Transformations in Film as Reality, Round 2

Documentary in Mainland China

Lin Xu-dong

The first Transformations in Film as Reality series brought together articles by Komatsu Hiroshi (DB #5), Bill Nichols (DB #6), Michael Renov (DB #7), and Kogawa Tetsuo (DB #8) to explore the history and relationship between film and reality in commemoration of cinema’s centennial in 1995. Over the past decade the YIDFF International Competition has expanded its submission guidelines from film-only to video, and works shot using compact video cameras screen along with films in the festival lineup. Works frequently probe the personal and private and on occasion trigger vigorous debate. Many researchers have written on the relationship between documentary makers and their subjects, but recent current events suggest a relationship increasingly fraught with complexity. And viewers must not be forgotten. In re-inaugurating this series, we have invited writers from diverse backgrounds to address the transformation of documentary and reality in reference to documentarists, their subjects, audiences and outlets (television, distribution companies, film festivals) from different cultural and ethical vantage points. Following Kees Bakker (DB #24) and Nam In-young (DB #25), for this issue we asked YIDFF ’99 New Asian Currents juror Lin Xu-dong to contribute.


In the early 1990s, viewers in mainland China began to see a steady stream of a new style of documentary films emerging through a variety of different channels. In terms of subject matter, narrative style, mode of expression and even production technology, these “new documentary” films were a world apart from the conventional documentaries that viewers had become accustomed to seeing.

An academic symposium on documentary film, held at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute in the winter of 1991, marked the first time in mainland China that so many of these new documentaries were brought together in one place. Among the films screened were Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers (“Liulang Beijing: Zuihou de Mengxiangzhe”), The Great Wall (“Wang Changcheng”), Sand and Sea (“Sha Yu Hai”), A Family in Northern Tibet (“Zangbei Renjia”) and Tiananmen. The appearance of The Great Wall was interpreted by film industry insiders as the first sign that documentary was finally making a break from the propaganda newsreels that had long dominated mainstream Chinese television media. As for Bumming in Beijing, it has long been considered the pioneer of the Chinese independent documentary movement.

It is interesting to note that all of these documentaries, in some way or another, got their start through China Central Television (CCTV), the massive state-controlled media organization. In 1988, as part of the run-up to celebrations commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, various bureaus within CCTV began work on a number of large-scale documentary productions. Among these were The Chinese (“Zhongguoren”), produced by CCTV’s bureau of foreign affairs and Tiananmen, produced by CCTV’s bureau of society and education. At about the same time, filming also began on the Sino-Japanese documentary project The Great Wall, a co-production of CCTV and Japan’s TBS.

To broaden the perspective of employees who would be working on these programs, CCTV management arranged special “internal study sessions” for members of the relevant production teams. These special study sessions were, in effect, private screenings of Western-produced films about China made for overseas television, and included Michelangelo Antonioni’s Cina (also known as Chung Kuo or China, 1972) and Heart of the Dragon, (“Long Zhi Xin,” 1984), a twelve-episode documentary collaboration between Antelope Productions (UK), Hong Kong Tianlong Motion Picture Co., Ltd., CCTV and China News Service (CNS). These private screenings provided a great deal of valuable information on the creative development of international documentary film since the 1960s. It also brought young Chinese television staffers a dawning realization: that individual societal actors, those seemingly unremarkable people going about their daily lives, were in fact an invaluable resource, a powerful and vivid testimony to the era of transformation that was then taking place in China. By this time, imported magnetic recording systems were beginning to become commonplace in the Chinese television industry. In China’s unique media environment, this new and more sophisticated equipment provided a timely and convenient answer to the demand for better, higher quality images and sound.

After the Tiananmen Incident of 1989, program planning at CCTV underwent a massive restructuring. Many projects that were considered untimely or inappropriate—The Chinese and Tiananmen among them—were shelved. Despite this setback, one of the writer/directors of The Chinese, Wu Wenguang, using resources garnered from his work on that project, continued to gather footage for an independent documentary of his own. It was from this footage that he selected the material that would eventually become his film Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers (1990).

For a time after 1989, the future of The Great Wall documentary series also seemed to be in jeopardy, as Japanese partners threatened to withdraw their investment. In the end, through the tireless hard work of certain persons associated with the project, the Sino-Japanese co-production was salvaged. During a prime time slot on November 18, 1991, CCTC broadcast the first episode of the Chinese language version of The Great Wall to a national audience. The series—twelve episodes in all, fifty minutes each—had an enormous and far-reaching impact. Not only did it shatter previous CCTV viewer share records on the mainland, but it was also said to have received an enthusiastic response across the straits in Taiwan, where it reached an estimated seven hundred thousand households.

