I'm a documentary lover; given a choice between watching a movie, a TV program (drama or comedy), or a documentary, I will almost always choose the documentary.
There are numerous documentaries about China floating around out there so I thought I'd highlight some of my favorites, some of which I use in training/orientation courses for folks headed to China. Others I like just because they are interesting. At any rate, they will all help you understand China better.
1. The Genius that Was China (4 parts) (PBS) (1986)
I remember watching this when it was broadcast in 1990, and loved it because it addressed so many questions that I had accumulated in my first years of working in China. It's interesting to watch it now because at the time no one really knew where China was headed. (Parts 1-3 are on YouTube)
2. A Century of Revolution (3 parts) (PBS) (1987)
If you want to get a handle on what the 20th century looked like in China, this is the series. It begins with the Xinghai Revolution in 1911, which overthrew the Qing Dynasty, and goes right up through the Cultural Revolution. The product description from Amazon:
China: A Century of Revolution is a six-hour tour de force journey through the country's most tumultuous period. First televised on PBS, this award-winning documentary series presents an astonishingly candid view of a once-secret nation with rare archival footage, insightful historical commentary and stunning eyewitness accounts from citizens who struggled through China's most decisive century. China in Revolution charts the pivotal years from the birth of the new republic to the establishment of the PRC, through foreign invasions, civil war and a bloody battle for power between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek. The Mao Years examines the turbulent era of Mao's attempts to forge a "new China" from the war-ravaged and exhausted nation. Born Under the Red Flag showcases China's unlikely transformation into an extraordinary hybrid of communist-centralized politics with an ever-expanding free market economy. Monumental in scope, China: A Century of Revolution is critical viewing for anyone interested in this increasingly powerful and globally influential country.
3. China from the Inside (4 parts) (PBS)
This is one of a number of documentary series about China that was produced in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. They give an excellent glimpse into some of the myriad issues and social challenges facing China. And yes, they all still apply!
China from the Inside is a series of four documentaries that survey China through Chinese eyes to see how history has shaped them, and where the present is taking them. Episodes include Power and the People, deals with the governance of China, The Women, talks about the past and future for Chinese women, Shifting Nature, looks at China's environmental challenges, and Freedom, explores China's conflict between personal freedom and governance.
The documentary website is here.
4. China Rising (4 parts) (CBC and The New York Times) (2007)
This pre-Olympics series was produced by CBC, and in some ways dovetails nicely with the PBS series mentioned above. The writing is exceptional.
The description from the series website:
China. The scene of the most extraordinary economic, social, and political transformation of our time. But it is also a nation struggling with an enormous population, a strained environment, and unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity. Four documentary films portray the triumphs and disappointments of remarkable individuals caught up in an epic story.
The episodes are also available on YouTube.
5. Young and Restless in China (PBS)
"These young Chinese are Westernized, savvy about today's interconnected world, ambitiousand often torn between their culture and their aspirations. Set to an original soundtrack of Chinese rock and hop-hop music, this provocative film presents an in-depth look at what it means to be young and Chinese today."
6. The Cross: Jesus in China (4 parts) (China Soul) (2001)
Produced by Pastor Yuan Zhiming (former filmmaker in China), this series was one of the first to give a first-hand account of the explosion of Christianity in China.
The Amazon description:
This documentary, The Cross: Jesus in China, portrays the little known history of a remarkable people; it is the turbulent 50 year history of Chinese Christians on screen! For the first time, the history of Christianity in China, especially within the House-Church movement, is given in an honest and comprehensive account. The film answers the question raised by many people outside China: how did the number of Chinese Christians increase from 700,000 in 1949 to approximately 70 million today despite communist control? Using live footage and interviews, the film captures the true stories of many people and seeks to answer the most common questions: how does the Chinese government deal with Chinese Christians and vice-versa? How have Chinese Christians developed, survived and grown? What kind of people are they and what influence have they had and will they have on Chinese society?
7. Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure (4 parts ) BBC)
The description on YouTube:
Chinathe superpower the world fears, but few really know. Ken Hom, the godfather of Chinese cuisine, and Ching-He Huang, leading chef of the contemporary generation, together undertake an epic 3000-mile culinary adventure across Chinanot only to reveal its food, but its people, history, culture and soul.
8. Education Education: Why Poverty (Steps International)
A slightly depressing look at education in modern day China.
Description on YouTube:
In ancient times in China, education was the only way out of povertyin recent times it has been the best way. China's economic boom and talk of the merits of hard work have created an expectation that to study is to escape poverty. But these days China's higher education system only leads to jobs for a few, educating a new generation to unemployment and despair.
9. Please Vote for Me (Independent Lens)
This is one of my favoritespart Lord of the Flies, part Cultural Revolution!
Two males and a female vie for office, indulging in low blows and spin, character assassination and gestures of goodwill, all the while guaging their standing with voters. The setting is not the Democratic presidential campaign, but a third-grade class at an elementary school in the city of Wuhan in central China. "Please Vote For Me", which is on the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences documentary feature shortlist, packs its fleet hour with keen observations. Chronicling a public school's first open elections - at stake is the position of class monitor - filmmaker Weijun Chen has crafted a witty, engaging macro-lens view of human nature, China's one-child policy and the democratic electoral process as the ultimate exercise in marketing.
This film examines how modern media technology in the hands of citizens is challenging the government monopoly on information.
Description from the documentary website:
HIGH TECH, LOW LIFE follows the journey of two of China's first citizen reporters as they travel the countrychronicling underreported news and social issues stories. Armed with laptops, cell phones, and digital cameras they develop skills as independent one-man news stations while learning to navigate China's evolving censorship regulations and avoiding the risk of political persecution.
This film is available on Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.
Image credit: Bamboo, by Jakob Montrasio, via Flickr
Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio