When the forum question comes up, “What should I read when I’ve passed the beginner stage?” a number of people suggest: “哈利波特!” At one point maybe two years ago, I had peeked at a chapter posted online, just to give it a try. It seemed still to be above my level, even though I had known roughly 5,000 words or so at that time. But recently in a buying mood, I made 《哈利·波特与魔法石》 my first purchase of a Chinese book. Never having been to China, receiving it in the mail and opening the package was a real excitement, as it was my first book entirely in Chinese that wasn’t a textbook. On occasion I have checked out Chinese reading material from the local university library (which has a huge selection), but I read so slowly that I could never make it past the first 2 chapters before it was due a month later. This, on the other hand, was a book I could keep forever, giving me a hope that I could actually finish it, even if it took years.

The Book

Front cover of 《哈利·波特与魔法石》. The large-type 哈利·波特 is raised in gold leaf

Back cover of 《哈利·波特与魔法石》

The edition I’m talking about here is the official PRC simplified Chinese version, published by 人民文学出版社, ISBN 9787-7-02-003343-0. I bought it for USD 19.95 on Amazon plus a few dollars in shipping. On the back jacket of the book, the price under the ISBN is listed as “定价19.50元” ($2.30 in 2005 and $2.92 in 2010). That’s quite a margin on the import! Since then, I have found links to other online stores (courtesy of Bathrobe’s Harry Potter in Chinese, Japanese & Vietnamese Translation) that sell the book for cheaper than Amazon.

What struck me upon first seeing the book was how slim it was. Both the hardcover and paperback editions of the U.S. English version are 309 pages and 2 cm thick. The Chinese version is about 10% larger in width and height, but contains only 191 pages (or 62%) and is less than 50% in thickness. The dimensions, along with the paperback cover, make it feel almost like a magazine. I thought back to those thin library books I tried to read, and realized I was checking out full-length novels! I felt less bad about being unable to finish them within a month.

Although this is a paperback, the cover has a nice quality to it. Unlike the smooth and glossy cover of U.S. trade paperbacks, this is a matte surface, with a nice soft feel that also makes it easy to hold onto. It doesn’t have a removable dust jacket like the U.S. hardcover edition, but the front and back cover do have an inward fold containing introductory blurbs similar to a jacket flap. The “哈利·波特” in the title is raised in gold letters just like the U.S. versions. Note in the image, the lightning bolt in the P of Potter in English is now in the 刀 (knife radical) component of 利. While it’s tempting to think this was done purposely to evoke the image of lightning from a magical sword, it’s more likely that that was just the longest straight line where a lightning bolt could be placed.

After starting to read, I quickly realized that the version I had read two years ago was not the official version. The version I found online was named 《哈利·波特 魔法石》, not 《哈利·波特 魔法石》! While the writing parallels closely with the English edition, it is clearly different from the official PRC version. Here is a comparison of the first paragraph in the various versions:

U.S. English version:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Chinese official version:


Online version of 《哈利·波特和魔法石》, unknown origin:


Even the translated names differ: 德思礼 vs. 杜斯利 (Dursley); and 女贞路 vs. 普里怀特街 (Privet Drive). Note that in the second example, the official version uses 女贞, which is the actual Chinese word for a privet shrub, and is not a transliteration.

The Contents

Diving in and reading the first few pages, I started to see why this book is often recommended for intermediate readers. I think that for learners at the lower intermediate level, there is enough unknown vocabulary to make it somewhat difficult and possibly discouraging. But for higher learners, there are some positive things going for it.

First of all, the story and characters are already familiar for many people, whether through reading the book in one’s native language, or seeing the film. I find that this background knowledge helps me in reading texts in Chinese, as it becomes a small anchor to keep me from getting too lost during a difficult passage. It’s quite discouraging to read through an entire page of text, and realize at the end of it that you don’t understand a thing about it. The prior knowledge becomes a set of touchstones that reassure me in certain places that I actually do understand what I think I do.

The grammar used in the Chinese version is not difficult at all for non-native speakers. Often, when I read something significantly higher than my level — say, Wang Xiaobo, or anything in duzhe magazine — many times I have been able to identify every word in a sentence and still couldn’t understand the sentence itself. The writings make frequent use of strange sentence constructions and grammatical patterns that I haven’t begun to penetrate. In contrast, 《哈利·波特与魔法石》is surprisingly understandable. On average, the grammar is not complex, and many times in my reading so far, I felt like the sentence constructions were an exact word for word translation from English, translating the words into Chinese but leaving the original sentence order alone. In a way, this is a small detriment, as the grammar that can be learned from reading this book is limited. But I think that for intermediate level readers, the primary goal of reading should be to learn more words and characters, and to increase reading speed. To that end, this book can be a good option.

I hope this information is useful for anyone who is interested in reading this book. I will have more to say about this book in more detail. For example, why does the book look so thin, and does it mean Chinese is a more “compact” language? How hard is the vocabulary? How were certain things translated into Chinese? Stay tuned!