Author Archives: mike

Podcasts for Chinese current affairs & history

There are two great China-related podcasts I listen to that I really enjoy and feel compelled to share. I find them both quite entertaining and I highly recommend them for anyone wanting a to learn more about the country.

Sinica Podcast

The Sinica Podcast logo

Hosted by Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn, this podcast deals with current affairs in China and is great for keeping your ‘finger on the pulse’ of major issues there. Each episode they have special guests with expertise in the topic being discussed, and the hosts themselves are extremely knowledgeable.

Kaiser in particular is a very entertaining host (a former heavy metal guitarist) and, as a Chinese American who has spent much time in both countries, has unique insights that are often missed by the predominantly western (albeit highly informed) viewpoints usually expressed on the program.

The range of topics is extremely diverse, but some recent examples include nationalism & censorship, China’s ideological spectrum, China’s millennials, the Tianjin explosion and hip hop in China. In fact, it was through listening to this podcast that I discovered the next one…

China History Podcast

The Chinese History Podcast logo

  • Topic: Chinese history (both ancient & modern)
  • URL: Facebook, iTunes, web
  • Average episode length: ~40 mins.

Hosted by China history enthusiast Laszlo Montgomery, this is a topic-based podcast with topics ranging from overviews of particular dynasties (e.g. the Tang) to notable historical figures (e.g. Deng Xiaoping), events (e.g. the Opium Wars), major cultural things (e.g. tea, Daoism) and more.

Being topic-based is great because it means you can jump around to topics that interest you (which may be several episodes long) instead of having to listen to everything from start to finish.

Laszlo does a great job compressing complicated and vast topics down into manageable chunks that can be easily understood. He typically uses multiple high quality historical sources and the episodes are presented in an entertaining way. He also has a good working knowledge of Mandarin, so is able to pronounce Chinese words quite accurately.

Whilst the full transcripts of episodes aren’t available, he does provide the key terms used (including their Chinese characters), will helps if you want to dig into something you’ve heard further by yourself.

Both podcasts have taught me so much, helping me establish a decent basic understanding of China. I’ve been able to use this as a springboard to dive into more details in particular areas when needed. I hope you will enjoy them as much as I do!


Celebrating Chinese New Year in Sydney, Australia

Chinese New Year (CNY) has become a big event in Sydney. Despite Australia traditionally being a Western country, high levels of migration from Asia has meant that there’s plenty of people eager to share their cultural events here, and CNY is perhaps the best example of that in Sydney.


Most of the Asian population in Sydney is ethnically Chinese, but there are also significant Vietnamese and Korean population centres. For this reason, it’s common to see the term ‘Lunar New Year’ used instead of ‘CNY’ to be more inclusive.


Major events are held in the areas of the city with high Asian populations. This mainly includes:

  • The city centre/CBD (this includes Chinatown),
  • Ashfield in the inner west,
  • Cabramatta in the west (primarily Vietnamese here),
  • Chatswood in the north,
  • Eastwood in the north west, and
  • Hurstville in the south.


I’ll mainly focus on the CBD/city centre (because it’s the largest) and one suburban location: Eastwood (the one I’m most familiar with).

The city centre

Web site:

The city of Sydney’s Chinese New Year celebration is enormous. Now the largest CNY celebration outside of Asia, there is a multitude of events on, most of them different every year. The following video shows some highlights from the 2016 celebration:

I made a big effort this year to try and catch as many events as I could. Below are some highlights.

The zodiac animal lanterns

Large lanterns representing all twelve of the Chinese zodiac animals were set up in various places around the CBD and it was fun walking around and tracking them all down. The City of Sydney council even added a special culture walk in their Sydney Culture Walks app for this to show you where to go.

The three wise monkeys at #cnysyd

The various displays were at many different iconic and picturesque parts of the city, including the Sydney Harbour Bridge (dragon), Opera House (monkeys), and Chinatown (goat, dog, snake).

