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Host AMAsAMA with John Zhu, Host of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms Podcast
AMAs >  John Zhu

John Zhu

show Romance of the Three Kingdoms
When December 16 2019 @ 11:30AM (EST)

By day, John works in communications. By night (and weekends), he produces English-language podcasts where he retells classic Chinese tales in a way that makes them more approachable for Western audiences.

From 2014-2018, John produced the Romance of the Three Kingdoms Podcast (3kingdomspodcast.com). Currently, he is working on the Water Margin Podcast (outlawsofthemarsh.com). The stories John covers have been read, told, retold, and cherished by billions of people in China for centuries. Their influence on Chinese culture is the equal of Shakespearean plays and Homeric sagas in the West, yet most Westerners are completely unaware of these amazing works. One of John’s main motivations for creating these podcasts is to introduce non-Chinese audiences to these amazing stories.

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11 Questions
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Andrian Timeswift asked this question 4 months ago

“The earth rat follows the golden tiger; the villain is shortly doomed!”

In Episode 88, you promised to explain what this meant later, but apparently it never made the final cut of the podcast. What does this prophecy mean? I think it has something to do with the Sima clan taking over Wei, with a reference to the Chinese Zodiac, but I would love a full explanation.

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John Zhu replied 4 months ago

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Thanks Adrian for the question. I guess I never did get back to that, did I? 🙂 It’s a reference to the year 220. The “earth rat” and “golden tiger” are both veiled references to the Chinese characters in the name for the 37th year in a 60-year cycle on the Chinese zodiac, which in this case is the year 220, the year when Cao Cao (“the villain” in the prophesy) died.

For those new to the podcast/novel, this is one reason I wanted to do the podcast, because the novel is filled with stuff like this that doesn’t make any sense to someone without the cultural context. Even among Chinese, I’d say that was a particularly obscure reference.

Sreenivas R asked this question 4 months ago

As a long time fan, firstly thank you for the amazing body of work! Any reason why you picked Water Margin over Journey to the West (which is hopefully next?)

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John Zhu replied 4 months ago

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Sreenivas. Thank you for the kind words! I actually almost started with the Water Margin instead of the Three Kingdoms when I was trying to decide which one to do my first podcast on. I loved both, and I eventually settled on Three Kingdoms because 1) there was a greater level of awareness about it in the West, thanks to the long-running video game franchise based on it, and 2) it comes earlier chronologically, so understanding its characters and stories would help someone better understand the Water Margin later.

As for Journey to the West, I’m a bit conflicted about it. I loved the TV show based on it growing up, but as far as adapting it to a podcast, I run into the problem of its plot becoming repetitive “monster-of-the-week” stories after the initial setup. I might still do it at some point, but it probably would not be covering the book chapter-by-chapter. We’ll see 🙂

Helmer Aslaksen asked this question 4 months ago

I just discovered your podcast about two months ago, and I have almost finished 3 Kingdoms. Looking forward to starting on Water Margin. I’m incredibly grateful for what you’re doing. I love the way you’re retelling the story, your historical comments and your sense of humor. Zhuge Liang would have been proud of you!
Two questions. Could you say something about the history of two character vs one character given names? I read somewhere that Wang Mang banned two character give names, but I was never able to find any details. Is there anybody in 3 Kingdoms with a two character given name?
The second question is about the way you often (always?) say “the general X”, instead of “general X”. I know that you should say “the Kangxi emperor” instead of “emperor Kangxi”. Is there something similar going on here?

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John Zhu replied 4 months ago

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Hi Helmer. Thanks for checking out the shows!

Two-character names: To be honest I’m not enough of a historian to know the detailed background behind them and why they have become rarer over time. I do know that they often tended to be associated with people from ethnic minorities rather than the Han ethnicity. There are quite a number of characters in Three Kingdoms with two-character family names, including some really significant players, like Zhuge Liang, Sima Yi (and his sons), and anybody from the Xiahou clan.

To your second question, I often say “the general” as a way of slipping in a quick ID/reminder about someone’s role, to help listeners keep track of all the different characters. It’s like when I say “the adviser so-and-so”. So I’m using it in the generic sense, rather than as a title.

Joshua Stroupe asked this question 4 months ago

Did spending so much time with some of the characters in these stories change your opinion of any if them? 
 
And did spending hundreds of hours on these two stories, writing scripts, etc make you view any plot elements or overall themes differently?

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John Zhu replied 4 months ago

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Definitely. With the Water Margin, re-reading the novel closely really adds to its morally ambiguous nature and makes you notice how all the characters are shades of gray. With the Three Kingdoms, one thing I’ve noticed is that there are some places where the author almost seems like he’s taking a subtle jab at Liu Bei (can’t remember the exact off the top of my head), even though he’s portrayed as the good guy and the novel is generally thought of as a very positive propaganda for him.

Thanks for the questions, and the long-time support!

Tom Slack Staff asked this question 4 months ago

Hey John, thanks for coming on. What motivated you to do the shows?

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John Zhu replied 4 months ago

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Thanks Tom for inviting me to be a part of WhatPods’ AMA series!

