20 Books to Learn Chinese as Recommended by a Native Speaker

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Chinese is one of the most popular foreign languages to pick up. After all, it is used by over a billion people in several countries around the globe. However, it is also one of the toughest languages to master. 

That’s why one of the best ways to learn the language is to rely on some books to build a solid foundation.

As a native speaker myself, I’ve had a look on the Internet and I’ve compiled a list of the best books to learn Chinese for all you eager language enthusiasts. Let’s check them out!

Girl learning chinese with books

Best Chinese Books for Beginners

1. Fundamentals of Chinese Characters 

Speaking as a native speaker, one of the most essential things that you will have to learn first is how to recognize Chinese characters. That is why I think this is one of the most important books to learn Chinese.

What I like most about this book is that, instead of throwing random characters at you to memorize, it actually takes the time to break down each character into more basic elements. 

This helps you develop a better understanding of the morphology of the Chinese language and enables you to learn about the history and evolution of said characters. 

This book is best for:

  • Beginners who are just starting to learn Chinese
  • Understanding the meaning behind essential Chinese characters
  • Using word-association to quickly learn the most common words in the language

2. Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide

Grammar in Chinese is a little bit different from other languages. Instead of worrying about past, present, and future tense, the main emphasis of Chinese grammar is on sentence structure. This means understanding phrasing, proper use of nouns and verbs, tone of voice, and so on. 

One of the best books to learn Chinese in that regard is this best-selling gem of a book. It practically covers all the important rules and patterns you’ll need to know to write and speak fluently. 

Each chapter is broken down into multiple sections that help the learner absorb information more efficiently. 

This book is best for:

  • Beginners who are ready to start forming simple sentences
  • Building a fundamental understanding of Chinese sentence structure and grammar
  • Reviewing important grammatical rules using the detailed index at the end

3. Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar: A Student’s Guide to Correct Structures and Common Errors

Another essential book to pick up if you want to teach yourself Chinese grammar is this one. 

Best used as a supplement to books you already have, this concise guide covers plenty of the basic grammar rules and patterns. The main goal is to help you quickly master the fundamental grammar rules of the Chinese language. 

It does this by showing learners the most common mistakes people make and how to rectify them. 

This book is best for:

  • Ironing out any recurring grammatical errors you might make 
  • Supplementing other beginner-level learning material 

4. Reading and Writing Chinese: Third Edition

For foreign learners, arguably the toughest challenge is learning to read and write Chinese. After all, Mandarin uses a phonetic system that, albeit romanized in textbooks, sounds alien-like to most first-time learners. 

Add to that the complex system of word formation, and suddenly learning the language feels like a truly impossible task. That’s why I think Reading and Writing Chinese is another one of the important books to learn Chinese you can’t afford to miss out on. 

This particular book has been used as a standard for language learners for over 30 years and contains an essential list of more than 1,700 Chinese basic characters, in addition to more complex ones used for official accredited exams. 

And the best part? Apart from just focusing on Simplified Chinese (used in Mainland China, Malaysia, and Singapore), the book also teaches Traditional Chinese (used in Taiwan and Hong Kong). This makes it one of the most holistic books to learn Chinese on the market. 

This book is best for:

  • Learning the basics of reading and writing in Chinese
  • Grasping proper pronunciation using Hanyu Pinyin
  • Practicing writing in Chinese and understanding the morphology of characters

5. 500 Common Chinese Idioms: An Annotated Frequency Dictionary

One of the most shockingly understated topics when it comes to learning Mandarin is Chinese idioms. While idioms may not necessarily be the most important thing in other languages, in Chinese, it is an internalized element that is used in everyday conversation.

Known as “chengyu”, Chinese idioms don’t just allow you to write and speak eloquently, they also convey information in such a way that is impossible to mimic in other languages. In fact, as you continue learning, you’ll find that some things are impossible to communicate in Mandarin without using idioms! 

This highly-rated book teaches you the meanings of some of the most common idioms and how to properly use them. It also comes with the backstories of these idioms, which, in some cases, is even more interesting than the idioms themselves! While it’s a difficult topic, I’m sure you’ll have fun learning! 

This book is best for:

  • Learning and understanding the most common Chinese idioms
  • Adding a touch of eloquence to your writing and speaking

Best books to learn Chinese vocabulary

6. Oxford Beginner’s Chinese Dictionary

Here’s a harsh but truthful opinion about learning Chinese: If you don’t dedicate some time to expanding your vocabulary, you won’t get very far. However, before you dive into the “proper” books to learn Chinese vocabulary, I cannot stress enough how important it is to pick up a dictionary. 

