Why Chinese Needs Post-Apocalyptic Steam Punk (with Dinosaurs)

At some point or another, many learners of Chinese here in China get the brilliant idea to buy Chinese children’s picture books and use them to learn Chinese. Genius, right? It’s got pictures, it’s for kids (so it’s gotta be simple), and it’s a story! What could go wrong, right?

You see, at the really low levels, China’s children’s books contain big, clear, colorful pictures, characters with pinyin, and sometimes even English. While these can be nice, they’re essentially pictorial flash cards in book form. If that’s what you’re looking for, they’re great, but they’re not stories.

As soon as you jump from “vocabulary books” to “story books,” however, something magical happens. “Magical” in the “holy crap, I’ve been studying Chinese for over two years and I can hardly read any of this book written for a 6-year-old” sense. One definitely gets the impression that these books are written not for the enjoyment of the young reader, but rather as the embodiment of the discovery that, “if we put pictures in these books, maybe we can trick even little kids into studying more characters and vocabulary in their free time.”

End results: (1) they’re way too hard for the typical Chinese learner, and (2) they’re not actually that interesting either.

One could be forgiven for thinking that maybe story books in electronic format are better. Sadly, they’re usually not. There are bilingual story books on the iPad, but most of them seem designed with the idea that either you want to read/listen to the story in English or in Chinese, but never both. As a result you have to start the whole story over if you want to switch languages. (And you may not even get pinyin, or have no option to hide it.) Not very learner-friendly.

Oh, and even on the iPad, there’s way too much of the 成语故事 (4-character idiom stories) mentality going on. In other words, “Oh, you want to learn Chinese through stories? OK, but only if the whole point is to memorize an obscure idiom. None of this time-wasting ‘using the language for your own enjoyment’ nonsense.

But I’m writing this post not just to complain about a lack of stories. I’m writing to report that I actually did something about it. I created an app that houses interesting stories. Not “slight variation of the status quo” stories, but something radically different. I mean, one of the stories literally takes place in a post-apocalyptic steam punk world. With cyborg dinosaurs. And it was drawn and co-created by a local Chinese artist. (Ssshhh, don’t tell him that the Chinese are not known for their creativity.)

I think I did this partly to prove to myself that it could be done. (It turns out the Chinese language itself is not averse to fresh new story settings.) But also, this industry needs to break out of its 5,000-year-old mold and recognize that modern learners want more options. Sure, maybe “post-apocalyptic steam punk (with dinosaurs)” is not exactly the rallying cry of bored students of Chinese across the world, but this is a start.

So even if “post-apocalyptic steam punk (with dinosaurs)” isn’t your thing, even if “cute dogs causing chaos in the park” isn’t your thing, even if “the thoughts, voices and handwriting of modern Chinese college kids” isn’t your thing, I would at least hope that more interesting options for studying Chinese is your thing. And for that reason, I ask you to please try out the new Chinese Picture Book Reader for the iPad. (The app is free.)

Thanks, everybody!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Good work, John, but I think you overstate the direness of Chinese children’s books. Sure, plenty of my daughter’s Chinese books are boring, didactic nonsense (though usually of the “Let’s learn to brush our teeth!” “Let’s learn to do poohs!” (yes, seriously) variety). But even so, she has plenty that are just stories for the sake of telling stories. Translations of Aesop’s fables or the Grimms’ or Andersen’s fairy tales (good for 2nd language learners of the Western variety because they’re already familiar with the stories, which gives them a leg-up on the comprehension – at risk of translationese, though), but also original Chinese stories.

    But yeah, simple stories that older learners can enjoy as stories in their own right is a great idea, good on ya. I imagine they might also be good for native Chinese adult literacy students (assuming there are programmes in place for them – I know more than one who could use such a programme) as well as 2nd language learners.

    • Well, keep in mind also that I’m coming t the issue from the perspective of an adult learner of Chinese. I went through all this in my own learning process. Kids are much more forgiving.

  2. Ooh, I want this… is it coming soon to an Android near you, perhaps? 🙂

  3. This is probably the most attractive blog post title I’ve seen about learning Chinese, awesome! I agree with everything you say here. Since I didn’t know about this when I first started reading these books, I just assumed that my Chinese sucked and started learning all the words I didn’t know. I also tagged them, which means that now, four years later, I can go back and look at the words I learnt back then. It strikes me that I have never seen some of these words since and many of them are literary and/or very rare. It’s a pity I don’t have an iPad to actually check out the story you recommend, but if it has dinosaurs, post apocalypse and steam punk, it has to be great.

