chapter  1
26 Pages

The documentary genre and Chinese documentaries

Documentary film and television documentary programmes make up a substantial share of the overall film and television productions of China today. From its inception in early 1910s, documentary filmmaking has occupied a much more prominent place in the cinema in China than it has in the West. Today Chinese documentary productions of all kinds are flourishing in a rapidly expanding media market. Why this is so and how this came about are questions to be addressed in the course of the argument of this book. Above all else, this book seeks to understand how documentary film in China has changed since its beginnings in the 1910s to the present, from an imitation of the Western tradition, to a highly authoritarian mode of presentation in the Mao era, and to today’s more polyphonic and, as I will argue in the second part of the book, a more ‘democratic’ and critical style. Documentary film has also played a highly prominent role in the visual culture and politics of China since 1949. It is the main genre addressing the official, elite, popular and ‘underground’ (unofficial, marginal, illegitimate) film culture in China. The government has used documentary film to promote its political ideologies and policies, while the intellectuals increasingly use it to test, debate and communicate their new theories and perspectives. Outside the official system, marginal views are now about to be circulated through independent, semi-independent or community driven documentary filmmaking. This is partly why documentary film is the most produced, as well as one of the most widely consumed, genres in China today. The Central China Television Station (CCTV) alone produced over 1,000 documentaries per year before the end of the last century (Ren 1997: 24). Today that figure is significantly higher. Nor is the CCTV the only television station to engage in this kind of production. The development of the Chinese documentary film from dogmatic modes in the planned economy to polyphonic styles in the market economy can also be argued to reflect, as well as promote, the complex process of preparing for ‘democratisation’ in China.