12 Best China Documentaries7 min read

Our pick of the best TV and film docs about modern China

Our end-of-year ‘best of’ season continues, for our listicle sins. On top of China books and Chinese fiction, we previously ran a list of the 12 Best Modern Chinese Films, so there is one last hole to plug: China docs. From Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1972 glimpse of Maoist China, Chung Kuo, to the cinéma vérité of Jia Zhangke’s 24 City, documentary films about China fill an essential space to record a nation changing faster than we can keep up with. Below are the China Channel’s pick of the top 12 China docs from recent years. We’re then going on break for Christmas, and will return in the new year. Happy holidays to all.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace
dir. Richard Gordon, Carma Hinton (1995)

A modern classic to begin the list. Written by Geremie Barmé and John Crowley, this three-hour banned-in-China documentary gives a comprehensive overview of the 1989 protests and crackdown, featuring interviews with Tiananmen generation dissidents including Liu Xiaobo, Wang Dan, Wu’er Kaixi, Chai Ling and Dai Qing.

Last Train Home
dir. Lixin Fan (2009)

One of China’s modern wonders of the worlds is the annual ‘spring migration’ of over 200 million workers traveling home, generally by train, for the Chinese new year. This film follows the Zhangs over several years, as they return home from Guangzhou to Sichuan, to see their daughter grow up and grow rebellious. Riveting stuff.

The Chinese Mayor
dir. Hao Zhou (2015)

Following Geng Yanbo, mayor of Datong in northern China, as he tries to transform his city from rustbelt industry to tourist destination, rebuilding the ancient city walls (and relocating a half a million citizens to do so). We still don’t know how the film-makers got such astounding access to the inside story of Chinese local politics. A must see.

Please Vote For Me
dir. Weijun Chen (2007)

A compassionate and humorous documentary following one Grade 3 class at ‘Evergreen Primary School’ in Wuhan, where elections for class monitor give a glimpse into how democracy works in China, albeit among 10-year-olds. They use bribery, blackmail, betrayal and fancy rhetoric to try to get elected. So about the same as adults.

China’s Van Goghs
dir. Yu Haibo, Yu Tianqi Kiki (2016)

A hugely enjoyable documentary about the village of Dafen in the greater Shenzhen area, where peasants-turned-painters knock out replicas of Van Gogh and other Western artists. The action culminates in one of the oil painters traveling to Amsterdam to see his work on display (for tourists to buy at a kiosk) as well as the originals.

China Gate
Wang Yang (2011)

Not to be confused with the Indian Curry Western and the 1950s thriller of the same name, this well-made doc chronicles the travails of several students in the Chinese education system. The metaphor of the title is the gates (or hoops) that they must pass through in order to succeed, from the zhongkao (high-school entrance exam) to the gaokao (college entrance exam).

Up The Yangtze
dir. Yung Chang (2007)

A very touching film about young workers on a riverboat cruise up the Yangtze, as the Three Gorges Dam rises its waters, and China’s booming economy gives rise to a new middle class taking such pleasure tours. Cindy, a local employee from a poor family, is the protagonist, with the changing river as symbol of China’s modernity.

dir. Zhao Liang (2009)

A gripping fly-on-the-wall look at petitioners in Beijing seeking redress for their grievances at the hands of local officials. They travel hundreds or thousands of miles, wait for weeks or months, then often are callously turned away. A harsh indictment of China’s unjust justice system. Also check out Zhao Liangs 2015 doc on the coal industry, Behemoth, among his other work.

Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower
dir. Joe Piscatella (2017)

We’d be remiss not to include something from Hong Kong on this list, and given the domination of protest in recent headlines, this seems like the best pick – a biopic of Joshua Wong, one of the most recognisable faces of the democracy movement, who started his activism in middle school and is now 24 years old, and facing a year of jail time.

One Child Nation
Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang (2009)

A watchable, and personally inflected, document of the devasting private consequences and official corruption of China’s One Child Policy (1980-2016), during which children were torn away from their parents, some of them to be sold abroad as adoptees. A powerful reminder that social engineering has a human cost.

West of the Tracks
dir. Wang Bing (2002)

Wang Bing is one of China’s most prolific documentarians, taking on topics including mental illness, rural isolation and ‘reeducated’ prisoners. Here he documents China’s northeast rustbelt, specifically Shenyang’s industrial Tiexi district where closing factories are impacting everyday lives. It’s a tour-de-force, clocking in at nine hours.

People’s Republic of Desire
dir. Hao Wu (2018)

Something more contemporary to close out the list: a glimpse into the social phenomenon, and vibrant economy, of live-streaming platforms. Three millennials – a karaoke singer, a migrant worker, and a comedian – try to make their fortunes on a live-streaming app, while Hao Wu’s watchful cameras documents the documenters.