Story Selection for Mandarin Companion

MandComp+AllSet

The AllSet Learning team handled the story writing for the hot new series of Chinese graded readers, Mandarin Companion. As a result, we also had to wrangle with some serious academic issues. One of the questions frequently asked about these new books is how we chose the stories. People find it odd that we chose to write adapted versions of western classics rather than just using Chinese stories. Well, there are good reasons for the choices (and there’s no ethnocentrism involved!)

Reason #1: Traditional Chinese Stories Are Difficult

Sorry, but it’s true. Traditional Chinese stories often involve ghosts, monsters, spells, emperors, war tactics, and all kinds of really cool themes. The only problem is that each of these brings with it some pretty complicated vocabulary. To make matters worse, a lot of these words are written with rare characters. When you’re writing a graded reader (especially at Level 1, the 300-character level), impractical vocabulary is a no-no, but the use of obscure characters is absolutely taboo.

One potential workaround is to “adapt” the Chinese stories themselves. “Simplify” them. This seems like a good idea at first, but serious simplification is always needed, and that usually requires some pretty serious compromises. Character identities and whole plot points might need to be drastically altered. While the average reader may be fairly forgiving in this department, the average Chinese person may be less tolerant. To many Chinese, such changes amount to making the story wrong, to slandering sacred Chinese culture. Obviously, that’s not our intent, but significant changes to Chinese classic stories can upset people for cultural reasons.

So when you add up vocabulary/character challenges and cultural barriers to story modifications, our conclusion is that you’re better off avoiding the traditional Chinese material for the lowest levels. We wish it wasn’t so!

Reason #2: Western Classics Are Easy

It’s not that the stories themselves are inherently simpler, it’s that classics like The Secret Garden already have a long tradition of translations, simplifications, and adaptations. As westerners, we’re used to it. It doesn’t bother us (even when they’re really wacky, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). When we tell prospective readers that we have Chinese versions (fully adapted to the Chinese context, with all Chinese characters and Chinese settings) of classic western stories like The Secret Garden and Rip Van Winkle, the reaction is usually, “cool!” It often deepens reader interest, sometimes to the point of interest becoming how we adapted this particular story to the Chinese context. That’s a reaction you can’t get from your audience when you use unfamiliar Chinese stories, and we’ve found that our Chinese would-be-allies tend to be somewhat skeptical about westerners tinkering with the inner workings of Chinese classics.

We’re fine with all this, really. It just means that…

Conclusion: Western Classics Are a Better Starting Point

It’s not that we think it’s a bad idea to ever do Chinese classics. We want to. It’s just that for the lowest level, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Rather than cramming more obscure characters down our readers’ throats, we’d prefer that they just got started reading earlier. That means the simplest possible content conducive to compelling stories for Level 1, and the content that works best at those levels.

Mandarin Companion does have plans for simplified Chinese classics as well as original content (sci-fi, anyone?) at higher levels. We’ll be happy to help them make that happen!