China has a rich and complex history that has fascinated people around the world for centuries. From the rise of the Zhou dynasty to the construction of the Great Wall, there are countless stories and events that have shaped the country as we know it today. While there are many ways to learn about Chinese history, one particularly engaging medium is documentary films. In this article, we'll take a closer look at eighteen must-see documentaries on ancient Chinese history that are sure to captivate viewers and shed light on the country's past.
01 The Rise & Fall of the State of Chu
The state of Chu (楚国) created many firsts in Chinese history, such as the first section of the Great Wall, the first county, the first writing brush, and even the first iron sword. Despite its glorious history dating back 3,000 years, little is known about the state of Chu today.
At its height, it stretched from the north to the Yellow River, east to the East China Sea, west to Bashu, and south to Lingnan. The cultural legacy of Chu, which was shaped by absorption, integration, and innovation, had a profound impact on the Yangtze River basin, as well as the southeastern and southwestern regions of China.
The romantic elegance of the Chu Ci, the solemnity and weightiness of bronze ware, and the mysterious and enchanting qualities of lacquerware are all iconic cultural remnants of Chu, which have long since merged into the cultural bloodstream of the Chinese nation, and have become a symbol of Chinese culture.
From its establishment to its demise in 223 BC, Chu went through more than forty generations of monarchs who sought to regain control of the Central Plains, and even unify it under their rule. Chu's King Wu spent over seventy years waging wars against neighboring states, and died on the battlefield. One of the "Five Hegemons" of the Spring and Autumn period, King Zhuang of Chu combined military might with rituals, which enabled Chu to transform from an obscure small state into a powerful contender for supremacy over the Central Plains.
King Ling of Chu, despite his ambitions, was blinded by greed and indulged in excessive construction. King Huai of Chu was misled by Zhang Yi and the Prime Minister Zilan, betrayed the alliance with the state of Qi, estranged himself from the poet Qu Yuan, and ultimately caused the decline of Chu's national strength. In this documentary, you can witness the birth, development, peak, decline, and demise of the state of Chu, and gain a clearer understanding of this period of history.
02 Hui Wang Gou Wu
About 2500 years ago, there existed a kingdom called Gou Wu in the Taihu Lake basin of China. Although it only existed for just over 600 years, its legacy is extremely rich. Classic stories such as "Wo Xin Chang Dan", "King of Wu Fuchai", "Yue Wang Gou Jian", "Beauty Xi Shi", and "The Art of War" are all familiar to us, and are presented once again in the documentary "Hui Wang Gou Wu (回望勾吴, Looking Back at the Kingdom of Gouwu)".
03 Feng Yun Zhan Guo - Lie Guo
"Feng Yun Zhan Guo - Lie Guo (风云战国之列国, Seven States of the Warring States" explores the rise and fall of the six states during the Warring States period and the deeper secrets behind the unification of the Qin Dynasty, based on the hero figures and the fate of the seven kingdoms. Selects significant events during the Warring States period that had a profound impact on Chinese history, and focuses on the heroic figures of the Seven States.
- Shang Yang, who profoundly transformed the Qin state with his "Shang Yang's Reform";
- King Wuling of Zhao, who set his country on the path of becoming a military powerhouse by carrying out the "Wearing the Hu Attire and Shooting from Horseback";
- King Zhao of Yan, who revitalized his country through humility and promoting talented subordinates;
- Marquis Wen of Wei, who elevated the weak Wei state to become a superpower;
- King Qi Min of Qi, who destroyed the hundred-year foundation of Qi state through his arrogance;
- Shen Buhai, one of the founders of Legalism and the source of "Shu Zhi" of Han, which is the root of law and order.
This documentary aims to reveal the mysterious cultural codes of ancient China by analyzing the impact of the national temperament on the country's fortunes, and revisiting the magnificent history of more than 2200 years ago.
04 An Army Reborn
Over 2000 years ago, the army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang unified the land of China for the first time, creating the largest empire in the world at the time. "An Army Reborn" uses the Terracotta Warriors as archaeological evidence, supported by historical research, and draws on the narrative style of films to gradually reveal how the Qin army was able to end the turbulent times of the Spring and Autumn period, unite the world, and emerge as the final victor.
