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 that everybody talks about. Since this series is almost unknown outside of Holland, I decided to share it here.

Three different series have been produced. The main language is Mandarin Chinese with Dutch moderation and – most important – English subtitles:

  • Along the banks of the Yangtze (2016)
  • Through the heart of China (2018)
  • Chinese dreams (2019)

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

Along the banks of the Yangtze (2016)

The six episodes

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

How the Dutch filmmaker ended up in China

After finishing high school in the Netherlands, Ruben Terlou went to live in China and make a living as a photographer. A rather unusual step for a young Dutch guy, 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.

Through the heart of China (2018)

The seven episodes

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

Ruben Terlou: The 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 Trouw

Chinese dreams (2019) (no English subs yet)

(Dutch subtitles only) Screencut from vpro.nl
  • Year: 2019
  • Duration: 4 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: Dutch
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

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 NOT judging and throwing his opinion in people’s faces. 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, Ruben visits places many Chinese never heard of.
  • 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

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.

New show: Granny knows best 奶奶最懂得 (2019, TV series)

jamie bilbow cooking with granny 6

In his new show “Granny Knows Best” Jamie Bilbow takes the audience on a journey to rural China to learn from the true kitchen heroes – Chinese grandmothers. How did the British moderator become so fluent in Mandarin?! Three reasons why you should watch the show.

About 奶奶最懂得 (2019)

  • Year: 2019
  • Duration: 8 episodes X 30 min.
  • Subtitles: Chinese
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate
The series’ rating on Douban (04.12.2019)

Three reasons to watch the show

  • Expand your cooking vocabulary and culinary horizon
  • Be impressed by Jamie’s Chinese skills and how smoothly he communicates with the locals
  • Meet 16 wonderful grannies and discover places in China you have never seen before

The 16 inspiring women I met on my journey were such a pleasure to film with and I can’t wait for you to meet each and every one of them! The show promotes the universal message that grannies are the cornerstones of families, they bring us together and their cooking provides an important reminder of how good simple traditional food can be.

Jamie Bilbow on facebook about his show Granny Knows Best (09.10.2019)

How did Jamie (大米) become so fluent in Chinese?!

Jamie Bilbow speaks Chinese amazingly fluent, knows his cooking vocabulary and has his way of communicating with the locals, making them feel at ease and disclose their culinary secrets. How did he become so fluent?

Jamie (1988) was born in England and moved to Hong Kong at the age of one, but but didn’t learn Mandarin or even Cantonese during the first 18 years of his life. Learning Mandarin became a crucial goal, once he realized that he wanted to become a chef de cuisine in China and learn everything about Chinese food.

His recipe for success: “I say yes to any opportunities that present new challenges, even if they aren’t related to the ‘final goal’. I say yes more often than no and put myself into as many new situations as possible.” (South China Morning Post, 14.06.2017)

These challenging situations include training chefs in North Korea, peddling a hummus cart business, publishing a Western cookbook in Chinese and running a cooking school in Beijing. Before he got famous in China, Jamie also participated in Chinese language competitions with other foreigners.

Jamie Bilbow selling homemade hummus through the old streets of Beijing (Source: Jamie Bilbow on LinkedIn)

Not that his fame and Chinese skills don’t speak for themselves, but Jamie actually holds an undergraduate degree in Chinese from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) as well as a Chinese teaching degree from the Institute of Education, UCL, both based in London.

You can find more about his activities on facebook or weibo.

Watch all episodes of Granny Knows Best here.

Still unbeaten: Journey to the West (1986, TV series)

Journey to the West is one of the four great novels of Chinese literature. Over the years, countless TV-adaptations have been produced. Everything from decent to mediocre to barely watchable.

One of the oldest, the 1986 version, was so strong and convincing that it achieved classical status. It seems almost all mainland Chinese people grew up watching this CCTV-production of Journey to the West and it still can be seen on Chinese television today. (It’s one of those series Chinese national television just keeps repeating.)

From today’s perspective, the special effects are obsolete and bizarre. And the story evolves much slower and more long-winded than Netflix addicts are used to nowadays. The striking thing though: China and its film industry have developed so much since then, but they never quite managed to top the 1986-series! In terms of story line, costumes, portrayal of characters, it still is considered the most original and authentic rendition of the story. As a matter of fact, some of the newer adaptations are hardly more than imitations that fail to bring new interpretations to the plot and characters.

Key to understanding China

Most people who are serious about learning Chinese, watch or read Journey to the West at some point. There is just no way around it. The legendary journey of the Buddhist monk and his apprentices somehow is fundamental to Chinese culture. The adventures of the Monkey King have left their traces in the Chinese language. Journey to the West is a key to understanding China, although it leaves you with many new questions. About Chinese mythology and religions for example.

