Here are some of the best documentaries to help you understand China.
They’ll make you think and even challenge your ideas about this intriguing country.
All you need is a streaming service and a comfy chair!
As always, leave a comment below if you think I’ve missed a great China documentary.
1. China Love
If you don’t know much about Chinese culture, China Love is a great starting point.
Australian director Olivia Martin McGuire shines the light on the quirky, cute and lucrative world of pre-wedding photography in China.
Photography is one of the key differences between modern Chinese and Western weddings.
About six months prior to your wedding in China, the pressure is on to get the perfect snaps. Couples spend thousands of dollars to pose in front of artificial sets and capture their fantasies.
Some couples even spend hundreds of thousands.
Allen Shi, the man behind billion-dollar company, Jiahao Group, incentivizes staff to sell wedding photography packages to as many people as possible. The money-obsessed Shi even fines staff, in front of others, when they receive negative feedback online.
China Love gives you a glimpse of just how complex love and marriage can be in China, where the family structure is super-important and what parents have to say matters.
The documentary also looks at older couples in Shanghai who weren’t able to get dressed up for their big day due to the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.
And, you get to see the divide between rich and poor – an ever-growing problem in China.
China Love explores the big issues in a delicate yet poignant way. It pulls at the heart strings while educating you about modern China.
What’s not to love about China Love?
2. One Child Nation
This documentary about China is another brilliant one.
One Child Nation shines the light on the devastating effect forced sterilization had on women and their families.
This practice occurred from the late 1970s to 2015 under the instruction of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Party believed that if the population wasn’t controlled, mass starvation would occur.
So, they set out on a nationwide propaganda campaign, in a bid to educate people that one child is all you need (and if you have more than one, you’ll lose everything).
The documentary is told by director Nanfu Wang, a Chinese-born American, who returns to China to interview old relatives and neighbors in her hometown.
One retired nurse recounts forcibly sterilizing between 50,000 and 60,000 women. It’s a harrowing story.
The old woman now donates her time and money to help families actually have children, as she comes to terms with the guilt of her past.
One Child Nation also looks at the ramifications of the one child policy, and how abandoned female babies were systematically collected from the side of the road and sold to orphanages for a small fee.
The orphanages then sold the babies to American families for upwards of $20,000.
It’s really hard to fathom how forced sterilization and human trafficking could occur in such recent times.
But these big issues, and the way the stories are told, are what makes this China documentary one of the best.
3. American Factory
This Obama-backed documentary follows China’s Fuyao Glass reopening a shuttered factory in Ohio.
At the heart of the documentary is the great divide between the US and China, not just in terms of culture but also work, relationships, behaviors and attitudes.
You get to hear perspectives from both the Chinese and the Americans, so it’s fairly balanced.
I like how American Factory doesn’t force you into a corner with regard to who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’.
My laugh-out-loud moment came when one of the Chinese managers reports to the big boss, Mr Cao, that Americans are slow and have “fat fingers”.
My favorite moment of all though, is when the American managers are invited to Fuzhou, in southeast China’s Fujian province, to see how things are done and watch the annual stage show.
One of the American managers breaks down in tears after the show, not through joy but at the realization that the differences between the two countries are so great that they’re beyond belief.
I would hazard a guess that the age of the child performers is illegal in the US, so I can understand why the guy is in shock.
American Factory recently won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. So you know it’s worth watching.
4. Plastic China
I found this documentary about China really hard to watch.
It’s about a couple of poor families who turn plastic waste from the US and Europe into pellets. The conditions they work in are absolutely appalling.
There is so much to digest watching Plastic China.
It’s about poverty, it’s about pollution, it’s about child labour and safety, and it’s about the education of rural Chinese. It even touches on alcoholism.
IMDB sums it up as “a portrait of poverty, ambition and hope set in a world of waste.”
Although there is a glimmer of hope towards the end as the boss, Kun, can finally afford to send his son to school, he takes out a loan for the new car he’s been dreaming of.
It gives you that sick feeling inside that he’s going to have to continue working like a dog in the recycling facility just to pay off the loan.
So, I didn’t personally find much hope in Plastic China. It’s certainly not an uplifting documentary about China.
Having said that, I was absolutely glued to the TV as I watched it.
It made me feel very lucky to have the life I have. It also reminded me of the safe work conditions we have in the West, which we sometimes take for granted.
Plastic China is compelling viewing, and the director has done an amazing job to tell this very real story.
Side note: Since the release of this documentary, China has banned the importation of scrap plastics. Although some of the waste has been diverted to southeast Asian countries, there is a silver lining. Developed countries are now implementing bans on single-use plastics and finding ways to build their own recycling infrastructure.
5. Hard to Believe
The award-winning Hard to Believe is about the organ harvesting industry in China, and how Falun Gong practitioners are allegedly among those killed for their organs.
In the 1990s, the Falun Gong spiritual movement gained millions of followers in China. But by 1999, the movement was banned by the Chinese government.
They feared its growing popularity and power, and countless practitioners were literally picked up off the street and imprisoned.
As non-smokers and non-drinkers, the Falun Gong believe that thousands of their practitioners have been killed for their healthy organs while in prison.
No matter what side of the fence you sit on, there’s a parallel here between One Child Nation (reviewed above) and the profiteering of an illegal trade.
I don’t know how much I believe about Hard to Believe, especially as Swoop Films seems to focus on making only anti-China documentaries.
Maybe organ harvesting has happened, but to what degree – who knows?
The only Chinese doctor with a firsthand account, who now resides in the UK as a bus driver, was involved with the harvesting of just one person’s organs.
(I’d like to read The Slaughter by Ethan Gutmann for more on this. He’s interviewed throughout the film.)
A quote by academic Benjamin Penny, as reported in the ABC, sums up organ harvesting well: “I have not seen evidence which convinces me that it’s true. But I’ve not seen any evidence that convinces me that it’s not true”.
If anything, Hard to Believe puts human rights issues in China on center stage again. And that can’t be a bad thing.
Available: Swoop Films (Watch for free)
6. Last Train Home
This is one of the classic documentaries about China.
Released in 2009, Last Train Home was shot over several years in classic vérité style.
It is unscripted, has no narrator voice-over, and delves into an intriguing aspect of Chinese society – the annual migration of workers.
Every spring, China’s cities are plunged into chaos as 130 million blue-collar workers return to their hometown for Chinese New Year. This mass exodus is the world’s largest human migration.
While I do love Last Train Home, it gives me a bit of anxiety. The scenes at the train stations, where people are practically getting crushed lining up for train tickets, are distressing.
(Check out this blog for tips on crowds, queues, and train stations in China.)
The complex relationship between the parents and their daughter, Qin, is also distressing but compulsory viewing.
On the one hand, the parents believe they’ve done the right thing by finding factory work thousands of miles away in order to give their children, who they leave behind, a better life.
But on the other hand, you’ve got Qin who resents being left behind, having missed out on forging a strong connection with her parents.
The story sheds light on the plight of so many Chinese families as they navigate their way from farm work to an industrialized future.
These documentaries about China will open up your eyes
Whether they make you smile, squirm, or question your beliefs, these documentaries about China will leave an indelible mark on you.
There are a few older ones I’m yet to watch (like Up The Yangtze) which I may add to the list in the future.
However, the documentaries I’ve highlighted above are a great way to analyze this intriguing country.
Please leave a comment below if you feel I’ve missed a good one.
Did you like this article? If so, then you’ll probably like the one I wrote about the best movies about China.
If you’re into Chinese culture specifically, check out the best movies about Chinese culture. Hours of viewing pleasure!
Main image credit: Courtesy of China Love