10 great movies about rural China

Rural China is the raw reality most Chinese people come from. I always found – when visiting the farmland between Kaifeng and the Yellow River for example – the Chinese countryside a world of his own. Hard to understand, since it has its own unspoken rules. Less civilized, relatively poor, although much wealthier than in the past and with hope for the future. I still think as a resident of Berlin, I have more in common with people of my age in Shanghai than I do with those living in the rural areas of China. That’s also the reason I find ‘rural China’ particularly interesting and prepared this list with film recommendations about the Chinese countryside, including some real classics.

And did you know that watching Chinese movies is not mere entertainment, but also can improve your Chinese skills by providing language immersion, cultural understanding, and exposure to vocabulary and grammar in context? I have to admit that not all of these movies are ideal ‘comprehensive input’. Firstly, because some of these films contain Chinese dialects that are difficult to comprehend. Secondly, because in some cases the audio quality isn’t that good. However, in terms of historical and cultural understanding they are top-level.

  1. Language immersion: watching some of these films is a great way to expose yourself to authentic spoken Chinese, various (bad-ass) dialects, and colloquial expressions that are commonly used in everyday conversations. The more you listen, the more it helps you improve your overall comprehension of the language.
  2. Cultural understanding: all of the movies I listed here depict Chinese culture, customs, traditions, and societal norms in past and present. They allow you to gain new insights into Chinese culture and history and might even help you connect with native Chinese speakers on a deeper level.
  3. Vocabulary and grammar: Chinese movies can expose you to a wide range of vocabulary and sentence structures used in different contexts. You can learn new words, phrases, and grammar patterns while seeing them being used by real people in real situations. (Well, as real as fiction gets, that is.)

Here is my list (including IMDB and Douban scores):

To Live – 活着 (1994)

  • Subtitles: Chinese
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)
  • IMDB: 8.3
  • Douban: 9.3

“To Live” (活着, Huózhe) is a Chinese movie directed by China’s most famous director Zhang Yimou and released in 1994. It is based on the novel of the same name by Yu Hua and is considered a classic of Chinese cinema. The novel, by the way, is surprisingly readable for a Chinese work of literature.

Set against the backdrop of China’s tumultuous history from the 1940s to the 1970s, “To Live” tells the story of a man named Xu Fugui and his family. Fugui is a wealthy landowner who leads a carefree life, indulging in gambling and other vices. However, after losing his family fortune in a gambling game, Fugui’s life takes a dramatic turn. He becomes a peasant, struggling to survive in the face of poverty, war, and political upheavals, including the Chinese Civil War, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.

“To Live” explores themes of family, survival, sacrifice, and the enduring human spirit. It was controversial in China due to its critical depiction of China’s history and government policies. It’s one of my all-time favorite films about communist China.

Yellow Earth – 黄土地 (1984)

Chinese movie classic - Yellow Earth 1984
  • Subtitles: Chinese
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)
  • IMDB: 7.1
  • Douban: 7.9

Set in Shaanxi province during the 1930s, “Yellow Earth” tells the story of a young communist soldier named Gu Qing who is sent to a remote rural village to collect folk songs and learn about the local culture. Gu Qing stays with a poor family consisting of a father and his young son, Cuiqiao. As Gu Qing immerses himself in the lives of the villagers, he begins to experience the harsh realities of rural existence, including poverty, oppression, and the harshness of the land itself.

“Yellow Earth” (黄土地, Huáng tǔdì) is a classic of Chinese cinema directed by Chen Kaige and released in 1984. It is a visually stunning film about struggles of ordinary people during a time of political and social upheaval, and explores themes of identity, culture, and the clash between tradition and modernity. Chinese cinema doesn’t get more “rural” than 黄土地.

Still Life – 三峡好人 (2006)

  • Subtitles: Chinese & English
  • Difficulty: Advanced (mostly dialect)
  • IMDB: 7.3
  • Douban: 8.4

“Still Life” (三峡好人, Sānxiá hǎorén) is a drama film about China’s rapid urbanization and its impact on local people and communities. The plot could be summarized as follows: a man and a woman visit a town in Fengjie county (Chongqing municipality) to locate their estranged spouses who have been resettled. The town that they visit is gradually being demolished and flooded to make way for the Three Gorges Dam.