The films shown at the 1991 Beijing Broadcasting Institute documentary symposium stimulated vigorous debate. Privately, there was also talk of an unwritten “New Documentary Manifesto,” which may have had its origins in a small but unusually freewheeling gathering that took place several days prior to the symposium. The site of the gathering was the home of director Zhang Yuan, located in a small alley in Xidan that was demolished in 1994. Several months after the symposium, the film Tiananmen appeared on the schedule of the Sixteenth Annual Hong Kong International Film Festival. In the accompanying publicity materials, one of the writer/directors referred to the film as a “new documentary,” perhaps the first time that the concept formally appeared in print.

After 1949, documentary in mainland China was viewed mainly as an ideological medium, a visually immediate propaganda tool with which to shape public opinion—a sort of “symbolic political discourse.” This was the model that, for decades afterward, would determine the basic structure of Chinese documentaries. It was a structure in which narrative was dominated by lengthy oral narration, the background music punctuated by an off-screen commentator reading long, tedious monologues in crisp, authoritative tones. The running commentary was designed to interpret events for the viewer, so that there could be no question as to the meaning or significance of the events happening onscreen. In this sort of documentary framework, the actual recorded images were treated as mere visual confirmation of what the narrator was saying, to such an extent that the images themselves became little more than backdrop. As for the sound accompanying the images, it was more often than not relegated to the sidelines, something to be used sparingly to add a bit of color to a given scenario, or to reinforce a predetermined narrative ambience. Needless to say, in this sort of Chinese documentary, the actual filming process would have been guided by a carefully formulated scenario prepared well in advance.

In China, the classic British documentary model (in the words of John Grierson: “I look on cinema as a pulpit”) developed in an even more politicized fashion. In line with the political concerns of the day (establishing a new China, building socialism, cultural revolution, thought emancipation, etc.) Chinese documentary served as an essentially elitist, wildly romanticized testimony to China’s circuitous path to modernization. In this historical landscape, the existence of the individual within society was virtually obliterated by ideological formulae.

Each episode of the Tiananmen documentary series shares the same opening sequence: a hand holding a paintbrush paints an eye, which is gradually revealed to be that of Mao Zedong, looking out from an enormous portrait. In the darkness of a Beijing evening, the finished portrait is slowly hoisted into place, revealing the backside of the portrait. Cut to a black screen, on which we see the following caption: “We respect history, just as we respect life . . .”

Rather than consider the term “new documentary movement” to be an expression or advocacy of some clear-cut theory, it might be more appropriate to say that it represented a cherished hope, an intense desire for wish fulfillment. In the unique historical discourse that characterized China in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a progression of new and unfamiliar faces began to take their places onstage, filling the vacuum left after a period of chaos.

Although film insiders spoke tactfully when debating the true nature of the new style documentaries—referring to the use of “true, on-the-spot” filming as a means of subverting the slipshod, grandiose narrative structures of 1980s documentary—it was tacitly understood that the new documentary movement was directed at certain conservative political dogmas threatening to stage a comeback in post-1989 China. Filmmakers began to employ a concrete, confrontational, open and individualistic “reality” to dissolve a unified, absolutist, rigidly hollow universe of political dogma. Before long, people began to take notice. In terms of both form and content, the world of Chinese documentary film was experiencing a rebirth. No longer would Chinese documentary be so arrogant, so verbose, so inclined to censure its audience. The incessant moralizing and torrents of lecture that had been the mainstay of propaganda newsreels, referred to as “special topic films” in the grand tradition of Chinese euphemism, was beginning to wane. The people were put on notice: from now on, rather than gesticulating wildly from the sidelines in a way that interfered with the imagination of the audience, documentary filmmakers would offer audiences a calmer and more liberated space in which to “read” a work. In this way, the structural epicenter of Chinese documentary film moved away from off-screen narration and toward the events actually taking place onscreen.

As a result, filmmakers began to train their lenses on a myriad of real life situations, zooming in and out as required and attempting to capture, in as much detail as possible, all of the critical elements of a story. The ability to capture the movement of documentary subjects and to record events as they unfolded came to be viewed as a fundamental professional qualification for documentary cinematographers. Production techniques that could draw audiences into the story, providing viewers with a greater sense of immediacy, were now being taken seriously by those working in the field. In addition, the quality of ambient sound began to be used as a barometer of a documentary’s basic technical proficiency.

The developments listed above eventually coalesced into a culturally significant documentary phenomenon: for the first time in the history of Chinese documentary, individuals were accorded a believable existence onscreen. The most groundbreaking aspect of The Great Wall series was that it featured real people, unique individuals whose faces, voices, lives, stories and daily experiences were brought vividly to life amid the rubble of a nation’s tumultuous history.

