Chinese Web Novel Genres

17Kcover

After posting a link to my recent post about  Chinese Xianxia webnovels, I became engaged in a discussion on the Wuxiaworld Forums about the different webnovel genres in China and their proper names. As a result, I discovered that technically I was wrong in referring to the genre I described previously as Xianxia Fiction- it should actually have been called Xuanhuan Fiction.

Xuanhuan (rhymes with Duan Juan) fiction could literally be translated as “Unreal Fiction”, and as you might guess, is an umbrella genre which includes subgenres like Xianxia (Immortal Fiction) within it. However, unlike Qihuan (“Magical Fiction”) which uses Western (Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, D&D) type magical settings, Xuanhuan stories take place in high magic versions of Chinese/Asian environments. What I did was roughly the equivalent of referring to “Science Fiction” as “Space Opera”, which is a subgenre of Science Fiction, but not all Sci-Fi is Space Opera.

Here are the actual categorizations from the massive Chinese webfiction site 17K, as translated by Epithetic:

Fantasy (玄幻奇幻 – Xuánhuàn Qíhuàn)

Eastern Fantasy (东方玄幻 – Dōngfāng Xuánhuàn): Fictional stories centered primarily on Oriental myths, legends and fairy tails or ones that use such elements as their basis.

Foreign Continent (异界大陆 – Yì Jiè Dàlù): Fictional stories set in a different world, in a different land, with clear supernatural elements.

Foreign World Power Struggle (异世争霸 – Yì Shì Zhēngbà): Fictional stories set in a different world, in a different land, with clear supernatural elements, and that are centered around a military power struggle.

Remarkable Power (异术超能 – Yì Shù Chāonéng): Fictional stories surrounding ordinary people where the protagonist has an extraordinary supernatural ability that is used to drive the plot.

Western Fantasy (西方奇幻 – Xīfāng Qíhuàn): Traditional Western fantasy stories.

Feudal Lord (领主贵族 – Lǐngzhǔ Guìzú): Fictional stories where the protagonist is a lord in a feudal society and the plot is centered around the development of power and influence.

Magic Campus (魔法校园 – Mófǎ Xiàoyuán): Fictional stories with a campus as the main backdrop.

Epic Hero (仙侠武侠 – Xiānxiá Wǔxiá)

Classic Immortal Hero (古典仙侠 – Gǔdiǎn Xiānxiá): Traditional stories about immortal heroes.

Modern-day Sage Cultivation (现代修真 – Xiàndài Xiūzhēn): Stories about immortal heroes set in a modern-day city.

Ancient Investiture of Gods (洪荒封神 – Hónghuāng Fēngshén): Stories about immortal heroes set in the early days of the universe where the storyline is based off of “Investiture of the Gods” or myths and fairy tales like it.

Fantasy Sage Cultivation (奇幻修真 – Qíhuàn Xiūzhēn): Stories regarding sage cultivation that involve somewhat combined eastern and western soul refinement methods.

Traditional Martial Hero (传统武侠 – Chuántǒng Wǔxiá): Stories containing traditional martial hero elements, the works by Liang-Jin-Gu (Liang Yusheng, Jin Yong and Gu Long) being representative of the genre.

Modern-day Remarkable Hero (现代异侠 – Xiàndài Yì Xiá): Fictional stories set in modern times where the main protagonist has the characteristics of a martial hero, replete with martial techniques and/or other, similar abilities.

Historical Martial Hero (历史武侠 – Lìshǐ Wǔxiá): Stories mainly about martial heroes that also incorporate history to a greater extent, or stories about history that are written straightforwardly in the martial hero style.

Chinese & Ancient Martial Arts (国术古武 – Guóshù Gǔwǔ): Stories set in a modern or future city where the world of martial practitioners is hidden within it and the refinement of martial artistry (Wushu, aka. Kungfu) has been developed into the common soul refinement methods known as “Chinese Martial Arts” (Guoshu) and “Ancient Martial Arts” (Guwu) respectively.

This is just a small part of the list of the different genres being written and read on 17K, and I’d highly recommend you go to Epithetic’s site and read the full list. The list itself is fascinating because it really gives a rare look into a whole other literary world and the stories they are telling each other. There are genres and subgenres there which don’t exist in English, and it shows how cultural values really shape what people consume in their entertainment.

I should note that I’m told most of what 17K is publishing is what we in English might refer to as Young Adult FictionLight Novels or Pulp Fiction. These are stories which are meant to be fun, light reads and which don’t focus so much on the details or intense character development that more literary fiction might. In a lot of ways, they seem to hold a position culturally similar to the old Pulp Fiction Magazines or Comic Books. (I would observe they seem to very much have the same place in China that Manga do in Japan, which isn’t surprising since China doesn’t have much of a comics market.)

An amusing note to finish on- according to this Reddit thread, the Chinese refer to this type of fiction as YY Fiction, with YY being the shorter form of the pinyin Yiyin. What does YiYin mean? It would literally translate to “Mental Masterbation”. :-)))

Perhaps that’s all you need to know.

Rob

Skritter for Android

Yesterday, I blogged about the Chinese and Japanese writing study software Skritter, which I know some people are interested in, but turned off by the monthly subscription system they use. Well, good news! Skritter for Android is out and still in beta testing, which among other things means it’s free! So if you have an Android phone you can now be using Skritter to your heart’s content while helping them test the system.

If you want to try it, go here and follow the instructions.

Happy learning!

Rob

Skritter

Hello, my name is Rob, and I’m an iPhone addict. No, I’m not addicted to Farmville, Angry Birds, Candy Crush, or any of the other hyper-addictive Apps that have come out for the iPhone. I managed to avoid all of those handily because I had no interest in wasting my time or money on something so pointless as those tricky games. I admit, I even considered myself better for not falling into those time-sucking traps and laughed quietly to myself at the people who did. But then, I found the most diabolical iPhone App I’ve ever seen, one that is now the first thing I do in the morning, and the last thing I do at night. I have dreams about this App now, and find my fingers twitching in patterns from playing the App. When I’m cooking or doing housework, I think about the App. I even learned how to play one-handed so that I could play with my poor dogs while I play with the App. I am hopelessly and totally addicted. So, what did this App do that none of the others did? How did it burrow so deeply into my brain that I can no longer even keep track of time? Those bastards made it educational! They made it fun to LEARN! God help me, I’m actually learning useful real-world skills, and I’m loving it. So what is this sick App? It’s called Skritter, and it’s a program to help people learn to write Chinese and Japanese. Available originally as a website in 2009, and now for iPhone and iPad as well, Skritter is an extremely advanced piece of Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) similar to Memrise (which I blogged about last week). In fact, it was while I was talking online to other Chinese learners about Memrise that I learned about Skritter and decided to check it out. Like Memrise, Skritter is quizzing you on decks of what are essentially Flashcards in an extremely advanced way that maximizes your chances of remembering the information you learn based on new neural research developments. Unlike Memrise, however, Skritter also includes a physical element where you don’t just have to recognise the Japanese and Chinese words and characters, you have to actually write them out.This really maximizes your chances of learning these characters, and makes it a lot more practical (since you’re developing motor skills for writing) and just plain old fun. Skritter’s iPhone app is lively, with sound effects and other extras to make it more like a game, and instead of learning being boring, you always want to do just one more character or word to see how far you can go. The knowledge that you’re learning real skills while you’re playing what feels like a game really helps push you forward, and maybe that’s why my chart for my first week with Skritter looks like this…

Week One

Week One

Yes, you’re reading that right, as of this screen capture I’d learned 406 characters, in a week, in a little less than 2 hours a day with a retention rate of 88.9%. However, before I toot my own horn too much, I should note that this isn’t my first time studying Chinese, and when you see that big jump between the 9th and the 12th, what you’re seeing is mostly Skritter refreshing me on characters I already knew to some degree. You could say that my real learning started on the 12th at around 370 and continued to the 16th at 406, so I only learned and mastered 36 new Chinese characters in 4 days. Still, not too bad, though. And that’s just characters, it doesn’t include actual words using combinations of those characters. (I learned 160 of those.) I love checking my stats each day to see how far I’ve progressed and testing myself to see what new words have managed to stick into my head. Getting back on the Chinese studying bandwagon was one of my projects for the Summer, and thanks to Skritter it’s now taken a huge leap forward. Now, if you choose to check Skritter out, I have a few recommendations.

