Chinese dreams (2019): must-watch China doc

In short: You take a Dutch guy who wants to become a professional photographer. You put him in China with a camera team and he starts making an incredible portrait of present-day China. Since these three documentaries are almost unknown outside of Holland, I decided to share them here.

How the Dutch filmmaker Ruben Terlou ended up in China

After finishing high school in the Netherlands, Ruben Terlou went to China to make a living as a photographer. A rather unusual step for a young Dutchman, but Ruben was convinced that China was the place to be for him.

Settling down in Kunming and learning Chinese, he fell in love with the country and the people. He became fluent in Mandarin. But after two years of trying his luck as a professional photographer, he returned to Holland, allegedly broke and disappointed.

He than began studying medicine instead, putting photography second, but still visiting places like Afghanistan to shoot material. He finished his studies cum laude, yet he never became an actual doctor.

All in all, I have spent around four to five years in China, I guess. I appreciate the honesty of the people the most. Chinese people are very open about their emotions and can reflect well. The country is and remains fascinating because it is constantly and massively in motion.

The filmmaker Ruben Terlou in Dutch newspaper Trouw

Ruben Terlou: Holland’s unappointed China ambassador

Ruben’s China documentaries became an instant hit in the Netherlands. In every discussion about China people would mention his name.

For most Dutch people China used to be a far away place. Little did they know about the people who live there and their daily lives. Ruben’s China series made a change, focusing on a broad variety of topics and letting Chinese locals tell their own story. He showed that Chinese are not incomprehensible strangers, but fellow human beings. Not an easy task, especially under growing political tensions:

It would be nice if my work touches the audience. Because with all that news about the Chinese trade war, misunderstanding towards the superpower is growing. “What a horrible country, that China,” many people say. I want to remove that distrust, hope to paint a balanced and human image of China.

Ruben Terlou in Dutch newspaper Trouw

Not the usual biased approach

Many China documentaries made by westerners fail insofar that they are deep-rooted in prejudices (and often ignorance) and choose the moral high ground. Most importantly, they don’t bring any new insights.

Ruben Terlou cannot help but see China through the eyes of a westerner, but at least he makes a serious effort of leaving judgement to the viewers. But there’s more that makes him stand out from journalists and filmmakers that cover China:

  • He holds back his opinion and allows people to tell their stories
  • He’s not looking for cheap sensation
  • People open up to him and tell him very personal things
  • He’s a keen observer and a brilliant listener. He knows what to ask at the right moment.
  • Not only his Mandarin is fluent, he also knows a lot about Chinese history and culture. This is demonstrated in his interviews as well as in his selection of topics and filming areas.
  • He captures unusual places, people and situations like hospitals, circus artists and vanishing minorities.

China is the ideal laboratory for story telling. Had I made the same series in Belgium, or even in India, my conversations would affect the audience less. Those countries are closer to us. Precisely because China is strange to us, I can expose the essence of mankind. Do you understand? China is linguistically and culturally so different from us that it serves as a mirror.

Ruben Terlou in Trouw

Three times China

Three different series of Ruben’s China adventures have been produced. The main language is Mandarin Chinese with Dutch moderation and – most important – English subtitles. Starting with season 1:

Along the banks of the Yangtze (2016)

The six episodes

Along the banks of the Yangtze, langs de oevers van de Yangtze, Ruben Terlou, TV-series (2016), aflevering 1 - 3

Along the banks of the Yangtze, langs de oevers van de Yangtze, Ruben Terlou, TV-series (2016), aflevering 4 - 6

  • Year: 2016
  • Duration: 6 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Through the heart of China (2018)

The seven episodes

Through the heart of China (2018), door het hart van China, Ruben Terlou, documentary, Aflevering 1 - 4

Through the heart of China (2018), door het hart van China, Ruben Terlou, documentary, Aflevering 4 - 7

  • Year: 2018
  • Duration: 7 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Chinese dreams (2019)

Episode 3: Ruben wonders how it is possible that each year nearly five million marriages go on the rocks in China. He travels with a judge across the countryside, attends divorce cases in a court, and joins a so-called “mistress hunter”. In a “love hospital” in the mega city of Shanghai, he witnesses a relationship therapist in action.
  • Year: 2019
  • Duration: 4 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: Dutch
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Chinese like any other language ultimately is a tool for communication. Ruben mastered the language and moved on to use his wits and talents to do great things. What’s your dream? What do you think about his China doc? Please feel free to leave a comment.