The appearance of Bumming in Beijing held an even greater significance. Wu Wenguang’s film about young artists “bumming” on the margins of the system was not only a testament to the filmmaker’s individualistic take on the lives of these artists, but also a foray into a truly fringe world of filmmaking, an extraordinary feat considering the realities of life in mainland China at the time. It was a method that afforded the filmmaker the widest possible latitude for his artistic intuition about the events happening in the lives of his characters.

In October of 1993, the New Asian Currents category of the third Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival featured six films from mainland China. The films were Wu Wenguang’s 1966, My Time in the Red Guards, the SWYC Group’s I Have Graduated, Hao Zhiqiang’s Big Tree Country, Wen Pulin’s The Sacred Site of Asceticism, Jiang Yue’s Catholicism in Tibet and Fu Hongxing’s Tibetan Opera Troupe in the Khams. It marked the first time that such a large number of mainland Chinese documentary films had been showcased at an international film festival. Other than Tibetan Opera Troupe in the Khams, a production of the Central Newsreel and Documentary Studio, all of the entries were submitted by individual filmmakers. In the end, Wu Wenguang’s 1966, My Time in the Red Guards was chosen by the committee of judges as the first recipient of the Ogawa Shinsuke Prize, the grand prize in the New Asian Currents category. After winning the award, the film’s creator Wu Wenguang was quoted in the Taiwanese Xin Xin Weekly as saying, “For me, winning this award was crucial.”


The Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio, established on July 7, 1953, was once the principal base of documentary production in mainland China. Its origins can be traced back to the Yanan Film Group. Formed in 1938, the Yanan Film Group was an organization directly controlled by the General Headquarters of the CCP-led Eighth Route Army and headed by Tan Zhenlin, Deputy Political Director of the Eighth Route Army. This meant that the Yanan Film Group was the first film production unit under the direct leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

On October 1, 1938, in the shadow of the tomb of the Yellow Emperor in Huang Ling County, Shaanxi Province, the Yanan Film Group began production on its very first film project, the documentary Yanan and the Eighth Route Army (director: Yuan Muzhi, cinematographers: Wu Yinxian and Xu Xiaobing). Considering the material privations of that era, producing a film was certainly an extravagant undertaking: their single 35mm camera and five thousand feet of 35mm film were leftovers from Joris Ivens’s production of The 400 Million (1939), while their 16mm camera and film stock were purchased in Hong Kong and passed through many hands en route to the Communist base camp in Yanan. When this film stock ran out, the remainder of the documentary had to be finished with film scavenged from the limited number of photographic studios within the Communist-controlled areas.

In 1997, the Tokyo office of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival dispatched Monma Takashi to Beijing in the hopes of securing a copy of Yanan and the Eighth Route Army to screen at the festival. After making the rounds of the relevant government ministries and archives, Monma returned to the Tokyo empty-handed. In fact, no one in mainland China, other than the director himself, has ever seen a copy of the finished film. The China Film Archives warehouse in the eastern suburbs of Beijing houses only ten minutes of the film, footage brought from Moscow by a Soviet director in the 1950s in the process of editing the film The Victory of the Chinese People (“Zhongguo Renmin de Shengli”). In 1940, director Yuan Muzhi brought the complete film negatives of Yanan and the Eighth Route Army to Moscow for post-production. Before long, however, war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union and Yuan was delayed for a time in the USSR. He returned to Yanan several years later with neither the negatives nor the finished film.

Because the CCP army soldiers and the masses in their rural base areas were largely illiterate or semi-literate, the direct audio-visual medium of film was considered an essential political and educational tool. During the Yanan years, the practice of making short documentary films from the battlefront gradually gained popularity. By the time of the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists, many fighting units boasted their own small but active film production units. When the war ended in 1949, the vast majority of these film crews were brought together under the auspices of the Central Newsreel and Documentary Studio.

In the beginning, the Central Newsreel and Documentary Studio was a centrally controlled news agency similar to Xinhua or the People’s Daily, and its correspondents were dispatched to all areas of the country. From 1955 onward, the studio was mainly charged with creating newsreels. Other than a small number of feature films such as Red Flag Canal (“Hong Qi Qu”), Aspiration of a Nation (“Quanguo Renmin de Xinyuan”) and Global Enemy of the People (“Shijie Renmin Gongdi”), the studio mainly produced the newsreels News Document Exhibit (“Xinwen Yanshi Wengao”) and Global Sights and Sounds (“Shijie Jianwen”), aired before feature films in cinemas. Before the advent of television, the weekly ten-minute installment of News Document Exhibit, which covered breaking national news, was mainland China’s only audio-visual broadcast medium.

This sort of practical function set a firm structural precedent for films coming out the Central Newsreel and Documentary Studio. All employed the use of an off-screen narrator to expound on the political events and headline news items appearing onscreen. This marked a continuation of the Yanan film tradition: it provided people unable to read the newspapers with the ability to understand, without a shadow of a doubt, the events happening around them.

