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A Comprehensive Guide to Chinese Learning Books

Learning Chinese is a journey filled with both challenges and rewards. For Chinese learners, the initial hurdles include mastering the tonal nature of the language and understanding its complex characters. However, the rewards of learning Chinese are significant. Gaining fluency opens doors to rich cultural insights and new communication skills.

Equally important in this learning process is choosing the right learning material. A well-chosen book can significantly impact your learning progress. It’s essential to select a book that aligns with your learning objectives, whether it’s passing a Chinese proficiency exam, improving conversational skills, doing business with Chinese people, or understanding Chinese culture. The right book is often well-structured and systematic. It not only guides you through the complexities of the language but also keeps you engaged and motivated throughout your learning journey.

Understanding Different Learning Levels

Usually, different levels of Chinese learners have distinct needs, and learning books cater to these varying requirements. But how do you choose the good ones?

For beginners, the foundation is always about understanding the basic knowledge of Mandarin Chinese, mastering pronunciation, and acquiring vocabulary. Beginners need books that introduce basic grammar and vocabulary in a simple, engaging way. Take pronunciation as an example, some books only include one lesson on it, if you don’t have a tutor to do more intensive extra practice, it’s definitely not enough. Usually, no matter if it’s for self-learning or learning with a teacher, a beginner’s book should include detailed pronunciation instructions and practice exercises. The content should present it in small, manageable sections to prevent overwhelming the learner.

For intermediate learners, vocabulary and grammar are the most vital parts. Make sure the grammar points are well explained and the vocabulary is truly at the intermediate level.  Some books might include many unnecessary advanced words. Books for intermediate learners should offer authentic texts, which introduce nuances of the language and encourage reading without Pinyin.

For advanced learners, reading and writing in paragraphs is highly valued. So the variety of topics and richness of the content should be considered carefully when choosing learning books. Advanced books often focus on specific aspects of the language, like formal writing or business communication. There’s less emphasis on language rules and more on usage, idioms, and style.

If there is a certain aspect you need to improve, such as speaking, writing, test preparation, or business conversations, then choose a book that focuses on that point. There are books that place emphasis on certain skills across all levels. For example, if you want to improve your reading level, then your target book should offer texts of increasing complexity, with exercises to improve comprehension. You can always find a book that caters to your needs.

Top Chinese Books for Beginners

For complete beginners, traditional textbooks are the most common pick because it offers the most structured and systematic approach. Books like “Integrated Chinese,” “HSK Standard Course,” and “New Practical Chinese Reader” are popular choices, each with their unique and effective approaches to teaching essential pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar.

HSK Standard Course Series

These books are tailored for learners preparing for the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) Chinese proficiency tests. They align closely with the HSK exam’s structure, covering the vocabulary, grammar, and reading comprehension required at each level. They offer systematic and in-depth training with exercises and mock tests that mimic the actual exam format, enabling learners to track and improve their proficiency. HSK Standard Course also progressively introduces Chinese characters, helping beginners transition from Pinyin to reading and writing characters.

Integrated Chinese

This series is known for its balanced approach to teaching speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills. It introduces vocabulary and grammar in a contextual manner, focusing on language use in everyday situations. The lessons are structured to gradually build up language proficiency, starting from basic phrases and sentences to more complex structures. Integrated Chinese uses a mix of Pinyin and characters from the start, encouraging learners to familiarize themselves with Chinese script early on.

New Practical Chinese Reader

This series, which is designed to develop communicative competence, is often used in schools. It starts with basic vocabulary and grammar, presented through thematic lessons that reflect real-life situations. The New Practical Chinese Reader series includes cultural notes and background information to enhance students’ understanding. It uses a combination of Pinyin and characters, with a gradual shift towards more character-based content as the learner progresses. The books include a variety of exercises focusing on listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills.

To complement this series, we’ve developed a video course tailored to the New Practical Chinese Reader textbooks, enhancing the learning experience.

Oxford Beginner’s Chinese Dictionary

This is a resource for those starting to learn Chinese. Designed for easy use, it features clear entries with Pinyin, essential vocabulary tailored for beginners, and practical grammar and usage tips. Unique to this dictionary are the cultural insights, enriching the learning experience by connecting language with its cultural context. Additionally, it often includes thematic word lists and may offer digital resources for an enhanced learning experience. This dictionary is more than just a language tool; it’s a comprehensive guide for beginners getting deeper into both the language and culture of China.

