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.
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.