Thanks to certain technological breakthroughs, the field of global documentary underwent many critical changes, both practical and theoretical, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Yet during the same period in mainland China, information about the outside world of documentary ran up against both ideological and industry roadblocks, a twin set of obstacles.

At the same time, domestic and international political crises finally led China to adopt an ideological “closed-door policy.” Under Mao’s exhortation to “Never forget class struggle!” any and all incoming cultural information from abroad was suspected of being steeped in imperialist rhetoric or revisionist ideas of “peaceful evolution” against which a vigilant guard must be maintained.

After Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, two overseas film crews were allowed to enter China to film documentaries. The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs arranged permission for Michelangelo Antonioni to come to Beijing to film the documentary Cina for Italian national television. In January of 1973, the finished film was broadcast to the Italian public on RAI, Radio Televisione Italiana. On January 30, 1974, the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, launched a violent assault on Cina, under the headline “Venomous Intent, Despicable Means.” Antonioni was branded an “anti-Chinese buffoon” and an “accomplice to Soviet revisionism [and] socialist imperialism.” For a long time afterward, the name Antonioni became a household word in mainland China, an epithet synonymous with those who, while masking their true intentions, endeavored to expose the dark underside of socialism in the new China (this, despite the fact that the vast majority of ordinary Chinese had never even seen his film).

Marceline Loridan recalls that Chinese authorities informed director Joris Ivens, then in China filming How Yukong Moved the Mountains, of Antonioni’s transgression in the hope that Ivens would take a stand and personally denounce Antonioni. Their hints were ignored. Later, when officials from the Chinese Ministry of Culture reviewed Ivens’s finished film, it became apparent that their suggested revisions would alter the film beyond recognition. Ivens found himself placed in an extremely awkward position. Zhou Enlai broke the stalemate by quietly passing a message to Ivens through his foreign ministry entourage: “Take your film, leave immediately and don’t ever come back.” This time, Ivens took the hint and accepted Zhou Enlai’s suggestion.

Despite the secretive political atmosphere of the time, studio insiders (particularly those who had assisted in the production of these overseas documentaries) quietly traded stories about western directorial methods: the use of long tracking shots, sound and dialogue that were not dubbed but recorded on location and the professional relationships on set. Ideological elements aside, one great cause for consternation among the Chinese crew members was the ratio of film shot to film used. For Chinese filmmakers accustomed to working in an environment in which resources were extremely scarce, the vast amount of film consumed in the process of making a foreign documentary was scandalous. For many years, due to the unreliable quality of domestically produced film, film had had to be imported from overseas. However, the national economic crisis of the early 1960s and China’s policy of isolation from the international community meant that foreign currency was in extremely short supply and subject to stringent internal controls. Chinese cinematographers, allotted as little film as possible to accomplish their task, sometimes found themselves working with a film ratio as low as 1:1. So ingrained did this practice become that, as late as the 1980s, students in Chinese film schools were still being admonished to allow only “eight seconds for panorama, six seconds for medium-range shots, and three to four seconds for close-ups.”

On May 1 1958, at exactly 7:00 p.m., the first domestically produced television program was broadcast in China, although it could be seen only on the several dozen black and white television sets then in Beijing. By 1976, microwave broadcasts of television programs from Beijing were being transmitted simultaneously to cities in over twenty-three provinces, and the number of television sets had reached six hundred thousand. In tandem with imports of television sets and newly acquired television factory production lines, this figure increased rapidly. By the early 1990s, the number of television sets in China had already surpassed two hundred million, and the nation was crisscrossed with a network of satellite, microwave and fiber optic television signals.

The Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio was the first to feel the brunt of the rapid rise of the television industry, particularly after television broadcasts of the Network News (“Xinwen Lianbo”) began in January of 1978. Because it could reach viewers more quickly, the program made the old studio newsreels such as News Document Exhibit largely redundant. That same year, News Document Exhibit responded by revamping its content and changing its name to New Look of the Motherland (“Zuguo Xinmao”).

As it entered the 1990s, the Chinese movie industry underwent a massive change in response to market forces. Local theatres, newly responsible for profits and losses, began to factor in the cost of showing films and refused to continue footing the bill for unpopular newsreels. In 1992, the China Film Distribution Corporation lost its monopoly with the film studios, and was no longer the exclusive distributor for Chinese films. That same year, the Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio ceased production of its news magazine show News Document Exhibit, which in its heyday had enjoyed a nationwide circulation of about three hundred copies per episode. The once-powerful Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio found itself locked in an unprecedented and humiliating downward spiral; in 1993, the studio failed to secure more than a few orders for its two ninety-minute documentary releases and several dozen shorts, leaving the studio with a huge overstock that included most of the 109 copies produced for that year.

