There are very few documentaries about China on Netflix.
Filming thought-provoking stories from within China is virtually impossible due to the government’s tight control on media.
In addition, Netflix hasn’t been around very long. Its catalog of great documentaries about any country – let alone China – is limited.
That said, there’s a handful of documentaries about China on Netflix you can enjoy. And here they are!
My rating: 4/5 stars
This was filmed just before the COVID-19 pandemic, and released on Netflix in October 2021.
Found follows the emotional journey of three young American adopted cousins, Chloe, Sadie and Lily. With the help of their loved ones, they try to learn more about their Chinese family history and each other.
The girls are filmed as they make their way to Guangdong province in southern China, searching for answers.
Found is both moving and poignant, and doesn’t have a typical Hollywood-style ending.
Despite this, the bulk of the documentary is shot in the US, so if you’re looking for something that features local Chinese people, Found may not be for you.
But I still really enjoyed it. After all, it’s a tearjerker!
My rating: 5/5 stars
American Factory won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2020, so you know it’s worth watching.
This Obama-backed Netflix feature is about 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 work, relationships, behaviors and attitudes.
You get to hear perspectives from both the Chinese and the Americans, so I find 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.
Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower
My rating: 3/5 stars
This Netflix documentary first premiered in 2017.
Joshua Wong, a young guy from Hong Kong, tries to save his homeland from Beijing’s influence on the island territory.
Joshua rises to prominence as his student-led movement, Scholarism, occupies the square outside the government headquarters.
They’re against the National Education program which Hong Kong’s chief executive, CY Leung, is trying to introduce from the mainland.
As the movement draws more interest from within Hong Kong and abroad, Joshua’s star rises and Hong Kong’s civil disobedience protests intensify.
Citizens use umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas, and this is where the Umbrella Movement is born.
Even though Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower is a relatively new documentary, a lot can change in just a few years, especially in China.
I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say Joshua’s fate has changed a lot since 2017.
The Joys and Sorrows of Young Yuguo
My rating: 2.5/5 stars
When I first heard about this China documentary on Netflix, I was super excited.
But like Found, much of it is filmed outside of China.
In fact, the premise of The Joys and Sorrows of Young Yuguo is about a young Chinese guy named Yin Yuguo who is obsessed in Romanian culture and poetry.
With the blessing of his academic parents, he leaves his hometown of Kunming to study and live in the small city of Bacău in Romania.
While you get to know a little bit about Yin Yuguo, most of the interviews are with the local Romanians. In my opinion, his parents should have had a more prominent role, and it would have been more moving if his friends or other family members were included too.
I also found the storytelling in this 28-minute Chinese documentary quite slow and boring in parts. Not my cup of tea.
History 101 – The Rise of China
My rating: 3/5 stars
The Rise of China is the third episode in this historical documentary series. The other eps are totally different and not related to China at all.
Just 22 minutes long, this is a nice bite-sized documentary about China. You get to learn about China’s recent history, starting with Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, right up to the present day.
The documentary is full of interesting clips, statistics and infographics. My favorite is how China recently used more cement in three years than the US did in the entire 20th century!
If you don’t know anything about China’s history or economic development, and you’re pressed for time, The Rise of China is worth checking out.
But as the title suggests, this is basic 101 and won’t appeal to those who know a lot about China.
Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang
My rating: 3/5 stars
If you love abstract art, you’ll enjoy watching this China documentary on Netflix.
Sky Ladder is a story about Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. Raised in a small coastal town by an artistic family, Guo-Qiang’s signature art involves out-of-this-world fireworks displays.
His art is revered in China because gunpowder is one of the most famous Chinese inventions and fireworks are seen as being special and lucky. And of course, the man’s got talent!
Sky Ladder also shows snippets of Guo-Qiang’s family history, and how this has shaped the man and artist he is today.
What I found most interesting about Sky Ladder is the glimpse you get into contemporary art in China. It’s something you don’t hear a lot about in the West.
Is there a Mao Zedong documentary on Netflix?
At this stage, there isn’t a documentary dedicated to Mao Zedong on Netflix.
Some critics say that an entire episode should have been dedicated to Mao in the Netflix docu-series, How to Become a Tyrant.
However, you can find plenty of documentaries about Mao on YouTube. I recommend the 52-minute one below which focuses on The Great Leap Forward, a period which began in 1958 and saw millions of people die.
I find the old footage in this one really interesting – so many happy faces despite the turmoil!
There are shorter videos about Mao Zedong on YouTube. Just make sure the one you watch is from a reliable source.
Psst! Planning a trip to China?
Some of you might be learning about China (through documentaries) before you head over there for a holiday.
If this sounds like you, take a read of the article specifically about planning a trip to China which you’ll find beneficial.
What other Chinese documentaries are there?
You have to look further than Netflix to find great documentaries about China. As I said earlier, Netflix only has a handful to watch.
Amazon Prime Video has some outstanding ones, and so too does Kanopy (which are free to watch).
Check out my article on the best documentaries about China for a complete list.
What’s your favorite documentary about China on Netflix? Have I missed any? Let me know in the comments!
Main image credit: CardMapr on Unsplash.
FAQ about China documentary on Netflix
What's the best documentary about China on Netflix?
American Factory is arguably the best China documentary on Netflix. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2020.
Where can I watch a documentary about China's one-child policy?
There's an excellent documentary on Amazon Prime Video called One Child Nation. It's not available on Netflix.
Does Netflix operate in China?
No, Netflix is banned in China unless you have a VPN. The locals watch other streaming services instead, such as iQIYI.
What is China's version of Netflix?
It's called iQIYI. You can watch the mostly Chinese content for free on this platform, as well as pay for premium content.