Why Chinese books using simple Chinese words are hard to find

So many Chinese learners want to find good yet simple Chinese reading resources, such as interesting children’s books written with simple Chinese words. 

I think they probably have Dr. Seuss and his children’s books in mind. He used 225 English words to write The Cat in the Hat, and only 50 words for Green Eggs and Ham. 

Why aren’t there any simple Chinese books like these books, using only very simple Chinese words? Or, perhaps translations of Dr. Seuss work can serve the same purpose?

Unfortunately, Chinese language works differently from English. 

In this article, let’s take a look at these 50 words in Green Eggs and Ham from a Chinese language point of view, and to compare the original work with its Chinese translation. That perhaps can offer us a glimpse of why it is hard to find Chinese books written with simple Chinese words.

Analyses of Green Eggs and Ham

There are only 50 words in Green Eggs and Ham.

These words are: a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.

To analyse these words from a Chinese language point of view means we treat each letter as a single entity, as the basic language building blocks. 

One thing to remind the readers is that I did not count how many “spaces” used in the book to separate these 50 words and to make the writings intelligible. This “space” is really important in English and it’s something which does not exist in Chinese language writings.

After breaking down all the words, we’ve got 21 letters, listed as following:

  • 18 “a” 
  • 3 “b” 
  • 2 “c” 
  • 6 “d”
  • 24 “e” 
  • 2 “f” 
  • 5 “g”
  • 11 “h” 
  • 8 “i” 
  • 3 “k” 
  • 6 “l”
  • 7 “m” 
  • 9 “n”
  • 16 “o” 
  • 12 “r” 
  • 7 “s” 
  • 16 “t” 
  • 5 “u” 
  • 4 “w” 
  • 2 “x” 
  • 6 “y”

The numbers in front of the letters show how frequently that particular letter has appeared in these 50 words. The most frequently used letter is “e”, used 24 times. The second most frequently used letter is “a”, used 18 times. 

These 21 letters account for 80% of the entire alphabet. Five letters, “j”, “p”, “q”, “v”, “z”, are not used. 

Thus, reading the book helps readers become quite familiar with the basic English building blocks, letters. 

Chinese translations of Green Eggs and Ham

Next, let’s take a look at the Chinese translation of Green Eggs and Ham, and see whether or not it is as simple as the original text. 

The Chinese translation used 77 Chinese characters, listed as following:

山欢鸡吃都它一车摸黑说真和儿还们房盒狐狸别缠羊船尝然能瞧你我姆喜火腿想哪子里老鼠起给也许雨好可等是那个不绿蛋在这既愿意要会的试看树上后再谢吗呀着啦嘿呢么吧

These characters account for 2.2-2.5% of 3000 - 3500 Chinese characters which roughly cover today’s print.

Therefore, reading the translation does very little for readers to become familiar with Chinese characters in general. 

Also, in Chinese translation, simple English sentences no longer seem so simple, such as “let me be” became “别缠着我啦”. And simple English words swell up, such as “Sam” became “山姆”, and “ham” became “火腿”.

Most importantly, many characters used in the translation are not that frequently used, such as “”, “”. 

This is how a book with simple English words turned into something not so simple in Chinese.

This way of reading Green Eggs and Ham may seem rather extreme. Words are really the true building blocks of both English and Chinese. 

Knowing more words is always instrumental in reading books.


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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