When I look back at the years of studying Chinese, I understand that I could have done a lot of things differently.
Especially when it comes to the books I chose to buy. I didn’t listen to someone who actually had learned Chinese. All the books I bought to begin with were given to me by my Chinese teachers…which, I guess, got a commission from the school if they managed to push these books on their students.
So I decided to write this article in order to filter out biased book reviews. There are so many people out there trying to take advantage of language learners – and I would hate to see that happen to you.
About the author of this text:
Many book reviews online are fake and only written by people who are affiliated with a book they want to sell. I’m not.
I lived in China for five years – and went from level zero to HSK4 during that time. During my study period, I came across a lot of bad (and some good…) books. In this article, I will only list books that are great for your progress in learning Mandarin Chinese.
Table of Contents
- In a hurry? These are the top 3 books for learning Mandarin Chinese
- Books for advanced students in Mandarin Chinese
- Alternative “nice to have” books
- What to look for in study books for Mandarin Chinese?
- Value for money
- FAQ – Frequently asked questions
- Relevant articles about China or learning Chinese
In a hurry? These are the top 3 books for learning Mandarin Chinese
I want to start to give an introduction to these three books. If you are serious about learning Chinese, I’d say that these three are absolutely crucial to see quick progress.
Perfect for learning characters: “Reading and Writing Chinese”
Why do I think this is the most important book when learning Mandarin Chinese?
Because understanding the characters is potentially the most important way to learn Chinese. When I started to learn Chinese, I refused to learn any characters at all.
That was one of the biggest mistakes of my studying career. You can only get to the HSK2/3 level if you don’t know any characters. That’s where it stops.
And this book is the easiest, best, and most precise book that I’ve come across for learning characters. It’s just hard work and a lot of pain. But a good book, like this one, will help you to learn much faster.
Why will this book help you to learn Mandarin Chinese?
- It only features the Chinese characters you will face in most normal situations
- The book will also give you a background story of each character, which is brilliant to memorize them quickly
- Out of the MANY “learn Chinese character” books I’ve bought, this is by far the best option
Official Chinese Study material: “Standard course: HSK”
If you haven’t heard about HSK, it’s about time. Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) is the official Chinese level system that is being used by the Chinese government.
Every time you meet a foreigner in China and say you speak Chinese, the follow-up question is always:
“What’s your HSK level, bro?”
Also, these books are really good for learning Chinese. Really great. I bought all the books for HSK1,2,3,4 and 5.
If you just start studying Chinese, I would probably recommend you to buy HSK1 and HSK2. You’ll see progress in no time.
Why will this book help you to learn Mandarin Chinese?
PS! It’s wrong to write a book, as I would strongly recommend to both buying the workbook + the reading book.
- Using the HSK system while studying Chinese is super helpful
- These books are used by “all” foreigners who study Chinese – and it’s a reason for that; they’re good and educational.
- Can be used to study 100 % alone, but I can also guarantee that any Chinese teacher is very aware of these books. 🙂
A different way of learning Chinese: “2000 most common Chinese Words in context”
This might be a bit of an odd book to recommend, you think.
“What’s this? A travel guide to Beijing?”
No, it’s not. However, the book is written to help travelers to China learn their first words before they arrive on holiday. The reason why I recommend this book is because it’s 100 % practical and easy to understand. Anyone can pick up this book (regardless of their Chinese level), learn some phrases, and get around in a very basic Chinese conversation.
It helps you with the most basic and useful sentences you need to get around in China without speaking much Chinese.
Why will this book help you to learn Mandarin Chinese?
- Perfect for absolute beginners
- This book will only teach you the key phrases that you need to get around in a Chinese-speaking country
- Can also be used for people traveling to China for the first time
Books for advanced students in Mandarin Chinese
If you have barely started learning Chinese and don’t even know the character 你 ，please feel free to skip this section and scroll down to “Alternative nice to have books”. 🙂
These two books are only recommended to people who have studied Chinese for at least a year and have taken the HSK3 exam:
If you already know some Chinese (between HSK level 2-3), I would recommend these two products.
The first one is a book containing loads of small short stories in Chinese. The other one is a product that consists of flash cards that will help you memorize the characters in an extremely efficient way.
Why are flash cars an important way to memorize characters?
Because they will help you to constantly remind yourself of the Chinese characters that you’ve learned. I have written a long article on this website about how I learned Chinese characters – and why flashcards were an important part of my Chinese journey to successfully pass HSK4.
If you still don’t understand the power of flashcards when you study Chinese, I think this gentleman on Youtube can help you out:
Alternative “nice to have” books
In the end, I’ve gathered five books that I believe might be interesting for someone who studies Chinese, but isn’t necessary to learn the language nor the culture.
I’m not going to go into detail on what these books might offer you, but I’ve double-checked that they all got a nice and precise description on Amazon. 🙂
Find books to learn Thai here.
What to look for in study books for Mandarin Chinese?