Still the best: 1986 (TV series)

  • Year: 1986
  • Duration: 25 episodes X 45 min.
  • Subtitles: Chinese and English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

The complete 1986-adaptation you can find on YouTube with English subtitles.

Reading Journey to the West

I wrote about Pleco’s e-book Journey to the West a while back. The online dictionary offers its own graded reader series for the Chinese Classics, suitable for non-native speakers. Pleco’s Journey to the West is an abridged version for intermediate learners which stays true to the original as far as I can tell. Watching the series and reading the story with its additional notes on places, monsters and demons together can be very helpful. If you have the time, that is! The story is meant for HSK 4 or 5 learners.

Other adaptations

Countless other adaptations have been made. I can’t guarantee this list is complete. It doesn’t include cartoons for example. Unfortunately, most of them lack quality. I found only one exception.

1996 (TV series)

Disappointing

1999 (TV series)

This is the second season of 86′ version.

2000 (TV series)

Disappointing

2010 (TV series)

Disappointing

2016 (Movie)

Watchable. Famous actress Li Gong plays the “white bone demon”. The actor who plays Sun WuKong does a good job as well.

2018 (Movie)

High budget, heavy on special effects, but not convincing.

2019 (TV series)

This seems to be a remake of the 1986 CCTV-adaptation.

Recommended: 1986 (TV series) on YouTube

This is the CCTV-version from 1986 with English subtitles.

Love defense wars: 爱情保卫战

Aiqing baowei zhan is one of the first Chinese shows that I managed to understand and enjoy. While the series may not be the most intellectual TV-show ever produced, watching Chinese people bitching you still will learn a lot. The more mundane, the better. Here’s why!

Short description

  • Year: Since 2010
  • Duration: 2 x 25 min.
  • Nr. of episodes: 1000+
  • Subtitles: Chinese only
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Why watch 爱情保卫战?

  • Develop listening skills: the invited guests speak normal everyday Chinese and talk about very, very mundane problems we’re all familiar with: relationships.
  • It provides almost endless listening material, over a thousand episodes have been made of this Tianjin TV show.
  • Enhance cultural understanding: I’m always surprised by the kind of uniform and functional approach Chinese have to love and marriage. It seems most people just adapt themselves to the expectations of others, start dating someone cause that’s the proper thing to do and then when things don’t work out, they are completely at a loss. This is where TV-therapy with a live audience comes in and judgement is passed! Anyway, the viewer does get an impression of what can be expected from both sides in a relationship, what’s a healthy relationship and what’s not. The expert’s panel will point out mistakes and confront the lovers with their wrongdoings.

Same procedure, different episode

The first stage of the show
1: The show starts with a short introduction of the couple. As far as I know, it’s always a young, unmarried couple. Here you get presented the basic ingredients of the lower-middle-class drama. Both sides will outline their part of the story.
The second stage of the show
2: Then the moderator interviews them both live on stage to find out what’s not working between them. Sometimes, if he’s not careful, things can get out of hand and the lovers just start yelling accusations at each other. The audience adores this. However, the moderator usually does a good job at keeping the conversation civilized.
3: In the third and final stage, the panel of experts will grant their advice. Most prominently starring 涂老师 (Tu laoshi) who has been observing the couple with his sharp eyes and now offers his invaluable opinion. At the end of the show, a final countdown will be held during which the couple decides if they stay together or break up.

Tips for listening

  • Understanding: Don’t think less of your self because you don’t understand everything at once. It’s not about “understanding everything”, every sentence, every word.
  • Conversation speed: They’re speaking too fast? Try lowering the speed to 0.75. It does alter the voice quality, but this will give your brain more time to listen, read the subtitles and take in the meaning of what is being communicated.
  • Repetition: Listen a second and even a third time and you’ll notice your understanding will increase every time.
  • Active listening: Give yourself a task like looking up the meaning of 10 words. If you do so, listen first and use your dictionary only in the second round. By then you’ll have a feeling which words really stand out and are important to understand the conversation.
  • Summarize: Try to summarize the main problem(s) of the couple’s relationship and (even harder) the advice they were given by the “expert panel”.
This guy feels he’s wronged, because his girlfriend turns out to be a 女汉子, a masculine woman, who gets furious if she doesn’t get what she wants. She even broke his fishing rod! This gives you a taste of what’s 爱情保卫战 all about.

What’s your opinion about 爱情保卫战? Feel to free to comment.

Women in Shanghai: 上海女子图鉴 (TV series)

  • Year: 2018
  • Duration: 20 episodes X 25 min.
  • Subtitles: Chinese only
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Luo Haiyan has just graduated from university in Shanghai. Like hundred thousands of other fresh graduates, she’s about to enter the Shanghai job market. This is where her climb to the top of society starts. But what if she – as a result – becomes a “leftover woman”? Isn’t the shame of ending up as “剩女” too big to ignore? Can she really fulfill her dream of rising to Shanghai’s top 10 percent?