  • When you sign up use a Referral Code (here’s mine), it gets you two extra weeks free. For better or worse, Skritter isn’t free, after the first trial week it costs US$8-$15 a month depending on how long you sign up for. That said, the program doesn’t stop working if you stop paying, it only stops adding new characters, so you can keep practising your current lineup for the rest of your life for free if you want, or pay for another month from time to time to add more content and then stop again.
  • My advice is to just do the free one-week trial, then if you like it do a month, and finally if it’s really something you want to invest in then get a longer subscription. View it as a language class you’re signing up for, not like a normal App. This is a life-long investment of time and knowledge. Viewed this way, the price of a single meal at McDonalds isn’t that much.
  • It’s best used on a Tablet Computer, Writing Tablet or Phone, since you want the real hand motion involved and not a mouse so you’re really learning to write the characters. I also recommend getting a Stylus of some kind so that it’s like you’re practising with an actual pen or brush. (You can also make your own stylus, and there are plenty of YouTube videos which will show you how.)
  • Don’t freak out or get intimidated when you see a large backlog of characters waiting to be reviewed. I’ve cleared away as many as 500 items in less than an hour, and if you feel overwhelmed it has various options to slow down the flow so you don’t get swamped.
  • Don’t be afraid to let the App guide you when you meet a new character. (Just tap the middle of the screen for the next stroke.) Yes, it means you don’t know it (duh! it’s new!) but it’s not about scoring points (since there are none), it’s about having the App repeat it often until you do know it, and if it doesn’t know you don’t know it, it can’t give you the right amount of repetition for your memory.
  • You’ll hate tones, we all do, just do your best.
  • You can’t share a Skritter account with another person. It’s customizing itself to your own personal learning patterns and what you know and don’t know. If you try to share it with someone else for any length of time it will mess up your own learning.
  • If you’re going to Taiwan or Hong Kong, then study Traditional Chinese characters, if you’re going to the Mainland, study Simplified. Skritter defaults to Simplified because China itself is the more likely place learners will go. You can also go back and learn Traditional or Simplified later once you’ve mastered one set. (Roughly 20% of the characters are different between the two writing systems.)
  • Skritter is a writing and vocabulary learning system, but they don’t teach grammar or  give you speaking practice (beyond repeating what you hear), you can’t really learn Chinese (or Japanese) just from Skritter, you’ll need other resources like a textbook or classes. However, it does make it easier to focus on grammar when you’re learning if you already know all the vocabulary in your textbook!
  • You can try the iPhone App free for a week through the iTunes App Store without creating an account or using any kind of credit card. (Be warned, any coupons or referrals can only be used when you first create your account!) I’ve heard the Android App is still under development, but you can use the mobile website on Android devices if you have an account.

The future of learning is all about Gamification (making learning into games), and if Skritter is any example, it’s going to be a great time to learn new skills! Now, if you’ll excuse me, my fingers are getting twitchy and I’ve got some Chinese characters calling to me! Rob

Memrise This!

A year or so I found a site called Memrise, which is basically a really advanced memorization card system for helping you memorize stuff. I puttered around with the Mandarin course they had on there, found their system so-so and promptly forgot about the site.

Then in May of this year I happened across the App for it on the iTunes store (it’s also available on the Google Play store) and decided to give it another whirl. It’s free, and so are the courses, so I selected the Introductory Chinese deck they had on there and began to use my phone to study Chinese hanzi characters.

To say I was blown away was an understatement.

Suddenly, I was not only learning Chinese, I was actually remembering what I learned and it was sticking like it had never stuck before. Memrise’s system of testing is amazing at helping you remember what you’re learning, and I have to say I’m a true believer! The learning itself uses several different methods to help you remember whatever the information is, most of which are fun or at least enjoyable, and then the system also comes back and has you review the material you’ve learned on a semi-regular basis to reinforce it at key intervals to improve retention. Pile onto that an interactive community-based approach to learning where people trade memorization tips and can have memory competitions, and it’s a whole new way to learn.

