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Learn From Home: Stand-out Chinese Nonfiction

Monday 21 September, 2020

Continuing our world tour through the standout nonfiction of select countries, this week we come to China.

We're focusing on films made in the last twenty years, recognising the explosion of independent Chinese documentary-making since the turn of the 21st Century, which has seen Chinese directors break away from the traditional state-sanctioned media to make films which observe and recognise huge societal changes in the country and their impact on Chinese citizens. 

As ever, we're sticking to docs that are available to watch in the UK, which regrettably means there are some notable omissions, but this list of stand-out Chinese nonfiction spotlights groundbreaking features from prominent directors, under-appreciated gems and impassioned, political cris du coeur.


WEST OF THE TRACKS / Wang Bing / 2003 / 557 mins

We start with the first film by one of China's most prominent filmmakers working today, Wang Bing's epic on the decline of the industrial Tiexi district in the capital city of Liaoning Province. Over 9 hours long, West of the Tracks observes the lives of ordinary people in the area, as with changing industrial needs in the country Tiexi's factories close and workers are left adrift, without the income and structure that the factories provided. 

Wang has gone on to director many acclaimed and award-winning films - both fiction and nonfiction - in the last twenty years, with the same patience, artistry and focus on the trickle-down impact of the sweeping changes in Chinese society. 

Watch West of the Tracks along with Wang Bing's Fengming, A Chinese Memoir (2007) and Alone (2012) on DA Films.


Up the Yangtze / Yung Chang / 2008 / 93 mins

When the Three Gorges Dam opened in 2012, after 8 years of construction, it became the world's largest hydroelectric power station. During construction, Chinese Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang returned to witness the changing landscape of the area where his grandfather had grown up, travelling up the Yangtze river on one of the Farewell cruises which have sprung up to serve tourists keen for a last view of the legendary valley. 

"Life onboard mirrors the hierarchy of the wider world. Western passengers take in the spectral views, consuming entertainment on the spacious upper decks, while Yu Shui toils in the galley down below, vying with workmates for the few permanent positions." EyeSteelFilm.

Watch Up the Yangtze on Vimeo on Demand.



Please Vote for Me follows an experiment in democracy in the city of Wuhan, central China. Specifically, at Evergreen Primary School. 

The first ever elections for class monitor are under way, and we follow three eight year olds as they compete for the coveted position.

In a country where one-party rule effectively precludes democratic choice, director Weijun Chen has said 'As a Chinese citizen, democracy remains a deep and heartfelt longing'. Viewers are left to decide if the experiment in democracy has been successful and what it might mean for democracy education in China.

This film is part of the WHY DEMOCRACY? series. To find out more about the other films in this series head to

Watch on YouTube.


LAST TRAIN HOME / Lixin Fan / 2009 / 87 mins

Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin are preparing to travel across China, from the city where they earn a living a garment factory, to the village where their children live. They have made the gruelling journey every Spring for the New Year celebrations for 16 years. Their daughter, Qin, is now a teenager, who resents her parents living far away and longs for her own independence and freedom. 

Lixin Fan follows the Zhang's for two years - just one family out of the 130 million making the same journey each year, in the world's largest annual migration. 

Watch on Vimeo on Demand.

THE ROAD TO FAME / Hao Wu / 2013 / 80 mins

At Beijing's Central Academy of Drama, anticipation is running high. The prestigious school’s graduation production of Fame will be the first official collaboration between China and Broadway.

As musical director Jasper arrives from America to run auditions, the students find the pressure intense. It’s something they are used to: as only children born of China’s one child policy, they carry the hopes and dreams of the older generations on their shoulders. From wildly disparate backgrounds, some families have sacrificed everything to send their children to the Academy.

Director Hao Wu weaves an intricate portrait of modern China through the stories of these students and their families. 

Watch with Docsville on Amazon.


Hooligan Sparrow / Nanfu Wang / 2015 / 84 mins

A group of activists protesting the alleged rape of six girls by a school headmaster and a government official quickly become fugitives.

Filmmaker Nanfu Wang and super-activist Ye Haiyan (“Hooligan Sparrow”) must avoid government thugs and arrest. Sparrow becomes an enemy of the state, but detentions, interrogations and evictions can’t stop her protest from going viral.

A thriller set across southern China featuring friends who will go to any lengths to expose the truth.

Watch Hooligan Sparrow on Amazon.



THE CHINESE MAYOR / Hao Zhou / 2015 / 87 mins

Controversial Communist Mayor Geng Yanbo is working hard to achieve his dream of restoring the historic 14th Century walls of the Old City. The greater goal is to transform Datong, one of China's most polluted cities, into a cultural destination, securing its economic future.

Director Hao Zhou follows Geng's efforts over two years, as he strives to realise his dream and deals with the unpalatable consequences of his project - it means demolishing 200,000 homes, displacing some half a million people. 

Watch on Amazon


A YOUNG PATRIOT / Du Hai-bin / 2015 / 106 mins

A Young Patriot follows the journey of Xiao Zhao, from a 19-year-old boy waving a flag and shouting "Long live China! Go China!" on the streets of Pingyao, an ancient town in Shanxi province, to a college student in Chengdu, Sichuan province, and as a volunteer teaching in Liangshan Yi autonomous region.

It records Xiao Zhao's emotional and ideological change over four years, from his senior high school to his sophomore year, and witnesses the restlessness and disturbance that Chinese society is currently undergoing.

Watch A Young Patriot on Google Play and YouTube.


Coronation / Ai Weiwei / 2020 / 113 mins

The latest doc by filmmaker, artist and activist Ai Weiwei was directed remotely from Europe, where he lives in exile, but filmed by ordinary citizens in Wuhan during the Covid-19 lock down, Spring 2020.

According to Ai's website, "Coronation examines the political specter of Chinese state control from the first to the last day of the Wuhan lockdown. The film records the state’s brutally efficient, militarized response to control the virus... [and] also takes us into the private lives of individuals living under the lockdown."

Coronation is being called the first feature length documentary on the Coronavirus pandemic. It will undoubtedly be the first of many, but may well come to be the defining one on life in the original epicentre of the outbreak.

Watch Coronation on Ai Weiwei's Vimeo on Demand