Sixteen China podcasts to listen during lockdown

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Tired of listening to endless corona-updates and Covid-discussions? Here’s some China-focused listening material for you sorted by topic.

The general idea here: When learning a language, having some topics that really interest you, can be very motivating to keep pursuing your goals.

One of my personal favorites is definitely The China Africa Project Podcast. If you are into politics and want to broaden your views about China’s engagement in Africa, you will love the show. Another favorite of mine is China Tech Talk for insights into the Chinese tech-start-up scene.

If you are looking for a podcast about learning Chinese, check out the you can learn Chinese podcast. You find some great discussions and inspiring interviews here by the makers of the Mandarin Companion.

Current affairs

The ChinaPower Podcast covers critical issues underpinning China’s emergence as a global power and brings together the leading experts on China and international politics. Host Bonnie S. Glaser offers her listeners critical insights into the challenges and opportunities presented by China’s rise.

Carnegie-Tsinghua Podcast discusses China’s relations with the rest of the world and is hosted by Paul Haenle, Director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center based in Beijing, China.

The Little Red Podcast offers interviews and chat celebrating China beyond the Beijing beltway. Hosted by Graeme Smith, China studies academic at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs and Louisa Lim, former China correspondent for the BBC and NPR, now with the Centre for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University.

  • Host: Graeme Smith
  • Frequency: Monthly
  • Duration: 40-50 min.
  • Since: 2016
  • For more information click here

The MERICS podcast discusses and analyzes developments and current affairs in China: What is behind the Belt and Road Initiative? What kind of leader is Xi Jinping? How should we assess China’s climate change policies? How does the Chinese government use social media to its own ends? In addition to MERICS’s own staff, other experts on China and guest speakers at MERICS also take part in the interviews.

The China Africa Project Podcast was launched in 2010 and focuses on China’s engagement in Africa.

  • Host: Eric Olander, Cobus van Staden
  • Frequency: Weekly
  • Duration: 45 min.
  • Since: 2010
  • Organization: The China Africa Project

History

China History podcast covers 5000 years of Chinese history and is hosted by Laszlo Montgomery. Topics include PRC history and leaders like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, US-Chinese history, but also the Chinese dynasties, history of tea and even Chinese philosophy.

  • Host: Laszlo Montgomery
  • Frequency: irregular
  • Duration: 40-60              
  • Since: 2010
  • Organization: Teacup Media 2017

Investing in China

CHINA MONEY NETWORK Podcast covers all the news headlines in the China venture and tech sector on a weekly basis live from Hongkong.

  • Host: Eudora Wang       
  • Frequency: Weekly        
  • Duration: 10 min.
  • Organization: CHINA MONEY NETWORK

The Harbinger China Podcast is a monthly Q&A with China’s top venture investors and tech company founders.

  • Host: Tim Chen
  • Frequency: Monthly
  • Duration: 40 min.
  • Since: 2017
  • Organization: The harbinger China

Tech

Techbuzz China is a bi-weekly technology podcast about China’s Innovation and (tech-related) cultural trends.

  • Host: Ying-Ying Lu, Rui Ma
  • Frequency: Bi-weekly
  • Duration: 30 min.
  • Since: 2018
  • Organization: Techbuzz China is a part of Pandaily.com and powered by the Sinica Podcast network

Digitally China is a bi-weekly podcast from RADII hosted by Tom Xiong and Eva Xiao, and produced by Jacob Loven. On each episode, the team will tackle a different timely tech-related topic, providing key insights on all you need to know about the fast-changing nature of innovation in China.

  • Host: Tom Xiong and Eva Xiao
  • Frequency: Bi-weekly
  • Duration: 30 min.           
  • Since: 2018
  • Organization: RADII

China Tech Talk is an almost weekly discussion of the most important issues in China’s tech. From IPOs to fake data, from the role of WeChat to Apple’s waning influence, hosts John Artman and Matthew Brennan interview experts and discuss the trends shaping China’s tech industry.