The Chinese Garden of Friendship

Located near Darling Harbour, the Chinese Garden of Friendship is available all year round but hosts special events during CNY. In 2016 they hosted numerous things including:

  • traditional tea ceremonies,
  • a traditional Chinese music concert,
  • a lion dance,
  • story telling for children (“monkey tales”),
  • pénjǐng (bonsai) displays,
  • tofu carving,
  • lantern decorating, and
  • tai chi classes.

Tea ceremonies in the Chinese Garden of Friendship

I only managed to get to the music concert (“Chinese Chamber Garden Music”) but it was absolutely excellent. The gardens are really beautiful and it’s a great place to rest and relax.


Every CNY the City of Sydney promotes the hashtag #cnysyd so you can always catch good photos on Instagram using that tag.

Due to some new construction in the city, the usual CNY twilight parade was not able to be held. You can watch highlights from the parade in previous years.


Web site: Eastwood Lunar New Year Celebration on Facebook

Eastwood has a large Chinese and Korean population, so there are quite a few events on around CNY. The main event is usually held on a Saturday about two weeks from the actual new year day. It consists of things like:

  • dragon & lion dances (with eye-dotting ceremonies with guests of honour),
  • Monkey King & god of wealth (财神) appearances,
  • various Chinese & western musical items,
  • martial arts demonstrations, and
  • various traditional and modern dance performances.

Other events held on previous weeks included cooking competitions and art & calligraphy classes and markets.


Here’s a video summary of the 2015 CNY:


Here’s a few choice photos from 2016’s main event (courtesy of the Eastwood Lunar New Year Celebration page on Facebook):

Lions with the Monkey King

Dragon with a lion in the air

Local band 'Ai ai ai'

Traditional dance in costume

Traditional Chinese orchestra


This is just a small sampling of what’s on offer in Sydney during Chinese New Year. If you’re a local who hasn’t been before or if you’re visiting around this time of year, be sure to check out some of these yearly events!

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How I improved my ability to hear the different tones in Mandarin

I think Mandarin is a wonderful-sounding language, so early on in my studies I was eager to spend a lot of time improving my pronunciation and learning how to hear & produce the correct tones. One of the hardest aspects of this was training my ear to be able to identify tones that I heard.

Olle Linge of Hacking Chinese fame has created a free tone training course that gives you the chance to focus very specifically on training your ear to correctly identify the four tones in Mandarin. Some features that impressed me:

  • Performance report and analysis: The final report gives you a fascinating insight into a number of stats, including how good you were when you started, which tones you found difficult to differentiate relative to other ones, and how much you improved.
  • Multiple native speakers: The course uses various different male and female voices, giving you exposure to the tones from voices with different timbres and registers.
  • Thoroughness: It takes some time to work through the whole course, but unlike other tone trainers, it does have an ending. I am absolutely sure that anyone who is not yet comfortable with their tone differentiation will be much better by the end.

While I feel like beginners are likely to gain the most value from this, I’d recommend it to anyone that hasn’t cracked the intermediate level yet as it could highlight remaining weak areas. I consider myself at the lower-intermediate level and I was able to identify the correct tone almost all the time (>95%) but it highlighted to me that differentiating between second and third tones was my weakest area.

Performance report from the tone training course.

I had the most trouble during sessions only testing tones 2 and 3.

A couple of bonuses: the data collected from this training course will be used by Olle in his academic research and, if you finish the course before the end of 2015 (only a week from the time I’m writing this!), Olle will arrange to give you some free personalised pronunciation feedback. Get started on the course!

Unfortunately such a course was not available when I was getting started. I recall that much of my early progress was gained using an app called “Pinyin Trainer” by trainchinese. It’s available for free on Android and iOS and helped me with both tone differentiation and pinyin pronunciation. It’s definitely worth a try too! After that, I had quite a lot of one-on-one tutoring with a professional Mandarin teacher who helped get me up to an acceptable level.

I strongly believe that a solid grounding in the tones and pronunciation/pinyin is critical because it avoids the development of bad habits that can be very difficult to correct. Hopefully these resources and tips are useful to some folks out there. Best of luck!