What’s the hardest part of learning a language?
Is it reading?
I’m going to go out on a limb….
…and say that listening might be the hardest part.
Listening is fundamentally different from reading, writing and speaking because listening is often in the spur of the moment.
When you’re talking to people, you can’t really expect to have people repeat things twice, thrice, four times and more just to catch up with what they say.
Mandarin Chinese language podcasts, then, might be a really great way to brush up your Chinese listening skills. And with the variety of podcasts out there, it’s pretty awesome in that you can learn some topic-specific vocabulary while learning something interesting about Chinese culture.
Instead of spending most of our time on the usual suspects (e.g., Chinesepod and Popup Chinese), we’re going to introduce some other options for Chinese podcasts that you might not have heard of. These are native language podcasts, which might be perfect for you if you’re looking to get to the next level in your Chinese fluency.
What Makes a Great Chinese Podcast?
First of all, I want to do a brief section on talking about how I gauged these Chinese podcast services, and if you’re looking for Chinese podcasts, these might be some things you wanna think about when choosing a Chinese language podcast to follow.
1. It has to be suitable for your level. It goes without saying, almost, but if the podcast is overly technical, and riddled with obscure words nobody thinks about using, it might not be immediately attractive to you. Instead, you might want to find Chinese podcasts that are suitable for your current Chinese level. Usually, the best podcast services designed for learning will sort their podcast lessons by level.
2. It shouldn’t have too much local slang or dialect in it. This is another biggie—I personally find slang to be very difficult, and mostly irrelevant when learning another language. It’s ironic… most people say that Chinese is a difficult language to learn, but surprisingly, it doesn’t have a lot of slang that finds its way into the Chinese language as with the colorful expressions you often hear in English. I’m not against slang per se, but I certainly don’t advocate it either, especially for learning in the beginning.
3. Avoid Chinese podcasts that are heavily accented. I’m sure you already know this, but China is a big place. Unfortunately, the Chinese language tends to have a lot more variation in accent that makes it difficult to listen to. For example, a heavy GuangDong accent may make Chinese sound very much like Cantonese, and someone who’s a local in Taiwan or who speaks the MinNan dialect often likes to throw in a couple of phrases here and there in the local dialect. I would recommend against these ones.
4. Great Chinese podcasts should have a transcript or subtitles to go with them. If you’re a beginner in Chinese, subtitles, transcripts and learning materials are always welcome. I tend to be a bit biased, but between two podcasts that have good content and mediocre content, I would choose the one with the mediocre content but with great learning materials (assuming the one with the good content doesn’t have them). That way, I know I’m actually learning!
5. Awesome Chinese podcasts should discuss interesting topics. I’m not a fan of podcasts that are overly political or just talk about news—I mean, why not just watch the news then? I tend to favor podcasts that talk about really nichey stuff, or podcasts that are more casual (that don’t sound like a recording taken out of a Chinese textbook), but the main thing is that they should be interesting, or else I find my vocabulary retention rates drop after a while.
6. Popular Chinese podcasts should be updated regularly. In a sense, you can look at it like a vanity indicator, but the more popular the Chinese learning podcast, the more often it should be updated, right? Also. it’s great to choose a podcast you can stick to for a long time to come.
Okay, and after looking at many, many podcasts, I’ve picked out seven Chinese language podcasts which I think are just flat out awesome, that you might wanna check out.
Mandarin on the Go: 10 Awesome Chinese Podcasts in 2021 You’ve Never Heard Of
Chinese Podcast #1: 青春愛消遣 (qīngchūn ài xiāoqiǎn) — The Pastimes of Youth
Podcast Difficulty: Beginner to Intermediate
Example Chinese podcast lessons: 與王小姐談心 (yǔ wáng xiǎojiě tánxīn) — Talking with Ms. Wong, 青春朗讀社 (qīngchūn lǎngdú shè) — Youth Reading Club, 青春藤解析英語 (qīngchūn téng jiěxī yīngyǔ) — Youths Dissecting English, 青春智慧王 (qīngchūn zhìhuì wáng) — The Youth King of Wisdom, 青春萊塢: 猜猜是哪部電影 (qīngchūn lái wù: cāi cāi shì nǎ bù diànyǐng) — Youth-lywood : Guess the Film
Best used for: Learning basic vocabulary and understanding Taiwanese culture
Theme: Daily life issues (Taiwanese younger audience)
One thing I love about Taiwanese talk shows is that they’re always very relaxing—it almost seems like dropping in on a conversation between friends, so it always gives you a homely feel… great for a weekend listening session to learn Chinese through podcasts… and to relax!!
Typical of Taiwanese talk show hosts, this podcast is brought to audiences in a very conversational tone. It’s also targeted at a younger audience, so the dialogue is a lot less formal, and a lot easier to listen to.
Started by two college students, this show is pretty popular in Taiwan, and it basically talks about life issues from the eyes of younger people in Taiwan, so you can really see how Taiwanese people live their daily lives, their cultural values, beliefs and such.
So if you’re interested in seeing Taiwan through the eyes of youngsters, this is definitely the show for you!
Chinese Podcast #2: FluentU
Podcast Difficulty: Beginner to Native
Materials: Yes (downloadable PDFs, online interactive subtitles, vocabulary lists, further word explanations, exercises)
Example Chinese podcast lessons: Crazy for Bitcoins, Falling Girl caught by Good Samaritans, TEDx: Taiwan from Above, In Need of a Miracle, “What is Love,” The Chinese Zodiac, “I Try Pantene” with Lin Chi-ling, Tomboy Can Fly, A Flower in the Mist, Looking After Those We Love, What Is an Aurora?
Best used for: Listening practice (video and audio) and learning vocabulary specific to different topics
Theme: Business, Everyday Life, Fashion & Style, Health & Lifestyle, Politics & Society, Travels
Wouldn’t it be great if your Chinese podcasts came with built-in subtitles?
Your wish is FluentU‘s command!
Many of these real-world videos and audios act like podcasts in that they are all audio-based, meaning you can take them with you anywhere you would like to go. They’re also available in many different formats: You can listen to talk show clips, interviews, news briefings, speeches and even commercials and movie trailers, all in authentic Chinese.
Best of all, all of these videos and audio clips come with built-in subtitles. Every single one. And did I mention they’re interactive subtitles? Simply click on a word, and get an instant translation into English complete with example sentences.
You can also opt to turn these words into flashcards for later reviews, and each video or audio has a comprehension activity. In this way, FluentU turns your podcast into an all-around Chinese learning experience.
Chinese Podcast #3: 慢速中文 (màn sù zhōngwén) — Slow Chinese
Podcast Difficulty: Upper Intermediate to Advanced
Example Chinese podcast lessons: 豆漿和油條 (dòujiāng hé yóutiáo) — Soya Bean Milk and Fried Breadsticks, 中國好聲音 (zhōngguó hǎo shēngyīn) — The Voice of China, 舌尖上的中國 (shéjiān shàng de zhōngguó) — A Bite Of China, 逃跑計劃 (táopǎo jìhuà) — Escape Plan, 古箏 (gǔzhēng) — GuZheng (A Chinese Musical Instrument), 長壽麵 (chángshòu miàn) — Longevity Noodles
Best used for: Gleaning into the life of a Chinese college student
Theme: Daily life in China
Slow Chinese is a relatively new show, and it’s also pretty unique. It’s created by Chinese college students, and basically, these students talk about a snippet of what it’s like to live in China, often in short sessions under 10 minutes.
The most unique aspect of Slow Chinese is that it’s designed to be spoken out loud slowly, so even if the content is a bit more advanced than you’re used to, it’s much easier to make out the individual words because of the slower speed!
I think that in terms of learning materials, it’s not the most well equipped in the list, but in terms of podcast material, it can be interesting—these are genuine snippets of what life is like through the eyes of college students, so you can count on it that you’re not just going to learn new words, you’re also going to hear some unique stuff about Chinese culture from a native’s perspective!
The content isn’t exhaustive, but you can get a glimpse into China through Slow Chinese, and I highly recommend it for people who are at an intermediate level to really polish their listening skills here.