Human talent also began to gravitate toward television. For cinematographers at least, the attractions of television were clear. Under the Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio system, new cinematographers were required to spend five to eight years working as a camera assistant, after which they joined a group of four or five other journeymen trainees for further hands-on study. Only after they had completed this process, amassed a total of five hundred hours of film, and finished a short film that met with official approval were they qualified to work independently. To make matters worse, opportunities in the rapidly shrinking film industry were becoming scarcer with each passing day. As a result, many young recruits, the vigorous and creative talent that had once formed the backbone of the Chinese film industry, began to move into television, where funding and opportunities for advancement were more plentiful. Many arranged to be sent out “on loan” from the Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio. This is the reason why, at least in the early days, the Chinese new documentary film movement was so intimately connected with CCTV.

On October 29, 1993, just days after a new crop of Chinese documentaries were showcased at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, the Vice-Minister for Radio, Film and Television, Tian Congming, formally announced that the Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio, now entering its fourth decade, would be placed under CCTV leadership.

These days, when one passes through the main entrance to the Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio, one encounters an unobtrusive placard that reads: “China Central Television: New Documentary Film Production Center.” Heading up the studio is CCTV assistant manager Gao Feng. According to Gao Feng, the studio, through an open bidding process, has been contracted to produce seven programs for CCTV, including Documentary Window (“Jilupian zhi Chuang”), Witness: Personal Experience (“Jianzheng Qinli”) and Theatre Aficionado (“Mingduan Xinshang”). In fact, all of these are ‘marginalized’ programs that suffer from consistently low viewer ratings. These days, the studio’s main mission seems to be securing from CCTV sufficient funding to maintain its basic overhead and day-to-day operating expenses.

At present, the Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio devotes the majority of its budget to maintaining the over forty-two thousand reels in its database, comprising seven thousand hours of footage in total. In 1997, director Fu Hongxing drew on some of this source material in his film Zhou Enlai: A Life in Diplomacy (“Zhou Enlai de Waijiao Shenghuo”). When the film was released in 1998, it earned a total box office of thirty million Chinese yuan (approximately 3.6 million US dollars), despite the fact that it was generally a sluggish year for Chinese film. In comparison, in 2004 the Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio earned a mere 1.9 million Chinese yuan (228,000 US dollars) from selling rights to its stock of archival footage.


China Central Television, also known as CCTV, was formally established on May 1, 1978. Prior to that, it had operated for a full two decades under the moniker “Beijing Television.” In May of 1980, CCTV broadcast its first long-running documentary television series: The Silk Road, a seventeen-part documentary co-production with Japan’s NHK television. The finished film negatives were sent to Japan for processing, and separate edits in both Japan and China resulted in two different broadcast versions of the series. CCTV would later produce a whole crop of other documentaries based on the same model: Once Upon the Yangtze River, (“Huashuo Changjiang”) a twenty-five-episode series broadcast in 1983 and co-produced with Japan’s Sada Planning; The Yellow River (“Huang He”), a thirty-episode series broadcast in 1988 and co-produced with NHK; and The Great Wall (“Wang Changcheng”), a twelve-episode series broadcast in 1991 and co-produced with TBS.

Portions of the footage from The Yellow River were later incorporated into the film River Elegy (“He Shang”). The end credits of this film read like a virtual who’s who of prominent Chinese intellectuals, and include such illustrious names as Jin Guantao, the editor of Toward the Future (“Weilai Congshu”). By this point, Chinese policies of reform and opening had already been in place for nearly a decade, but one could sense hints of the deeper structural problems beneath the surface. Under the guise of exploring traditional Chinese culture, some prominent intellectuals began to delve into sensitive issues about China’s institutional structure. Aided by the unique imagery of the Yellow River, the writers and directors of River Elegy issued a richly symbolic plea for viewers to embrace “the wide blue sea.” When it was first broadcast on mainland and overseas Chinese language television stations in 1988, the film provoked an intense response. Though it managed to enrage conservative critics in China, it was rebroadcast with the support of then-CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and the waters, for a time, were calmed. After the Tiananmen incident of 1989, Zhao Ziyang was forced from power and the film once again came under harsh criticism as an example of “bourgeois liberalization” in Chinese television.

But adverse reaction to the film was by no means confined to the conservative camp. Some academics objected to the film for what they felt was a far-fetched interpretation of certain facts. They pointed out that an excess of poetic license in political expression could give rise to an opposite sort of formulaic bias. To a certain extent, the accumulation of these post-1989 strains of thought culminated in the Chinese “new documentary movement.”

