When ShaoLan Hsueh, a Taiwanese entrepreneur living in London, tried to teach Chinese to her British-born children (then six and eight), she found them less than receptive to the idea. "It was at that point that they started to refuse any kind of Chinese education," she laughs.
That was three years ago. Now her daughter and son are proficient in reading and writing the characters – due in no small part to Hsueh developing a method that makes learning the language apparently much simpler: what she calls "Chineasy". "I used my computer to try to analyse the thousands of characters to decipher patterns. Every night I spent time on a new character to work out how it is composed."
Chineasy, which is aimed at all ages, teaches traditional Mandarin Chinese and uses a building-block principle. When users become familiar with a few key base characters, they can combine them to create more complex words, and then simple phrases. The fun, eye-catching designs help people memorise each character. (In the book, pronunciation advice is printed alongside, as is tonal guidance – the tone imparted to any Chinese word in pronunciation is important.)
In February 2013, Hsueh was invited to give a TED talk in California on her method. Someone in the audience wrote a blog about it and 8,000 people swiftly contacted her via LinkedIn. It was evident that people wanted to learn Chinese (her TED talk has now been viewed online more than three million times). Following the creation of a website and Facebook page, Chineasy was released as a book and app earlier this month. Its success is such that the publisher is rushing through a second print run already.
Hsueh says that the project allowed her to reacquaint herself with her creative upbringing, having spent years studying and working in the fields of technology and business. "I grew up in an artistic family. My mother was a calligrapher and my father a ceramicist," she says. "I used to watch my mother choose each character and spend time on it, so they are special to me."
For the illustrations, she hired a team of designers to collaborate with her and the London-based Israeli artist Noma Bar, who was responsible for her book's striking graphics. There is a good reason why she chose to work with non-Chinese speakers: "It would have been easier to hire those who knew the language, but I wouldn't have been able to put myself in their shoes. My first task was to teach my team. I thought if I couldn't teach them, then how could I convince a much wider audience?"
Though 1.6 billion people speak Chinese worldwide, Hsueh says that only 16 million people beyond China are currently learning the language, whereas many in China are learning English. "It's completely disproportionate. But I don't think it's because people don't want to learn; they are intimidated by it. It's true that if you want to appreciate the ancient form or read a university thesis, it's going to be difficult. But if you just want a simple understanding of the language, it's not that hard to get to grips with."
Ultimately, Hsueh wants Chineasy to be a social rather than a commercial venture; to help bridge the gap between Eastern and Western cultures. "Friends tell me that when they see the Chinese language, they feel shut out from that part of the world and that they aren't welcome. It's so sad. The East and West must understand each other to create a more culturally literate world, and build a sustainable future. Knowing the language is key to true understanding."
'Chineasy' is published by Thames & Hudson, priced £12.99
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies