Documentaries About China

Documentaries About China

China is the world’s most populated nation, as well as a major rival for the US in terms of trade and finance. Its culture is very much intermingled with our own, but there is still much we do not know. This is partially due to the language barrier, as well as the political system of China. The following documentaries offer a better understanding of China and its complex culture.

Last Train Home

Last Train Home is a 2009 film directed by Lixin Fan and produced by EyeSteelFilm. It follows an event that is common in China; fascinating to outsiders due to its size and cultural importance. Every spring, China’s 130 million migrant workers travel back to their home villages for the New Year holiday. This annual exodus is the world’s largest human migration.

The film won an award for Best Documentary from the IDFA, and was well-received by audiences and critics in the USA and beyond.

One Child Nation

China’s One Child Policy was one of China’s most infamous and horrific institutions, introduced in order to keep its growing population in cheque. The policy stated that each family could have only one child, leading to unprecedented issues such as the abortion of female fetuses and the abandonment of little girls.

One Child Nation documents the fallout of this policy, and the toll it has taken on families and daily life across China. The film premiered at Sundance, and was highly praised by both critics and viewers for its depth and honesty.

Please Vote For Me

Please Vote For Me is a film whose subject-matter you wouldn’t expect to be engaging: the elections for class monitor of a 3rd-grade class in the Evergreen Primary School of Wuhan, China. The film documents the first time in which such an election took place.

The film gives a glimpse into the middle class of urban China, showing how involved the parents are in the process, and how much pressure they put upon their kids. Moreover, the documentation of an election process in a one-party state such as China is a somewhat subversive topic on its own.

Up the Yangtze

This 2007 documentary is a collaborative effort between Chinese and Canadian filmmakers. It follows the construction of the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River in Hubei China, and the effect construction had on the villagers who lived nearby.

The film showcases the dam’s affect on the local population, in terms of creating new jobs and bringing in wealthy foreign tourists to the region. It is a glimpse at a larger process: the creation of a new Chinese economy.

American Factory

American Factory is the most recent documentary on today’s list. Having already won an Oscar, it was the first major project for the Obamas’ production company, in collaboration with Netflix. The film touches on the most sensitive of current topics between China and the US, portraying a Chinese factory that opens in place of a closed US facility. The film showcases the globalisation effect from the point of view of the factory workers.

Plastic China

Plastic China is a Chinese documentary from 2016, showcasing the environmental impact of the growth of the Chinese economy. This is done through the storey of a single Chinese family, working to recycle large amounts of plastic waste. The film premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in November of 2016, and was later shown at the annual Sundance Film Festival in 2017.

Hooligan Sparrow

Hooligan Sparrow is a 2016 documentary film about Ye Haiyan and other Chinese activists, written and produced by Nanfu Wang. The film follows protests which erupted following the revelation that a government official was involved in a case of child rape. The footage was taken secretly, smuggled out of China into the US. It showcases the corruption of local government, and the problems faced by civil rights activists in China.


Which documentary films would you add to our list, and why?