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Understanding China: Essential Documentaries

Oct 22, 2014 By Sam Elliot , Comments (4)     Add your comment Newsletter

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Being such a vast, diverse and old nation, China can seem like an incredibly difficult nation to fully understand. Documentaries can be an invaluable source of information and inspiration and we’ve picked out 5 great documentaries that illuminate different facets of life in contemporary China. They are great for helping visitors learn more about their host nation, or can make great sources of conversation with Chinese friends.  

Photo: Mike Fernwood

1) A Bite of China (2013)
Not only is this series visually stunning with a seemingly endless stream of breathtaking vistas and engaging slices of life in China, A Bite of China shows wonderfully how food is more than fuel; it’s how we define ourselves as cultures, how we socialize and how we pass on traditions to the next generation.

A Bite of China was created by thirty of the country’s most acclaimed filmmakers who worked for over a year to create seven 50 minute episodes that exhibit the stunning variety of the Chinese landscape including frozen tundras, woodlands, wet grasslands and the dizzying metropolises of China’s ultra-modern mega-cities.

Each episode has its own theme and takes examples from around the nation. The first series included themes such as ‘The Story of Staple Foods’ which explained the role of rice, wheat and other staple foods in Chinese cuisine. ‘The Taste of Time’ examined the various preservation techniques and preserved food across the Chinese provinces. The second season is currently being aired and is a must for all the foodies out there – if you ever feel like you are bored of Chinese food, these documentaries are also a must.

2) The End of the Wild (2014)
Since retiring from the NBA, Yao Ming has become one of China’s leading conservationists and played an active part in reducing sales of shark fin soup by 50-70%. The End of the Wild is a new CCTV documentary which seeks to raise awareness of the destruction caused by poaching and illegal hunting; an issue that has been facing China for a long time.

Yao pays particular attention to elephants and rhinos and how Chinese consumers are contributing towards their extinction through their demand for ivory, which is often used in lavish jewelry and gifts. Yao Ming has now vowed to put an end to the ivory tusk trade in China in order to save the elephants.

3) When I Grow Up (2012)
Directed by Jiang Nengjie, When I Grow Up is a harrowing documentary that looks at a remote village in the Hunan province where 80% of children are left behind by their parents who leave to work in the cities, often only returning during the Spring Festival. These ‘left behind children’ are usually looked after by their grandparents. Jiang Nengjie was himself left behind and, through his interviews with schoolchildren, illustrates the truly dismal reality that befalls tens of millions of children.

When I Grow Up illuminates the dark side of China’s economic boom and the toll it is taking on Chinese domestic life. The effect that this being left behind has on children is made painfully clear as anti-social behavior and juvenile delinquency among left-behind children has become a major issue. Statistics show that in 2010, 70% of young offenders were left behind children. Jengjie demonstrates that, without proper adult supervision and care, children will often turn to drugs and alcohol or engage in other addictive behaviors such as gambling.

4) What's For Dinner? (2013)
Returning to China’s relationship with food, What’s for Dinner explores how, in the midst of their new-found prosperity, Chinese people are increasingly eating meat and examines the impact that this is having on the environment. Director Jian Yi explains how Chinese people on average now eat almost twice as much pork as they did ten years ago, when meat was still a small part of the diet due to much lower incomes throughout the whole country.

Not only does Jian question the sustainability of the modern diet in China today but places it in the context of the rising consumerism in Chinese society and looks at how Chinese people appear to derive a sense of identity in regards to their ability to consume. This documentary is a must-watch for anyone who is interested in the effects of China’s economic transition on the Chinese people.

5) Beijing Besieged by Waste (2011)
Since 2008, photojournalist Wang Jiuliang has been visiting the landfills around Beijing in order to document China’s growing waste management crisis. This film touches on the lives of people from across the spectrum of society and sheds light on their relationship with rubbish. He interviews people known as ‘scavengers’ who live off of what they can recover from the dumps and are widely seen as the ‘lowest of the low’. He also reveals managers of illegal landfills who often buy land in remote areas, collect waste then sort through it, selling anything of value and illegally dumping the unwanted remainder.

Jiuliang goes on to show how China has become a dumping ground for the entire world argues that the media is keeping people in a state of ignorance in regards to the issue. Consumerism comes under fire again in this film which implores its viewers to reconsider their lifestyle and spending habits and think about what they can do to protect the environment.

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Keywords: understanding China Documentaries China

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4 Comments ( Add your comment )


Very nice article. For a fascinating bit of reportage about Shanghai in 1973, check out this link (apologies, but you will need a VPN):

Oct 22, 2014 11:14

ECC: hold on to whoever wrote this article. he's a keeper.

Oct 22, 2014 13:57

I second that!^^ Great list, loove a Bite of China as you get a sense of the community and people behind the food we consume. Plus, it has breathtaking and mouthwatering shots. Mmmm. Can't wait to watch some of these other ones. :)

Oct 22, 2014 15:58

Where can you watch full versions of these?!

Dec 27, 2014 21:48

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