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Chinese documentaries are coming of age
By Xu Wei

CHINESE TV documentaries, particularly big mainstream projects, have traditionally been criticized as “doctrinaire, boring and lacking in artistry and originality.” Themes like how a slow, backward county grows into a fast-developing town are often considered to be cliched.

“I’m just fed up (with such documentaries). They seem too propagandistic,” says George He, a 30-something Shanghai native who watches more realistic foreign documentaries. “Ordinary audiences like me prefer real-life or people stories — good and bad — that we can relate to.”

But thanks to an increasing number of new productions, things are changing. Works tackling the country’s social changes as well as the problems caused by rapid urbanization have been hailed by audiences and critics. Some will go international.

One success is “China’s Challenges.” Last October, International Channel Shanghai presented the second season of the documentary series. Through five episodes, it follows renowned China expert Dr Robert Lawrence Kuhn, author of “How China’s Leaders Think,” as he examines the vast transformations the country is undergoing, and their implications for China and the world.


The whole production took about a year to finish, with the crew traveling more than 43,000 kilometers for shooting and interviews, according to Sun Wei, director of ICS.

“From a foreigner’s perspective, the documentary displays the abundance, complexity and diversity of China, and also looks at how the government deals with societal challenges,” Kuhn says.

Different from numerous works about the achievements China has made, this series focuses on problems or challenges the Chinese government faces.

“We have lots of lively examples and real-life stories in the series,” Kuhn says. “We document the true feelings of many ordinary Chinese people. We also have an international team with expertise and rich experience in telling stories.”

The documentary takes its lens to the giant labor force pouring into cities from rural areas, which has created an even wider gap between urban and rural residents and the problem of left-behind children’s education.

Serious issues

It also examines Taobao villages where former farmers have become Internet entrepreneurs in Zhejiang Province, new laws enabling farmers to profit from land transactions and reforms in Chinese education.

The crew travels from west to east down China’s mother river, the Yangtze River. It addresses issues of severe water, soil and air pollution.

Meanwhile, it explores the revival of Confucian thought, the popularity of Western classical music, the construction of the Shanghai Tower, and Chinese modern art, which utilizes Chinese characteristics instead of imitating its Western equivalents.

Zhang Ciyun, former editor-in-chief of Shanghai Daily, gives high praise to the series.

“It manages to interest general audiences,” says Zhang. “For many foreign people, they want to know a little more about China than Chinese food and kung fu. The series tells stories of Chinese individuals from all walks of life, including business people, villagers, migrant workers and government officials. It turns out that humans are the most interesting subject.”

So far a total of 180 TV stations of the United States have broadcast the first season of the series. The second season will be aired on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) later this year. Officials from PBS have praised the series for its rich and complex storylines. Buyers in South Korea and Canada have also expressed strong interest in the series.

To meet people’s growing desire for high-quality documentaries, Shanghai Media Group’s Documentary Channel began nationwide broadcasting last year. Among its planned releases this year are a nature series about Tibet and a historical documentary titled “Maritime Silk Road.”

The four-episode series about Tibet provides a panorama of the scenic landscape, folk culture, customs and human-interest stories in Tibet. Shooting will last until September.

For the Silk Road series, the crew will end up traveling to more than 20 countries in Asia and Africa to display the brilliant achievements the commercial route created and new opportunities and influences it is expected to have.

In October, the series will be presented in seven episodes on Dragon TV, Documentary Channel and ICS. It is also expected to be broadcast on many overseas TV channels such as the BBC and Discovery.

Zhang Wei, director of “Maritime Silk Road,” says overcoming cultural differences and harsh difficulties during the shooting can be challenging.

“We will apply a vivid international style of storytelling,” Zhang promises. “It will have a clear and simple structure. We will also document touching stories of people pursuing their dreams.”

Alex Huang, an IT worker in his 30s, says he’s a big fan of documentaries and is pleased to find that China is becoming more open about discussing its problems. Huang began to show an interest in this genre in 2006 when “The Rise of the Great Powers” was debuted on CCTV-2.

The 12-episode series analyzed why nine nations, such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the United States, rose to become great powers.

“There are still not many remarkable, thought-provoking and compelling documentaries in this genre in China,” Huang says. “We need interesting stories.”

Li Tian, a TV expert who has served as an adviser and host during the Shanghai International Film Festival, says that documentaries tackling big political, historical and social subjects do not appeal to a large number of people, but there is a loyal audience of mostly well-educated people.

“We do not lag behind much in cinematography and artistry,” he says. “What Chinese directors should learn is never to be held back by stereotypical thinking in making such documentaries.”

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