Top Books for Intermediate Chinese Learners

Developing Chinese

This series is comprehensive and is often used in academic settings. It systematically introduces vocabulary and grammar concepts, with each lesson building on the previous one. The books use real-life dialogues and texts to provide context for the language elements being taught. They emphasize practical usage and include a variety of exercises to reinforce learning. The series also integrates cultural elements, helping learners to not only prepare for the exams but also gain a deeper understanding of Chinese culture and its linguistic nuances, which is especially beneficial for intermediate learners. Alongside the comprehensive course, this series also includes listening, speaking, and writing courses at each level, which make it a one-stop-shop for Chinese learners.

Complete Mandarin Chinese

This is a comprehensive guide recommended for learners aiming to reach an intermediate level in Mandarin. This book stands out thanks to its thorough coverage of essential language skills, including advanced vocabulary, complex grammar structures, and practical conversation scenarios. It focuses on real-life language use, enabling learners to improve their speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills in a balanced manner. With its clear explanations, varied exercises, and cultural notes, “Complete Mandarin Chinese” is an ideal resource for those looking to deepen their understanding of the language and progress beyond the basics.

Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar

This book offers a clear and detailed overview of complex grammar structures in Mandarin. It is a comprehensive guide, blending traditional and function-based approaches to Mandarin Chinese grammar in one volume. The book is split into two parts: Part A focuses on grammar categories like phrase order and different usages, while Part B centers on language functions such as communication strategies and expressing regrets. Both parts are interlinked with detailed cross-references, enriching the understanding of grammatical patterns with a functional perspective. The grammar points are illustrated with examples emphasizing contemporary usage. Ideal for learners from beginners to intermediate, this book doesn’t require previous grammar knowledge. It includes a glossary of terms and pairs with a separate workbook for exercises. This makes it a comprehensive reference and learning tool for Mandarin Chinese.

A New China: An Intermediate Reader of Modern Chinese

Now in a revised single-volume format, this book has established itself as a key textbook for intermediate Chinese language learning. This updated edition integrates the previous two-volume set, reflecting significant changes in China over the past decade. The book, written from the viewpoint of a foreign student newly arrived in China, offers contemporary lessons and materials on China’s evolving landscape. It starts with the student’s initial experiences in Beijing, covering everything from airport arrival to university dorm life. The new edition includes lessons on everyday activities like laundry and haircuts, along with cultural experiences at the zoo, night markets, and the Great Wall. Later sections address China’s current social and political topics, such as divorce and urban traffic challenges. “A New China” is comprehensive, with detailed grammar instructions, extensive vocabulary, and exercises. It also presents content in both traditional and simplified Chinese characters.

Top Books for Advanced Chinese Learners

Advanced Reader of Contemporary Chinese Short Stories: Reflections on Humanity

This collection of contemporary short stories is a great resource for advanced learners. It helps in understanding complex sentence structures, offers insights into Chinese society and culture, and introduces the advanced student to some of the most important Chinese writers. The stories are followed by detailed explanations of difficult phrases and comprehensive language activities. This book is suitable for learners at a high intermediate or advanced level who already have a good grasp of Chinese characters. However, if you find character recognition challenging, the vocabulary lists included will be particularly beneficial.

Eyes on China: An Intermediate-Advanced Reader of Modern Chinese

This is an ideal learning resource for intermediate to advanced Chinese language learners. This book offers a deep view into modern Chinese through a collection of compelling and contemporary readings. Covering a wide range of topics, from cultural trends to social issues, it provides learners with an authentic glimpse into China’s current affairs and everyday life. The book is designed to enhance language skills, particularly reading and comprehension, by presenting complex sentence structures and advanced vocabulary. Each article is accompanied by thorough explanations and vocabulary lists, making it an effective tool for improving both language proficiency and cultural understanding. “Eyes on China” is a valuable asset for learners aiming to achieve a higher level of fluency and a deeper insight into modern Chinese society.

All Things Considered: Revised Edition

This is a thoroughly revised textbook that effectively transitions learners from intermediate to advanced Chinese. Addressing contemporary and stimulating topics relevant to Chinese society, such as wealth disparity, environmental challenges, and evolving views on marriage and sex, the book fosters student engagement and discussion. The first twelve lessons are presented in dialogue form, while the rest feature articles from Chinese newspapers and magazines, exposing students to both spoken and written Chinese. This structure not only provides diverse content but also reinforces learning through repetition of topics in different formats. The new edition of “All Things Considered” presents an improved, user-friendly layout with text and vocabulary on adjacent pages and updated grammar explanations and exercises, making it an ideal resource for advanced Chinese language learners seeking a comprehensive and relevant learning experience.

