Honest Enjoyment of a Chinese Novel

In Uncategorized by Skritter

author photo“Humans don’t know what makes us happy”… or at least that is the way Nick Winter (Skritter co-founder) opens the section On Happiness in his new book The Motivation Hacker. He goes on to explain, with the help of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, that happiness tends to get rather muddled at some point between the “experiencing self” (actually doing an action) and the “remembering self” (how we interpret what we’ve done in the past). Our “remembering self” is so good at extracting and extrapolating happiness and enjoyment from particular instances and memories that our experiencing self often gets left behind in the dust. What he says makes a lot of sense, especially when you actually take the time to track happiness at given points during the day. Take Nick’s whitewater rafting experience that he used in the book as an example. While Nick’s “remembering self” might think that hitting rapids (short bursts of 8 on a 1-10 happiness scale) might make the overall experience totally epic… especially to the “remembering self,” the reality is that it can’t make up for the fact that the entire nine hour trip only netted him an average happiness of 4.47, which fell well below his own average happiness of 6.18 for the previous month.

After reading this section of Nick’s book, I couldn’t help but start doing my own mental happiness checks at various times during the day. There was nothing really mechanical or scientific about the happiness checks, but the simple action of asking “how happy am I on a scale of 1 to 10 right now” was enough to make me realize that reading a Chinese book before bed, or biking the streets of Taipei without a backpack, are much, much more fun than surfing YouTube when I should be studying or listening to a three hour lecture at school.

While realizing that reading a book at night made me happy was a good start, I wanted to find out a bit more about this experience, so I decided to pick a book a start tracking my happiness while I read and dig a little deeper.

The Book

The book I choose to track just so happened to be the next one on the list. Part of a project of reading at least one novel in Chinese for fun a month, and alternating between translated and native Chinese texts. The book in question was 棋王 (qíwángchess master) written by Taiwanese author 張系國 (Zhāng Xìguó) and published in 1978. 

The book tells the story of some 30-something friends living and working in 1970’s Taipei. With Taiwan on the economic rise and everyone thinking of new ways of getting ahead in life, the main characters come across a Gobang (a 5-in-a-row game played on a Go board) child prodigy who has not only never lost a game of Gobang in his life, but also seemingly has the ability to predict the future. Over the course of 216 pages 張系國 explores how these friends deal with this astounding discovery, and talks a lot about life in 70’s Taiwan along the way.

The Challenge

There are lots of different ways to go about reading in Chinese. Highlighting words we don’t know for later study, looking things up as we go, and of course plain and simple cold reading, or not looking anything up at all. I’m of the opinion that different techniques provide learners with different skill sets, and thus all have a specific time and place in study routines. In fact, there is a great guest post written by Sara K. on Hacking Chinese which talks a lot about some different approaches to reading.

My own goals for the challenge were as follows:

  • Find overall enjoyment of the book by tracking happiness across every page of the novel on a 1 to 10 scale 
  • Underline any unknown word or phrase but do not look them up (unless absolutely necessary)
  • Check correlation between unknown items and happiness 

For this tracking challenge I decide to cold read the entire novel without looking up a single word or phrase unless absolutely necessary, or rather if I was frustrated by the fact that a word or phrase I didn’t know appeared a gazillion times over a few short pages. My happiness per page, and unknown words or phrases, would then be recorded in a Google Spreadsheet once I finished reading the book.

Impressions while reading:

Without giving anything away about the novel’s plot, I will say that I found myself enjoying the book right away. The author painted a very vivid picture of Taipei in the 70’s, and his writing style seemed perfect for my reading level. While a word or two that I didn’t know would appear on just about every single page, not looking them up allowed me to read more lines of text per minute than I was used to. If context wasn’t strong enough to venture a guess I would cruise right by them, knowing that I could always return to learn them at some point in the future.

Part of the motivating factor for not looking up words I didn’t know was actually reminding myself just how much information I was taking in without them. I did this by talking about the novel to whomever would listen. In either English or Chinese I realized that it didn’t matter if I didn’t know that one four character idiom, or what the main character had to eat for lunch, because the main story wasn’t hingeing around the little details.

In regards to new characters and words, however, one cool thing did happen with the character “喫.” I swear it had been trolling me for 70+ pages! Determined not to look the character up (it wasn’t coming up frequently enough to warrant it), I shouted with joy when on page 79 I came across this sentence:  「其他的人去中飯」(I’ve left out Pinyin and translation so you can venture a guess too!).

Who needs to look words up when the context clues are handed to you on a silver platter like this? I remember thinking that even crazy fonts and variant characters can’t stop me!


I finished to book in around two weeks. Reading mostly at night before bed and while eating breakfast in the morning, and spending around 10 hours of total reading time. After everything was tracked and tallied it turns out I encountered 2.63 unknown words or phrases per page, and a total of 502 words or phrases over the entire story. Not a lot by any means, but if and when I decided look up these words that will bring a serious boost to my passive vocabulary!

If you asked me today how much I enjoyed the book, my “remembering self” would probably tell you how great it was and that it’s a “must read,” but what did my “experiencing self” think? Despite not knowing 502 words or phrases, my average enjoyment of 棋王 came out to a solid 6.3 out of 10. A little lower than I had expected, but certainly readable from cover to cover. I can also say with certainty that chapter 4 was by far the best, earning a solid 7 out of 10 despite having an average of 3.27 new words or phrases per page.

As for correlation between the unknown vocabulary and my ability to enjoy this book?  First impressions would say no way. Being able to talk about the book in two languages, and even read page after page without needing to look things up is a pretty good indicator and the statistics back me up. With a correlation result of r= -.16560 it appears that there is no or at least a negligible relationship between the two. I’m actually curious about this entire concept and will be exploring the relationship in the future.

Tracking my happiness while reading this book was probably one of the more fun things I’ve done over the past few months. In addition to allowing me to give one of my most honest (and completely subjective) reviews of a book ever, I also re-opened up my eyes to the joy and wonder of cold reading a book in a foreign language. Knowing that I can learn tons of new words whenever I feel like re-opening this book for a closer look is cool, but knowing that I didn’t need those words to understand and enjoy the story is even better and I wouldn’t have known that without this fun and simple challenge. 
I guess sometimes we’ve got to check in on our “experiencing self” every now and again, because we never know what they might have to say until we take the time to listen. 
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for next week! 

Have questions, comments, feedback, or a topic you want covered on the Skritter blog? Please send them to jake@skritter.com. 
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