6 Must-See China Documentaries

6 Must-See China Documentaries
Trying to keep up with the latest China books can be a daunting task, especially when studying at university. Luckily for us, there’s a host of educational documentaries that cover a range of topics relating to China, from food and economic development to societal change and contemporary issues, that can expand your knowledge of the country.

Here we’ve assembled a list of six must-see documentaries about China that every Sinophile should watch.

Up the Yangtze (2007)

Up the YangtzeDirector: Yung Chang
Runtime: 93 min

Up the Yangtze is one of the most highly rated and poignant documentaries about China. Director Yung Chang portrays the consequences of the Three Gorges Dam project along the Yangtze River, focusing on the juxtaposition between old and new China.

The film follows a 16-year-old girl, Yu Shui, who is persuaded by her family to find work in the new tourist cruise industry, expanded with the river’s flooding. Yu is one out of 2 million people who were forced to relocate their homes due to the rising waters of the Yangtze.

This mass diaspora and Yu’s work in the cruise ship’s kitchen is sharply contrasted with the luxury tourist industry focused on taking wealthy foreign and native sightseers down the engorged river. Up the Yangtze portrays of the life and dreams of Chinese trying to survive in a new, modern society concerned with progress and economic development.


A Bite of China – 舌尖上的中国 (2012, 2014)

A Bite of China

Runtime: 50 min (7 episodes per season)

This CCTV doc about the history of cuisine became an instant success both nationally and abroad. In 2012, A Bite of China quickly rose to the top of the Chinese TV charts.

The seven-episode series explores China’s culinary tradition as the filmmakers travel all around China to learn the secrets of staple foods, ingredients, cooking techniques and flavoring. The focus is on the stories behind the food and the series makes sure to speak with the farmers and chefs, getting their insight about the specific crops they farm and the dishes they cook.

Don’t watch this if you’re hungry, as the stunning cinematography will make your belly rumble. But even on a full stomach, these episodes will have you hunting for these scrumptious dishes in your hometown.


Last Train Home (2009)

Last Train HomeDirector: Lixin Fan
Runtime: 85 min

Lixin Fan’s documentary depicts the powerful story of China’s rural to urban transition and its affect on the Chinese migrant community, as seen through the eyes of one migrant couple from Sichuan and the struggles to keep their family together.

The world’s single largest human migration occurs in China around the Chinese New Year, the one time during the year when over a hundred million migrant workers return home to visit their families. In order to make this reunion migrants must endure multiple-day journeys on trains, buses and boats.

Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin left their farming life in the rural countryside to find work in a garment factory in Guangzhou. They have been working away from home for 16 years, sending all their wages back home to pay for their children’s education. While the couple views their decision to work as migrants as a last resort, their daughter Qin resents her parents’ absence and wants to leave her home and studies for the freedom of working and living on her own.

Both IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes favorably rate this film for showing the effects of China’s economic development through the eyes of this broken family.


Please Vote for Me (2007)

Please Vote for MeDirector: Weijun Chen
Runtime: 58 min

The China portion of the 10-part “Why Democracy?” documentary series, Please Vote for Me centers on the candidates running for grade three class monitor in a Wuhan school, the first-ever election for the position.

Usually class monitors are selected by the teacher so this is the first time students have the chance to participate in an election. The three students in the running, Xu Xiaofei, Cheng Cheng and Luo Lei, must learn how to become successful candidates, which means receiving copious amounts of help from their parents, some of whom even write the candidate’s speeches for them.

This documentary gives an inside look into China’s urban middle class who lay all their hopes and dreams on their children, pressuring them to concentrate solely on academic success. Moreover, it delivers an enlightening and often hilarious look into Chinese-style democracy.


Wild China (2008)

Wild ChinaRuntime: 60 min (6 episodes)

Not much needs to be said about this breathtaking collaboration between BBC and CCTV about China’s wildlife.

This six-episode TV miniseries explores in depth some of China’s most remarkable natural sites. Each episode concentrates on a different region of China, examining the connections between the people, their culture and the land, and their dependence the local wildlife.

Filmed in high-definition, the shots of the natural surroundings are spectacular, especially the zoomed-out landscapes. Wait to be awed by the scenery and add a dozen new destinations to your China travel list.


China from the Inside (2007)

China from the InsideIn this four-part documentary produced by PBS, the emphasis is on investigating China’s changes by looking at its people, past and present.

Each part focuses on a different topic: power and the people, women of the country, shifting nature and freedom and justice. In each installment, the filmmakers interview ordinary Chinese citizens about their opinions on these important social issues.

This informative documentary offers are rare view of the major challenges facing contemporary China and how they affect everyday Chinese. It is perfect for those looking to study or learn more about contemporary China.




There are so many good films on China out there. Here are some honorable mentions that didn’t make the list:

Petition (2009) – about citizens using the Chinese petition system to redress complaints.
Lost in China (2009) – this National Geographic series follows two Chinese-Americans who return to China to document the changes.
They Chose China (2006) – about 21 American POWs who chose to stay in China at the end of the Korean War instead of returning to the USA.
Red Obsession (2013) – about wine in China.
Morning Sun (2003) – about the Cultural Revolution.

Have a favorite doc that we didn’t mention? Feel free to leave it in the comments!