Specialized Chinese Learning Books for Different Needs

Books to Help Improve Chinese Speaking Skills

New Target Chinese Spoken Language

This series is an innovative set of textbooks specifically designed for learners aiming to enhance their spoken Chinese skills. These books cater to a range of levels, from beginner to advanced, focusing on practical, everyday language use. The series adopts a conversational approach, with each book structured around real-life scenarios that learners are likely to encounter, from basic introductions to more complex social interactions. This method not only helps in building a robust vocabulary and understanding of grammar in a conversational context but also aids in developing listening and speaking skills. The lessons are complemented by cultural insights, making the learning process both comprehensive and engaging. This series is an excellent choice for learners who want to focus primarily on improving their oral communication skills in Mandarin Chinese.

Conversational Chinese 301

This is a widely acclaimed textbook designed for learners aiming to develop practical communication skills in Mandarin Chinese. Renowned for its focus on real-life conversational scenarios, the book comprises 40 lessons, each structured around common daily interactions and dialogues. This setup allows learners to quickly grasp essential vocabulary and sentence structures relevant to everyday situations. The fourth edition updates outdated texts to reflect current social life, adding terms like “high-speed rail,” “express delivery,” and “WeChat.” The lessons are concise yet comprehensive, making them ideal for both classroom use and self-study.

Resources to Help Improve Chinese Listening Skills

China Focus – 《中国微镜头:汉语视听说系列教材》

The “China Focus” series is a comprehensive set of language textbooks specifically designed for Chinese audio-visual courses. The series utilizes a wide array of audio-visual materials drawn from contemporary Chinese society, including documentaries, news, situational dramas, interviews, entertainment programs, short films, advertisements, and songs. It leverages an abundance of online video resources to create a classroom teaching environment based on natural language use. The series is categorized into six levels according to the difficulty of the audio-visual materials and covers various themes such as society, economy, culture, education, life, love, and art. Each theme is further divided into several topics, with each topic compiled into a separate volume. The language component of the series encompasses common communicative functions and scenarios across beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels, making it an ideal resource for learners seeking to enhance their listening skills in Mandarin.

Developing Chinese: Listening Course

This series is excellent for beginner to advanced learners, offering a range of listening exercises that cover various topics and situations. It’s designed to improve comprehensive listening skills and includes recordings of native speakers.

Resources to Improve Chinese Reading Skills

Chinese Breeze

“Chinese Breeze” is a well-regarded graded reader series designed to enhance the reading skills of Chinese language learners. Tailored for beginner and intermediate learners, the series offers a variety of engaging stories, each written using a limited number of unique Chinese characters. This controlled vocabulary approach makes the stories accessible and enjoyable for learners, helping them to build confidence and fluency in reading Chinese. The series covers a wide range of genres, from mystery to romance, providing cultural insights and language learning in an entertaining format.

Mandarin Companion

The “Mandarin Companion” series is a collection of graded readers specifically designed for Chinese language learners. This innovative series reimagines classic Western and Chinese stories, adapting them into simplified Chinese using a controlled vocabulary suitable for beginner and intermediate learners. The unique approach of the “Mandarin Companion” series makes reading in Chinese more accessible and enjoyable, helping learners to improve their reading comprehension and vocabulary in a context-rich environment. The series is acclaimed for its ability to seamlessly blend language learning with engaging storytelling, offering stories in various genres that captivate readers while simultaneously enhancing their Mandarin skills.

Bonus e-based reading resource

Mandarin Bean

Mandarin Bean’s graded reading content is an excellent resource for learners looking to improve their Chinese reading abilities. It offers a diverse selection of stories from ancient to modern China, suitable for learners of all levels. The website features Chinese folktales, idioms, news, jokes, stories from the Three Kingdoms period, and fun modern narratives, providing a rich and engaging learning experience. With Mandarin Bean, learners can build and expand their vocabulary, master Chinese sentence patterns, and immerse themselves in iconic parts of Chinese history and legends. Each article is structured to aid learning while being entertaining, featuring bilingual text in simplified Chinese, Pinyin, and English. A Chinese-only version for self-assessment, key vocabulary lists, sentence patterns with contextual examples, and engaging exercises are also available. The content is enhanced with learning tips and cultural insights and includes free audio recordings by native speakers to aid in listening and speaking practice. This approach makes Mandarin Bean’s graded reading content a valuable tool for learners exploring an exciting adventure in Chinese language learning.

