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:


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