  • Host: John Artman, Matthew Brennan                 
  • Frequency: Weekly
  • Duration: 60 min.
  • Since: 2016
  • Organization: Technode

Culture and people

Wǒ Men Podcast is produced and hosted by Yajun Zhang and Jingjing Zhang, who discuss a variety of topics and share a diversity of voices from on the ground inside contemporary China.

  • Host: Yajun Zhang and Jingjing Zhang
  • Frequency: Bi-weekly
  • Duration: 40-50 min.
  • Since: 2017
  • Organization: RADII

Bottled in China brings you into Asia’s food and drink scene through conversations with the some of the most happening personalities. Hosted by Emilie Steckenborn, the show is your one spot for all things food, beer, wine and spirits from across the world.

Middle Earth Podcast brings you first-hand insights into China’s cultural industry and hosts guests who work in China’s marketing, gaming, movie and virtual reality industries.

Ta for Ta is a new biweekly podcast, which captures the narratives of women from Greater China at the top of their professional game. “Ta for Ta” is a play on the Chinese spoken language that demonstrates equality between the sexes. Tā 他 is the word for “he”; tā 她 is also the word for “she.”

  • Host: Juliana Batista
  • Frequency: Bi-Weekly
  • Duration: 60 min.
  • Since: 2017
  • Organization: SupChina

CHINESE ANALYSIS: popular China vloggers put to the test

For my previous post I did some research on YouTube Channels for Mandarin learning and I came across the fairly new account of Xiaolu 晓露, who does something very interesting in her videos: she evaluates the Chinese of expats in China.

How fluent is fluent?

Not just random foreigners in the Middle Kingdom, but popular YouTubers like 杰里德Jared, Thomas阿福 and others who speak Mandarin in their videos with native-like fluency – or so it seems to the average viewer. But how well – after spending many years in China – do they actually speak the language? Does their Mandarin have any flaws at all? That’s what Xiaolu sets out to ascertain.

Testing the Laowai YouTube Elite

And when you watch her videos, you wonder why nobody got this idea before her, since everybody has apparently been waiting for a native speaker – preferably a teacher like Xiaolu – to take a critical look at the Mandarin skills of the laowai YouTube elite. Although Xiaolu’s channel is still rather unknown, people quickly started commenting suggestions which candidate to “analyze” next. So more content is to come and maybe other online teachers will hear the call too.

No bashing

Xiaolu doesn’t “judge” her laowai vlogger colleagues in a nasty way, she isn’t out to bash a bunch of expats trying to speak Chinese – that would be a cheap strategy to attract more views. On the contrary, her approach is friendly and constructive, doing some casual explaining on the side, both useful and enjoyable.

Test results and grading system

Xiaolu’s chosen format works well, even though I think it is not completely fair to judge someone’s Chinese skills based on one video. We should keep in mind that listening, reading and writing skills should be added to the picture too.

Another thing to consider is the difference between someone holding a monologue – which can be prepared – and actual communication with locals – which is harder to fake.

I’m also pretty sure that the gap between Afu’s and XiaoMa’s (the embedded videos above) Chinese skills is bigger than Xiaolu’s grades reflect, giving the impression that both are more or less on the same level which – from what I’ve seen so far – they are not. So Xiaolu might reconsider her grading system a little.

Anyway, this is excellent and original content. I hope Xiaolu keeps up the good work. Here’s the link to her account.


P.S.

Only a couple of days after this short review was posted, I got the following reaction from Xiaolu, explaining the difficulties of accurate and fair grading:

Thanks for the review. I love it😍. Some thoughts of my own: I did consider to get rid of the grades part. Because I don’t want people taking offense. But some of my subscribers actually quite like it. I just want people to learn Chinese in a different and fun way. And I never intended to criticize in anyway. I agree with you there is a fairly large gap between xiaoma and afu. The grade is only based on my personal view and I do get more strict with advanced learners. Xiaoma is the second online influencer I analyzed. I do feel his overall Chinese is below the score I gave to him. But I get frustrated sometimes between telling the truth and not hurting people, also hopefully encouraging them at the same time🥺

Xiaolu

Top 10 YouTube channels for learning Mandarin

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You want to improve your Mandarin skills? For some of the greatest online resources for Chinese you don’t have to look far: they can be found on YouTube. But where to start? Like so many others I greatly benefited from watching online lessons on this video-sharing platform. This is my personal top 10 of YouTube channels for learning Chinese.