  4. Way back when, I went down exactly the route that you described: picked up a Chinese children’s book, then put it down and gave up on that option. The vocabulary and grammar were either unrelated to what I was learning/using, or the books were really boring and preachy.

    These days, it’s still pretty much the same pattern. Where I’ve had the most luck buying books for Charlotte and Maryann is by going for Taiwanese or (translated) Japanese picture books for kids.

    Can’t wait to check out this app. Dinosaurs!

  5. Android version seconded 🙂

  6. Great idea, but why limit this to the iPad? Why not make it Android friendly, or even make it web-browser friendly? Unless there is something in that story that requires one specific platform over another, it seems like it would be easier to distribute it in an open format.

    Sorry for the rant! I don’t mean to be rude to you because you actually are one major inspiration to many learners, including me.

  7. You just saved me some time and money, I thought I had a clever idea and was about to find some childrens books, nowever now I have yet one more reason to finally cave in and get an iPad. /le sigh.

  8. Excellent. If I had an iPad, I’d already have downloaded your app. Using stories is a wonderful way to get quality language learning.

  9. Thanks John! It’s great to see language learning material targetted for adult learners. I purchased the Isaac and Newton story to try it out. Great drawings and fun situations. i look forward to more stories and seeing with what you come out with next.

  10. I just downloaded it and I love it! The easy switching between hanzi, pinyin and english is beautifully executed, and I like having the handwriting as well for a challenge. Unfortunately the sound doesn’t seem to be working for me.

    • Make sure your iPad not muted (Double-click the home button, then swipe right. If the speaker icon has a line throught it, then click to unmute). Also make sure volume is turned up.

    • Are you using iOS 5.x? It wasn’t our original intent, but it seems that due to the audio module used to create the app, it app may require iOS 6 or above to use. We’re looking into this.

  11. I echo the experiences about Chinese “children” ‘s books. I wondered why it was so hard. I eventually made my steps towards literacy through a couple of paths:

    reading along with subtitles on tv dramas
    scanlations of manga (or the real thing in Taiwan, there isn’t much in shanghai that I could find)
    reading trashy entertainment news (short, short articles)

    The first book I picked up that I could follow along with (despite not knowing a lot of words) was a terrible romance novel probably written for angsty tween girls. I still have it as a souvenir of a linguistic milestone.

    I also found it easier to read scientific journal articles on a specific subject (where I knew 1-200 technical terms) than youth literature. Anyone else find this?

  12. I haven’t quite gotten to the point of buying childrens books yet (close though) and this has been a major concern of mine! I’m very excited about this new prospect though, and the art looks wonderful. I hope that you’ll be able to make this cross platform.

  13. I’m currently reading a lot of kids books. I am only reading them for the flow on effect of reading (they are in my +1 range) and I scrounge words or sentences that I can type into my anki files. As beneficial as this seems, I wholeheartedly agree with John’s assessment – kids books are uninteresting; they often have useless words which are not commonly used. For example 胶状. Sure enough, I typed it into a Chinese search engine and one of the endless amounts of 汉英 sentence data basis came up with a result. The word means: gelatinous.

    • Timothy Bender Says: December 22, 2012 at 2:54 am

      Stavros – That’s not a useless word, rather it is an extremely common and useful (grammar?) pattern. X状 = something of the form X. Most of these combinations won’t be in a dictionary, just look up the X without the 状. 胶 is a common and useful charecter, so in this case you got one piece of vocab and one important pattern out of the deal.

      I never tried Children’s books (watched alot of tv and read academic materials until I was ready for Jin Yong novels), but the criticm of ‘too difficult’ or ‘too boring’ for early learners seems more valid than saying ‘useless’…often things that are useless in themselves, like how to say ‘gelatinous’, end up being very useful in the logic behind thteir construction. Chengyu is another great example, if you learn a good deal of them, when you start studying more formal chinese, alot of the vocab and grammar will essentially already be mastered, and probably in a better way than having memorized such things in isolation.