Chinese Podcast #4: 新浪視頻 (sīnlàng shìpín) — Sina Videos
Podcast Difficulty: Advanced
Materials: Video subtitles (but not interactive)
Example Chinese podcast lessons: 女局長用假證與男子結婚同居 (nǚ júzhǎng yòng jiǎ zhèng yǔ nánzǐ jiéhūn tóngjū) — Female Police Chief Uses a Fake ID to Marry a Man and Live with Him, 男子劫人質 特警一槍將其擊倒 (nánzǐ jié rénzhì tèjǐng yī qiāng jiāng qí jí dǎo) — A Man Takes Hostages, a Special Officer Takes Him Down with a Single Shot, 92女孩同時高空跳傘 (92 nǚhái tóngshí gāokōng tiàosǎn) — 92 Girls Jump with Parachutes at the Same Time, 中國需提防個別國家搞偷襲 (zhōngguó xū tífáng gèbié guójiā gǎo tōuxí) — China Needs to Take Preventive Measures to Fend off Surprise Attacks from Individual Countries, 記者被工作人員缚手围殴 (jìzhě bèi gōngzuò rényuán fù shǒu wéi ōu) — Reporter is Tied and Beaten by Workers
Best used for: Learning vocabulary to do with politics and current affairs
Theme: Chinese politics and current mainland affairs
Also available at: http://video.sina.com.cn/
Sina is one of China’s largest websites, and it’s also within the top 25 most visited websites in the world. Think of it as the Chinese NYT, except its operations cover a whole lot more than just news! But if you’re looking for more news and current affairs podcasts, this is definitely the way to go.
Sina podcasts cover a huge variety of topics, and there are almost 20 clips added daily.
However, be forewarned—this isn’t the easiest Chinese podcast to listen to! Because it’s a native Chinese show, it’s not designed to be used as Chinese learning material, so what’s said on screen is what native Chinese people hear, which doesn’t sound tough, but add on the non-Beijing accents used by some TV anchors, it can be a real challenge!
So, yes… that means you’ll have to slowly attune yourself to listen to a wide variety of accents… even from reporters!
If I had to recommend how to use it, I’d say you can treat it as a daily practice session to improve your listening flexibility, but I wouldn’t advocate it as a way to learn vocabulary (the topics are way too varied, not to mention way too dry for my tastes!).
Chinese Podcast #5: 鬼話連篇 (guǐhuà liánpiān) — A Big Load of Paranormal Events
Podcast Difficulty: Intermediate to Advanced
Materials: Video subtitles (but not interactive)
Example Chinese podcast lessons: 超膽任務實驗工廠鬼屋 (chāo dǎn rènwù shíyàn gōngchǎng guǐwū) — Super Daring Mission to Experiment with a Haunted Ghost Factory, 靈動總回顧 (língdòng zǒng huígù) — Looking Back at Telekinesis, 超膽觀眾實驗 度假村 (chāo dǎn guānzhòng shíyàn dùjiàcūn) — Super Daring Audience Mission – Exploring the Village House), 空屋女鬼 (kōng wū nǚ guǐ) — Female Ghost in an Empty House
Best used for: Learning general vocabulary
This is a pretty popular TV show in China based around a fairly unusual theme: supernatural stuff!
If you’re into supernatural things, this is definitely something you want to check out! Based on a reality TV show format, it shows episodes of audiences visiting places rumored to be haunted, and their reactions are filmed on screen, and since a lot of this isn’t “staged,” you’re more than likely to hear a genuine scream permeating the set—sending shivers down your spine!
One thing that bugged me is the fact that I don’t think it’s updated anymore… but even with the current episodes count, you can get pretty busy with combing through the content.
Subtitles are available, and if you’re a supernatural fan (no pun intended), this might be an interesting show to catch.
Chinese Podcast #6: 狗熊有话说 (gǒuxióng yǒu huàshuō) — BearTalk
Podcast Difficulty: Intermediate to Advanced
Example Chinese podcast lessons: 《成为》- 给自己相信的力量 (“chéngwéi” – jǐ zìjǐ xiāngxìn de lìliàng) — “Becoming” (Give Yourself the Power to Believe) by Michelle Obama, 有了小孩如何保持高效率 (yǒule xiǎohái rúhé bǎochí gāo xiàolǜ) — Immediately Become a Productive Parent, 禅与英语自学艺术 (chán yǔ yīngyǔ zìxué yìshù) — How Does Hao Learn English?, 日式蛇精病民科读书法？(rì shì shé jīng bìng mín kē dúshū fǎ?) — Read a Book in 20 Minutes, Really?)