10. eChineseLearning

  • Followers: 110K
  • Since: 2010
  • Nr. of videos: 500 – 1000
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate

eChineseLearning is a longstanding channel to which many online teachers contribute, so you find loads of useful material here – if you know where to look, cause the channel seems to be organized rather randomly. With so many people creating content, it’s hard to discover one connecting approach or style.

Positives

  • Some useful content for beginners and intermediates
  • Native speakers from China
  • Covering the Mandarin basics and more

Negatives

9. Learn Chinese with ChineseClass101.com

  • Followers: 313K
  • Since: 2009
  • Nr. of videos: 500 – 1000
  • Language level: Beginner

Learn Chinese with ChineseClass101.com is one of the most longstanding Chinese learning channels on YouTube. It focuses mainly on beginners and covers all sorts of Mandarin basics. And more on the meta level: they also support learners with Chinese learning strategies and tips.

The teachers in the videos use a lot of English, to the degree of word by word translating every Chinese sentence into English, even though the videos are fully subtitled. That’s convenient and may attract more viewers, but in terms of teaching it’s not best practice.

Positives

  • Great quantity of helpful videos, mainly for beginners
  • Native speakers from China
  • Learning advice

Negatives

  • Too much English

8. Fragrant Mandarin 香橘子

  • Followers: 1,7K
  • Since: 2019
  • Nr. of videos: 0 – 50
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate

Fragrant Mandarin 香橘子 is a fairly new channel which is not so much about classic teaching, but about online language immersion. The content I’ve seen so far looks promising.

Positives

  • Authentic and high quality content from a charming couple in Guangxi Provence, China.
  • Original approach to Mandarin learning

7. Chinesewith-Xiaolu

  • Followers: 0,5K
  • Since: 2019
  • Nr. of videos: 0 – 50
  • Language level: Beginner to upper intermediate

Chinesewith-Xiaolu is a rather fresh channel covering basic Chinese. What got me interested is the fact that Xiaolu evaluates the Mandarin skills of Laowai vloggers. Her comments on news and current affairs are also worthwhile.

Positives

  • Original and fun content
  • Professionally edited videos

Negatives

6. ChineseEddieG汉语艾迪

  • Followers: 4,3K
  • Since: 2014
  • Nr. of videos: 100 – 200
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate / Upper intermediate

ChineseEddieG汉语艾迪 is a young charismatic guy with a talent for teaching.

Positives

  • Interesting content for beginners as well as more advanced learners
  • Native speaker from China who covers original topics like religions, internet slang, Chinese car brands and swear words

5. Chinese Zero To Hero

  • Followers: 32K
  • Since: 2016
  • Nr. of videos: 200 – 300
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate / Advanced

Chinese Zero To Hero‘s YouTube channel is a very HSK-focused channel. They actually cover all levels, but on the whole and compared to other channels, they offer more content for intermediate and advanced learners. In an earlier post I recommended their website, but recently it seems to have a security problem and my browser doesn’t allow me the visit their webpage anymore. But from what I can tell, these guys from Mainland China are really committed to improve the world of Chinese learning with solid video content, learning resources and strategies.

Positives

  • Useful if you are preparing for HSK
  • Interesting content for higher levels
  • Well organized channel

Negatives

  • Using more English than they have to

4. ChinesePod

  • Followers: 178K
  • Since: 2014
  • Nr. of videos: 300 – 400
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate / Upper intermediate

ChinesePod is a popular learning website for Mandarin Chinese where you can find over 4000 video and audio lessons. Their YouTube channel “shares just a taste” of all this content, so to get full access to all the material – similar to Mandarin Corner – you have to sign up.

What makes ChinesePod stand out is the abundance of quality content for all levels, their bilingual approach and their years of experience.