      Also, useless is so dependant on what you like to read and explore, which should be dictating your selection of materials in the first place. I would find learning the names of alchohol types or movie stars (whether western or chinese) very boring to learn, and useless since any use of them in ‘chit-chat’ would itself be boring. But learning the various component movies of the Jin Yong novel martial arts form 降龙十八掌 (亢龙有悔,见龙在田,etc) is both fun and useful, because of what I like to read and discuss with friends (as well as my eventual plan to understand something of 周易, from which they are taken). So it’s too learner specific, and handles anyway by learning from what you like.

      That’s only in reference to vocab being ‘useless’ – ‘boring’ as applied to catagories of material is probably too learner specific also, but John is criticizing the quality of the stories within the genre, not the fantastic themes.

  14. I just downloaded it and noticed there’s no longer any picture books, just the college interview

  15. Will it work for the smaller form factor and older (gen 1 and 2) iPhones/iTouches? Or any hope for ::gasps:: Symbian support?!

  16. Thanks for the tip! The iPad is playing music just fine though, so perhaps it’s a small bug in the reader software. Still, in the meantime I’m enjoying just reading the stories.

  17. The dinosaur book is worth it for the illustrations alone! Good work John, this is really creative.

  18. ““if we put pictures in these books, maybe we can trick even little kids into studying more characters and vocabulary in their free time.”

    End results: (1) they’re way too hard for the typical Chinese learner, and (2) they’re not actually that interesting either.”

    ARGH! Tell me about it!!! This was so frustrating to discover. But, we’ve had better luck with children’s books translated from English. They are written simply; translators have to go out of their way to increase the vocab.

  19. Nicely done and sorely needed. Please update soon with the continuation of this story and more.

  20. I third it. Is it possible to get an Android version. This looks very cool!

  21. […] with several free “books.” Although I immensely enjoyed creating a story involving post-apocalyptic steam punk dinosaurs, in some ways those free books were the most interesting. That’s because the content of each […]

  22. I’ve been looking for that since a while.
    Thanks a lot for your work!
    – Do you plan to create more episodes ?
    – I’m looking for a video game that could help with learning. (DOing Japanese rpg helped me greatly learning japanese, new characters and motivation to learn).
    My level don;t allow me to play World of Warcraft, something simpler, or developped with learning in mind.
    Thanks by advance.

  23. misha sibirsk Says: February 17, 2014 at 11:04 pm

    The big mystery for me is: Why the avoidance of pinyin for foreign learners, beyond beginners’ level. Spoken Chinese is comparatively easy. Chinese as a whole is incomparable as a literary language and is the world number 1 L1. Why is it not steam-rolling English as the world lingua franca? Simply, the characters; or rather, the characters, in the context of the avoidance of such a fantastic adaptative tool as pinyin. Say your L1 is English, you’re learning French. You’ve got past the irregular verbs and are starting to expand your reading. You pick up something a bit more challenging than your level, you find that there are a lot of words in there that you don’t know; but you can sort of guess. You at least have an idea what they sound like and some feel for the etymology. Not so with Chinese. Even two or three unknown characters out of ten are going to derail your reading in short order, unless you’re a dinosaur-slaying student legend. But pinyin would fix that. There’s seems to be some kind of idea that foreign students have a moral obligation to manage with hanzi only. But Chinese children? … At a Chinese bookstall in a mall in Melaka – and later somewhere (I forget) in China – hundreds of parallel hanzi-pinyin books for children and adolescents. I was short of cash, but got a few of the nursery rhyme type books – big characters, funny pictures, and persevered with them for a while. Should have seen it through till comfort level, obviously, but who’s perfect. The problem with fairy tales – any language – is that they aren’t truly simple texts. They use special language, which young children are not phased by not totally understanding. “The pig jumped over the stile.” What the hell is a stile? Some sort of gate-thing on a farm. But no-one is fussed about that. Two other things, especially with teenagers’ books: the pinyin is on top and the characters are run together, no word breaks; which latter wouldn’t bother a young reader already fluent in (= instinctive in the patterns of) the language. We just need parallel hanzi-pinyin stuff for adults, taking us from 500 chars/1000 wds, moderato, through 1000/2400, 2000/5000 to the clear sunshine of 4000/12000. I just think it’s so blindingly obvious, I can’t believe this is not already widely available. BTW, I haven’t tried downloading Dino the Punk yet. I suspect I probably can’t. Just got a PC, don’t understand all this iphone and android crap.

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