Having a reliable dictionary allows you to look up new words (trust me, you’ll be doing A LOT) using a multitude of ways. Truth be told, any dictionary is good enough. However, as far I know, for foreign language learners, this one is the best. 

Just like all other Oxford dictionaries, this gem comes with a pristine reputation and contains the most accurate translations and meanings. 

This book is best for:

  • Looking up new words
  • Expanding your vocabulary (since most Chinese words are linked to one another)
  • Getting familiar with radicals (bushou) since it is one of the main ways to use a dictionary

7. 2000 Most Common Chinese Words in Context

One of the most basic books to expand your Mandarin vocabulary is this one. Yes, 2,000 doesn’t even come close to the sheer hundreds and thousands of possible word combinations in the language, but it’s a good and useful start. 

Mainly written to help those traveling to China communicate proficiently, this is a practical book that’s easy to understand and helps you to converse in basic Chinese. It focuses on topics you are most likely to come across while traveling in China: Ordering food, asking for directions, and more. 

All in all, for a beginner who’s looking for practical Chinese learning books, this is a fairly useful one to have. 

This book is best for:

  • Absolute beginners trying to learn new words and phrases
  • Preparing for a trip to a Chinese-speaking country
  • Building a basic foundation of essential words in the language

8. Colloquial Chinese

Alternatively, if you want to teach yourself basic (but useful!) Chinese vocabulary, you can pick up a copy of Colloquial Chinese. Like the book before this one, Colloquial Chinese focuses on helping learners build a vocabulary and phrase bank of the most common and basic words. 

What sets this book apart, however, is that rather than just focus on getting you prepared for a week-long trip, most of the words are centered on daily conversation. This means that it also incorporates interesting little tidbits about modern slang terms in Mandarin. 

This book is best for:

  • Learning words that are often used in daily conversation
  • Getting used to common slang terms 
  • Immersing oneself in a Mandarin-learning environment 

9. Chinese Made Easier

In case the previous two books weren’t enough, here’s another book to learn Chinese vocabulary that you can consider. Chinese Made Easier, as the name suggests, is a book containing basic phrases and words that are often used in basic conversation. 

Topics include how to introduce yourself, telling the time, and other elementary but essential things to know. At the end of each chapter, there are also activity sheets to help you practice and get familiar with what you’ve just learned. 

This book is best for:

  • Practicing new vocabulary
  • Learning common words that are used to basic conversational topics
  • Beginners who prefer a slow and methodical approach to learning Mandarin

10. Niubi!: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School

Now, THIS is one of my favorite books to learn Chinese.

Niubi isn’t just a book for beginners, it’s also suitable for intermediate and even expert learners. That’s because what this book brings to the table is a large collection of slang vocabulary that is often overlooked in most other textbooks. 

What most people don’t realize is that slang is an important element of a language. I once sent a video that I found extremely funny to a friend of mine who was probably around the intermediate level (in terms of speaking Mandarin), and he didn’t get half of it! 

Light-hearted and accompanied by vivid illustrations, Niubi will help you develop a deeper and more well-rounded understanding of the Chinese language. And trust me, if you want to be able to fully enjoy Chinese media, you’ll want to brush up on your Mandarin slang! 

This book is best for:

  • Understanding slang terms that are often overlooked
  • Casual, fun, and informative reading
  • All levels of Chinese learners 

Best textbooks to learn Chinese

11. New Practical Chinese Reader (3rd Edition)

As much as I don’t like learning from a rigidly structured textbook, I must admit that sometimes, for something as complex as learning Chinese, it is a necessary resource. New Practical Chinese Reader is one of the most reputable textbooks to learn Chinese. 

Spanning six volumes, the book focuses on everything from sentence structure and conversation to cultural nuances and even idioms.

Suitable for beginners and intermediate-level learners, the book(s) functions as a figurative all-round guide that gradually progresses from one level to another. 

This book is best for:

  • Beginners looking to progress to intermediate level
  • A detailed, structured way of learning Mandarin
  • Holistic learning covering a little bit of every topic

12. Integrated Chinese (4th Edition)

Another leading Chinese textbook to add to your collection is Integrated Chinese.

Currently, in its 4th edition, this time-tested resource focuses on the essential core language skills you’ll need to speak fluently in Mandarin. This means listening, reading and writing, and speaking are all part of the curriculum. 

