Visionary realities: documentary cinema in 20th century China

This talk uses documentary cinema to investigate the intertwined histories of media technology, social practice and political contention in China's 20th century.

From war newsreels to ethnographic documentaries; from labour training films to documentary evidence in courtrooms – for most of the 20th century, documentary films were produced and viewed at much larger scales in China than their fiction counterparts, circulating beyond movie theatres into all arenas of social and political life. 

Drawing from her book manuscript, Professor Ying Qian in this lecture offers a brief introduction to China’s evolving documentary tradition, with focus on two examples in particular: a new hybrid genre of artistic documentaries that blurred boundaries between documentary and fiction during the Great Leap Forward, and a set of films made about ethnic minority societies that consolidated ethnic classification and rehearsed state dominance between 1955 and 1965.  

This talk approaches documentary cinema as a prism through which to investigate the intertwined histories of media technology, social practice and political contention in China’s 20th century. It reconsiders the nature of cinema and its locations in society.

This event was held at the University of Sydney on Wednesday 24 October 2018.


  • Dr Ying Qian is an assistant professor in Chinese cinema and media studies at Columbia University and visiting fellow at the China Studies Centre. Her research interests include film and media theories and practices, documentary cinema, and global histories and imaginaries of revolution and post-socialism. She has published widely in academic journals and is currently completing a book entitled Visionary Realities: Documentary Cinema in Revolutionary China, which takes documentary aesthetics and epistemology as a prism to investigate intertwined histories of media practice, industrial modernity and revolutionary politics. She received her PhD from Harvard University, was a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian National University, and has been a filmmaker, critic and film programmer.


Image: still from film, Huangbaomei (1958).

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