Podcasts to better understand China
China has rarely been out of the news in 2020; from Covid-19 to US-China tensions to disastrous floods, the torrent of China-bashing and panda-hugging can be overwhelming.
Keeping up with everything that’s written on China is a mammoth task (trust us, we know), but thankfully there are a number of excellent podcasts about China-related topics that can help keep you up-to-date during the morning commute, when you workout, and whenever you’re on the move:
The flagship show of the growing SupChina empire, Sinica is one of the only China-themed podcasts to be consistently updated on a weekly basis with excellent sound and production quality.
The weekly podcast focuses on current affairs in China. Co-hosts Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn invite scholars, diplomats, reporters, and writers to discuss pertinent issues of the day. Topics and guests range from food-writer Fuschia Dunlop on Sichuan cuisine, to former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd on Xi Jinping’s worldview, to translator and writer Ken Liu on Chinese sci-fi.
Founded in 2010, the show was one of the first of its genre and still sets the bar for aspiring China podcasts. It was originally presented from a “dingy room” in Beijing, but is now based in New York.
This production supported by Australia National University’s Australian Center on China in the World is presented by academic Graeme Smith and author Louisa Lim, a former BBC and NPR China correspondent . The show provides in-depth analysis of political events in the PRC and beyond. The show normally takes the format of an interview, with Smith and Lim inviting academics and activists for discussions and debate on their areas of expertise.
The show isn’t updated every week, but has a fairly long backlog of episodes dating back to 2016, many of which are still relevant today. Topics are generally political, including the geopolitical implications of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, domestic media, and the development of China’s social credit system.
UPenn Center for the Study of Contemporary China
The pleasant title music and slow, deliberate voice of host Neysun Mahboubi, a research scholar and expert in Chinese law, sets the pace of this show.
The podcast takes the academic route, with in-depth, one-on-one conversations with China scholars on their areas of interest. Anyone looking for a deep dive into specific topics (workers rights, domestic security policy, the one-child policy, local governance, and more) will find excellent material here. Episodes often reach the two-hour mark, as guests wax eloquent on their research.
Culture and society
This podcast is in Chinese, but is unique in providing a window into the lives of individuals in China. Inspired by This American Life, each episode sees host Kou Aizhe inviting “normal” people to tell their story. Kou stays quiet for the most part, and lets the subject narrates their experience in their own words. Topics and guests have included a Hui Chinese man who talks about travelling to Pakistan to find a wife, a worker who lost his job after the Covid-19 outbreak, and an astronaut training for life on Mars. New episodes are released every Monday and Friday, and listeners are encouraged to get in touch if they have a story to tell.
The podcast is also a great way to practice Mandarin listening, as guests come from all over China, speaking with different accents and pronunciations.
NüVoices is a collective that celebrates female professionals who work on the subject of China. Its twice-monthly podcast introduces the work of female writers and entrepreneurs.
Presented by Joanna Chiu, former China correspondent for AFP, Cindy Gao, and Chenni Xu of Alibaba’s Ant Financial, the podcast interviews women in a range of China-related fields, providing a platform for female voices in the traditionally male-dominated field of China reporting and scholarship. Guests have included The New Yorker’s Jiayang Fan, Izzy Niu of Quartz, and author Karoline Kan.
The NüVoices podcast, like Sinica, belongs to the SupChina network of shows.
History (and more)
There are a few excellent history podcasts on China, including Lazslo Montgomery’s epicly long series The China History Podcast and Chris Stewart’s The History of China, but Barbarians at the Gate is a new offering that takes a slightly different approach to the single-person narratives of others.
Beijing-based historian (and TWOC contributor) Jeremiah Jenne and Chinese linguistics scholar David Moser are the presenters, and talk to academics and historians on topics such as the development of Chinese language, the Boxer Rebellion, and contemporary issues such as the place of foreigners in China today. The podcast is new this year, but has already featured scholar Jeffrey Wasserstrom and New York Times correspondent Ian Johnson.
China in the World — International relations podcast on China’s impact on the wider world, with focus on US-China relations, produced by the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing. Guests are often Chinese IR scholars.
Chinese Characters — This 20-part series by the BBC, produced in 2018, introduces China’s history through influential people and events
ChinaTalk — Another SupChina podcast; casual, but detailed chats with experts on domestic Chinese issues
StochasticVolatility (随机波动) — Chinese language show presented by two journalists; they discuss domestic Chinese issues.
Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies — Audio recordings of speakers giving China-related talks at Harvard University
Cover image from VCG