Best used for: Learning informal and naturally spoken Chinese
Theme: Technology, books, self-improvement
狗熊有话说 (BearTalk) is a pretty well-known and well-liked podcast on the Chinese podcast scene. It has been around for a long time, and in fact, it won the iTunes Editor’s Choice award in 2013 and has been featured in newspapers worldwide.
The podcast’s creator is a guy named “Bear,” and he’s a techie app designer and marketer who has lived in China and now New Zealand. His podcast touches on a variety of topics ranging from book reviews, technology, app design, self-improvement and productivity.
His speech style is accessible to intermediate learners because he speaks slowly and carefully, but he also uses an informal, conversational tone and some of his content uses technical language. For this reason, I’d recommend this podcast for high intermediate and advanced learners.
Further, this podcast is useful for learners to hear real Chinese as it is actually spoken. I would use this for everyday ways to talk about specific topics and see Chinese used in a natural, conversational setting.
Chinese Podcast #7: 听故事学中文 (tīng gùshì xué zhōngwén) — Learning Chinese through Stories
Podcast Difficulty: Intermediate to Advanced
Example Chinese podcast lessons: 《三个女人一台戏：三十而已的三位女主》(sān gè nǚrén yī tái xì: sānshí éryǐ de sān wèi nǚ zhǔ) — Three Women in One Play: Three Heroines in Nothing But Thirty, 《大头儿子小头爸爸》(dàtóu er zi xiǎo tóu bàba) — Big Head Son, Little Head Dad, 《我的父亲》(wǒ de fùqīn) — My Father, 《丑小鸭》(chǒuxiǎoyā) — The Ugly Duckling
Best used for: Learning vocabulary and grammar in context
Stories are some of the best ways to be entertained and to learn at the same time, and this podcast delivers in both those respects.
As the name of this podcast describes, it uses short stories to teach Chinese. Each story and podcast ranges from a couple of minutes to around 20 minutes. These stories and their explanations are completely in Chinese, so I’d recommend a pretty solid level of Chinese (think intermediate level) in order to get the most out of this podcast. In theory, you should be comfortable with little or no English support.
For each story, the host breaks down the stories for themes and comprehension and explains them in careful Chinese. There are some grammar lessons released in addition to stories, and new stories are uploaded regularly.
Chinese Podcast #8: MandarinBean
Podcast Difficulty: Beginner to Advanced
Materials: Transcripts, Pinyin, Notes, Translations.
Example Chinese podcast lessons: 中国古代的重要发明 (zhōngguó gǔdài de zhòngyào fāmíng) — Important Inventions In Ancient China, 南北之争 (nánběi zhī zhēng) — The Dispute Between Southerners and Northerners, 愚公移山 (yúgōngyíshān) — Yu Gong Moves the Mountains, 动车上结婚 (dòngchē shàng jiéhūn) — Get Married On the High-Speed Train
Best used for: Learning vocabulary and leveled reading
Theme: Varied (stories and articles)
Wouldn’t it be nice if a podcast evolved with you as your level of Chinese improved? Look no further!
MandarinBean is designed as a program rather than a straight podcast. It teaches multiple levels of Chinese (HSK 1-6) all through podcasts. That means that you can use MandarinBean as a beginner Chinese learner and then continue to use the program as you move through the intermediate and advanced learner stages.
While there are a few free lessons, to get the best of MandarinBean, you have to sign up. There’s a monthly subscription fee, but each lesson comes with a transcript, notes and English translation.
Each podcast’s transcript can also be accessed in traditional or simplified characters as well as pinyin. Learners can also adjust the speed of the podcast to be faster or slower.
Chinese Podcast #9: 电影不无聊 (diànyǐng bù wúliáo) — No Boring Movies
Podcast Difficulty: Advanced
Example Chinese podcast lessons: 迪士尼味儿的花木兰，香吗？(díshìní wèi er de huā mùlán, xiāng ma?) — Is Disney’s “Mulan” Good?, 跟着上影节刷片 (gēnzhe shàng yǐng jié shuā piàn) — Shanghai’s Film Festival, 灾难物语（与科幻作家聊科幻）(zāinàn wùyǔ [yǔ kēhuàn zuòjiā liáo kēhuàn]) — Disaster Story: Talking About Science Fiction with Science Fiction Writers
Best used for: Talking about Chinese movies and pop culture
Theme: Movies, celebrities
If you’re a movie buff and enjoy Chinese and Western movies alike, then 电影不无聊 (No Boring Movies) pretty much guarantees that you’ll never be bored.
