Reading the Chinese news: less hard than you think!

It’s sometimes said that reading the Chinese news shouldn’t be your number one language goal, unless you are a journalist, diplomat, China scholar or a news junkie. If you happen to fall in ones of those categories or – like me – simply like to read news media in Chinese, you might be interested in this practical mini-guide.

I personally spend more time reading the news than I like to admit. I’m the last to deny that in many cases the benefits are doubtful, compared to reading a good book for example, but as a language learning activity it can be very rewarding. When you’re in to it, daily reading the Chinese news is a powerful way to grow your vocabulary in specific areas and increase your reading speed. There are some difficulties though, especially when starting out. In this article, I go into the benefits, challenges and different approaches to reading the news in Chinese.

Why read the Chinese news?

I’m not sure if this is the most original answer, but reading the news in Chinese is – just like learning Chinese itself – about changing perspectives and questioning your own. We live in a complex world and there is no single truth, only different angles and perspectives of “what is”.

Reading the news only from one source, from one country, in one language, is somewhat like staying in the same village for whole your life. Instead, my motto would be “read everything and question everything”. When you read the news in multiple languages, you start to see beyond black and white, incorporate different views and perspectives and appreciate the complexity of things. What’s the Chinese view on the war in Ukraine for example? How do their media cover the subject? Which wordings do they use? If you can’t read the Chinese news, you’ll probably never going to find out, but if you do, you’ll at least know there are different sides to this conflict. That’s where diplomacy starts. You might even discover that there are multiple Chinese perspectives on the matter.

What makes reading the news in Chinese difficult?

One major obstacle reading the Chinese news articles are proper nouns; in particular names of people, places, organizations, brands and institutions. Washington, for example, is 华盛顿, New York Times is 纽约时报 and Reuter’s News Agency is called 路透社. And let’s not forget 拜登, the current president of the United States. Nothing show-stopping, yet still a source of confusion that can slow you down.

Another difficulty – depending on your familiarity with the subject – is lack of context. If I were to read the Armenian news for example, a country I have very little knowledge of, I understand next to zero, not only because of the language barrier, but also since I have no frame of reference whatsoever. I simply don’t know enough about what is going on to make sense of what I’m reading.

You have to be prepared to encounter an unfamiliar discourse that embodies new narratives and contexts. This can be unsettling. Compare it to reading about the American elections through the lens of Russia Today: it’s different and often comes with a “that’s not how I see it” feeling. It’s that other, more distant perspective that makes things interesting though.

Strategies to start reading the news in Chinese

My strategy is simple. Its main components are repetition and focus. Stick with your interests and pick articles with a familiar topic or from your area of interest. Especially when starting out, I wouldn’t recommend reading about topics you’re not interested in or don’t understand well. Don’t read about the French elections if you couldn’t care less. Don’t read about the Chinese real estate market if you don’t know anything about the real estate market in your own country. Read about stuff you care about and keep returning to the same topics.

How you adept this strategy largely depends on which tools you use. Here are three of them:

1. The Chairman’s Bao

When it comes to news tailored for Mandarin learners, the Chairman’s Bao is the number one on the market. This news-based graded reader has been around since 2015 and has been very successful. According to their website, they publish more than 1,600 news-based lessons each year (six new lessons every day). The Chairman’s Bao library currently contains around 8.000 lessons, for beginners as well as intermediate and advanced learners. Quality does come with a price though:

Chairman's Bao news-based graded reader 2022 pricing

That being said, The Chairman’s Bao is an excellent starting point for regular news reading, allowing you to keep track of new vocabulary and what you’ve read. Every article comes with audio and an in-built dictionary. You can switch between simplified and traditional character reading mode. But the greatest advantage probably is that the news-based lessons are graded, meaning you can climb from HSK 2 all the way to HSK 6. This saves you the frustration of reading articles that turn out way beyond your level. Reducing the variety of topics to guarantee your comprehension is less of a necessity using The Chairman’s Bao.

2. DuShu

The low-budget reading tool DuShu

DuShu is the low-budget reading tool for autonomous learners. I’m a longtime fan as I like low-budget options for learning Mandarin, but most of all, it’s a super tool, because you can copy-paste any text in it and it will break it down for you in readable bits. The app comes with audio, pinyin, flashcards, difficulty rating and other useful features. The only thing it doesn’t do for you is find news articles that you want to read and suit your current level. That’s why it’s an excellent option for more advanced learners who want to choose their own reading diet.

3. Easy Chinese News

Easy Chinese news

The app Easy Chinese News app does offer a daily updated news feed from Mainland Chinese sources. Be prepared to find a rather random mix of news content though, although the mostly short articles can be sorted by topic and difficulty level (easy or difficult). Easy Chinese News includes a multilingual dictionary with example sentences, a favorite word list and reading history. Also worth mentioning is that it supports traditional characters. To get rid of the ads you have to go premium. It’s still an interesting option though, it’s just more raw and random than The Chairman’s Bao.

Which Chinese news media to read?

What you like to read is completely up to you. I put up a short list in more or less random order, distinguishing Global Chinese, Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese news media. It’s worth noting that Mainland China has many, many more (regional) news media. I also find the Global Chinese news like the BBC and Deutsche Welle interesting. Although they’re not local sources, they do share the latest news from China, be it from a more or less western perspective.

Global Chinese news

Mainland Chinese news

Taiwanese news

Which tools and news papers you choose in the end, depends on your budget, taste and priorities. I hoped this article can offer some orientation. Feel free to leave a comment about your experiences reading the news in Chinese. Thanks for dropping by on Kaohongshu.

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