Want to change the world?
Make a documentary.
Just look at the impact it can have!
After Morgan Spurlock’s expose on the dangers of fast food in “Super Size Me,” McDonald’s overhauled their menu to offer healthier options. Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War,” which examined sexual assault in the U.S. military, got the attention of several lawmakers and led the Pentagon to re-examine its policies.
This showed that massive institutions can be swayed significantly into changing potentially hazardous policies.
All because of a movie.
Even if a particular documentary doesn’t cause quite that big a splash, it may impact you in a major way.
When it comes to Chinese documentaries specifically, you’ll get two major benefits. First, you get the opportunity to brush up on your Mandarin listening skills, with English and Chinese subtitles to further boost your comprehension. Second, you get to take a look at important and sometimes controversial aspects of Chinese culture.
Both go hand-in-hand for achieving fluency. Excelling in a language isn’t just about being able to speak and read, as strange as that sounds!
Before we press play on 10 of our favorite Chinese documentaries—how can watching them improve your Mandarin?
How Can Watching Documentaries Help You Learn Chinese?
- Real-world Mandarin Chinese improves listening skills. The whole point of documentaries is to show you a slice of real life, right? That means you’ll hear authentic Mandarin spoken at normal speeds from native speakers. It’s an effective, immersive way to boost your listening comprehension skills.
If you enjoy this type of learning, you can take it up a notch with FluentU. This app provides authentic Chinese videos (like movie trailers, commercials, inspiring talks and more) that’ve been transformed into a language learning experience.
Each video comes with interactive subtitles that you can click for an instant definition and pronunciation of any word. The videos are organized by difficulty level and genre, so you’ll always find something that matches your learning goals and style. Plus, FluentU personalizes your learning by suggesting new videos based on what you’ve already watched.
- Documentaries can expose you to Chinese culture, which goes hand-in-hand with studying language. You can’t really separate culture from language. Culture impacts informal speech and slang, conversation topics and much more.
Understanding a little bit about Chinese culture through documentaries can give foreigners valuable insights into the language they’re studying.
- Documentaries are entertainment, but can also help you with active practice. Why not lounge and watch an interesting TV show or documentary with subtitles to help you practice word association? Or how about keeping a notebook handy to jot down unfamiliar words as you watch?
There’s nothing better than being low-key lazy and learning at the same time.
10 Chinese Language Documentaries You Need to Watch ASAP
This heart-wrenching and eye-opening documentary follows the lives of the 22 “comfort women” survivors remaining in China.
Comfort women are women and girls that were forced into sex slavery during World War II by the Imperial Japanese Army. They mostly included Chinese, Korean and Filipino women. “Twenty Two” gives a voice to the women that weren’t afforded one during their hardships.
“Twenty Two” is available on Netflix with both Chinese and English subtitles. There’s a wide variety of accents that can be heard in this film, but the beginner Mandarin learner should have no problem keeping up.
Jia Zhangke is one of the most famous Chinese documentary film directors alive. In “Jia Zhangke: A Guy From Fenyang,” director Walter Salles takes Jia Zhangke through his struggling hometown.
The film follows the artist as he reflects on how Chinese society and culture have changed through the years, namely through globalization and colonization. The viewer also gets to learn more about Jia Zhangke and his work, as well as his controversial clashes with China’s government while filming many of his greatest works.
This documentary can be viewed on Netflix. It contains a mix of both English and Mandarin Chinese dialogue and English subtitles are available.
This provocative documentary captures the efforts of the mayor of Datong, one of China’s most polluted and destitute cities, as he makes the controversial move to relocate half a million people to rebuild the city from the foundation up.
An award-winning documentary and quite entertaining in its own right, “The Chinese Mayor” is an insightful look into how the future of China is changing.
“The Chinese Mayor” is available on Netflix with English subtitles. The speed of speech in this film is fairly mixed, but a beginner Mandarin learner should be able to keep up.
This documentary seems relatively benign at first glance. What’s cuter than a group of third-grade Chinese children competing for a class monitor position?
However, “Please Vote For Me” takes a turn that’s almost disturbing. At the encouragement (and at times, pressure) of their teachers and parents, these children start using not-so-subtle classic political democratic principles and manipulative tactics to win the race.
