How Clever Design Can Help You Learn Chinese

Slate’s design blog.
April 21 2014 4:54 PM

How Clever Design Can Help You Learn Chinese

Chineasy by ShaoLan Hsueh uses pictograms to help you learn Chinese.

Courtesy of Chineasy

Learning to speak Chinese is a daunting task. There are tens of thousands of characters that take years to master. But Taipei-born, London-based entrepreneur ShaoLan Hsueh wanted to find an easier way to help teach 200 characters required for basic reading comprehension to her own English-speaking children.

She deconstructed frequently-used Chinese characters into key building blocks, creating a visual road map of the language that allowed non-Chinese speakers to more easily recognize characters and combine them to form compound words and phrases.

Her book Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese—the result of her popular 2013 TED Talk and successfully overfunded Kickstarter campaign—was published last month by HarperCollins and Thames & Hudson and is also available on iTunes. Winner of Wallpaper Magazine’s 2014 Design Award for “Life-Enhancer of the year,” it is currently one of the nominees for Design of the Year at London’s Design Museum.

140421_EYE_Chineasy book8
Two Chinese characters for "people" side by side form the verb "follow."

Courtesy of Chineasy


Chineasy features playfully drawn pictograms by Israeli-born, London-based illustrator Noma Bar. Cleverly designed, it's a visually driven method for unlocking the mysteries of written Chinese that offers glimpses of traditional Chinese culture along the way.

For example, the character for “woman” is one of the key building blocks of the language. Writing two characters for woman together creates the symbol for “argument.” Three women together? "Adultery."

And ShaoLan explains that “good” is written by combining the characters for “woman” and “boy,” reflecting the belief that a woman’s goodness was long defined by her ability to deliver a son.

140421_EYE_Chineasy book2
The Chinese word "good" is spelled using pictogram-enhanced characters for woman and boy in Chineasy by ShaoLan.

Courtesy of Chineasy

ShaoLan is at work on her second Chineasy book, due out this fall. To learn more, visit the Chineasy Facebook page or watch ShaoLan explain it herself in the video below:


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.