Chinese Language Learning – Immersing with Chinese Social Media Sites

Somewhere I read that there’s a point where a language learner needs to change their mentality from being a **learner** to a **user** of the language. This means that your focus shifts from using tools to learn every character in a document to…using the language in practical ways with the understanding that language learning, like any learning, is a continuum, not a destination.

I know ~3000 characters (sound+meaning), which sounds like a lot, but there is a **very** long tail of characters that you don’t know at this level. Your goal in immersing is not to read every character — it’s to consume content. For example, I read articles in English all the time with random names that I’ll read once and forget. I don’t add them to a flashcard deck. Don’t feel like you need to know everything before you can use the language – this isn’t Jeopardy or a final exam.

I’m not going to focus on reading apps (books/comics/etc…), as [MoonIvy’s post]( gives a good overview of what’s available there. Go read it. I use 微信读书 every single day. I also continue to study in parallel and I’m not advocating this as a replacement for your learning plan.

This post is about how to immerse yourself deeper into a Chinese environment without leaving your 沙发. I’ve been doing exactly that for the past few months. If you’re not already somewhat proficient at reading, stay focused on improving your core language skills, keep reading (tip – [Heavenly Path](, and level up. Where we’re going, there are no pop-up dictionaries.

**First, registration requirements and a note on content/behavior…**

If you’re using apps in the mainland, you need to be aware that China has real-name registration requirements. This means when installing and using native apps, you’ll frequently be asked to provide a mainland phone number or (worse) a mainland id. There are solutions for the former (mentioned at the bottom of the post), but not for the latter.

Moderation of content is the law of the land in China. If you don’t accept it, you’re going to get frustrated. If you are looking for edgy content and political discussions, there are other corners of the Internet for you. Be aware of rules and etiquette – it’s your responsibility. I’ve never had an account or message blocked.

**The Most Essential App – WeChat**

On the surface, this is a messaging app, but it’s a super essential app that is used for a lot of things, including smoothing the registration to many Chinese sites. On your first-time using WeChat, you’ll need to register with a phone number (overseas is fine, but needs to be a real mobile number – they’re good at detecting and blocking virtual numbers). You *may* be asked to have an existing user help you pass a security check. Many people have recently reported that this was not required for them, but if required you’ll need to find an existing user to help you. I don’t have any tips on getting validated other than to make some Chinese friends. 🙂

*Note on Payment*: WeChat is not super useful for payment unless you have a Chinese bank account (you don’t). While you can associate an overseas credit/debit card, most sites will not allow you to select it for payment when using WeChat Pay. I would suggest Googling “Alipay TourPass” if you need a way to make payments to Chinese sites. On iOS, most apps can take payment with iTunes, but it’s usually more costly than using Alipay or WeChat Pay.

# General Social Media Sites

**Weibo 微博 (like Twitter) – Register w/ Overseas mobile #**

When you first go native, this is the most approachable app. If your device is set to English, some of the controls are even in English to get you started and it’s relatively easy to register.

There’s a lot of functionality – even more than Twitter (I like SuperGroups). I find it best to add a small number of interesting accounts, ideally with a good mix of pictures/videos to complement their text. The key thing is to follow topics and people that interest you, not a generic recommendation “for learners”. If someone uses language that is just too hard for you, drop them and follow someone else.

You’ll find that with daily use, your skimming will improve significantly in a short period of time. Remember, your goal is to glance at the feed and be able to quickly separate the interesting things from the uninteresting things without needing to read everything on the page. So your brain will come up with strategies for finding keywords of interest on a page. At first, this will feel like doing word search puzzles, but over time it will become automatic and you’ll get good at it.

**Zhihu 知乎 (like Quora) – Register w/ Overseas mobile #**

I don’t use Quora and this site has many of the same issues (clickbait questions and some terrible answers), but it’s another site that’s very easy to register for and use as a foreigner.

What I found very useful about this site is that the thing that makes it annoying for a native reader: repetitive questions. Why? Because while similar, the questions often have slightly different nuances. One of the things that’s hard to do at the advanced level is to understand and express things *exactly* the way you want.

知乎basically gives you a lot of permutations of very similar questions, which helps you differentiate between different ways of asking things. Since there are a lot of questions, it’s also a great way to improve your skimming. If you’re reading every character of every question, you’re doing it wrong.

While I sometimes look up things directly in this app, my usual process is mostly to scan my questions feed daily. I can go days without clicking on an answer. Since the things you click feed their algorithm, you’ll get more things like what you click on. I end up with a lot of technology-related questions. I’ve not yet gotten brave enough to answer any questions, but if your writing level is good, go for it!