What I’m not a big fan of though is the fact they are using so much English. From a teaching point of view that’s less than optimal. I know many learners, especially people new to the language, appreciate all the explaining in English, BUT – in the long run it’s actually not that helpful.

Positives

  • Great variation of content for all levels between complete beginners and upper intermediate learners
  • The channel is neatly organized
  • It’s easy to find the kind of video’s or playlist(s) you are looking for
  • Bilingual Chinese-American teachers who bridge the gap between the two cultures really well and understand the needs of non-Chinese students
  • Team of charming teachers

Negatives

  • A lot of explaining in English

3. Yoyo Chinese

  • Followers: 284K
  • Since: 2006
  • Nr. of videos: 400 – 500
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate / Upper intermediate

Yoyo Chinese is probably the first and most well-known Chinese learning video channel, founded by Yangyang Cheng, a former Chinese TV host. If you look at some of the first uploads, you’ll discover she actually started out teaching English to Chinese people. It’s a pleasure to watch her teach: very passionate and upbeat. Newer content is mainly done by junior staff members.

Most videos are meant for beginners. Yoyo Chinese covers the whole spectrum to get you started: from Pinyin, tones to basic grammar and essential vocabulary. And Yangyang does a great job at this.

Positives

  • Great for beginners and English speakers
  • Passion for teaching + longtime experience
  • Innovation

Negatives

  • For such a longstanding channel the content is not that well ordered: only a couple of playlists, most videos are not categorized, but then again Yangyang’s username is “sloppycheng”

2. Everyday Chinese

  • Followers: 160K
  • Since: 2017
  • Nr. of videos: 200 – 300
  • Language level: Beginner to upper Intermediate

The Everyday Chinese channel has grown quite popular in only a few years time. Young teachers from Mainland China do a good job on creating new and original content. It seems to me they take their inspiration directly from the classroom as they cover lots of topics people learning Mandarin genuinely struggle with.

Positives

  • Great content for beginners and intermediate learners
  • Good understanding of the needs of students, thinking from the learner’s perspective
  • Covering Mandarin basics and HSK levels 1 – 4
  • Nice street interviews and real life dialogues
  • Chinese-English subtitled + Pinyin

Negatives

  • Some videos only show slides with text and grammar which is OK, but a little static

1. Mandarin Corner

  • Followers: 54K
  • Since: 2017
  • Nr. of videos: 200 – 300
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate / Upper intermediate

Mandarin Corner is centered around Eileen Xu and still seems to be a rather underrated channel. Not only does Eileen create original and authentic content, she does so with using as little English as possible. That means you get to hear a lot more of the language than in most other Chinese learning videos. Mandarin Corner’s content is typically English-Chinese subtitled and – very important – also includes Pinyin, which makes the videos accessible for beginners too.

As for the more basic stuff: Mandarin Corner covers HSK levels 1 to 5 and provides loads of tips to improve your overall fluency. But what you can’t hardly find elsewhere – or not in the same quality – are the street interviews Eileen does, asking random people in her city about topics like “leftover women“, Japan, South-Korea and foreigners in general. Very interesting to watch, even if you are not in the least interested in learning Mandarin, but simply want to hear the opinions of average Chinese people.

Eileen has a very personal approach to creating videos. She takes you on a bicycle ride downtown, showing you around, and she even gives a tour of her old hometown. She also interviews extraordinary people like tattoo artists and rock climbers.

To get full access to all the content and materials you need to sign up.

Positives

  • Highly original and authentic content from Mainland China for beginners up to upper intermediate learners
  • Covering the Mandarin basics
  • Interesting topics for people interested in China and Chinese society
  • Personal and innovative approach to online learning
  • Using a minimum quantity of English to explain. Subtitles: English, Chinese and Pinyin

Negatives

  • The channel is not that frequently being updated

That’s my top 10 of YouTube channels for learning Mandarin. I know there are many more – I just couldn’t include all. For this post, I only looked at the video channels, not at the websites and teaching companies that stand behind it. My main interest is simply to see what these channels have to offer to people learning Mandarin. I do very much admire all the work online teachers put into their videos, especially those who work more or less on solo-projects and who produce great results with limited means.

What are your favorite YouTube channels? Feel free to let me know which one(s) helped you to get to the next level.