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.

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.