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[Book Review] Reading and Writing Chinese

Tuttle Publishing graciously supplied this book for me to take a look at and review. Below are my thoughts.

Reading and Writing Chinese, 3rd Editionreading_and_writingChinese
By: William McNaughton, Revised by Jiageng Fan
(2013, Tuttle Publishing)

I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to Chinese characters–and I’m a huge fan of Chinese character books. I love having a handy reference book by my side just to learn a little bit more about characters as I come across them. So let’s take a look at what this book on the Chinese writing system has to offer!


The first pages in the front and the back provide a chart of Chinese radicals. The authors very nicely provide both Simplified (in the front) and Traditional (in the back) radical charts. At the back is also an alphabetical (Pinyin) index, as well as a stroke index, where you look up a character based on how many total strokes it has in total. The book contains 1,725 Chinese characters with their definitions, derivations, pronunciations, and some examples of how to use them.

The preface spends much time devoted to the Hanyu Shuiping Cihui Yu Hanzi Dengji Dagang (oddly lacking the Chinese characters for the name, hereafter abbreviated to HSCHDD), which is, at any rate, tied to the HSK. It explains the kind of study plan put forth by the HSCHDD, and spends quite some time in the explanation. A possible study plan is introduced, based on character frequency, and the characters that make up phrases.

After discussing the study plan, the author then dives into a bit more detail about the writing system, noting radicals and the six kinds of Chinese characters: pictures, symbols, sound-loans, sound-meaning compounds, meaning-meaning compounds, and reclassified compounds. Pinyin pronunciation is also introduced, as well as tones. However, the tone chart offered can be a bit confusing for non-music majors, and perhaps too specialized for the average student:


The core of the book is divided into two sections: “Basic Characters” and “Remaining Characters”.

Basic Characters

The “Basic Characters” section contains much more detailed entries, showing the number of strokes, stroke order, Pinyin, basic definition, mnemonic, sample phrases and the character in traditional Chinese. In total, 1,067 Basic Characters are introduced.

A typical "Basic Characters" character entry.
A typical “Basic Characters” entry.

A typical “Basic Characters” character entry.

Remaining Characters

There’s a little under sixty pages containing the 658 “Remaining Characters” following right behind the “Basic Characters”.

A typical “Remaining Characters” entry.

Like the ” Basic Characters” section, the “Remaining Characters” entries also provide the simplified, Pinyin, related phrases, and the traditional Chinese. However, the mnemonic stories are gone, which is unfortunate, but perhaps the student at this point will be able to create their own mnemonics without the guide of the authors.

In Conclusion

This book is very academic in prose and does not shy away from getting into Chinese-word classes, phonetic series and the like. That being said, it’s an interesting read to learn a little bit more about the characters than most books offer. The rest of the book is primarily filled with Chinese character entries, so there isn’t much discussion beyond some introductions to tones, Pinyin and a little bit about the Chinese character writing system.

Although I’ve never considered this type of book a study-guide, and instead tend to look at it more as a reference, the study plan introduced in the book is quite useful. A middle to intermediate student would appreciate the study plan put forth by the authors.

I really love how this book puts an emphasize on mnemonics, bringing this Chinese character learning method to the mainstream. It’s really nice seeing more books embracing this method. The bottom line: this book effectively combines the mnemonics of Heisig and Remember the Hanzi with the practicality of HSK and character frequency studies. It makes a great reference book for any student.

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