optically recognizes Chinese characters in a picture, live on your camera, or currently on your screen (Android only).
All three feature a pop-up dictionary that integrates with the main dictionary. By tapping on a word or character on the screen, you are given a popup window showing its pinyin, tone, and definition, with the option to add it to your flashcards. With a further tap, you can view its components, stroke order, and sample sentences.
Android owners (sorry iOS users) can even use the Screen Reader/OCR (Optical Character Reader) as an overlay over other apps or web browsers to optically recognize Chinese characters displayed on your device. This allows you to click on characters in the image, app, browser, or whatever is being displayed on your phone for a popup definition of that character or word.
Pleco also has audio narration. While rather robotic, using the system text-to-speech, it is clear enough to listen to while reading a Chinese text.
Ease of use
Pleco has been around for a long time and is virtually error-free – the current version is as responsive as you’d expect from a thirteen-year-old product battle-tested by millions.
The reader for documents or web pages is intuitive and easy to navigate. Tapping on characters and words instantly displays the dictionary entry without any delays.
Loading lyrics and images is less intuitive due to buried icons and unclear functions. There is a manual on their website, but who reads through those nowadays? I don’t, and went months without knowing how to load song lyrics!
Currently, Pleco is working on version 4.0 of the app (with updates to the reader) which has been eagerly anticipated by the Chinese language learning community for some time now.
Pleco’s Clipboard Reader, and the Web Reader for Android devices, is free. The functionality is largely similar to the other reader functions, the difference being in the supported content types.
The Document Reader and OCR add-ons both have a one-time cost of $9.99, though they can be bought at a discounted price as part of a bundle.
As for books – in-app graded readers cost between $2.99 and $9.99, and include all Mandarin Companion books available for purchase at a discounted digital price.
Pleco is excellent for learners of all levels and types. The app works both online and offline, and its incredible range of supported files make content loading both a breeze and blazingly fast.
I’ve used almost everything from the optical reader to the web browser and found no bugs whatsoever.
After having purchased a few more add-ons, learning Chinese has been even more convenient – features integrate together very well. All it takes is a single tap to add an interesting word to my flashcard deck!
The only gripe I have is that there’s no sentence translation. Sometimes, knowing the definitions of every word individually in a difficult text is not enough to grasp its meaning. Regardless, in no way does this exclude it from the best Chinese reading apps.
LingQ is a creative reading tool that doesn’t only restrict itself to books – it allows for the import of anything from YouTube clips to podcasts to Netflix films, and extracts the text to help you ‘learn from your favorite content’.
What you can read
LingQ has an enormous library of books, videos, podcasts, and more that you can use to find reading materials. With the release of LingQ 5.0, you can even search through individual ‘shelves’ such as Netflix shows, songs, or Christmas-themed content.
This huge library sometimes comes at the cost of quality, however, since most content is made for natives and thus not specifically leveled for learners – it may take a while to find something that is both level appropriate and interesting to read.
Custom imports of books/podcasts/videos etc. for leisure or study purposes is also quite simple – all you need is the app or the browser extension.
Features abound, even at the free level. You can read along to natural audio, view detailed learning statistics, import custom resources, and access a plethora of graded Chinese content from the public library. Word definitions include common translations, sample sentences, and pronunciation.
LingQ breaks down every text into individual words, adding gaps between them. These words are highlighted with different colors to represent how well you know them, and can be reviewed with the in-app spaced-repetition flashcard system.
Using all this data, LingQ gamifies reading, providing comprehensive vocabulary statistics and a daily goal feature.
All of these features combined can be a big help when reading!
Ease of use
LingQ has crystal-clear audio, advanced word definitions, and a well-organized tutorial. Word highlighting based on comprehension is an especially useful touch.
One drawback is the limit on viewed vocabulary for the free version. Any new word you click on will be added to your vocabulary list, and after this list reaches a size of twenty, you will only see a Premium advertisement instead of a definition for new words. Only by manually deleting entries from your vocabulary bank can you then see new definitions.
LingQ has a free and Premium version. With the free version, you have access to full text translations, lesson audio, SRS flashcard review, and all public lessons, but are limited to twenty word definitions and five custom resources.
For the $12.99/mo Premium version, you get unlimited word definitions, unlimited importable resources, vocabulary exporting options, and a few more minor features such as enhanced statistics and offline reading.
LingQ’s pricing plan offers a discount for purchasing 6, 12, or 24 month subscriptions.
LingQ puts a lot of effort into making itself a feature-rich app. In fact, it is much more than a reading app as it offers tutoring, diary corrections, and other features in a ‘Premium Plus’ subscription, which may be helpful for people looking for these types of services.
The range of supported content is extremely appealing – beginning Chinese learners, for example, may find that cartoons allow for earlier and more enjoyable ‘reading’ of native content. If you’re more advanced, ‘reading’ a new media type like a podcast episode can be an exciting experience.
That being said, you may feel frustrated if you stick with the free version, as after reaching the twenty-word limit, you’ll be assailed by frequent Premium advertisements.