To date, I have learned 1076 items, most of them since the start of May, and I can say I easily remember 80-90% of them very well. Today I finished Level One of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) Chinese proficiency test vocabulary, and I can say with confidence  I could write the actual test tomorrow and pass by a wide margin. I couldn’t wait to start Level 2 of the HSK, which has just over 1200 items itself (a single item in this case is the Chinese character and its Pinyin pronunciation guide, so that’s really 600 words in Chinese, not 1200) and am already at Level 8 of 54.

All this in little chunks of 5-10 minutes, 2-3 times a day when I have spare time. Each level is broken down into smaller “lesson” chunks that can be finished in a few minutes, so it’s easy to just do them on your phone when you’re waiting for something or someone. When you need to refresh your memory of older material, your phone will also notify you, which is handy, since there are certain key learning times. It’s easy, convenient, and most of all, it’s actually fun, especially when you find yourself really remembering the material and being able to call it up at will.

Now that I’ve gushed about Memrise as a tool, I should put in a few comments as someone who’s been using it for a few months. First, the App version for your phone or tablet (see the video above) is way better for learning that the actual website itself, the website turns the learning into a timed pressure game, whereas the App version uses a series of more fun visual learning exercises. Second, not all Memrise decks are created equal, as most of them are made by the users themselves by borrowing material from textbooks or other sources, so you have to hunt around for the best decks. I recommend sorting the decks by Popularity, since the most popular decks tend to be the highest quality ones. (And are often ones made by the Memrise staff or employees like Ben Whatley, who made the amazing Mandarin ones!)

And finally, Memrise is a place for memorizing rote material, not advanced concepts like grammar. So, for example, I’m learning vocabulary, and only Mandarin vocabulary, I have to go elsewhere for grammar or dialogues. This is a great way to build up large amounts of knowledge, but Memrise isn’t there to help you use it, just remember it. This isn’t a flaw, it’s simply what Memrise is designed to do, and if you need more helpful resources you can ask about them or discuss them with other learners in the forums that go along with each learning deck.

Overall, Memrise is a great example of using gamification (making things into a game) to make learning easier and more effective, and I can only wish we had something like this years ago when I was studying Japanese in University or French in High School. If you’ve got something you want to learn, check Memrise out, it’s free (for now) and is a lot more productive use of your time than playing Angry Birds or Candy Crush, but just as fun!

Rob

Written Chinese (full)

Yesterday during my Chinese Language class an interesting topic came up: why do the Chinese people keep using their traditional writing system. Currently, as I’m sure almost all of you know, the Chinese use a system based on writing picture symbols (although the picture element has become extremely abstract) where each Chinese Character (called HanZi in Chinese) represents both an idea and a sound. Unlike English, Greek, Arabic or any of the other phonetic writing systems used by most of the world where each symbol represents a sound, HanZi have no inherent sound beside the one that people memorize to go with it. If you study English alphabet and pronunciation for a week, you can read almost anything ever written in English, your pronunciation might be off and you won’t understand what you’re reading, but you will be able to read it because it’s just codified pieces of sound. If you know the code, you can read it, it’s that simple, and on top of that it ties the written language and the spoken language deeply together.

In Chinese, this connection is made more difficult because with HanZi, you either know them or you don’t, and if you don’t you have almost no hope of pronouncing them. (There are a few tricks that can allow a native speaker to guess, but it’s nothing certain.) This makes learning to write Chinese infinitely more difficult than learning to write English, and creates a situation where people who study Chinese for years still cannot read a book if they haven’t been also memorizing the HanZi as they go.

And, there are over 50,000 HanZi! Of them roughly 10,000 being in common use, and roughly 3000 being essential to handling a general language text like a newspaper. This means that while growing up Chinese children are spending huge amounts of academic time just memorizing HanZi through rote memorization. And that’s just the individual HanZi, they’re usually used in combinations of 2 to 4 characters which can change the meaning completely so they also have to be memorized. Quite the feat, actually, maybe they really are smarter than us!

So, we come to my classmate’s question: “Isn’t that a huge waste of time? Wouldn’t the children and society be better served by using a phonetic writing system like English and spending that memorization time on arts, history, music, physical education, science or any number of other subjects or activities?”