On September 30, 1979, CCTV began broadcasting paid advertisements for Westinghouse electrical appliances, signaling the extent to which market considerations had already become ingrained in the daily operations of CCTV, the mouthpiece of the Chinese government. Henceforth in China, viewer share would be viewed not only as a gauge of ideological or propaganda effect, but also as a barometer of real market value.

On March 1, 1993, CCTV inaugurated a new format featuring a rolling series of news broadcasts inspired by similar programs on major overseas television networks. On May 1, 1993, CCTV kicked off its daily broadcasting line-up with a comprehensive 7:00 a.m. news magazine show, Eastern Time (“Dongfang Shikong,” sometimes translated as Oriental Moment or Oriental Horizon). Due to time, budget and personnel constraints in the early planning stages, the program was granted two unprecedented special exemptions. Firstly, advertising income from the five minutes of commercials that accompanied the program would go directly to the operating expenses of the program itself, the first time that audience share and advertising profit had been linked so directly. Secondly, under a newly implemented system of producer responsibility, the producers of the program would have discretion over content, format, expenditures, scheduling, equipment purchases and even the hiring and firing of personnel associated with the program. The only areas over which the network would exercise final approval would be the finished episodes and the annual budget allocation.

In the beginning, each forty-five-minute long episode of Eastern Time was divided into four segments: Eastern Talents (“Dongfang zhi Zi”), Life Space (“Shenghuo Kongjian,” also known as Living Space), Eastern Hit Parade (“Dongfang Jinqubang”) and Focus Time (“Jiaodian Shike”). When the program first began broadcasting, the Life Space segment was oriented toward a lifestyle advice column format. Sample topics included: “Weighing in on husbands and wives: Should men be allowed to keep separate savings accounts?” “The allure of the middle-aged woman” and “Special needs diets: Nutritional content and home preparation.” But as the consistently low ratings of these segments began to threaten the existence of the program as a whole, then-producer Lu Wangping (who would later do a turn as cinematographer in Bumming in Beijing) turned in desperation to indie director Jiang Yue to breathe new life into the segment. At Jiang Yue’s suggestion, Lu invited Jiang to shoot a short documentary about the lives of ordinary people. On June 13, 1993, the resulting collaboration, Three Eastern Heroes (“Dongfang Sanxia”), was aired. Depicting the lives and anecdotes of several elderly people, it was a breath of fresh air, a welcome change from the usual Chinese television fare. On November 8, 1993, after several rebroadcasts of the program, Life Space issued a new mission statement: “Let ordinary people tell their own stories.” Thus was Life Space transformed into a short documentary program aimed at reflecting the lives of ordinary Chinese people.

Although specific provisions vary, the producer responsibility system has now taken hold as the basic operating model for television programs in mainland China. This has allowed independent documentary directors to reach a certain level of accommodation with television producers about using television station or network resources to complete their own projects. Under this system, director Duan Jinchuan has made a number of films: No. 16, Barkhor South Street (“Bakuo Nanjie 16 Hao,” 1996, producers: Wei Bin and Zhaxi Dawa), The Ends of the Earth (“Tian Bian,” 1996, producer: Zhaxi Dawa), The Men and Women of Jia Da Village (“Jiadacun de Nanren he Nuren,” 1996, producer: Zhaxi Dawa) and Shipwreck (“Chen Chuan,” also translated as Sunken National Treasure, 1998, producer: Wei Bin). This same system yielded director Jiang Yue’s River Stilled (“Bei Jingzhe de He,” 1999, producer: Wei Bin) and Li Hong’s Out of Phoenix Bridge (“Huidao Fenghuang Qiao,” 1997, producer: Li Xiaoshan).

Due to CCTV’s inherent status as a government mouthpiece, there were limits to the above collaborations. Although No. 16, Barkhor South Street won accolades at the 1997 Paris Film Festival Cinéma du Réel—garnering it an entry in A History of China Central Television (“Zhongyang Dianshitai Fazhanshi,” published August 1998 by the Beijing Publishing House) as an example of a CCTV documentary that had achieved “world-class” status—it was not actually broadcast in mainland China until August of 2001. Originally one hundred minutes long, the film was edited down to thirty minutes for broadcast and relegated to a late night 11:30 p.m. time slot.

Life Space was both the most influential and the longest running documentary segment in Chinese television history. In the process, a mission statement gradually took form: “To record a period in history through the fates of ordinary people.” During its lengthy seven-year run, the program was aired an average of five to six times per week. Despite the uneven quality of the eight to ten minute documentaries it was designed to showcase, the program soon attracted a loyal following. In 1995, Life Space revamped its format once again. Each of the revised episodes that began airing daily from May 22, 1995 focused on a single story. In an idea inspired by traditional Chinese serial fiction, each story was continued throughout the week, with a new segment airing each day. The time lag between segments created a dramatic tension, a sense of suspense that drew the viewer into a larger narrative space and made for thrilling tales such as the following:

I Want to Fly (“Wo Xiang Fei”)
Director: Liu Hongyan. Aired May 22–27, 1995.
The story of an ordinary Sichuanese farmer with an extraordinary dream: to fly a homemade airplane he crafted with his own two hands. Eventually, he realizes his dream and takes to the sky.

