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China history podcast draw wide audience

By LIU YINMENG in Los Angeles | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-09-18 07:53
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In 2010, Laszlo Montgomery came up with a short list of about 150 ideas for a new and ambitious project — a podcast focusing on curated topics from more than 5,000 years of Chinese history.

Over time, what started out as a hobby evolved into a popular channel with 230 episodes and a fan base made up of listeners from around the world.

Montgomery now receives topic suggestions from listeners every week. One week, for example, someone asked if he could do an episode covering the War of the Eight Princes in the Western Jin Dynasty (AD 265-316), he said. In another week, someone else asked him to cover the history of Macao.

"Five thousand years of history … it's doubtful I'm ever going to run out of potential topics," he mused.

The China History Podcast (http://chinahistorypodcast.libsyn.com/) started out as his initiative for Americans to learn about Chinese history and gain a basic understanding and appreciation for the culture, Montgomery said.

In a casual, storytelling style, Montgomery presents the various emperors, dynasties, heroes, revolutions and great leaders of China. The topics that he covers range from the history of Chinese philosophy to the history of Chinese Tang poetry, from the history of Jewish refugees in China to China's relations with Vietnam.

An episode uploaded on July 14, 2019, is part one of a three-part series introducing audiences to "the seven great singing stars of old Shanghai" who dominated the Chinese popular music scene in the 1930s to 1940s, and whose music helped shape Chinese cinema.

His Chinese Sayings Podcast offers the history and definition for individual Chinese sayings.

In one episode, he explained the Chinese idiom, wan shi ju bei, zhi qian dong feng, translated to "all is ready except for the opportunity", by going into the story of Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang and their famous scheme to burn Cao Cao's fleets during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD).

Montgomery, who was born in 1959, in a tight-knit Jewish community in Illinois, traces his interest in China to 1979, when he was a student at the University of Illinois.

That year, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping paid a historic visit to the United States, soon after the formalization of diplomatic relations between the two nations. The milestone event, which marked the opening of a new chapter in Sino-US relations, inspired the young Montgomery to study Mandarin at his university.

He moved to Hong Kong in 1989, and lived there until 1998. Throughout his career, Montgomery has worked for three Hong Kong and Chinese mainland public companies in sales, marketing and new business development.

"I'm not a professor. I'm a salesman, so I use my sales technique to introduce Chinese history," he said.

To him, understanding is the root of acceptance. Knowledge about a country's history, culture and society promotes dialogue and facilitates connections, especially during times of tension.

"The better people understand Chinese society, the better the chance is of finding common ground. For such a long history, rich culture and an epic list of achievements as a people and nation, this should be the easiest story in the world to tell. All that is supposedly bad about China, we Americans have become experts," he said.

That is probably why Montgomery gave a speech at Harvard University last November titled "Don't Forget the Good Times", which was intended to remind people to keep a cool head and not to forget some of the important moments in history when the two countries got along better.

"The US and China have come together in positive ways many times in the past, and despite our differences in culture and how we view each other … both countries have gained so much from the relationship and have become better countries because of this interaction with each other. And look at how much America has benefited thanks to Chinese immigration," he said.

For example, after the US became an independent country and was no longer bound by the East India Company monopoly of China trade, American traders made a beeline to China in 1783.

The early commerce in tea, silk and porcelain boosted the US economy when it was desperately needed. A lot of American ginseng was exported to China, among other commodities, Montgomery said.

In 1941, the American Volunteer Group, or "Flying Tigers", came to China's aid during Japan's invasion of China.

"All these great moments in diplomacy, in commerce, education and moments where we held hands together for a common cause … as much as we try to hide this or downplay its importance … let's not forget it in the face of the challenges and hard feelings both sides share today," he said.

His fan base is a perfect example of a group of people drawn together through a shared interest and appreciation of Chinese culture.

Montgomery said that only 50 percent of his listeners are in the US; the other 50 percent come from the rest of the world. Most of his fans are from English-speaking countries, such as Canada, Australia, the US and New Zealand. But traffic also comes from Germany, Sweden and Norway, as well as Southeast Asia and China.

"My greatest achievement has been the bandwidth of listeners I've managed to attract. From China experts and professors around the world to high schoolers, the show seems to offer sufficient-enough sophistication for the experts but still be accessible to students working on papers for their history class," he said.

One of the most enthusiastic groups of listeners of the show are overseas Chinese who grew up outside China, Montgomery noted.

"My listeners for the most part aren't looking for a PhD in this subject. They have an interest or a curiosity in Chinese history that leads them to seek some understanding. My show offers listeners a convenient way to learn. And everything is free," he said.

"It's all about promoting understanding about China, with the hope that from understanding come friendship. So that's the easy introduction," Montgomery added.

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