05 From Qin Shi Huang to Emperor Wu of Han
The documentary "From Qin Shi Huang to Emperor Wu of Han" takes the latest archaeological research as its starting point, and aims to showcase the best qualities of Chinese civilization during its youthful period, incorporating various elements from television, film, and historical documents, as well as artistic techniques, reflecting its mission to create a high-end documentary with a filmic sensibility. It is a widely appealing historical documentary.
The Qin and Han dynasties marked the youthfulness of Chinese civilization, a period of rising sun. Laid the foundation for Chinese civilization, and many of their political, economic, and cultural systems continue to have a significant impact today. The academic community refers to this period as the first empire.
Many people believe that the establishment of the Qin Empire led China to smoothly move towards unity and national integration. However, in reality, it was Emperor Qin Shi Huang's pioneering work that initiated unification, and it was only completed in the hands of Emperor Wu of Han after nearly 120 years. The process of making the people of the country accept centralization was filled with numerous twists and turns, and if there had been any deviation in this process, China and even the Chinese nation would be different today.
06 Hexi Corridor
The Hexi Corridor is a gateway to civilization, an epic narrative of heroic conquests. When the intrepid Han emissary Zhang Qian journeyed through the remote Western Regions, this narrow passage stretching westward from the Yellow River became a route of military expeditions and caravans, an ancient thoroughfare of cultural exchange between the East and the West.
Remarkably, there has never been a documentary film on the theme of "Hexi Corridor" before. In 2014, a visionary team of documentarists embarked on a quest to capture the splendorous moments of this ancient and great corridor, and chronicle its history in an epic annalistic form spanning from the Han Dynasty to the Republic of China, traversing through the Three Kingdoms, Jin, Sui, Tang, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, ultimately presenting its grandeur, magnificence, and desolation.
07 Imperial Mausoleums
"Imperial Mausoleums" is a historical animated documentary film that uses motion capture technology and digital animation techniques to tell the mysterious and thrilling tales of the ten emperors of the Tang Dynasty and their tombs.
Breaking away from traditional live-action filming methods, this documentary marks a new starting point for historical documentaries, realizing new values and showcasing the glorious national image of the Tang Empire as well as its romantic heroism and spirit of striving.
08 Daming Palace
"Daming Palace" revolves around the central axis of the power center of the Tang Empire, and chronicles the entire process of construction, splendor, and decline of this unprecedentedly grand palace complex. It presents the robust vigor of early Tang, the extravagance of the era of prosperity, and the decline of the late Tang.
09 Xuanzang's Journey
In the 7th century AD, a monk from the Tang Dynasty embarked on a journey along the Silk Road, venturing to the distant West in search of Buddhist teachings. Through snow-covered deserts and mountain ranges, he faced countless dangers and survived harrowing experiences.
With unwavering determination, he finally arrived at the sacred land in his heart. Over nineteen years, visiting a hundred and ten countries and traveling over fifty thousand miles, he was revered as a prophet in foreign lands and became an embodiment of wisdom in the land of the Buddha.
Due to his influence, the reputation of the Tang dynasty spread far and wide, and even the sandals on his feet were regarded as sacred objects by his followers. Despite all these honors, he gave up everything and returned to his homeland. He translated forty-seven volumes of Buddhist scriptures, an accomplishment that has no equal in history.
10 A Turning Point in History: Chanyuan Treaty
"Li Shi De Guai Dian (历史的拐点, Turning Points in History)" is a documentary series that showcases precious moments in history and closely follows the pulse of the times. It selects six critical years that influenced Chinese history and focuses on key figures who stood at historical turning points, showing how their choices have jointly impacted history. The series highlights several significant historical events through an unconventional structure while combining history with current reality. The aim is to record and bear witness to the brilliant civilization of our country by showcasing the most influential moments in Chinese history.
At the beginning of the 12th century AD, a 300,000-strong Liao army approached the capital city of the Northern Song Dynasty like an unstoppable force. The armies positioned themselves for battle, and a great confrontation was imminent. Unexpected twists of fate occurred, breaking the deadlock and creating the potential to reverse history. A treaty was signed to end the war, ushering in a 120-year era of peace. However, as the glory of the treaty overshadowed the hidden dangers of military weakness, neighboring powers watched for any opportunity to strike. How would the Song Dynasty unravel the puzzle woven by war and peace?