“Please Vote For Me” is viewable on Vimeo with English subtitles. This documentary is fairly short (under an hour) but it provides incredible insight into modern Chinese political culture and how it affects children.
Since this film deals with a group of children, it may be difficult to keep up with multiple speakers for beginner Mandarin learners. Intermediate and advanced learners can benefit from this documentary.
At 2:28 p.m. (14:28 in military time) on May 12, 2008, residents of Chengdu were shaken by the tumultuous 汶川大地震 (wèn chuān dà dì zhèn) — Great Sichuan Earthquake. The results were catastrophic. More than 69,000 people perished from the quake. The 8-magnitude earthquake left almost 5.8 million people homeless. Strong aftershocks continued to shake the area for months afterward and caused even more deaths and property damage.
This documentary features gut-wrenching scenes of citizens trying to salvage bits of their properties and grieve the loss of their loved ones from 10 days after the quake to seven months later.
This award-winning documentary is available for streaming on Amazon Video. Though painful to watch, “1428” shows how resilient and inspiring Chinese citizens were in the face of tragedy.
How would you handle constant government surveillance, harassment and imprisonment?
For activist 叶海燕 (yè hǎi yàn) — Ye Haiyan, a.k.a. Sparrow, the constant risks and dangers she faced while trying to get justice for six young girls who were abused by their principle were difficult, but she never wavered. Even in the face of major political backlash.
“Hooligan Sparrow” is available on Netflix. The audio features both spoken English and Mandarin and English subtitles are available. Even though there’s a lot of English spoken alongside Mandarin in this documentary, there’s still linguistic value to be found. There’s a diverse mix of accents in this film that can help intermediate learners work on their listening skills.
The subject matter is very important and can help the foreign viewer appreciate the resilience and endurance of the modern Chinese woman. “Hooligan Sparrow” is fantastic feminist and cultural learning.
For many, the Olympic Games are a fun event to attend and view on TV. For many others, namely the citizens of Meishi Street in Beijing, it meant eviction and possible homelessness prior to the 2008 Olympics hosted in China.
In this independent documentary, ordinary yet extraordinary folks band together to protest and fight the destruction of their homes and businesses by the Chinese government. This documentary is unique in that the filmmakers gave cameras to the actual subjects of the film in order to get up close and personal footage of the protests.
You can watch “Meishi Street” streaming on Amazon Video. Due to the almost “found footage” amateur nature of this documentary, it may be difficult to keep up with multiple speakers at once and some of the documentary is difficult to hear. This one’s best for intermediate Mandarin learners.
Prominent Chinese documentarian 王兵 (wáng bīng) — Wang Bing directs this atmospheric film about three young sisters aged 10, six and four. The motherless girls live alone in a tiny village in the mountains while their father works in the city.
“Three Sisters” is stunning visually while also highlighting the intense differences between the life of the girls and the images some may have of an economically rich urban China.
This documentary has somewhat minimal dialogue, so beginners can definitely benefit from watching this film.
Burnt out on sad documentaries? “A Bite of China” is a great palate cleanser, but you might find yourself getting a bit hungry.
This culinary documentary series explores the history of cooking and cuisine trends in China.
You can watch “A Bite of China” on YouTube with both English and Chinese subtitles. Since much of the narration of this film is scripted and a bit slower than “normal” talking speeds, beginners can definitely keep up.
Another legendary documentary that comes from Wang Bing, “Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks” details the slow deterioration of China’s industrial districts that were once a glimmering and prosperous example of the country’s socialist economy boom. Personal, intense visually and an award winner, this documentary is well worth watching.
“Tie Xi Qu” is a fascinating documentary, but is definitely not a brief viewing experience. The documentary is split up into three parts and runs approximately nine hours long.
Think you’re up to the challenge? The entire documentary is available on YouTube with English subtitles.
Many Chinese documentaries out there aren’t exactly laugh-out-loud comedies. However, most of these documentaries can help the foreign learner understand the struggle of Chinese people and gain a bit more respect for the culture that birthed the language they’re learning.
With this list, you’ll be reaping the rewards that Chinese documentaries can provide: a chance to practice Mandarin and a chance to change your heart.
Emily Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist. She writes about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.