An Interview with Hanzi Wallchart founder KYLE BALMER

Kyle Balmer is the entrepreneur behind It is a simple and effective tool for mastering the high-frequency characters in the Chinese language. Originally from London, Kyle moved to China to accelerate his study of Chinese culture, whilst following the idea of an automated “muse” business espoused by Tim Ferriss, that one can run a business regardless of location as long as there is an internet connection and a laptop.

In this interview Kyle talks about the challenges of doing business in China, the cultural differences, and the importance of learning Chinese language among other things.

How did you come up with the idea of the Hanzi Wall Chart? 

I’m a big fan of the Pareto Principal (20% of the work will lead to 80% of the results – the rest is wasted time and energy).

In language learning this means focusing on the most commonly used words and phrases. A small number of words often makes up a disproportionately large amount of the language.

In English it is thought that the 25 most frequent words account for 33% of everyday usage and the most frequent 100 words account for 89%. To get to the 95% level of comprehension requires 3,000 words, certainly higher but by no means unachievable. By focusing on these high impact words language acquisition can be sped up dramatically.wall-chart1

In Chinese, 95% of written language is composed of just 1500 characters. Whilst still a large amount it’s certainly manageable. If you could learn 5 characters a day it would take under a year to master all 1500 and be able to recognise 95% of all characters used in written Chinese.

Knowing this I began my studies by focusing on the most commonly used characters. This is abnormal. Textbooks instead focus on situational dialogues and are often subject to the literary whim of the writer. For instance one of the words I needed to learn for class this week was 急性肠炎 which translates as “acute enteritis”. This is not a specialised medical textbook or even a particularly high level text. But still the traditional methodology of teaching Chinese will include words like this; learning low-impact words. I’d rather get more bang for my buck.

At first I created a wallchart by hand with the 100 most commonly used characters and stuck it on my wall. This wallchart kept growing (by appending additional pieces of A4 paper to the wall with cello tape) as I increased my mastery of the most commonly used characters. It was a mess of handwritten scrawl and tape but it helped me learn.

Having the characters in plain sight had a number of benefits. First, I could actively study them, focusing on a block of characters and trying to master them. Once mastered I’d cross them off, giving my self a visual representation of just how many characters I had mastered and how many I had to left. This gave me a way to check progress against a final goal – a great motivational tool.

Secondly, having the characters on the wall at all time helped with passive acquisition. I’d look at characters when walking past or perhaps whilst day dreaming scan up and down the rows. Having the characters visible gave me additional visual input – I was just seeing the most important characters more each day and my brain was firing away in the background linking characters to meaning, meaning to pronunciation and so on.

After some time my wall of characters started to look like something you’d find in an ax-murderer’s basement; swathes of chicken-scratch arcane symbols taped to the wall. I worked up a digital version of my work and took it to a printer here in Beijing.

The first inkling that I may be onto a business was when I went to pick up the first poster. The print shop was in one of the universities with a large foreign student population. The printer unrolled the poster, a beautiful laminated A0 sheet covered in 1500 characters, and a number of people came to look at it! In fact I sold the first poster there and then to an Italian guy and had to ask the printer to run me off another for my personal use! Hanzi WallChart was born shortly thereafter!

How difficult is it to master the Chinese language? 

I’m still in the process of mastering the Chinese language so cannot speak to how difficult mastery is to obtain. For the commercial Hanzi WallCharts I worked with a team of native Chinese speakers to make sure everything was correct.

What I can say about achieving mastery is that the methods used to teach Chinese are still pedagogically outdated. This is the same with most traditional language learning and not specifically a Chinese language teaching problem. A lot of work is rote learning based and reliant on brute memorisation, neither of which are very helpful for fluid communication.

This is partly because these are the methods used to teach Chinese children Chinese- but remember that Chinese children have almost over a decade to learn the language often studying 6 days a week for endless hours! New methodologies can ease the journey to mastery so that we don’t have to go through the same grueling process. I’m actually writing a book at the moment compiling these new methods into a better system to approach Chinese that is not reliant on just brute forcing your way

Why did you move from London to China? 

Surprisingly not for my business Hanzi WallChart. From the outset I designed the business to be location independent, following the idea of an automated “muse” business espoused by Tim Ferriss and other entrepreneurs. As long as I have my laptop and an internet connection I can run the business from anywhere – as proved by taking a couple of months to travel in Tibet, Nepal and India whilst still maintaining my business!

The primary reason for coming to China is to accelerate my study of Chinese. I’m trying for immersion as much as possible and this is simply easier in the country itself. Of course, the early days here were very difficult but I managed to struggle through.

Can you give some examples of the cultural differences you have experienced?

I could but it would be likely become a very in-depth look at the differences in cultures based upon the fact that our ancient philosophies went in different directions. Confucius used the family/state as his basic “unit” whereas the ancient Greeks used the individual. That led us down very very different paths and into a fascinating place where the individual is revered in the West and the communal family/class/team/state in China. It’s a fascinating question but probably not right for here. It would be the only honest answer I could give as well…

Where are you currently based in China, and how long have you been there? 