11 The Southern Song Dynasty
Historian Chen Yinke once remarked, "The culture of the Chinese nation has evolved over thousands of years and reached its pinnacle during the time of the Song Dynasty." This statement precisely tribute to the immortal historical civilization of the Southern Song Dynasty.
Through a unique perspective, the documentary series "The Southern Song" re-presents that era for you. During this period, the size and proportion of urban populations exceeded that of previous and later dynasties. The Song capitals of Bianliang and Lin'an were said to have had a population of one million, and the literary and ideological thought nurtured during this time greatly manifested the spiritual strength of Chinese culture. The Southern Song Dynasty ruled for 152 years, leaving countless stories and splendid treasures behind.
"Vengeance" depicts a decisive battle in 1211 AD between 100,000 Mongolian troops led by Genghis Khan and 500,000 Jin soldiers at Yehuling. The film's innovative approach to depicting grand historical scenes brings the vivid details of characters and events to life with unprecedented visual impact.
13 AD 1644
In the documentary, "AD 1644 (公元一六四四)" revolves around the rise and fall of the Ming Dynasty, respectively focusing on the narratives of Emperor Chongzhen, Wu Sangui, Li Zicheng, and Dorgon, displaying several significant turning points that occurred in China in 1644 and the changes they brought to the course of Chinese history.
14 Stay Children In US
They were the earliest official Chinese students sent abroad for study. These students, who left China as young as 12 years old, were collectively known as "young students studying in America." On August 11, 1872 (the eighth day of the seventh lunar month), a group of teenagers aged between 10 and 15 years old boarded a ship in Shanghai, bound for San Francisco, USA.
From 1872 to 1875, the Qing Dynasty sent a total of four groups of 120 government-sponsored students to study in the United States, embarking on a long journey across the ocean to reach American soil.
The story of these young students is like the fragments of a precious porcelain, scattered in both China and the United States, in the cities where they lived more than a century ago, in the middle and high schools and universities they attended, in local historical societies and public libraries, among the descendants of those young students who studied abroad around the world, and among the descendants of American families who hosted Chinese students back then.
"Stay Children In US" has collected the pieces of history that have been left behind - photographs, letters, diaries, report cards, clothing, and clippings - piecing together a long-forgotten chapter in the history between China and the United States.
15 The Forbidden City 100
The Forbidden City is not only a palace but also a museum, representing the culmination of Chinese civilization and serving as a base for the inheritance of Chinese culture. "The Forbidden City 100" starts from the Forbidden City and extends to the entire Chinese land, telling the long history and splendid treasures of Chinese civilization from ancient times to the present day.
Listen to the moving epic played by the 100 handed-down buildings in the Forbidden City, touch the historical rivers formed by the convergence of 100 cultural streams in the Forbidden City, and feel the magical moments that 100 dynamic moments have turned into in the Forbidden City. Through 100 spatial stories, a holographic building imaging system of the Forbidden City is constructed, and through the fate of 100 buildings, 100 cultural images with universal significance are presented.
16 General History of China
"General History of China" is the largest historical documentary series ever produced in China. It depicts the grand historical scenes of China from the origin of ancient humans to the fall of the Qing Dynasty, focusing on the historical lessons of prosperity and decline, the formation of a unified multi-ethnic country, and the splendid achievements of Chinese civilization throughout the ages.
"China" presents various aspects of Chinese history, uncovering the stories and people that have had profound and lasting impacts on today's society. It explores the roots of Chinese culture and presents the spiritual totems of this ancient nation over thousands of years.
Unlike traditional historical documentaries that focus on a particular dynasty or time period, "China" highlights representative figures from different eras, reflecting the different spiritual themes of each age, and reproduces the vast historical panorama from the origin of Chinese civilization to the establishment of New China.
In terms of production, the documentary adopts a non-fictional style and avoids dramatization. The narrative structure eschews the linear structure characteristic of traditional documentaries, instead using a dramatic structure with an open middle and portrait exhibition-like presentation. Various techniques, such as scene simulations, character performances, story telling and natural scenery are used in the presentation, providing audiences with an in-depth and accessible account of historical events.
From the first emperor of China to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, these Chinese documentaries offer a comprehensive and visually stunning look at some of the most important events in Chinese history. They cover a wide range of topics, and feature expert commentary from historians and scholars. Whether you're a history buff or simply curious about ancient Chinese culture, these documentaries are a fantastic way to learn more about this fascinating and complex country.