I’ve been through so many of these books that I know exactly which one will make you have progressed – and, more importantly, which books don’t really provide you with anything useful.
In the next small chapters, I’m gonna tell you exactly why these above-mentioned books have been selected for this article.
One of my problems with a lot of the “learn Mandarin Chinese books” is that using them requires a teacher to be around you.
I don’t like that.
I would like to buy a book, bring it on the airplane, take some earplugs in my ear…and learn Chinese for seven hours straight. Without any help.
All the books recommended in this list are so-called “self explanatory”. They do not require you to get any help from any Chinese native speaker in order to get use of them.
Uses both pinyin and Chinese characters
If you didn’t know: pinyin is the “western-styled alphabet” that is being used in Chinese.
So you can write the greeting “ni hao” in two ways:
It’s important for me that all books contain both alphabets – so that I can also learn how to pronounce the characters.
Value for money
I think I already mentioned how many times Mandarin schools and teachers have scammed me.
“You better buy this book! It only costs 30 USD and we use it in our classes!”.
There was one book that I took off the list despite being a good book. Simply because you can find just as good Chinese Mandarin education books that are equally good – and much cheaper.
FAQ – Frequently asked questions
However, the books listed in this article are the books that made my personal progress go faster. I’m not going to promise you that the same books will help you out – but I’d say it’s a pretty big chance for that to happen.
Yes, if you plan to study Chinese through a school, there is a (big) chance that they will force you to buy certain books.
However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t buy other books and do some self-studying.
Many people have asked me this question.
The progress of your Chinese level will only dependent on your ability to work hard – and to study every day. As a Norwegian, I read that it will take me 600 hours to learn German at a decent level.
To come to that same level in Chinese, it will take me about 2300 hours.
So it’s not an easy journey. But it’s very fun when you’ve managed to get there.
If you want to learn more about the HSK system, I can strongly recommend this great Wikipedia article.
Relevant articles about China or learning Chinese
Due to my interest in China and the Chinese language, I’ve previously written some articles about various topics that can be interesting for you:
9 thoughts on “10 Useful books for Learning Mandarin Chinese”
hello thanks for your tips that will help us study chinese but i wanna ask something like while learning HSK1 and HSK2 theres no need to these books like when we start with HSK3 you prefer yes to bring the book related to it?
and one more question, i am new chinese learner, i started with everyday chinese actually i am in day 16 and i started a month ago is that a good start and is the channel that i started with (EVERY DAY CHINESE) a good channel?
thanks for your cooperation:)
Hello, and thanks for your comment.
1) I would strongly suggest you to buy books for even HSK1 and HSK2. They are significantly cheaper than the HSK3 + HSK 4 books.
2) In regards to using Youtube as a channel for learning Chinese, I’m not a fan of that. Audio books and Youtube never worked wonders for me. The reason is that it’s a passive way of learning a language, which is not useful for you. If you sit there and write down every phrase, repeat it orally and make some flashcards based on what you hear on Youtube; then yes. If you sit there and listen to some random guy or girl talking Chinese about common phrases; then no. 🙂
Hope that makes sense.
Good luck with learning Mandarin Chinese!
If I have learned ZERO Chinese, but want to learn something WITHOUT using a teacher – can I still buy the HSK1 book and understand something on my own?
Yes, that’s correct. HSK1 + HSK2 are quite easy to learn on your own.
Once you start to learn the characters and get a bit more into detail (HSK3+++), I would recommend having a teacher or some other type of studying assistant. That would help to accelerate your learning process so much more.
Aah, this article became quite nostalgic to me. I remember entering the classroom in Shanghai in 2012, just to get the message that “you need to buy this book”.
Alright. Bought the teaching book from a smiling teacher. 200 RMB. Quite a steep price.
Just to go online later and see the exact same book be sold for 45 RMB or something. 😉 Chinese language schools….they’re eager to squeeze money out of you lol
Haha, been there done that.
A couple of days ago, I was struggling to find any good books that could take me to the next level in Chinese. I past the HSK3 exam about….5 years ago?
And then I moved home from China and haven’t studied anything since.
But thanks for this list – it’s actually super helpful and can hopefully make things a lot better for me. I want to STUDY THAT CHINESE SO BAD lol
I’ve bought the HSK books, but can’t find out the Chinese characters in them?
Should it only be pinyin in the first HSK book? Or is it something wrong? 😛
I really want to leran the Chinese characters from the start as well.
Hello. Hope you’re not too worried, “Worried student”. 😉
You’re right about the characters.
HSK 1-2: No characters needed. All written in Pinyin.
HSK 3-6: Characters only. No pinyin.
A good idea would be to look up every single word in HSK 1+2 and learn the character for it. If not, you’ll get the unpleasant surprise I got: I had to learn EVERY new character in HSK 1 + 2 + 3 to get the HSK3 exam. It took me forever.
So yes – starting right away learning Chinese characters would be ideal! 🙂