But overall, LingQ can massively boost your reading skills. It’s wide range of content combined with motivating visual cues make LingQ a good, albeit pricer choice!
Amazon Kindle App
This is Amazon’s cross-platform reading app, developed to mirror the Kindle e-reader. While it is not specifically built for language learners, features such as a bilingual dictionary and flashcards still make it a decent choice for reading Chinese as a learner.
What you can read
Tens of thousands of Chinese books (in both Simplified and Traditional) can be found on the Kindle Store, including the Mandarin Companion series, and some of these Chinese books are free. Likewise, you can email a wide variety of file formats to the app.
Amazon Kindle supports text highlighting and bookmarking, which you can use to come back to a word or add comments.
The app also has a built-in, easily-accessible manual flashcard system. This, or note exporting, makes it simple to keep track of new vocabulary.
As a user, you can also highlight a phrase to get a free translation from Chinese to a language of your choice through Bing. If you only selected one word, you can even view the pinyin using a downloadable Chinese-English dictionary.
Ease of use
After logging in with your Amazon account (a requirement to use the app), getting started is easy. An intuitive and minimalistic interface lets you focus on just what’s important – reading Chinese.
If any thoughts strike you, four different highlighter colors and an infinite capacity for annotations make it easy to note them down.
Book and file loading is extremely fast, and moving between pages is smooth.
To load your own files into the app, you’ll have to send them to an email associated with your account, a somewhat tricky process clarified by an official guide here.
The Kindle app is free on all platforms, along with all of its features. The only time you need to spend money is when buying books in the Store.
When going through a text, I appreciate the note-taking features and free, detailed translations offered by the Kindle app.
It’s also been very useful for trips, as everything in the library is available offline. Even an airplane ride can’t be an excuse for not reading Chinese!
Plus, the app is cross-platform – meaning you can pick up on your computer where you left off on your Kindle app.
However, there are a couple downsides. Firstly, you have to manually indicate where a character or word starts and ends when translating words or using the dictionary function. This is somewhat frustrating when a word is a chengyu or proper noun, making it unclear what section to highlight. Similarly, for longer phrases not in the dictionary, it can be frustrating to have to break it down into individual characters to learn the pinyin.
There is only one Chinese/English dictionary available for use. The dictionary is good but if you want a wider range of definitions installing others is a roundabout process.
Du Chinese is a bit different from the rest of the apps on this list – it’s specifically made to provide high-quality, learner-targeted Chinese text, but the library is restricted to officially-published content only. However, this content is well-graded and accessible even for beginners, and it’s worth taking a look.
What you can read
Du Chinese offers over a 1900 Chinese stories, each specifically written to target one of the HSK 1-6 levels. There are a few hundred ‘lessons’ for each HSK category, with a slight skew towards the lower levels, and every lesson is from a couple hundred to a thousand characters in length.
In addition, there are a number of mini-series (a few for each level), which are about 4+ lesson-length chapters that tell a longer story.
Every Chinese word in the text can be tapped on for a detailed dictionary definition (including audio). All the characters can also be colored-coded based on their HSK level or set to show pinyin.
Each chapter has a professional recording by a native speaker which highlights each sentence as it’s read. If you are unsure of the meaning of a sentence, it can be tapped on for an English translation which has been done by a human, not Google translate.
Apart from the individual lessons, you can also save vocabulary for later export or in-app SRS flashcard review. Additionally, after creating an account, you can set goals for how many lessons a week and words per day you’d like to review.
Ease of use
Transitioning between lessons, reviewing vocabulary, or listening along to the text is seamless. Similarly, the ‘Discover’ tab allows for easy discovery of texts at the appropriate level given their colored HSK tags and stories are sorted into categories based on topic or searchable based on content.
A small downside is that the web and mobile versions of Du Chinese don’t fully share all features (such as options for audio speed). However, for the most part, features are well-laid-out and easily accessible, even for someone new to the app.
Du Chinese comes out as the most expensive on our list, with a monthly subscription costing $14.99. Six- and twelve-month subscriptions are also available at slightly discounted prices, but this is still higher than most other options. However, the Du Chinese team is constantly updating their lessons and adding new content, so you won’t need to worry about running out of new things to read.
It is worth noting that you can receive a 10% discount off your purchase, regardless of the subscription length, if you use the official code shared on their website here.
These subscriptions will unlock all 1900+ lessons (the free version only offers a couple random ones per HSK category per week), as well as allow you to download lessons for offline listening and reading.
If you’re looking for extensive Chinese reading content and have run out of graded readers such as ours, Du Chinese is a natural next step. The app can be helpful regardless of your current Chinese level through its vast array of lessons with native audio and translations. Even those at HSK 1 with just 150 words under their belt can already access hundreds of leveled stories.
Given the short nature of the stories, Du Chinese is also perfect for those who have just a few minutes to spare – that’s all it takes to have a targeted reading session and finish a lesson. Equally, it’s very convenient to review learned vocabulary through the built-in flashcard system.
