learn chinese movies

Learn Mandarin Chinese Through Movies: The Quick Guide

What’s the best unconventional way to learn Chinese?

If you’re tired of going to class or reading a book, there’s nothing better than learning Chinese through movies and film.

Why Learn Mandarin Chinese Through Movies and Films?

Movies are one of my favorite ways to learn, and it comes down to four simple reasons.

  • The no-brainer reason is that movies are just fun and entertaining. The trick is to reserve them for times when you’re just too exhausted to do anything else (eg. talk to your language partner or do flashcards). If you like to work out, it’s kind of like leaving your easiest exercises til the end of your workout, when you have more energy.
  • Another reason is that movies tend to showcase natural conversational Chinese the most. This probably with other kinds of media like books, news, or music.
  • Also, movies are a great way to become culturally fluent. For me, talking about a popular movie like “非诚勿扰” (If You Are the One 2) has always been a great way to connect with my Chinese friends. Or to put it another way, just think about all the conversations you wouldn’t be able to have in English if you didn’t know any famous people who spoke English.
  • Finally, you get to pick the movie. This means that you can select for something that matches your interests and Chinese level.

Learn Mandarin Chinese Through Movies: The Quick Guide

How Do You Get Started with Learning Mandarin Chinese Through Movies?

There are a few different approaches that offer different levels of convenience, selection, and scaffolding/support. So I’d recommend that you pick based on your Chinese level.

  • One option for beginners is to use a textbook that is essentially based on a video, like the one shown here from the Beijing Language and Culture University Press. They have a useful vocab list for all the key words, and they do a very in-depth job explaining all of the nuances of grammar. The disadvantages are that nothing is electronic and it still feels like you’re learning from a textbook… because you still are. They’re available if you go to Amazon and look up “Watching the Movie and Learning Chinese.”
    Textbook for learning Chinese through movie "Shower"learn-chinese-shower-movie3learn-chinese-shower-movie2
  • An option for intermediate learners who already know a lot of Chinese characters is to watch the DVD with subtitles… not just in Chinese/English, but in both languages. Dave at ChineseHacks has shared his clever hint about how you can use Cyberlink Power DVD to watch subtitles for both languages simultaneously. And he also mentions more advanced techniques that you can use to rip the audio to review it at your convenience: http://chinesehacks.com/blog/study/study-movie-dialogues/)
  • If you’re a really advanced learner, want to challenge yourself, or want more immediate access, you can just look them on Youku, and they tend to be there (you might have to do some searching).

The disadvantage with all these methods is that there’s still a lot of pain involved when you encounter unknown words. You’ll have to identify the sound, and look them up in your dictionary. You’ll spend a lot of time and energy. If you’d like to be more efficient with this, and are open to watching other kinds of videos, you might want to check out our video-based Chinese learning site FluentU, which was designed to address exactly this problem.

What Movies Are Good for Learning Chinese?

If you pick a movie that you really like, then the simple answer is that you can’t go wrong, because you’ll be able to stay interested. But if that doesn’t work for you, here are 2 approaches that have worked for me.

1. The Chinese Drama Approach

My go-to approach is to find Chinese dramas that tend to be nontechnical and have people in everyday situations (or at least as close as you can get to that in movies), speaking relatively slowly. It also feels very efficient to watch famous movies that have famous actors/actresses/directors.

  • “Shower” 洗澡 — This is probably my favorite movie for learning Chinese. At the risk of oversimplifying, it’s a moving story about a dad, and his two sons, who operate a bathhouse. The movie manages to capture a family drama inside a bigger community (the bathhouse) amidst bigger societal changes that are happening in China (destruction of the traditional hutongs in Beijing to pave the way for larger real estate development projects). The actors here are also household names in China (Zhu Xu, Pu Cunxin, Jiang Wu).
  • “A World Without Thieves” 天下无贼 —Star-studded cast (Andy Lau, Ge You, Li Bingbing…) in an action drama about expert thieves on a train who compete to steal an idealistic/clueless boy’s life savings.
  • “Eat Drink, Man Woman” 饮食男女 — An Ang Lee classic about a dad and his 3 unmarried daughters, each of whom defy tradition in their own way. It’s hilarious even if you’re not a woman.
  • “To Live” 活着 — Actually, I want to warn you not to watch this one. It’s really famous and everyone might recommend it to you, but actually it’s painful to watch. A rich compulsive gambler loses his family fortune, his wife and their unborn son, and it starts getting bad from there.
  • “Electric Shadows” — I haven’t personally watched this one, but looks promising. It’s about a guy and girl who meet each other and discover they share a love of cinema — and it happens amidst the Cultural Revolution.

2. The “Time to Binge on American Culture” Approach

Sometimes nothing beats an episode of “Friends” or “The Simpsons” to American movies dubbed in Mandarin. What you lose in terms of learning about Chinese culture, you do gain in terms of having extra comprehensible input (in other words, because you have more context, you’re able to understand more of the language). Most American TV shows can be found on Youku.

More Resources for Learning Mandarin Through Movies

In case you want to check out other blog posts on Chinese, I’d recommend the following ones:

And One More Thing…

If you love learning Chinese with movies, then I would be remiss not to tell you more about FluentU.

FluentU takes real-world videos like music videos, commercials, news, and inspiring talks and turns them into Chinese learning experiences. It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Chinese language and culture. You’ll learn Chinese as it’s spoken in real life.

FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos – like music videos (check out below the song “Let It Go” from the hit movie “Frozen”), dramas, TV shows, and TV commercials:

FluentU makes these native Chinese videos manageable with interactive transcripts. Tap on any Chinese word to instantly look it up. All definitions have examples, and they’re written to help you understand how words is used. Tap to add words you’d like to review to a vocab list.

And FluentU’s learn mode turns every video into a language learning lesson. While answering questions, you can swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.

The most interesting part is that FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and it suggests content and examples based on the words you’re learning. Every user has a 100% personalized experience, even if they’re learning the same video. 

Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU App from the iTunes store.

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.

Experience Chinese immersion online!

2 Responses to Learn Mandarin Chinese Through Movies: The Quick Guide

  1. Daming June 30, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    Learning through movies is a very motivating concept for me. I enjoyed reading your article, as I also enjoy using fluentu, your service is very helpful for me.

    There is a book, that I bought in China, that uses just the same approach as “Watching the Movie and Learning Chinese”. It’s “Learning Chinese through movies”:

    http://www.studychineseculture.com/book.asp?id=5057

    It’s not one movie, but 7 rather short clips (approx. 10 min), it’s got very detailed description of characters and the plot, dialogues, discussion start points and many exercises. Definitly a nice option to buy in China.

    Thanks again for fluentu! It rocks!

    • Alan July 1, 2013 at 9:16 am #

      Thanks for the recommendation – yes that book also looks promising. Since it’s based on short clips though, I would prefer FluentU, but of course I’m biased. :)

      Thanks for the kind words too Daming!

      Alan