Like previous “talk show” style podcasts, this one is completely in Chinese. Further, it is hosted by a man and a woman who speak the standard Beijing dialect of Chinese, but their discussions can get quite complex and technical. Because of that, I recommend that learners have a pretty high level (advanced level) of Chinese before listening. It would also be helpful to have seen the movies that the hosts are talking about to help put things into context.
As expected, each podcast features a movie review or discussion about a movie or movie genre. Occasionally, there are interviews or they feature a certain director or actor. The podcasts are quite lengthy, so be prepared to get an in-depth look at the topic.
This podcast is also a great way to learn about Chinese cinema and see what’s popular in Chinese entertainment at any given time.
Chinese Podcast #10: 開卷八分鐘 (kāijuàn bā fēnzhōng) — Eight Minutes Reading
Podcast Difficulty: Upper Intermediate to Advanced
Example Chinese podcast lessons: 黃金羅盤 (huángjīn luópán) — The Golden Compass, 摩西五經 (móxī wǔjīng) — The Pentateuch
Best used for: Practice listening skills and discovering new books to read
This is another nichey-type Chinese language podcast—it’s a show that was broadcasted in a major Chinese TV network from January 2007 to December 2014, and it’s basically a show where the host talks about book recommendations in short eight-minute snippets (thus the title 開卷“八分鐘”), talking about his thoughts on the book, summarizing it and talking about why he recommends reading it.
If you’re an avid reader and would love to expand your book selection to Chinese work, this is a great way to get a close-up with Chinese books (literature, essays, short stories, etc.) in a more relaxing way, and get good book recommendations to read in the meanwhile.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to read Chinese books nowadays, so I haven’t bought any books recommended by the host yet. But, based on how he describes some of these books, I’d definitely be enticed to check out these books if I had the time, so this show gets my personal thumbs up for great book recommendations!
(Word of caution, though: Reading these books requires a fairly good grasp of Chinese literature, so while anyone can practice their Chinese listening skills with the show, these books are not for the faint of heart!)
Note: The website for this podcast no longer works, but you can head over to the YouTube channel for old content. You can also check out this list of places where you can find Chinese books to download instead!
And One More Thing…
On a different but not unrelated note, I also want to mention the name of a hugely popular talk show that I think deserves to be on the list but isn’t because of reasons I’m about to explain—it doesn’t have subtitles, episodes are 45 minutes long (very long!) and can be a little localized at times—but I personally love the show a lot, so I can’t resist bringing it up at the end.
The show I’m referring to, of course, is the award-winning Taiwan talk show 康熙来了 (kāngxī láile), or “Kangsi Coming” in English. The show’s name is a play on the Chinese emperor 康熙 but is actually a portmanteau of the two host’s names. It was one of the longest running variety shows in Taiwan that aired from January 2004 to January 2016, where the two hosts invited many different guests, celebrities and normal people, to the show to talk about a huge variety of topics that people often find interesting and controversial.
Highly recommend this for some light-hearted entertainment, humor, insight into Taiwanese culture and also for learning a couple of phrases in the local Taiwanese dialect!
In my opinion, Chinese language podcasts are a great way to learn Chinese, especially to help strengthen your listening skills.
And to sum up, here are my recommendations:
If you’re looking for Chinese podcasts to strengthen your listening and your vocabulary in an organized way, FluentU maybe the way to go;
If you’re looking for Chinese podcasts in the news category, Sina’s podcasts may be the thing for you;
Finally, if you’re looking for more nichey type podcasts, you might want to check out 鬼話連遍 and 开卷八分钟。
I hope you’ve found this post helpful and that it made you consider adding podcasts to your Chinese learning approach in the future.
P.S. A user has also mentioned Learn Chinese with CSLPod as another great podcast worth checking out. Looks promising!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.