Mother (“Muqin”)
Director: Hai Tian. Aired May 29–June 3, 1995.
A woman in her nineties, living in a home for the elderly in Tianjin, decides to take her own children to court to sue them for financial support. In the process, a long-standing family feud is revealed.

The Examination (“Kaoshi”)
Director: Guo Jia. Aired June 19–24, 1995.
As the annual entrance examinations for prospective students at mainland China’s most prestigious school of music, The Central Academy of Music, draws near, several girls from the provinces, accompanied by their parents, arrive in Beijing to prepare for the examinations. The youngsters eventually succumb to the tremendous pressure, and all end up failing the examination.

When these programs were broadcast, they received an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from Chinese audiences. For a time, their viewer share even dwarfed that of the regular CCTV broadcast news. Despite a total lack of negative criticism about the new format, the revamped version of Life Space was suddenly and inexplicably cancelled after a mere eight episodes. Unofficially, word had it that the opposition came from the Chinese Communist Party Ministry of Propaganda. Although this rumor was never verified, it was nonetheless viewed seriously and drastic measures were taken. From this incident, we can gain some understanding of the tremendous organizational power of a system with “Chinese characteristics.”

In an organization such as CCTV, success or failure is frequently determined not by rules of the institution itself but by chance personnel decisions. A case in point: in September of 2001, the transfer of one of the original producers meant that the heyday of Life Space was no more. With its creative team scattered, program quality and audience following soon eroded.

There are now only two regularly scheduled documentary programs on CCTV: Witness (“Jianzheng”) a half-hour program broadcast nightly at 1:16 a.m., and Chronicle: The Forward March of Chinese Film (“Jishi: Xingjinzhong de Zhongguo Yingxiang”), a forty-five-minute long program broadcast each Saturday at 11:15 p.m. and rebroadcast Sunday at 11:10 a.m. From the time slots alone, the marginalized status of these programs is apparent. In tandem with the increasing marketization of all segments of the economy, mainland China’s government-run television stations seem to have found a loophole between economics and ideology, one that allows them to embrace this age of rampant consumerism and light entertainment media. Audience share is now the lever that drives programming. More recently, CCTV has implemented a “low man on the totem pole” elimination system: if a program consistently appears at the bottom on the list in surveys of viewer share, it will be the first to be axed from the lineup. This has become an effective means of keeping producers perpetually “in check.”


Without a doubt, in today’s mainland China, nearly all of the most trenchant and exciting new documentary films come from independent and amateur filmmakers. As for the former stars of the “new documentary movement” of yesteryear, most have now retired from the scene. Because the rise of this new generation of independent filmmakers has been so closely linked with the spread of DV technology, they have been widely dubbed the “DV generation.”

By about 1997, a variety of different makes and models of DV equipment had begun to appear on the Beijing market. Once people had mastered this relatively inexpensive and easy-to-use DV technology, they began to use it to make their own films. This was particularly true of those outside the organizational structure of film and television, those with little opportunity to express themselves via film. One outstanding example of this new breed of filmmaker is Lina Yang Tianyi, a female director with no previous formal training in film. Her documentary Old Men (“Lao Tou”), about a group of elderly people, exhibits a spontaneous, feminine kindness and an exquisite attention to detail. Before her lens, the stories of these people approaching the end of their lives intermingle to form a moving elegy of human nature.

Recurring notes provide the structure underpinning Wang Bing’s epic nine-hour documentary West of Tracks (“Tie Xi Qu”). The vast panorama of this film does nothing to detract from the filmmaker’s quest to unearth the details of life in a declining rust belt and the strange, dreamlike existence of its inhabitants. Over the course of nine hours, the film unfurls as gradually as a Chinese scroll; the emotional depths of dozens of characters are brought to life as vividly as if they were subjects in an oil painting. Their lives and their fates are completely convincing. For the vast majority of people, this is as close as it gets to real life.

Hu Xinyu’s The Man (“Nanrenmen”) is a fascinating piece that raises important questions of our day and age by “telling it like it is.” Perhaps now, more than at any other time in history, we have learned how to use film to “tell it like it is.” With this basic knowledge, we cannot help but ponder: by “telling it like it is,” how can we best express the human heart and the human imagination? As a documentary filmmaker face to face with the human spirit, what is one to do?