The Japanese, Koreans and even the Taiwanese realized this to a degree, all of them developing phonetic writing systems to use alongside the HanZi in varying degrees. The Taiwanese just use their phonetic system as a stepping stone for children to learn first before they learn HanZi, the Japanese use a hybrid of HanZi mixed with phonetics and the Koreans do the same as the Japanese but use the least number of HanZi of all three in their writing system. Both the Japanese and Koreans are actively trying to remove the HanZi from their writing systems, but finding it difficult for the same reason the Chinese are reluctant to remove them: homonyms.

For those who slept through grammar (I know I did, and now I teach it! O_o! Ironic!) a homonym is a word that is pronounced the same as another word so they share the same sound but have different meanings. Well, these asian languages are filled with Homonyms, especially Chinese which has an almost horrific number of them. In speaking, they tell them apart by pronunciation tone and context, but in writing the only way they could come up with to tell them apart was to create separate characters to represent them.

Now, I do have to admit, HanZi are pretty useful once you get used to them, and in fact during Chinese class there are often times when I wish I was looking at the HanZi so I knew which Chinese word written in PinYin the teacher had just written on the board. While PinYin does use Tone Markers to distinguish between words with the same basic sound, I find it’s often not enough to be sure which word you are looking at since often several homonyms can also be pronounced with the same tone.

Also, HanZi, as some have pointed out, are the spirit and culture of the Chinese people. Those symbols represent a way of thinking different from western thought (so different they use the other side of the human brain when decoding them) and contain deep meanings that often go beyond simple sound. When a Chinese person reads a poem they are not just reading the sound, but looking at a piece of artwork as the HanZi are also carefully chosen to elicit certain ideas or feelings on a level beyond simple phonetic communication. Of course, through word choice an English poet can do the same thing to a degree, how big a degree I don’t know because I’m not bilingual enough to compare the two. Nor am I likely to be for a long time, thanks to the degree of difficulty in learning the HanZi system.

Newsweek and Time have both recently had cover stories questioning Does the Future Belong to China? and as someone who is sitting on China’s doorstep I have often asked myself the same question. Having a neighborly view into China’s windows I have been watching the giant carefully as it moves and deals with an exploding economy and world class status in it’s higher levels of society. I often ponder China’s future in the world, and consider where it will go from here and if it can overcome the numerous obstacles it faces.

One of those obstacles I can clearly see hindering them is their language, specifically the writing system I am talking about in this journal. As someone who has studied both Mandarin Chinese and Japanese (both touted at times to be the “language of the future”) I can’t help but notice how few people (foreigners) actually manage to stick with and learn these languages to any real degree of proficiency. Most get as far as “survival” level, and then tend to quickly give up anything more simply because it’s just too hard, and one of the major obstacles I’ve noticed kills most of their enthusiasm is learning to read and write.

If I were to study Spanish, as soon as I began to master the spoken language I could begin putting the written language to work, and the same is true for almost any other phonetic language. This would let me practice and work in that language; improving my skills even if I didn’t have a person who spoke the language to practice with. Yes, each phonetic language has it’s quirks, and sometimes languages vary in their spoken and written forms, but for the most part phonetic languages are intimately tied with their written forms. And, it’s the very discontinuity between spoken and written Mandarin (and Japanese and to a lesser extent Korean) that makes them not only hard to learn but will prevent them from becoming global languages.

When you couple this with the simple point that it’s hell to program a computer in Chinese, which means that programmers learn how to program in English, and the languages of business and science are still English, you see why Chinese learn English and not the other way around. I’m not complaining, it means more work for me, but since my classmate brought up the above point I have been thinking about this a lot. Wouldn’t the people of China be better served by creating and using a new written language based on phonetics instead of symbols? I’m not saying they should use the English system like PinYin, but even that would be better than being stuck with a language that is both impractical and in the long term limits their ability to compete on a global cultural scale.

And any language which can’t compete will eventually die off, no matter how many poor people speak it. Like a corporation, if a language is not expanding, it’s dying because another language will be expanding around it.

I know it won’t happen, but if Chinese is to be around for another 6000 years, there’s going to need to be a few changes made, because they’re not isolated anymore and they can’t afford to be sentimental if they want their culture and language to survive.

Rob