**Baidu Tieba 贴吧 (like Reddit) – Register w/ Chinese mobile #**

Honestly, it does not look or feel anything like Reddit, but it’s probably the closest equivalent. The whole site is arranged by 吧’s, similar to subreddits, that you can subscribe to. People post content, reply in threads, etc… For example, if you like the game Genshin Impact (原神) and want to see posts related to this, you can search for the 原神吧 and visit/subscribe.

I mostly skim the topics, look at pictures/videos, and read summaries. I don’t find the level of discussion as active as on Reddit, but it may just be the topics I follow.

**Huya 虎牙 (like Twitch) – Register w/ Overseas mobile #**

I don’t use Twitch, but I’ve found 虎牙 to be interesting. First, know that this is a live streaming platform (直播平台). There are a ton of these sites in China and all the major players have been adding this feature to their platforms. I also like 微信视频号, but not all overseas 微信 accounts have access to it. Note that you’ll need to have solid listening proficiency to get the most value here.

I’ve used the platform in two ways:

* Lurked in the background of very big rooms to watch the conversation flow and pick up a *lot* of internet slang and conversation patterns. If you don’t know something, often asking “XYZ是什么意思?” will get you an answer pretty quickly.
* Found less crowded rooms and chatted with hosts and other viewers. They’ll have you dropping your “你在干什么呢” stuff and going right to “干啥” in no time. 🙂 It’s a great way to fine-tune your chatting abilities and start sounding more native.

Key considerations:

* For most of the hosts, this is their job. So obviously the whole platform is set up to encourage tipping of 礼物. Doing so will get you more attention, but don’t feel like you’re obligated. In big rooms, there is 0% pressure to give.
* The game rooms are going to be hard to follow. You’ll need to stick with the more social rooms. There are generally three kinds of social rooms that I’ve encountered: Solo performers (singing, talking, dancing, etc…), talk/variety type shows with one main host and multiple “chairs”, and 交友 rooms. Popular rooms in the first two categories are probably the best place to start. If you’re looking for smaller groups and need suggestions for 交友 rooms that have a good atmosphere and are not pushy for 礼物, drop me a DM and I’ll try to point you to a few.
* Don’t be afraid to say you’re a foreigner and that your Chinese is a work in progress. You’ll get a lot of compliments just for trying. I’ve even 上麦 (took a seat with a microphone) and took part in a few smaller broadcasts. It was fun.
* If you’re a guy, you can ignore all the women messaging you. It’s their job and they’re looking for 礼物 in exchange for playing online games together, chatting, etc… You can turn off private messages from strangers to stop getting these if they bother you.

# Honorable mentions:

* **Lofter** – Tumblr-like microblogging with a lot of DeviantArt type content (digital art, etc…). It has very strict content moderation, so don’t expect anything controversial or edgy. Sometimes I’ll scroll and read some top comments.
* **Douban** 豆瓣 – I’d normally list this higher up. It’s a mix of IMBD + various social networks. However, due to some content moderation issues, the government has recently pushed them to make a lot of changes. So, I’m unclear if overseas people can still register, and existing overseas accounts are going to see some new restrictions soon.
* **XiaoBing 小冰 –** Ok. I’m cheating on this one as it’s not a social media site. Just add “AI小冰” as a WeChat friend and start talking to her. It’s an AI Chatbot created by Microsoft and is now an independent company. When I’m bored I practice chatting with her. She won’t correct your sentences, but I often use this to practice new phrases I’ve learned.

# Impossible to register

* **Douyin 抖音** – Mainland TikTok. Don’t even bother trying. Even with a Mainland Phone #, you will need to provide a Chinese ID number and pass a photo verification. Unless a friend from the Mainland gives you their account, you’re not getting one.

# Getting a Mainland Phone

I’ve found a way to get a legitimate Chinese mobile number that can receive the SMS authentication required by many Chinese online services. It can’t be used for Weibo or Douban, but the others I’ve mentioned accept it. Due to Chinese Mainland real name requirements, you will need to provide a photo of your Passport to the HK-based network operator that provides the service. You will also need a WeChat account, as the registration service is a WeChat mini-app and SMS messages flow to your WeChat account.

If interested, just Google “HK Multi-byte eSender” or add the “易博通eSender” WeChat official account for the process. Don’t bother using any of the temporary SMS receiver services you find on the internet as they don’t work well for China. The price for a Chinese number is 128 RMB/year (~$20USD) and you can get up to 2 Hong Kong numbers for 118RMB/year each if you need them. Payment options are plentiful. 

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