As the protagonists Sanming and Shen Hong navigate through the town, they encounter the effects of the rapid urbanization and the displacement of people caused by the dam project. They meet various characters, including locals who are forced to leave their homes, workers involved in the demolition of buildings, and migrants seeking employment in the construction boom.

Director Jia Zhangke captures in “Still Life” the contrast between the old and the new, the natural and the man-made, and the sense of loss and transformation brought about by the modernization process. A monumental film with a sharp eye for landscapes and composition. The first scene with the people on the boat immediately sets the tone. The plot unfolds slowly and leaves the viewer with many open questions.

Shower – 洗澡 (1999)

  • Subtitles: –
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)
  • IMDB: 8.3
  • Douban: 9.3

“Shower” (洗澡, Xǐzǎo) is a comedy-drama about a father and his two sons who run a bathhouse in a rapidly changing urban neighborhood, and their attempts to preserve their traditional way of life.

“Shower” centers around the lives of an elderly father, Master Liu, and his two sons, Da Ming and Er Ming. Master Liu runs a small, rundown bathhouse in a traditional Beijing hutong, where customers come for a hot bath, a shave, and conversations. Da Ming, the elder son, is a successful businessman who lives in Shenzhen and is often absent from his father’s life, while Er Ming is a mentally disabled young man who works at the bathhouse and is cared for by his father. When Da Ming returns to the bathhouse for his father’s birthday, he is confronted with the reality of his father’s failing health and the dilapidated state of the bathhouse (the neighborhood is about to be demolished). He also struggles to connect with his younger brother Er Ming, whom he has neglected for years.

“Shower” explores themes of family, tradition, and modernization. It portrays the changing landscape of Beijing as old neighborhoods are demolished to make way for new buildings, and the traditional bathhouse culture faces extinction. Although the film is set in China’s capital, the rural aspect isn’t completely missing, since the story takes the viewer on a short trip to the arid area of Shanxi as well.

The Road Home – 我的父亲母亲 (1999)

  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (Standard Chinese + dialect)
  • IMDB: 7.8
  • Douban: 8.2

“The Road Home” (我的父亲母亲, Wǒ de fùqin mǔqin) is a romantic drama about a man who returns to his rural hometown to attend his father’s funeral and look after his mother. It was directed by Zhang Yimou and based on a novel by Bao Shi.

The main part of the film is set in a remote Chinese village in the 1950s. The film opens with the death of the village schoolteacher, Luo Yusheng, who is mourned by the entire community. His son, Luo Changyu, returns from the city to make arrangements for his father’s funeral. During the funeral, he reminisces about his parents’ love story, which he heard from his mother, Zhao Di. The film then transitions to a flashback, where the story of Zhao Di and Luo Yusheng’s love unfolds and a precious bowl containing hot jiaozi shatters on the ground. Mainly a romantic story in a rural Chinese setting.

The Story of Qiu Ju – 秋菊打官司 (1992)

  • Subtitles: Chinese
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (dialect)
  • IMDB: 7.6
  • Douban: 8.2

“The Story of Qiu Ju” (秋菊打官司, Qiūjú Dǎ Guānsi) is a drama about a pregnant woman’s quest for justice in a rural village after her husband is kicked in the groin by the village chief. This satirical drama was directed by Zhang Yimou and released in 1992. Qiu Ju is determined to find justice for her husband, but she has to face many challenges as she navigates the bureaucratic complexities of the Chinese legal system.

Qiu Ju’s journey takes her to various levels of bureaucracy, from the village chief to the local police, the court, and even the city government. Along the way, she encounters corruption, deception, and indifference from those in authority, but she remains steadfast in her pursuit of justice for her husband. The film shows that it’s almost impossible for ordinary individuals to find justice in a complex, impersonal and hierarchical system.

Red Sorghum – 红高粱 (1987)

  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (Standard Chinese)
  • IMDB: 7.3
  • Douban: 8.5

“Red Sorghum” (红高粱, Hóng Gāoliang) is a historical drama about a young woman who is married off to an old leprous man that produces sorghum liquor, and her struggles against bandits and the Japanese army. It is based on a novel by Mo Yan, directed by Zhang Yimou (his debut) and is set in rural China during the 1920s and 1930s.

The film follows the story of a young woman named Jiu’er and her experiences living in a sorghum wine distillery, amidst the backdrop of war, love, and political upheaval. The distillery faces challenges from bandits who rob them and the invading Japanese army who intend to build a road through the sorghum fields. Apart from the poetic imagery I enjoy the traditional singing in this film. The story line seems somewhat messy with some unexpected turns and twists.

Not One Less – 一个都不能少 (1999)

  • Subtitles: Chinese
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (dialect and standard Chinese)
  • IMDB: 7.7
  • Douban: 7.7

“Not One Less” (一个都不能少, yī gè dōu bù néng shǎo) is a drama about a 13-year-old girl who becomes a substitute teacher in a rural village, and her efforts to prevent a student from dropping out of school to work in the city. You can watch the movie on Bilibili.

This is another movie directed by Zhang Yimou. Wei Minzhi is a 13-year-old girl who is assigned as a substitute teacher in a poverty-stricken rural village in China. Her task is to keep the class intact and prevent any of the students from dropping out until the regular teacher returns. This explains the title ‘一个都不能少’. However, she faces many challenges, including the harsh living conditions, lack of resources, and students who are more interested in working to help their families than attending school.

One day, one of Wei Minzhi’s students, Zhang Huike, goes missing after his parents pull him out of school to work in the city. Determined to fulfill her duty, Wei Minzhi sets out on a journey to find Zhang Huike and bring him back to school, knowing that if she fails, she will break her promise to the regular teacher. As the story unfolds, Wei Minzhi’s journey becomes a heartwarming tale of human kindness and the power of education. “Not One Less” was filmed primarily with amateur actors who play their natural roles.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress – 巴尔扎克与小裁缝 (2002)

  • Subtitles: All languages
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (dialect and poor English subtitles in this YouTube-version)
  • IMDB: 7.2
  • Douban: 8.0

“Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” (巴尔扎克与小裁缝, Bā’ěrzhākè yǔ Xiǎo Cáisuì) is a drama about two boys who are sent to a remote mountain village for “re-education” during the Cultural Revolution, and their encounters with a local girl who inspires their love of literature.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Dai Sijie (who also directed the movie). The two teenage boys, Luo and Ma, come from educated families and are initially disoriented and alienated in the harsh and primitive conditions of the village. They meet a local girl known as the Little Seamstress who works as a tailor. The boys are fascinated by her beauty and curiosity, and they both fall in love with her. The Little Seamstress has little education, but she possesses a natural intelligence and an eagerness to learn. Luo and Ma introduce her (and everyone who wants to listen) to Western literature, including the works of Balzac, which they get from a forbidden suitcase belonging to a city youth who has been sent to the same village for re-education.

The Rice Bomber – 白米炸彈客 (2014)

  • Subtitles: Chinese
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (dialect)
  • IMDB: 6.6
  • Douban: 6.6

“The Rice Bomber” (白米炸彈客, Bái Mǐ Zhà Dàn Kè) is a drama based on a true story about a man who becomes a folk hero in rural Taiwan after he starts bombing government buildings to protest the government’s handling of a land dispute. The film (directed by Cho Li) is based on a true story and tells the story of a Taiwanese farmer who resorts to bombing government buildings with rice-filled bombs as a form of protest against unfair policies against small farmers.

The movie is set in rural Taiwan and follows the story of Yang Rumen a struggling farmer who faces the threat of losing his land due to government expropriation policies. Yang Rumen, a man in his 50s, is determined to fight for his land and the dignity of his family. As his efforts to seek justice through peaceful means are repeatedly ignored and dismissed, he decides to take matters into his own hands. The film delves into themes of social inequality, government oppression, and the power of individual resistance in the face of systemic injustices.

Thanks for dropping by on Kaohongshu. Do you have any good Chinese movies you want to share? Please feel free to leave a comment! For more updates follow me on X.

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