If you want to learn about Chinese culture, watching some of the best Chinese movies is a good place to start.
Chinese culture and history is deep and complex. It would take several lifetimes to truly understand the centuries of evolution that have shaped Chinese society today.
Coming to grips with Chinese culture can be a little overwhelming, especially if you’re heading to China for the first time. So, doing a little ‘homework’ beforehand can be very helpful.
This list isn’t really about the very best of Chinese cinema. It’s more do to with the movies that shine a spotlight on parts of China’s culture, history and ways of life.
There’s so much to take in on a visit China. Hopefully though, some of these films will help you make a little more sense of what you see and experience!
1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
OK, this martial arts fantasy, directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee, is obviously a work of pure fiction. It’s not at all historically accurate.
However, it’s one of the most successful Chinese movies ever made.
I think it would be a crime to leave this beautiful film off this list.
Set in the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century, Crouching Tiger still provides an introduction to the social structures and cultural life of ancient China.
And, of course, it opened millions of viewers’ eyes to kung fu. This is probably the coolest thing ever invented by Chinese culture!
If you’re planning to visit some of China’s martial arts sites, like the famous Shaolin Temple, this movie will leave you giddy with anticipation.
By the way, the famous forest flying scene was shot in a bamboo forest in Anhui. It has since become a popular tourist attraction, particularly among film buffs.
2. Raise The Red Lantern (1991)
This is definitely one of the best Chinese movies to watch if you want to learn about Chinese culture.
Raise The Red Lantern is an exquisitely filmed tale of passion, jealousy and betrayal.
It’s about the story of the Songlian, a university hopeful coming of age in the Warlord Era in northern China.
Songlian’s life is turned upside-down when she reluctantly agrees to become a concubine for an old aristocrat.
The narrative surrounding the competition between the women of the house is tense and intriguing.
The movie portrays life within an isolated, authoritarian community. This draws similarities with the idea of a political system that oppressively dictates the lives of ordinary people.
Considered one of the best Chinese movies of all time, Raise The Red Lantern was banned for a short period after its release.
3. Beijing Bicycle (2001)
On the surface, this film is about Gui, a 17-year old boy who leaves the countryside for a job in Beijing.
Gui has one chance to make it in the big city, but his bike is stolen by a local gang.
In many ways, Gui’s efforts to relate to his city-bred counterparts is an attempt to depict the clash of cultures arising from a sudden wave of urban mass migration.
On a larger scale, the film paints a sometimes-grim picture of China’s race towards modernization and the experiences of millions of ordinary citizens struggling to keep up.
Beijing Bicycle has won several international awards. It was banned for several years in China before a censored version was released.
4. Last Train Home (2009)
This Chinese documentary is as gripping as any fictional drama.
It shines a light on the lives of workers forced to leave their families behind and relocate thousands of miles away to work in China’s factories.
The film gives you an intimate look at one couple who have moved from their farmhouse in Sichuan to work in a textile factory in Guangzhou.
Their then-infant children are raised in the farmhouse by their grandmother.
The film’s title, Last Train Home, refers to the largest annual human migration on earth. Each year in China, during Spring Festival, more than 300 million people make their way from the cities back to their hometowns.
Many have to make the journey by train. This pushes the limits of the rail network, and the patience of commuters, to breaking point.
Last Train Home is a poignant examination of globalization’s hand in eroding the family unit that forms the very foundation of Chinese culture.
5. To Live (1994)
This Chinese movie is a sweeping yet intimate family epic.
To Live tells the story of a formerly wealthy young man whose gambling habit leaves him and his wife destitute.
The couple start up a shadow puppet troupe in order to make ends meet.
However, things take a dark turn when they’re captured by communist forces and put to use as entertainment for the troops. This is while the Chinese Civil War is raging.
The plot swoops across several decades in modern China’s history, from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution and beyond.
This film serves as a fascinating overview of modern Chinese history, particularly the Mao Era.
As you’ve seen, movies dealing with sensitive political issues inevitably attract the ire of Chinese government censors.
To Live remains banned in China to this day. Luckily, the rest of the world can still take in the splendor of this award-winning drama.
(See also: how the internet in China is censored.)
To Live is based on the book by famous Chinese author Yu Hua. You can get the book here.
6. Up The Yangtze (2009)
This is an educational Chinese movie list, so here’s another must-watch documentary.
Up The Yangtze deals with the hidden social cost of China’s ‘modernization miracle’.
The film provides an intimate look at the lives of some of the people who, at the time of filming, were on the brink of losing their homes to make way for the completion of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.
Whenever you travel long distances in China, you’ll see the dramatic effect development and industrialization has had on the landscape.
This documentary goes beyond the outwardly visible to investigate what China regards as a nationwide symbol of progress. And it questions how much of the country really benefits.
7. Lust, Caution (2008)
I couldn’t resist adding one more Chinese production from Taiwanese master director Ang Lee to this cultural movie list.
But be warned! Lust, Caution is not only sexually explicit, it’s Lee’s most bleak, brutal and uncompromising work to date.
Shanghai in the early 1900s is often portrayed as a glamorous, international hub. But Lust, Caution shows a city gripped by poverty and paranoia during the Japanese occupation of the late 30s and early 40s.
In this spy thriller, an attractive young woman tries to seduce a Japanese-aligned Shanghai official.
The film incorporates actual wartime events into its storyline. It’s said to be loosely based on the true story of the female Chinese spy, Zheng Pingru.
8. Crazy Stone (2006)
I’ll end this list on a more lighthearted note – the side of China that makes us laugh.
After all, any trip to China is guaranteed to be filled with funny moments.
Crazy Stone is a low budget but well-made black comedy. It follows three competing attempts to steal a precious jade stone from an unlikely but well-guarded location.
Chinese comedies don’t always translate well to overseas audiences. But Crazy Stone, with its oddball characters and amusing plot twists, had worldwide audiences thoroughly entertained.
If you’re a fan of Chinese mythology, you’ll love the elements of ancient folklore woven into this contemporary comedy.
Controversial Chinese movies are often easier to find
Thanks to censorship laws, China has long had a fraught relationship with filmmakers determined to show the realities of life in China.
From a foreign perspective, the Chinese artist rebelling against the government to expose the truth can be something of a celebrated figure in the West.
This is partly why these types of movies are most likely to attraction international attention. And as a result, these movies are much easier to find overseas than in China itself!
However, Chinese cinema doesn’t have to be critical or subversive in nature to still be considered interesting to foreign viewers.
Some fantastic Chinese comedies, like the recent movie A Cool Fish (2018) and my final pick, Crazy Stone, have stirred up renewed interest in contemporary Chinese cinema overseas.
So, have a watch of some of these films and let me know what you think.
You’re bound to learn a thing or two about Chinese culture!
Do you agree that these are the best movies about Chinese culture? Leave a comment below. For more on this topic, you might like Gayle’s list of the best Chinese history books or Mike’s review of the best movies about China generally.