Integrated Chinese combines a multitude of methods, from audio clips (streamed online) and visual prompts to traditional Hanyu Pinyin exercises to help learners quickly familiarize themselves with the language.

The reviews (after every five chapters) are particularly helpful to refresh and gauge your progress. 

This book is best for:

  • Building a strong foundation in Mandarin
  • Achieving fluency and accurate pronunciation
  • Constantly reviewing prior lessons

13. Easy Peasy Chinese (Series)

Easy Peasy Chinese is a series that is highly rated by the international community when it comes to books for learning Chinese.

Featuring a CD with audio lessons and a separate workbook, it is a must-have for beginners as it covers a little bit of everything on a basic level. 

By following the course and doing the exercises, you’ll be able to pronounce basic words perfectly, speak fluently, and recognize some of the most essential words and phrases in beginner-level conversations. 

This book is best for:

  • Beginners who prefer a structured-approach to learning Mandarin
  • Learning how to converse with proper pronunciation

14. HSK Standard Course (Series) 

Personally, I think that one of the best books to learn Chinese is undoubtedly the HSK Standard Coursebook(s).

The HSK, or Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, is the Chinese standardized test of language proficiency for non-native speakers. This series is specifically tailored for students preparing for those exams. 

The HSK Standard Course series structures its lessons according to a corresponding level of fluency, with HSK 1 being a beginner level, and HSK 6 being fluent. Each chapter has an accompanying audio recording (CD) of all the dialogues and vocabulary lists. 

As the difficulty gradually increases, you’ll also slowly get better at speaking the language. It’s also the same system that’s used in formal institutions of learning, so you know it’s effective! 

This book is best for:

  • Those preparing to or who want to take the HSK exams
  • Students who prefer a more challenging curriculum

15. Beyond the Basics: Communicative Chinese for Intermediate and Advanced Chinese Learners

Speaking of learners who like a challenge, this is one of the best Chinese learning books for those who have already built a solid foundation in the language. 

Lessons in Beyond the Basics contain much longer passages, a larger archive of vocabulary, and a lot more use of idioms than previous books on the list. The themes of each topic are also less casual, focusing on social issues and deeper conversational topics. 

There are also more exercises (you will need it for sure) to help you practice and improve your fluency drastically. 

This book is best for:

  • Learners who want to progress beyond beginner-level fluency
  • Expanding your vocabulary bank to include more sophisticated words
  • Getting the hang of conversing with native speakers 

Best audiobooks to learn Chinese

16. Learn Mandarin Chinese with Paul Noble for Beginners

If you want to be able to converse fluently in Mandarin, the most important thing to do is to nail your pronunciation. And one of the best ways to do that is by teaching yourself by using Chinese audiobooks! 

The Learn with Paul Noble Series is a popular choice among non-native learners. Casually approaching the language, this audiobook series is best-suited for beginners who want to speak Mandarin quickly and effortlessly. 

Featuring over 15 hours’ worth of lessons, lessons are narrated by two native speakers at a comfortable pace. At the end of it all, you should be able to pick up basic Chinese vocabulary and learn how to ask for directions, order food, introduce yourself, and more. 

This book is best for:

  • Improving pronunciation
  • Getting used to listening and interacting in Chinese 
  • Practicing basic conversational phrases

17. Learn Mandarin Chinese: 3000 essential words and phrases

If you find yourself learning more efficiently with audiobooks, then I certainly recommend giving this one a try. 

Using repetition, Learn Mandarin Chinese is basically an audiobook that allows you to listen to common Chinese words and phrases on loop. While you do that, you can refer to the accompanying booklet to get a better idea of what is being said. 

The words are all useful vocabulary and phrases that are used in daily conversation. They include topics like work, school, food and drink, transport, and more. It’s a fun, casual, and effortless way to expand your vocabulary without having to stare at a bunch of squiggly lines all day. 

This book is best for:

  • Learners who learn more efficiently through audio
  • Memorizing words using sound and proper pronunciation
  • Casually and effortlessly adding more vocabulary to your word bank

18. Starting Out in Chinese

If you’re a total beginner, then one of the best audiobooks to learn Chinese is Starting Out in Chinese. Most lessons are focused on short, simple dialogues that cover all the basics from grammar and vocabulary to proper pronunciation. 

Each lesson is repeated several times and includes practice sessions for you to put what you’ve learned into practice.

Because of how short each lesson is, you can actually listen to it while you’re commuting to work, shopping for groceries, or just before tucking into bed. 

This book is best for:

  • On-the-go learning
  • Short, well-timed lessons
  • Beginners who want to learn in a flexible, audio-only environment

19. Chinese Short Stories for Beginners: Improve Your Reading and Listening Skills in Chinese

Most language learners will agree with me on this: To properly learn a language, you need to consume media in that language. One of the easiest ways for beginners to enjoy Chinese media is to listen to classic short stories! 

This wonderful Chinese audiobook contains a selection of 30 short stories that are both enticing and educational. As you listen in, you’ll be able to pick up more than 1,500 Chinese words, phrases, and expressions.

There’s also an accompanying PDF that you can follow if you ever hear something you’re not too sure about. 

This book is best for:

  • Listening to simple, short stories while learning
  • Accumulating Chinese vocabulary in a relaxing way
  • Improving pronunciation by listening to the narrators 

20. The Rise of the Monkey King

Another audiobook that introduces you to Chinese stories is The Rise of the Monkey King. Personally, I love this story. It is basically the prequel to one of the four classic Chinese novels, Journey to The West. 

The story, narrated in simple-to-understand Mandarin, follows the rise of Sun Wukong, the legendary Monkey King of Chinese mythical lore. It is a great way to introduce beginner learners to Chinese literature and a fun way to pick up vocabulary that is often not seen in other books. 

And, as a bonus, it is a truly enjoyable experience and a great story to listen to as you prepare for bed! 

This book is best for:

  • Introducing someone to classical Chinese literature
  • Learning additional vocabulary most other books do not teach

Tips & tricks for learning Chinese

Despite there being a plethora of fantastic books to learn Chinese on the market, one thing you need to keep in mind is that Mandarin is a truly complex language.

While books are a great place to start, you will need to add more resources to your Chinese learning journey if you truly want to achieve fluency. 

Download some helpful apps

As helpful as books are, they can be difficult to bring around. Your mobile phone, on the other hand, is practically always in your pocket. There is a wide variety of Chinese learning apps you can download to complement your learning. 

Whether they are media-based apps like FluentU, holistic apps like Mondly, or even writing apps like Skritter, all these resources will go a long way in helping you improve. 

Consume as much Chinese media as you can

There is technically no Chinese “alphabet” and because each stroke can be combined in a seemingly endless number of ways to form new characters. Hence, the only way to improve Mandarin beyond a certain point, is simply to immerse yourself in the language. 

One way to do that is to consume Chinese (Mandarin) media. These can range from movies and TV shows to songs and vlogs, and even video games. Heck, there are even TikTok channels like @chinamunites that teach basic Mandarin in short 30 second videos! 

Whatever it is, you need to learn to embrace Chinese media and culture. That is arguably the only sure way to improve once you’ve passed the threshold of books and learning apps. 

Look for a reliable tutor

As a native speaker, perhaps what helped me most in learning Mandarin was having peers to converse with in that language. By using apps like italki or Preply, you can find native speakers online who would be more than willing to teach and converse with you in Mandarin. 

It may feel awkward at first, but it’s definitely one of the most authentic tips I can personally give you. 

Slow it down and treat yourself

There’s a Chinese idiom that goes, “as long as you live, keep learning”.

Chinese is an intricate language that many, including myself, never stop learning. If you’re just starting, don’t feel discouraged if you run into any challenges. 

Instead, slow it down, and try to find a pace of learning that is best for yourself. And when you finally start progressing, reward yourself with some dim sum or delicious Chinese takeaway. 

In fact, you know what, if you find out the actual idiom (in Chinese) that I was referring to earlier, I’ll send you some virtual Chinese snacks. How ‘bout that? 

Finally, Get your priorities right

This is a personal piece of advice that I offer to all beginners: Set realistic expectations and work towards nailing the fundamentals first. Before you start conversing in Chinese, do these two things:

  • Learn how to read Hanyu Pinyin. Knowing this allows you to not only look up words in the dictionary, but also hones your pronunciation. 
  • Get familiar with radicals (bushou) . This is especially helpful when you come across a totally new word and need to look it up in the dictionary without knowing how to even pronounce it. 

Only after you’re comfortable with these two aspects, should you proceed to grammar and vocabulary. Once you do, you’ll realize how much easier it is to pick up new words and phrases.

Most importantly, give yourself all the time you need, and eventually, you’ll be able to speak Mandarin fluently too! 

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