Today, thousands upon thousands of Chinese filmmakers are using digital video to document their lives and surroundings. If we were to include individuals using digital cameras as a more personal means of self-expression, I suspect the number would be even greater. Generally speaking, these spontaneous grassroots creations enjoy a very limited audience, confined as they are to small, salon-style screenings held in bars or universities.

Not surprisingly, only a tiny minority of these films ever manage to reach the global market via international festivals. Out of Phoenix Bridge (purchased by the BBC), Old Men and Before the Flood (both purchased by ART) and West of Tracks (distributed by MK2) are a few rare examples.

The vast majority of independent Chinese documentaries live and die among the people. Seen by few, they soon fall by the wayside; many are lost. How to establish a public platform for these documentaries in their native China is a vexing question, one that has been the subject of much concerted effort by those concerned about the healthy development of Chinese documentary film.

Largely due to its independent standpoint, the Southern Weekend is a Chinese weekly that enjoys a great deal of prestige among readers. In September 2001, at the behest of the Southern Weekend, the Beijing Film Academy held an independent film festival. The festival was divided into three parts: experimental film, feature film and documentary film. Du Haibin’s Along the Railway was awarded the first prize in the documentary category. But the festival received a reprimand from government authorities and was prematurely cancelled. Subsequent to this, certain members of the Southern Weekend staff who had been involved in organizing the festival were forced to submit self-criticisms.

In January of 2002, Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV introduced a television series called The DV Generation. Owing to the unique set of circumstances at that network, viewers were able to see, for the first time, a series of independent documentaries that included Lina Yang Tianyi’s Old Men, Du Haibin’s Along the Railway and Zhu Chuanming’s Extras (“Qunzhong Yanyuan”). Although free from the strict ideological controls of government-run television, the program did encounter some programming bottlenecks: the time allotted for each program was only fifteen minutes, with one commercial break in the middle. In a compromise solution, it was decided that each film would be cut down to fifty minutes and broadcast in five-minute increments. But even more insurmountable problems lay ahead. From the start, uneven quality and irregular output meant that the program was unable to gain advertiser support, and in 2003, the program was cancelled.

Yunnan’s unique cultural geography has always attracted a wide variety of documentary filmmakers. In March of 2003, audiences at Yunnan’s Multiculture Visual Festival were astounded by a collection of ethnographic films shot in Yunnan during the 1950s and 1960s. For those accustomed to the government newsreels that had dominated that period of Chinese history, these recently unearthed films were a new awakening. Organized by the Provincial Museum of Yunnan, the festival was aimed at providing a forum for disparate voices and meaningful dialogue within the Chinese documentary film community. Two years later, the second Multiculture Visual Festival film festival was held in Kunming, at the newly completed Yunnan Provincial Library. Sponsored by Yunnan’s Academy of Social Sciences, the festival featured ninety-eight documentaries—most grassroots works that had lain hidden among the people for years—competing in three separate categories. The films, showing in four separate theatres, were open to the public, free to anyone who was interested. The intention of the festival organizers was an admirable one: to help “mainland Chinese documentary develop in a direction free from the motivations of commerce or propaganda.”


The scene is eerily reminiscent of Ogawa Shinsuke’s footage of the Sanrizuka protests.* The footage was recorded on June 11, 2005 in Shenyou Village, Dingzhou, Henan Province . . . a mere two hundred kilometers from Beijing. At approximately 4:30 in the morning, three hundred men—bused in on coaches and trucks, and equipped with hardhats, camouflage clothing, batons and steel pipes—launched a surprise attack on residents living in a shantytown south of the village. In the melee, six villagers were beaten to death and forty-eight were wounded. The conflict began when Hebei Guohua Dingzhou Power Plant attempted to commander 378 “mu” (twenty-five hectares, or sixty-three acres) of prime farming land from the villagers. Villager Niu Zhanzong, who captured the melee on his DV camera, was chased down and beaten: the footage shows no fewer than six men rushing toward him. By the time he was rescued by his fellow villagers, Niu had already sustained multiple serious injuries, including a broken left arm. Despite the horrific price exacted for his scant three minutes of footage, his video stands as a vital testimony to the violent assault upon his village.

It is a story with nothing to do with the aesthetics of cinema; before it, academic debates about the ethics of cinema seem to pale in comparison. In this hyper-visual and hermeneutic era, Niu’s story serves as a powerful reminder, told in the most common sense terms, of the basic function of film and why it is so vitally important that we continue to record this period in Chinese history.

August, 2005
—Translated by Cindy Carter


Lin Xu-dong

Film critic. Among his published works are Film in Mainland China: The Sixth Generation? (1995) and About the ‘New Documentary’ in Mainland China (1996). Served as Juror for the New Asian Currents program at YIDFF ’99.


*Sanrizuka was the site of clashes between riot police and Japanese farmers protesting the use of their land for the construction of Narita International Airport.—Trans.