Building empathy, one Chinese character at time

Tech entrepreneur ShaoLan isn’t just trying to make Chinese accessible for kids with her innovative Chineasy methodology—she’s also striving to foster better cultural understanding.

When ShaoLan made the difficult decision to step away from her startup—which she’d co-founded and grown into one of Taiwan’s largest internet tech companies—she was worried she’d lost sight of herself after putting in years of grueling hours. But she brushed off any feelings of failure, deciding it was time to reinvest in herself and make a drastic change. She moved to London, where she would rediscover her passion and purpose. It was there that both her children and her company Chineasy were all born.

For ShaoLan, raising her children in London was both her greatest inspiration and her biggest challenge. Having watched her own mother master Chinese calligraphy for over 40 years, ShaoLan had hoped to pass on a connection with Chinese to her children, too. Things started out promising. But as her children got older and realized their friends spoke mostly English, they started refusing to communicate in Chinese.

“That was devastating. Trying to teach them Chinese became torture—for them and for me,” says ShaoLan. She searched for resources to make learning the language fun and accessible for beginners, but she couldn’t find any that resonated. So, she decided to create her own.

After spending time breaking down thousands of Chinese characters, ShaoLan realized that there are roughly 100 building blocks that can be used to make hundreds of thousands of characters. “Many people think the Chinese language is as impenetrable as the Great Wall … But I tried to develop a system that transforms Chinese characters into illustrations to make these building blocks easy to remember.” And that’s where the name came from: Chineasy.

As she developed Chineasy, she saw that her approach was about more than just learning a language. It was also about bridging a gap between eastern and western cultures, for her children as well as society at large. That’s because in Chinese, the written characters are actually symbols, each with a historic meaning that’s deeply rooted in the culture.

Having travelled and lived around the world, ShaoLan’s no stranger to putting herself in other peoples’ shoes. She’s become attuned to how minor differences in the way people act or communicate can lead to misunderstanding or conflict—and how language can defuse this.

She cites the political and cultural clashes between China and the US, as well as the burgeoning trade war, as an example and opportunity. “As China’s population continues to rise, and their global influence as an economic superpower only grows, a peaceful and productive relationship demanded greater empathy and understanding,” she says. This is where language and a tool like Chineasy play a critical role—and ShaoLan believes there’s reason to be optimistic.

There are currently 300 million Chinese students learning English, and there’s a growing trend toward students in the US (approximately 250K) learning Chinese. The newer generation is being given the tools to bridge these gaps. And that’s why ShaoLan is passionate about making Chineasy accessible to any beginner from any demographic.

Today, Chineasy has expanded to include games, apps, and publications available in over 19 languages across more than 30 countries with hundreds of thousands of followers on social media. Certainly, technology has been a valuable tool in making Chineasy accessible to people of all backgrounds, all over the world. But ShaoLan argues that it isn’t a replacement for true learning and understanding: “Technology like AI might provide a literal translation [of another language], but we will only achieve cultural appreciation and meaningful connection when we can speak to each other.”

This is evident in the varied ways that people use Chineasy. It’s used by teachers in classrooms, by Chinese families living and raising kids abroad, by travelers, and by beginners of all ages who are curious about learning Chinese. There’s even a diverse community that’s been inspired by Chineasy to create something similar for their own cultures and languages.

For ShaoLan, who’s been inspired by Confucius’ commitment to education for all, her goal was to make language learning more inclusive by offering a wide range of tools to meet different learning styles, abilities, backgrounds. As Chineasy grows, it’s fulfilling to see the ways language learning can spark the imagination, build problem-solving skills, and help students see beyond two-dimensional thinking like east and west to form meaningful personal connections.

“We are all human. It doesn’t matter our shape or form or race or sex, we all want to be appreciated,” says ShaoLan. “We all want to be able to hug, hold hands, look into each other’s eyes, and say, ‘I understand you; I appreciate you.’”