Read why I recommend Women in Shanghai for Chinese learners.

The Shanghai dream

The ingredients of “上海女子图鉴” taste to you like a bowl of boiled rice flour balls covered in caramel sauce? That’s just a sign you are starting to appreciate the Shanghai dream:

Drinking red wine from huge glasses, ordering mocha or coffee americano (美式) instead of hot water. Having your private driver driving you through Shanghai. Living at top locations in the city center. Using Apple products only. Wearing the right handbag. Always be dressed in the newest fashion.

The Shanghai dream is never questioned. The viewer is simply expected to share the dream. How could you desire anything else?

Luo Haiyan

Luo Haiyan is just an average girl from some Chinese cow town. There is nothing special about her. No traumatic events in her past make her stand out. No character traits that separate her from the masses. She’s an average girl, however, she for some reason wins the favor of her female boss and then success comes rolling in.

Putting off marriage

But the spectrum of options, even for a young and attractive woman of the emerging middle-class, remains limited in Chinese society. The recurring question is – of course – who will she marry?

The handsome neighbor guy, her responsible colleague, the ambitious entrepreneur, the elder billionaire? The more successful she becomes, the pickier she gets. Her mentor Scarlet reminds her that true freedom means never to become depend on any man.

Is this series any good as learning resource?

For our purposes here, let me just give a few points why Women in Shanghai is suitable learning material:

  • Short episodes
  • The rather thin plot is not too difficult to follow, even if you don’t understand every conversation
  • Mostly putonghua with a taste of business Chinese
  • Gives a feeling of modern life in Shanghai (the idealized, glamor version, that is)

Similar series

Should you for whatever reason not be very interested in Shanghai: similar series have been made. Same concept, different city!

The Beijing version seems to have slightly better plot and even contains touches of irony here and there. Like the scene where the main actress pukes into her Gucci hand bag (or whatever brand, I forgot) that she finally could afford to purchase.

Women in Beijing

Women in Tokyo (the original series from Japan in Japanese)

Do you have a TV-series that you would recommend for learning Chinese? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Women in Shanghai: 上海女子图鉴, episode 1
The end credits song of the series is quite a catchy tune about ever hectic working life in Shanghai. She needs to get up, catch the tube, buy her meal of rice balls, but most of all smile and endure. Hoping that one day she will arrive.

Film tip: My Ferry / 我的渡口

我的渡口” or “My Ferry” struck me as a rather slow and silent movie, conversations between country people being of the minimalist kind with many things left unsaid. The main reason to watch – apart from the scenic beauty of the Hubei river landscape – is probably to get a taste of traditional, rural China which is so completely different from modern Chinese society.

  • Year: 2013
  • Duration: 92 minutes
  • Subtitles: Chinese only
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Story line

The story about a father and son can be outlined in a few sentences. Laotian has been working as a ferryman on a small rowing boat for all his life. His wife has died and recently his health has been declining, but he doesn’t want to give up his trade. His only son, Xiaotian, who has been jobbing downtown, now has returned to spend his holidays with his father. Xiaotian, who has been struggling as a migrant worker to survive in the big city, loves his father, but doesn’t have a high opinion of his trade and his stubborn ways. His father never accepts any money, the villagers leave some cabbages or potatoes instead. Xiaotian’s feelings change however, when he starts rowing the ferry himself in order to support his old man.

The ferryman

Tradition and modernity

Basically, it’s a story about father and son and the conflict between the old and the new. Can a fourth generation take over the small ferry business? How to react to the changing circumstances? How to respect tradition and still survive without becoming a stick in the mud?

Filial piety

From a cultural perspective, “My Ferry” is a striking display of “filial piety”. Xiaotian may disagree with his father’s plain view of the world, but he would never openly disrespect him and make him loose face in front of others. It’s really compelling to watch these traditional Chinese family relations where feelings for each other are usually expressed in an indirect way. In other words, no hugging, no “I love you, dad”, no “goodbye, son, I’ll miss you” and so on.

When no one wants to cross the river, you wait.

The ferryman

When we look deeper, we also find the archetypal figure of the ferryman who appears in many cultures. He typically is a solitary and silent figure, not very well liked by the people and transcendent in the sense that he isn’t really part of this world, but forever in between. Laotian, still very concerned with the practical world and his local community, could be seen as a Chinese manifestation of this archetypal figure. There’s wisdom in his simplicity.

Important vocabulary

  • 爹 – die1 – (father, dad)
  • 娘 – niáng – (mother, mam)
  • 划船 – huáchuán – ( to row a boat)

Follow the link to watch the movie.