Books, movies and TV series are a great way to learn more about a culture and understand people, their customs and their way of life. They are also a lot of fun and great when you are stuck in airports, on long train/bus trips or having a quiet night at home or in your hotel room.
Listed below are a selection of books, movies and TV series that I recommend to any one with an interest in travel and life in China. These listings will not contain any spoilers! This list is far far from complete and will be regularly updated as I receive suggestions and recommendations. Please feel fee to comment or email me if you have a book, movie or TV series that you think should be added.
To fully appreciate these movies and TV series, you need to watch them in Chinese and use English subtitles. Please, please, please do not watch them dubbed into English.
Yip Man 2008
This movie is set in Foshan during the second Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1945 and is a loose biographical account of Yip Man, the first master and teacher of the martial art Wing Chun. Donnie Yen is brilliant as Yip Man and a joy to watch. The fight scenes are fast, dynamic and very well choreographed. The whole movie is well done with an authentic feel and contains light moments of humor that will have you smiling.
Yip Man II 2010
Unlike most second movies, Yip Man II complements the original movie and, in my opinion is better. This movie is about how Yip Man (played again by Donnie Yen) struggles to set up a Wing Chun school and the trouble he has with the British and their prejudice. The fight scene where is sparring on a restaurant table with a rival Kung Fu master is just brilliant.
Red Cliff 2008
This is an epic historical war movie set just before the Three Kingdoms period and is based on several chapters from the Chinese Classic book “Three Kingoms”. The director is John Woo who’s trade mark action scenes are in abundance and includes an impressive line up of stars.
The movie is released in two parts and is over four hours in length. Some of the scenes are very corny with famous TV series actors who’s presence is in this movie is extremely inappropriate. I watched this movie after reading the book and really enjoyed it once I stopped nitpicking and accepted historical discrepancies.
Beijing Bicycle 2001
No list of recommended Chinese movies would be complete without the Beijing Bicycle. This movie is about a country boy Guei who moves to Beijing and starts working for a courier company that supplies him with a bicycle he has to earn from his commissions. The movie is very well acted and very touching, leading you on an emotional roller coaster ride as you follow Guei’s changing fortunes.
An excellent portrayal of life and conditions in China for normal people and the kind of life they lead.
Red Corner 1997
Richard Gere plays an American business man working in China on a very big joint venture who is framed for murder. The story is based on corruption and manipulation of law. This movie is filmed in Los Angeles with English so it is not a genuine Chinese movie. Even though Red Corner is very American and received poor reviews I’ve included it in this list because it raises very relevant key issues, is very though provoking and banned in China.
I’ve never found a copy in a Chinese DVD shop due to the ban so either watch this movie outside Chines or “carefully” bring a copy with you.
Infernal Affairs I, II & III 2002
The Triad or Hong Kong Mafia are an integral part of Hong Kong’s history and popular culture. They are also an unpleasant reality in Hong Kong’s underworld and clearly visible in Hong Kong’s bar and KTV scene. To begin to understand Hong Kong, you need at least a basic understanding of the Triad. The Internal Affair movies are an excellent (though some what dramatic) and enjoyable introduction to the Triad.
This movie has a star studded cast (Andy Lao and Tony Leung) and is about an under cover police officer who infiltrates the Triad at the same time as a Triad member infiltrates the Hong Kong police. This plot is probably familiar to you because the American movie “The departed” is a remake of this movie.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China 1991
This book is an autobiography by Jung Chang and follows the lives of three generations of women in her family. Starting with Chang’s mother who had bound feet and was the concubine of a powerful lord to Chang’s mother who was a revolutionary in the Red Army and finishes with Chang herself after the death of Mao.
This book is hands down my favourite book on China and was a wonderful insight into China’s recent history and how the impact of the last few generations has shaped Chinese society and way of life as we see it now. It is an excellent eye opener and will help you connect the dots on what you see around you when you travel and live in China.
I finished this book while on a train travelling through Inner Mongolia and had it snatched out of my hand by a friend before I had even finished turning the last page because it is so good. Wild Swans is banned in China so my copy was brought over from Australia and has since changed hands many times.
Mao’s Last Dancer 2003
An autobiography by Li Cunxin who graduated from the Beijing Dance Academy during the cultural revolution and became one of China’s most famous defectors after he defected to the US. Li is from the country and this book is a marvellous portrayal of the hardship that country people in China endured during Mao’s reign.
Starting at the end of the Han Dynasty in 184, this book follows three brothers by sacred oath and their influence on the disintegration of China into three separate kingdoms and the eventual reunification of China under the Western Jin Dynasty in 280.
This book is one of China’s classics and, in my humble opinion, the most enjoyable. The three kingdoms is a very graphical portrayal of the Machiavellian politics of those times where people switched allegiances at a whim and no one could be trusted. You can clearly see from reading this book that life was brutal during that period and common people had no rights. The population at the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty in 156 was 56 million. By the formation of the Western Jin Dynasty in 280, the population had declined to 16 million.
The plight of the common people is clearly illustrated in the book when one of the lords travelling by himself takes shelter with a poor hunter. The hunter has no food to offer the lord so he kills his wife, cooks her and feeds her to the lord. Upon learning of this, the lord is deeply touched by the hunter’s sacrifice. Very nasty stuff.
The Three Kingdoms is contained in 3 thick books and is very heavy reading. Expect to take a long time to read it.
Blood Red Romance
This TV series is about a bunch of Dong Bei (north east) Chinese young rough necks and their journey to adult hood during the cultural revolution. The plot centres around a couple that are separated by class/political background and how political turmoil forces them apart.
You can clearly see from this series the mass movement of city people to the country for “education” as a part of one of Mao’s policies and the havoc this movement causes. The political prosecution of military and political figures and how people are at the mercy Mao’s policies and how fates can change on a whim of Mao’s is also clearly evident.
You will find this series enlightening and mateship and humor of the roughnecks is enjoyable to watch and is characteristic of Dong Bei culture. The Shang Bei musical soundtrack is also excellent.
Double Sided Tape
Mother in laws are capable of causing havoc and making or breaking a marriage in just about every culture and particularly so in China where traditionally, a women would marry into her husbands family and be completely at the mercy of her new mother in law
In double sided tape, a dong bei man living in Shanghai marries a Shanghai woman and in typical Shanghai fashion becomes the Ideal doting Shanghai husband. The marriage blissful until the mother in law drops in for a visit with no plans of leaving and havoc ensures.
Watching the interaction between the two families and the way the husband is forced to choose between his mother or his wife was fascinating and educational. I’ve discussed the fundamental issues raised by this series with my female Chinese friends who all admit these issues are valid and a major concern to them. For any foreigner planning to marry in to a Chinese family, this series is a must see.
You are my brother
Family bonds are normally stronger in China that most other countries and traditionally family members are expected to sacrifice personal freedom for the sake of the family. “You are my brother” is based on this concept and follows the lives of four brothers after their parents have died and how the eldest brother is forced to take care of his younger brothers.
The acting is enjoyable, the plot believable, reasonably realistic and well paced with excellent characterization. I found this TV series both fascinating and very enjoyable and watched it constantly until the end.