About the Podcast

What?

This podcast is my attempt to tell the story of the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms in a way that’s more accessible to an audience who did not grow up in the culture and society that it has permeated for hundreds of years.

Here are a couple media appearances where I discuss the podcast, my motivation for starting it, and the significance of the novel in Chinese culture:

Who?

You can learn more about me at john-zhu.com.

Where?

You can listen to the episodes on this website or subscribe to the podcast feed. It is also listed on a number of podcasting services, including the iTunes store. See the subscribe page.

When?

I started this project in spring 2014. I try to stick to a schedule where I release one episode a week for three straight weeks, then take a week off before starting the cycle again. This built-in break helps keep me from getting burned out. It’s a LONG novel, so I’m trying to pace myself for the long haul.

Why?

Several years ago, a friend recommended The History of Rome podcast to me. That got me interested in podcasts, especially ones about history. As time went on, I started thinking about what I would do a podcast on if I were to attempt one. As it turned out, I had a tough time coming up with a topic that I was an expert in and wasn’t already covered in detail elsewhere on the web.

Then the idea to do a podcast retelling ROTK came to me. I may not be an expert in Chinese history or literature, but I had grown up immersed in the tales from the novel. I still remember my grandfather’s copy of the novel, which had a tea-stained page in the first volume (when I got my own copy later in life, I made sure to get one with the same cover as my grandfather’s). I read the full novel for the first time before I turned 10. I listened to the novel on the radio. I knew the name of every warrior of note on every side. Surely I can retell the story.

More importantly, I want to retell the story because I want to make it accessible to a Western audience. One year, I got my wife — a native-born American — an English translation of the novel as a gift. When I flipped through a few pages, however, it quickly struck me how boring it was. It seemed like a continuous onslaught of strange and similar sounding names of people and places, mixed with often dry descriptions of military campaigns. It may be a faithful translation of the text, but it was not the ROTK that I grew up with.

So I’m going to try to tell the story in a style that’s easier to understand and, hopefully, more interesting than just reading a straight translation. I want to do this because I want to introduce people to a key piece of Chinese history and culture. Put simply, understanding ROTK is akin to understanding Shakespeare, and I would hate for it to remain beyond the reach or patience of the majority of the Western audience simply because of what’s lost in translation.

But …

A few caveats: I’m no professional storyteller or voice actor. In fact, I’m not even that good a public speaker. Also, I’ve done very little audio recording and editing before this. So the early episodes will likely be a bit rough as I try to find my way both in terms of style and techniques. But it’s a novel with 120 chapters, so there is ample time for me to figure it out. Bear with me, and I’ll try hard to make it worth your while. (2015 update: After 50-some episodes, I can confirm that both my style and my recording setup have improved over the course of the podcast.)

Thanks!

John

41 thoughts on “About the Podcast

  1. I’ve only listened to a couple episodes of your podcast so far (introduction and early yellow scarve rebellion) but I must say that I enjoy it. As an American, I’ve only met two others who had a passion for ROTK, although many know a scattered loose version from the Dynasty Warriors games. Thank you for attempting to spread knowledge of the story.

  2. Hi John, i’ve started to listen to your podcasts at the beginning of the week. Just finished episode 5. I’m really enjoying it. I have a 1 hour drive to work every morning(and evening) and it’s very pleasant to pass that time in my car hearing the ROTK story.

    Also do you know if there is an English translation of wang dulu’s Crane Iron Pentalogy?
    Can’t find it

  3. Hi Ted. Thanks for commenting and for making the show part of your day. Unfortunately, I don’t know if an English translation of the Crane Iron Pentalogy exists. It may be the case that, unlike the movie, the book series itself is still a bit too far below the radar of western audiences.

  4. I just want to tell you this is really, really, reeeeally awesome! You do an amazing job and I can’t wait to get caught up with every one you have released.

  5. This is awesome, I didn’t think anyone would put in the kind of time and effort required to make this story accessible to westerners. Your doing an awesome job and Im loving it. Thank you soooooo much for this, I cant wait to listen to the next episode.

  6. Thanks for all your hard work John, I’m really enjoying it. I rarely have time to read these days so I set out looking for an audiobook I could listen to on the way to work, when I’m falling asleep etc. I haven’t found an audiobook but I think what you’re doing is actually much better than that.

    I started playing Dynasty Warriors games when I was a teenager – each game had a little encyclopaedia section with information about the characters, the battles and of course the Romance of the Three Kingdoms story. Obviously it was impossible not to fall in love with such a fascinating period!