Chinese History and Culture: Idioms, Legends, and Literature

Chinese Stories for Language Learners

This is a great resource for passionate Mandarin learners at an intermediate level, who are looking to immerse themselves in the captivating world of Chinese stories. This bilingual book offers a rich selection of 31 stories, ranging from ancient folktales and proverbs to tales of historical figures and modern narratives. It’s a comprehensive tool for expanding essential vocabulary and mastering over 60 Chinese sentence patterns, all contextualized within engaging stories. The book provides a unique insight into iconic Chinese history, legends, and wisdom, including witty idioms and proverbs with their original stories, enhancing cultural knowledge. Each story is presented in simplified Chinese, Pinyin, and English, with a Chinese-only version for self-assessment. Key vocabulary lists, sentence patterns with contextual examples, engaging activities, and learning tips ensure a well-rounded educational experience. “Chinese Stories for Language Learners” is more than just a learning resource; it’s a companion for an enjoyable and insightful journey into Chinese language and culture.

Chinese Stories for Language Learners: A Treasury of Proverbs and Folktales in Bilingual Chinese and English

This is a captivating book that presents 22 classic Chinese proverbs and the traditional tales behind them, ideal for intermediate and advanced Mandarin learners. Each story is bilingual, with Chinese and English text on facing pages, accompanied by explanations of the proverbs’ current usage, cultural notes, vocabulary, and discussion questions. The book includes audio recordings by native speakers, enhancing pronunciation and comprehension skills. The book features proverbs like “画龙点睛” “守株待兔” and “水至清则无鱼,” explaining their rich cultural and historical contexts. These stories offer insights into ancient Chinese wisdom and its relevance today. This collection serves as both an educational tool and an engaging way to expand vocabulary and deepen understanding of the Chinese language, whether in a classroom setting or for self-study.

Dream of the Red Chamber – 《红楼梦》

For those interested in classical Chinese literature, this novel is a treasure trove of advanced vocabulary and classical sentence structures. It’s both challenging and rewarding for advanced learners, offering a deep dive into the richness of the Chinese language and its literary heritage.

Learning Strategies and Tips

To make the most out of Chinese learning books and enhance your learning experience, consider incorporating these strategies.

1. Learn actively and regularly

Engage actively with your learning materials. Reading is not enough. Pick up your pencil and try to write down new Chinese characters and phrases, create your own sentences, then use them in context. This active engagement helps reinforce what you’ve learned.

Consistent practice is vital in language learning. Dedicate a regular time for practice every day, even if it’s just for a short duration. This strategy will make you digest the knowledge more effectively

2. Repetition

Many learners love to learn new knowledge and are eager to progress very fast. Never forget to repeat the content you’ve learned previously. It’s not a fun process, but very helpful. There is always something new you can find and understand in the second or third time you review the content.

3. Build your learning net

Sometimes you may find that memorizing a single character or grammar pattern is very challenging. That’s because you don’t have a large learning net. Always put the words and patterns in context. This would involve associating characters or patterns with usages and meanings, which is much easier for you to remember and understand.

You may also find that a word or grammar point may have different meanings or uses, but at different levels. You should learn each meaning one at a time, as they come up for you. You will get a clearer understanding of each unique use. There are numerous grammar collections or word usage summaries you can read. We will put a reference at the end of this article for you.  

4. Seek feedback

Most learners hate tests, but it’s actually a really important part of the learning process. Think of it not as seeking insult but knowing your learning status. You can have your writing checked by a teacher or a native speaker. Or have a quiz after each learning stage or lesson. It’s an easy way to know the areas you need to improve and understand your mistakes.

5. Incorporate different skills

A holistic approach to Chinese learning can significantly enhance your overall proficiency. You can integrate various language skills, including reading, speaking, listening and writing, into your study routine. For example, if you’re learning Chinese writing, you could read Chinese newspapers or books to see how words are used in context, engage in conversations with native speakers to improve your fluency and pronunciation, and listen to Chinese podcasts or songs to enhance your comprehension and listening skills. Each skill complements and reinforces the others, leading to a more comprehensive and effective learning experience.


Choosing books that align with your learning style and objectives is crucial, as the right resources can significantly enhance your understanding and retention of the language. Alongside this, embracing diverse and effective learning strategies—such as incorporating various language skills, utilizing spaced repetition, and engaging with native content—will exponentially boost your language proficiency. With the right learning materials and a committed approach, the journey of learning Chinese can be as rewarding as it is transformative.

Reading References

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Jing Cao is the chief-editor and co-founder of DigMandarin. She has a master's degree in Chinese Linguistics and Language Aquisition and has taught thousands of students for the past years. She devotes herself to the education career of making Chinese learning easier throughout the world.

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