I’m currently living in Hai Dian in North West Beijing. It’s the university district where Peking University, Tsinghua University and countless others are located. I chose to live here because the large number of universities means that there’s a large amount of open space, which I prefer.

There are also countless university students who are open to talking Chinese and English with me, which has been a great help. I’ve also been learning to play basketball with students here – unfortunately it’s often assumed I’m American and therefore good at basketball. My subsequent performance is therefore disappointing!

I was in Beijing last year for 3 months before traveling overland to Mumbai, India for a wedding just before Christmas. That trip took me through Tibet and Nepal all whilst running the business.

A pond in the campus of Tsinghua University. Photo credit: Smeared Type

I chose Beijing in particular because I wanted to focus on 普通话 (standard Mandarin) rather than a regional variety. But of course Beijing has its own very distinctive dialect in which -r is attached to the end of many words. I still love it because it sounds piratical. Arr!

What things do you miss in England? 

Bookshops, good coffee and unfettered internet access. I don’t need a great deal but these basic elements are hard to find in China.

What are the obstacles that you have faced working and living in China? 

Previously I lived in Vietnam for 3 years (co-founding a television station) so had some experience of living in Asia.

Somethings are very easy to do and others are painfully complicated and needlessly difficult. Generally dealing with government-run companies (phone companies, internet providers, the post office, some banks) is much more trouble than it ought to be.

On the flip side dealing with private business owners is wonderfully flexible. It’s possible to barter and make deals with anyone and work out problems together. I’ve had wonderful experiences with my current suppliers for Hanzi WallChart, who have gone above and beyond for me a number of times. I built up my manufacturing, packaging and shipping chain through Alibaba and have not regretted it at all. For those who haven’t heard of Alibaba think Amazon but instead of shopping for products you shop for whole factories. I could use Alibaba to comparison shop 20+ print shops with ease.

What aspects do you like most about China? 

The people, the food and the culture. The Chinese people are on the whole (I can’t generalise about 1.3 billion individuals) very generous and open. Being able to speak Chinese allows a foreigner to make friends very quickly with people who are genuinely interested about why you’ve come to China.

The food in China needs little introduction. I’m partial to Sichaun food and its distinctive ma la (numb-spicy) taste. The richness and complexity of the culinary traditional means that there’s always something new to try. I also love how seriously people are about their food and how arguments can erupt over where the best place for such-and-such delicacy is or whether Guangdong food is better than Shandong cuisine.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to visit China for travel or to work? 

I’d ask why they haven’t done it already. It’s cheap and easy to travel nowadays so hop on a plane and come check out China. It’s a big, big place so if traveling, definitely do some research first about where you want to go.

Whatever your interests are, there will be somewhere in China where you can find it. Get advice from Chinese friends – believe me, they’ll offer it in droves if they know you are visiting. Don’t be surprised if you start receiving offers to stay with their family or Chinese friends! Chinese people treat people they care about extremely well.

If coming to work you’ll need to check language requirements. There’s a standardised test called the HSK here in China and generally a level 5 or 6 is required to work here. I actually sell HSK Vocabulary WallCharts for anyone preparing to take the test.

It is possible to work here without the language but I think this would be depriving yourself a lot of the experience. I know a number of people who have lived here for decades but do not speak Chinese, instead living within a foreign compound and continuing to speak English or their mother tongue. I honestly think this would be a shame as you would miss out on so much of the richness of China. Investing some time learning the language would make the experience so much more enjoyable and valuable.

Why do you think learning Chinese is important? 

In the West it’s sometimes hard to see the importance of China. We’re very used to seeing Western global hegemony as a given. The latest estimates estimate that China’s economy will overtake that of the USA by 2028.

Additionally, the number of Chinese language internet users is poised to overtake the number of English language users very shortly, tipping the language of the internet against us. We don’t generally see this because the Chinese language is so dissimilar to our own. The Chinese internet is entirely separate as a result, but it’s there and it will be larger than the English language internet at some point.

Being able to speak English and Chinese will become increasingly important. I know that in the UK there are already moves in this direction, moving away from teaching more traditional languages like French, German and Spanish. This to me makes sense.

A lot of people are however put off from learning Chinese. It just seems so…foreign! The use of tones make it sound very strange and the characters are entirely indecipherable. At least with French or Spanish you can see a word and have a good guess – “Oh,  l’hôtel! That’s a hotel right?”

Once these initial barriers are breached though Chinese is not as difficult as it is made out to be. Personally I love the allure of telling someone I speak Chinese – it’s still somewhat magical. But remember that 1.3 billion people speak Chinese. It’s certainly doable but yet it remains mysterious and exotic. Get past that and its entirely doable.

To find out more about the the Hanzi Wall Chart: Click Here 

Article provided by: Nee Hao