    Can’t wait til we get to hear from Kongming!

    1. Thanks for listening and commenting, Tom! Still a little ways to go before we get to Kongming, but yeah, it’s going to be fun when we get there.

  7. This is a marvellous retelling of a marvellous story. I don’t have any Chinese blood so Three Kingdoms was a real discovery for me (via the 2010 TV series) – loved it! This podcast series is a great companion and I love John’s sardonic wit and side notes that help understand the cultural nuances. Keep it up.

  8. Thanks for putting the website and the podcast. I’ve tried a few times in the past to dive into the book, but always abandoned the idea for lack of time. You’re doing a great service for all of us. I understand that you’re devoting so much of your free time to this — your passion is much appreciated. They need to write a poem about you for your service.

  9. I have always had a strong interest in the ‘three kingdoms era’ ever since I started playing Dynasty Warriors. It will be nice to see how these pod casts retell the story.

  10. Hey,

    I just wanted to let you know how much I’m enjoying your podcast. I really wanted to find an audio version of Three Kingdoms which I could listen to at work. The supplemantary material is great, and I especially appreciate that you point out which names we need to remember (or have met before), since there are so many to keep track of!

    I know several people who have had an interest in reading Three Kingdoms, but simply can’t find an easily accessible version, so I’ll definitely let them know about your work!

  11. Greetings from the Netherlands,

    It is wonderfull to listen to such a piece of chinese culture and history placed on par with the works of homer and the mahabaratha. (which were much easier to find on the internet)

    The Romance of the three kingdoms showed up on my radar after playing a mod of the game civilization 4 named History of the three kingdoms a couple of years ago.

    A small error in podcast 042 prompted me to write you this reply.
    A Thoroughbred is a breed of horses develloped in England during the 17th and 18th century .
    I suspect the original text mentioned either a very fine specimen of a certain kind of horse (and I am quite curious what kind of breed that would be) or that the horse must come from a long line of famous horseancestors.

    Please let me finish this reply by expressing my admiration, gratitude and a pinch of envy towards your skills, ability and commitment to this (which is my very first to listen to) podcast.

    1. Hello Wouter. Thank you for checking out the podcast!

      Regarding your question about the “thoroughbred” in episode 42: What Liu Bei said, in Chinese, was that “That must be a thousand-li horse.” A “li” is a Chinese unit of measurement for distance, the equivalent of about 1/3 of a mile. The term “thousand-li horse” is a way of saying “a really fine horse” rather than a reference to any specific breed. So I translated it as “thoroughbred” in the colloquial sense of the word — a really good horse — rather than in the more accurate sense of the specific breed.

      If you’re wondering, around the time of the Han, the horse that’s generally deemed the best was the Ferghana horse, imported from central Asia. The Red Hare horse in ROTK was probably one of these.

      Thanks for listening and commenting!

  12. Really enjoy the podcast, highly recommend to anyone with interest in 3 kingdoms literature. I had a similar experience to John, in that when I tried to read a translation of the novel, I found it very dense and unengaging, so I can definitely appreciate how approachable the podcast is. Some background – I grew up in a Chinese household living in the US, and definitely played my share of Koei 3 kingdoms games growing up.

    John offers a unique perspective of someone who is obviously very knowledgeable and passionate about the story, and can offer both an “insider” perspective (correct pronunciation of names, meaning behind Chinese customs, etc), as well as a more Western interpretation to make the story relatable, engaging, and humorous.

    Combine that with the fact that it’s a really long story that can get very complex with the sheer number and connections of characters, it seems unlikely anyone else will just take up a similar task lightly. So we definitely have a hidden gem here in my opinion.

  13. Hello John! 🙂 I have been an attentive listener since day 1, I recall the time when your videos had 10-15 views (sometimes i was the first! 🙂 do you have any interest in pursuing your work here after you finish Rotk ? records of the three kingdoms for example? 😀

    1. Hi James! Thanks so much for sticking with the show for the past two years(!). I definitely have thought about what I’ll do after finishing up this podcast, though that end date is still about three years away, so there are no plans yet. I don’t know if I’ll do more on three kingdoms, especially since a lot of source material is kind of difficult to read, even for native Chinese speakers. Whatever I do next though, it’ll most likely be something aimed at fostering greater understanding of Chinese culture and history.

