Resource Review: Real Reads - The Chinese Classics

Tags: Review

Titles in the Series:  Journey to the West,  The Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin,  Dream of a Red Chamber

Author: Retold by Christine Sun & illustrated by Shirley Chiang

Cost (RRP): £4.99 per book

Available from: CME Books Europe,

Reviewers: Dr Theresa Munford & Gina Jamieson

Description:  With the exception of Journey to the West, usually better known as Monkey, the classics of Chinese literature, so well known in China, are almost unknown elsewhere. Real Reads have changed that, bringing key Chinese classics to the wider audience they deserve. Retold and illustrated by Chinese speakers steeped in Chinese culture

The four ‘Noble Chinese Classics’ are available to western readers in a uniform and accessible edition for the first time. A unique bridge to Real Chinese culture

These books are accessible to KS2 and KS3 children. 

The Chinese Staffroom have written a set of Scheme of Work to accompany each book which are downloadable free of charge.  The Schemes focus on story context, cross curricular activities, Chinese language and Bi-cultural activities.  The Schemes of Works are available here

Reviewer Profiles: Theresa Munford is the Head of Mandarin at The Ashcombe School, a Language College in Dorking.  She teaches Mandarin in innovative ways to Primary and Secondary students up to GCSE level. 

Gina Jamieson the Mandarin teacher at Djanogly City Academy, one of England’s five original Confucius Classrooms, where Chinese is taught at all Key Stages.  She is also its’ Confucius Classroom Coordinator. 

Things I liked about the resource: (Theresa) These books are a delight, the stories well told, the illustrations lively and appealing and the 50 page format very accessible to young readers.  What makes them really stand out from the crowd, however, are the imaginative and detailed schemes of work that accompany each book.  Ideal for upper Primary or lower Secondary, they could be the basis of an entire term’s worth of exciting learning, from science to writing, from PSHE to mathematic, from art and design to geography and history.

Each scheme of work also includes Chinese language topics, graded for beginners, for those with a little language and for those gaining confidence.  So, for example, the language work suggested for the Water Margin includes nicknames (which would bring in adjectives and basic greetings) for beginners; conjunctions (I am called this because....) for those with some language; and, for more advanced, a look at the way that Chinese words combine to make different meanings (eg 电话, 电脑). 

With lots of web links to resources and free teaching tools, there is no need for the teacher, whether a specialist or not, to have to hunt around for information, video links or other ways of broadening the learning experience.  Reading the ideas in the  schemes of work makes you want to throw away your term’s planning and dive into one of these units.

The books themselves also have illustrated list of protagonists to help those confused by unfamiliar names, maps where necessary, brief introductions to the historical contexts, web links  and suggested topics for discussion or further thought, so even if not used in class, they would be a useful addition to the school library.

 (Gina) Christine Sun and Shirley Chiang have worked well as a team, producing attractive books and fast-paced stories.  Besides the fact that the resources allow us to introduce more and more Western children to China’s rich culture and literature, I also liked the way the stories were told.  The books have been written in a gripping, fast-paced manner whilst still managing to keep the principal characteristics of the original Chinese stories.  To help students set the scene; colourful and appealing illustrations are included and appear throughout all of the volumes.  These also provide important cultural information for students with little knowledge of China’s culture, architecture, fashion and customs.

Each volume begins with a handy introduction to the stories’ key characters and ends with a comprehensive section covering the history of the original Chinese story and author, key subplots that were left out whilst they were abridged, other books to refer to for further information and research as well as starting points for literacy lessons.  These, combined with the wonderful Schemes of Work that the Chinese Staffroom, enable teachers to maximise and energise their lessons to inspire students.  KS3 students would thoroughly enjoy the added dimension this would offer to their learning. 

Although students were unfamiliar with the Chinese classics as well as characters and customs, the books gave students opportunities to ask questions and get answers, enhancing and deepening their appreciation of the Chinese culture.

How could the resource be improved?  (Theresa)  It is always tricky with classic books that were originally written for adults to decide what is appropriate to use for younger readers.  Teachers may be a bit squeamish about the Water Margin, for example.  A ripping tale of bandits and soldiers, it has only a few female characters and these are generally adulteresses or dead, generally both (and generally at the hands of their husbands!).  An issue too is choosing how to abbreviate these long rambling novels that have casts of thousands and many, many subplots.  Perhaps it may have been better in the case of Water Margin to have focused on a few key stories well know to Chinese, such as Wu Song’s fight with the tiger, or to have at least introduced one of the female bandits in the original (albeit a sanitized version).

(Gina)  Despite the opportunities that the books offer students with to learn about Chinese culture and history I found some of the stories appealed more to boys than girls and vice versa, which might be problematic at KS3 level.  The romance of The Dream of a Red Chamber in particular would appeal little to KS3 boys.  Similarly, Y9 students were less inclined to take the books seriously because of their presentation. 

Moreover, although the stories had been abridged the topics mentioned can be quite heavy with themes of adultery, suicide, drunkenness and murder featuring in several of the books.  Such topics must be approached carefully and sensitively in class discussions for those students who might be directly affected by such issues. 

Whilst the literacy level might suit lower ability students, because of the cultural references, names and the complicated subplots that several of the stories have (especially , Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin) the storytelling might still be difficult.  In these instances breaking up the storytelling in to smaller, more manageable chunks, and then exploring the different areas using the suggestions of The Chinese Staffroom’s Schemes of Work would not only support but also help make the individual characters and their subplots become more memorable to students.

Why and how did I use this resource?  (Theresa)  I have not used this resource yet but I can see an opportunity for each of the books to be used as the basis of a unit of work in Chinese club.  The Dream of the Red Chamber would be fantastic for slightly older students (Y9s perhaps) coming to terms with issues about growing up and interpersonal relationships, Journey to the West is always going to be a hit with younger children, while the Three Kingdoms might more suit a class of boys.

(Gina) I used these books the most in my Y7 and Y8 classes as my Y9 students were not inclined to read them.  Students enjoyed the illustrations and fast-paced stories, although did find the various different subplots difficult to keep track of.  I primarily used the books to introduce the classical stories as well as give students opportunities to ask any questions they had.  In the future I will factor them in as official lessons allowing students to properly learn about and explore Chinese culture through books. 

Why may others use this resource?  (Theresa) Primary school teachers looking for a theme-based unit for a term’s work or for an activities week would find here a treasure trove of cross curricular learning.  I can imagine classrooms filled with displays of armour or of Chinese houses, clattering to the sound of abacuses and full of pupils engaging with stories that have entertained people for centuries.

(Gina)  Others can use these books to add an extra dimension to their language lessons, if timetables permit, bringing Chinese culture alive through the adventures and characters that have shaped its own culture.  If timetables are tight, even the odd lesson briefly introducing the stories and its characters would energise and motivate students who find Chinese culture irresistibly exotic. 

There are sometimes students who need extra motivation and giving them the opportunity to read and explore Chinese culture will motivate them in their own language learning.

Conclusions / other comments:  (Theresa)  Re-reading these tales reminds you of why they have endured.  Books like these will bring all those wonderful, complex characters, like  Dai Yu, Cao Cao, Wu Song, and, of course, Monkey, stepping out of the pages and into the imaginations of children in the UK.

(Gina)  I really enjoyed reading the Real Reads as I myself haven’t managed to read all of the original classics and it was a delight to share them with students.  It is wonderful to see the books, even now, after so many years, still managing to inspire and, more importantly, entertain readers.  For myself, resources such as these help enhance language learning, putting the language in context, making it relevant and motivating students in their own language learning.  I’m looking forward to sharing them even more with my classes in the future.