To answer your question: In 2014 I was looking for an intellectual pursuit. I became a new father a year earlier and for the entire year after that the only thing I had enough mental energy to do in my down time was watch reruns of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. After a year, though, I had recovered enough to want to do something more intellectually stimulating again, so I started thinking about possible projects.

I had been interested in podcasting as a medium ever since the mid-2000s when it first started to gain traction. And as a communications professional, I’m always interested in trying out different mediums. So once I started thinking about doing a podcast, I asked myself what space in that realm I could contribute to by filling a need/empty niche rather than just duplicating something somebody else was already doing. Given my Chinese background, I thought about doing something on China. There were already some good podcasts on Chinese history and contemporary China, so I didn’t want to do that. Eventually I arrived at the great classical Chinese novels, which I read growing up and loved. I knew from experience that the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, in particular, was a dense and difficult read for non-Chinese, so that seemed to present a good opportunity.

Bree McCartin Staff asked this question 4 months ago

Hi John what are some things people should know before starting a podcast? The good and the bad surprises.

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John Zhu replied 4 months ago

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Hi Bree. Great question. A few things that come to mind:

1. Do I have enough content/time to keep this going beyond 10 episodes?
2. Chances are you’ll never be the next Serial. Are you ok with that?
3. Once you launch the podcast, you’re really swept up in the cycle of putting out episodes regularly. That makes it more difficult to figure things out on the fly. So pre-planning, testing, and trial runs before your official launch would be helpful..
4. Investing in solid equipment is worth the little extra money. (Really wish I had known this when I started, so I didn’t spend the first 50 episodes playing with different configurations before finally landing on something I was happy with).

Daniel Tupez Staff asked this question 4 months ago

What equipment setup you using?

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John Zhu replied 4 months ago

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Hi Daniel. For hardware, I’m using ol’ reliable – the Blue Yeti mic. I just have it set up with a small sound shield and a pop filter, and hooked directly into my laptop. For software, I record and edit with Audacity.

Eric Hung Staff asked this question 4 months ago

How do you plan the show out before recording?

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John Zhu replied 4 months ago

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Thanks for the question, Eric. Because I’m retelling novels, that makes it a little easier since the source material is all there already. I essentially write my own translations of the novels. I might tweak some things here and there (e.g., withholding a reveal until later, just for better storytelling). I also think about things that might require context/commentary, and whether that can be done quickly within the flow of the narrative, or if it fits better as a supplemental episode. And I’ve reached the point where I know roughly how many words each episode script should be, so when I start getting close to it, I look for convenient places to stop on.

Georgia Vale Staff asked this question 4 months ago

Hi John do you still enjoy podcasting while still having a day job?

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John Zhu replied 4 months ago

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Hi Georgia. Yes, I definitely still enjoy it while juggling a day job. A little context: Before I started podcasting, I was taking care of a newborn while working full-time. And before that, I was in grad school while working full-time. So podcasting was just kind of one more thing on the pile. Also, it’s actually gotten a bit easier as my kid has gotten older and require a little less hands-on care.

And of course, I’d be remiss to not acknowledge the role of the listeners. The enthusiastic feedback I get from listeners — whether it’s reviews on iTunes, email messages, or exchanges on Twitter — really make the effort worthwhile and helps keep me going. (So thank you!!)

Pat Iveo Staff asked this question 4 months ago

What has been your promotion strategy to grow listeners to the show?

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John Zhu replied 4 months ago

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Great question, Pat. In the beginning, I identified online communities, like message boards, that had some connection to the topic I would be covering. I lurked there, participated a bit, and then once the show launched, I promoted it in those places, and word-of-mouth from those communities helped spread awareness of the show initially. I also made efforts to get the show onto as many platforms as I could. One example is putting the episodes on YouTube, given its reach and the fact that it’s a Google-owned platform, which helps some part of the show’s digital footprint show up higher in search results (e.g., the video carousel that comes up near the top of Google searches).

One thing that really helped the show get a bump in audience is appearing on the Sinica Podcast (which I highly recommend for anyone interested in contemporary China), since that show’s audience consisted of the kind of people – Westerners with a strong interest in China – for whom my podcasts are a natural fit.

So I guess my strategy, such as it is, is really about finding and engaging with the online communities of people who might be interested in this topic. And honestly that’s one of the things I love about podcasting — its ability to form connections with niche audiences.

JB Baker Staff asked this question 4 months ago

Hi John — what kept you going in the early days when you didn’t have any listeners to keep the motivation up?

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John Zhu replied 4 months ago

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Great question. That’s something every indie podcaster has to prepare for, right? I knew going in that what I was doing would likely be a niche product, so I tempered my expectations accordingly. It helps that this was something I felt passionate about, and so it was something I probably would’ve done even if there were no listeners at the time. I also looked at it as: There is a need — a way for non-Chinese audiences to more easily get into this great classic novel — and I’m creating a resource to meet that need. So even if it didn’t get a lot of traction right away, it would still exist and be helpful to someone who discovers it later on. And once I did start getting some listeners, their enthusiasm really helped keep me motivated.

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