  14. Just discovered this podcast, and each episode is about the same length as my commute to and from work! It’s making my drive that much more enjoyable each day.

    Thank you so much for doing this!
    ~Nicole

  15. Hi John!

    Greetings from Singapore! Really Enjoyed listening to your podcasts while driving. Please keep up the awesome podcast!

  16. Dear John – this is exactly what I am looking for! However, I am unable to find your podcast on the iTunes store. I have searched under “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms Podcast”, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms Podcast by John Zhu”….but all to no avail (or I only get games based, very loosely, on the novel). Can you help? What do you think my problem is?

    Thanks,
    Sabina

  17. I am totally addicted… just discovered the podcast and it’s amazing! I think must have found you from a mention on Sinica or perhaps the China History Podcast. Thanks for what is clearly a labor of love… this will hold me over until my Chinese is strong enough to read it in the original.

  18. Hey John fantastic job on the podcast. I’ve re listened to all your episodes twice now and it’s incredible work. The tid bits of humor you throw in during the dialogue is fantastic, you can definitely hear your speech improvement going from podcast to podcast. Keep up the good work

  19. Hey John,
    I have a question regarding Jing Province. It’s highly contested in the novel between DongWu and Liu Bei. Everyone in Wu claims that the province should go back to Wu but did Wu ever control the province prior to Lu Meng/ Lu Xun taking it from Guan Yu? To me it just seems that the forces of Wu just really wanted it cuz Zhou Yu used so much man power to try to take Nanjun but eventually Liu Bei creeps in at the end and takes it from Cao Ren and Zhou Yu. I know it’s a strategic location basically at the mouth of the river, can you explain this further?

    1. Hi Rocky. Yeah, Dongwu never really had a strong claim of prior ownership to Jing Province. That territory belonged to Liu Biao and then briefly to Cao Cao before Dongwu and Liu Bei started fighting over it. I think Dongwu’s main arguments were

      1) We saved Liu Bei’s butt when he had nothing by beating Cao Cao at Red Cliff, so he owes us.

      2) We were the ones who spent all that time, energy, and men to take Nanjun.

      3) Even after he “stole” Nanjun and other Jing Province cities from us, Liu Bei signed an official document saying that Dongwu is lending him Jing Province and that he will return it someday. So you could say that even Liu Bei agreed he was “borrowing” Jing Province.

      Really, though, what it mostly comes down to is just Dongwu crying, “Me wantee!” for the sake of border security (Jing Province has easy access to the river, making it a good staging ground from which to launch an invasion of Dongwu).

  20. Hello, John! I’m a teacher from Brazil and I, sadly, had never studier Chinese history except for a shallow overview of 20 and 21st century events. A friend of mine recently recommended me the Three Kingdoms chinese drama from 2010, and I started watching it on youtube, and fell in love with it. I found your podcast when looking for a way to understand better this work of literature and learn more about chinese culture, and I’m absolutely loving it. You speak in a very clear way that’s easy to follow, and I feel like your love for the work really comes through. I had never listened to another podcast before but I’m seriously hooked on yours. Thank you for the wonderful work!

  21. Hi John. Well done in taking on such an epic task. I was curious is each episode a chapter from a book? The reason I ask is I am quite impatient so once I start something I like to be able to power thru and finish it quickly. I saw your podcast sometime back but because the saga wasn’t finished I have held off. Now you are at episode 119 and there’s 120 chapters I was curious to know if it was almost done.

    1. Hi Glen. Thanks for checking out the show. I expect the entire podcast will be 150 episodes, so each episode is not quite one chapter in the book. At my current pace, I will get done sometime next year.

  22. Hi John. Thank you so much for making this podcast. I’ve have a friend that has been trying to get me into the story for years. He’s read the original novel several times cover to cover. Over the years he’s made many comments and comparisons to the story that all went over my head. I’m just about done with episode 49 and I understand why he would get so excited about the characters and wanted me to read this.

    IMO, you are doing an amazing job of telling a story in a way that is exciting and accessible. You give enough cultural background so that the listener can understand and reference to the website for the extra details. You claim in the podcast and on the website you are not a professional storyteller. After completing this project, I don’t think you will be able to say that anymore. You are a man of true talent who has put in the time and practice to be a teller of refined skill.

    Keep the story going, I’m looking forward to the next hundred episodes or so. Thanks so much!

    1. Hello Zahn. Thank you so much for the kind words! And for checking out the show! I’ve certainly learned a lot in the process of doing the podcast.

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