The largest downside is the price, as Du Chinese is relatively expensive at nearly $15/mo. However, such a subscription unlocks reams of content that will suit you as your level grows, and is thus definitely worth considering for those who aren’t quite ready to dive into native or longer-form content.
Bonus review for advanced learners.
QQ阅读 is an app for native speakers with millions of users and an enormous catalog of books. If your Chinese is good enough to navigate through the app and you have a large vocabulary, it essentially makes the Chinese webnovel world your oyster!
What you can read
Since QQ阅读 doubles as a book discovery platform, finding books will be the least of your worries! The app uses a sophisticated algorithm to recommend books to you based on your interests and reading history.
If none of the recommendations compel you, there’s a dedicated, searchable page listing popular books, newly published ones, free titles, and so on. You can also import a range of file types (all main formats such as TXT, ePub, PDF, etc. are supported).
Being developed for natives, there aren’t many Chinese-learner-specific functions. For example, rare is the native speaker who tracks new words they learn! Therefore, the app lacks support for managing or exporting vocabulary – you’ll have to do so manually by writing down new words or highlighting phrases in-app. Fortunately, there is a Chinese-English pop-up dictionary with audio pronunciation and pinyin, and even an automatic translation function.
Nevertheless, QQ阅读 has a couple of useful features regardless of level. Firstly, all books have free, high-quality AI narration – and some even have human narration too. Using this to listen while reading is advantageous for language acquisition.
Secondly, QQ阅读 is unique in having a commenting feature. Lines from popular books have upwards of hundreds of comments, which can answer plot-related questions or teach you genre-specific slang. Or are you perhaps looking to interact with native speakers? Adding to or creating a discussion only takes a few moments.
Ease of use
The app and books load quickly, complimenting a deliberately simple interface that’s been perfected with data from over a hundred million users.
Finding books or rearranging your bookshelf is also extremely straightforward, with all features intuitively labeled. If ever in doubt, there’s even an online guide and support team.
One hassle is the need for verification to access all features, which has to be done via SMS or by connecting to other Chinese apps such as QQ or WeChat.
Most of the books are published under a freemium model; after reaching a certain point in a novel, you’ll have to pay (on a chapter-by-chapter or subscription basis) to unlock additional chapters. Infrequent ads are also displayed.
Given that this is a Chinese app, books are very cheap. For example, a Hobbit-length webnovel would cost roughly $1.50. Each 1000 characters will typically cost between $0.01-$0.02 (0.01-0.05 yuan).
There is no fee for importing files.
I’m planning on migrating to QQ阅读 as soon as my level allows me to!
With its hundreds of thousands of books and countless users, it’s an excellent opportunity to chat with natives and read interesting books at a low cost. Additionally, I’ve found the statistics tracking, such as current book progress and time spent reading, to be motivating.
The audio is also simply amazing – it’s even free for custom files! For the advanced learners out there, or those reading easier content, this feature makes the app an excellent choice.
However, the lack of Chinese-learner-tailored features (such as showing pinyin for words) is a real drawback. Reading a book for natives without any pop-up dictionary assistance was quite time-consuming, and navigating through the interface with its technical descriptions was a challenge at first.
That being said, for Android users, using Pleco’s Optical Character Reader screen overlay allows you to essentially have a popup dictionary with QQ阅读. Modern problems call for modern solutions!
This has been our deep dive into the best Chinese reading apps you can use as a Chinese language learner! They’re all unique and suitable for slightly different purposes, so let’s summarize this into one table.
For lower-level Chinese readers, we recommend Pleco and/or LingQ. If you’re interested in reading a range of accessible content, the versatile LingQ import functions and public library will suit you well. The minimalist design and lower cost of Pleco is excellent for those who want to solely focus on reading Chinese texts.
For intermediate learners, we recommend Readibu, thanks to its sentence translation and proper noun highlighting – these two features make decoding difficult phrases much easier. While only supporting Chinese webpage content means beginners may struggle finding suitable texts to read, those who can already understand native works will benefit greatly from the Chinese-learner specific functions.
Advanced readers may find apps such as Kindle or QQ阅读 the best choice. QQ阅读’s vast array of native books and active Chinese community will give you many opportunities to interact with native speakers. This app even offers audio narration for all books and custom files, making it ideal for those who enjoy listening to audiobooks. The Kindle app similarly offers a large number of Chinese books, but also has excellent cross-platform support that makes it slightly more convenient for those using multiple devices. Of these two, the one most suitable to you will ultimately depend on which of the above features you find more useful.
And of course, regardless of your level, if you’re looking for shorter-form content, Du Chinese has got you covered. Their thousands of stories with professional audio and translations make for the perfect intensive study session or casual few minutes of reading, though for a high monthly price.
Which of these Chinese reading apps do you use? Share your experience in the comments below. New Chinese reading apps are always being developed and it is exciting to see what apps will come in the future!