Chinese Media Resources Under $30
Introducing China: Documentaries for Students with Little Background
One of the most prolific producers of educational documentaries focusing on world cultures is IVN Entertainment, Inc. Their Video Visits series introduces dozens of countries around the world, concentrating on important sites and cultural practices. Video Visits – China: Ancient Rhythms, Modern Currents, produced in 1996 and 60 minutes long, provides a simple and interesting account of modern Chinese life. Moving from North to South, then East to West, this documentary features many of China's famous places, including Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, the Three Gorges, and Tibet, as well as cultural practices such as painting, traditional music, and Buddhism. Because China: Ancient Rhythms, Modern Current is more descriptive than analytical and because its coverage of Chinese history is only superficial, I would recommend this video be shown to middle-grade students (7-10 grade) as their first introduction to China. Another IVN production, Trav's Travels-China, produced in 1998 and 20 minutes long, uses much of the same footage as Video Visits and follows a similar format, but is aimed at 3-6 graders. (Trav's Travels is reviewed in our Fall '99 issue.)
Another somewhat dated, but fun introduction to Chinese culture for elementary school students is Big Bird in China. Produced in 1987 by the Children's Television Workshop and 75 minutes long, Big Bird plays a clueless tourist who visits China in search of the mythical Phoenix (hence the theme: a famous bird from America meets a famous bird from China). Aided by the Monkey King, played by an actor of the Beijing Opera, and a young Chinese girl who speaks English, Big Bird is given a series of clues to find the Phoenix, which take him past many famous sites. The video features numerous scenes with Chinese school children at play and adults practicing Tai Qi. Also aimed at the younger set is Families of China, part of the Families of the World series for ages 5-10. Families features two 15-minute programs narrated by children, one living in a rural village and the another a moderately sized city. Each program details the families' daily routines, carefully avoiding making any judgements about their lifestyle and subtly emphasizing the similarities between Chinese and American children.
Beyond the Basics: Building on Knowledge
For teachers looking for more in-depth description of particular aspects of Chinese culture, the Discovery Channel produces two very good 50-minute documentaries focusing on China's two most famous sites, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Forbidden City: The Great Within features famous Chinese actors reenacting life in the emperor's palace from the beginning of the Qing dynasty to its fall. Because the narrator's description of court life includes discussion of the role of concubines and eunuchs in some detail, this video is most suitable for late high school and college students. Secrets of the Great Wall discusses not only the history and culture associated with the Great Wall, but also endeavors to find out how the structure was built and how it was utilized to defend the nation. Like Forbidden City, Secrets is intended for an older group.
Just as Discovery produces quality documentaries about famous locales, A&E Biography specializes in accessible portrayals of important people. Their videos, focusing respectively on Confucius and the Current Dalai Lama, discuss the childhood, development, philosophy, and influence of these two great men without over-politicizing them. The biography of Confucius features tasteful reenactments of scenes from his life and artwork of his image. Both documentaries could be shown to most high school and college students. (A&E also produced biographies of Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, but I've never watched them.)
My favorite of all the documentaries in the under $30 range is China: Emerging Powers. Emerging Powers was produced by the Wall Street Journal in 1996, and is narrated by Deborah Wang, a former ABC News correspondent to Beijing. In many ways very similar to In Search of China, a PBS production reviewed in this issue, Emerging Powers concentrates on how current economic changes in China is impacting the people who live there. Focusing on the san lao jie, or three old classes, the generation that graduated from high school during the Cultural Revolution and was sent to the countryside to work, it discusses how Chinese values have changed from socialist idealism to a desire to get rich and prosper. The video interviews people who lives have been both improved and hurt by the economic reforms, but as a whole Emerging's tone is upbeat, insisting that China is waking up and can no longer be ignored.
Videos are not of course the only media available; there are numerous slide units on the market, that also make excellent teaching resources (as do CD-ROMS, but I was unable to find any good, inexpensive ones focusing on China). Traditional Chinese Celebrations: Continuity and Change in Taiwan, published by The Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education, discusses four major Chinese holidays (leaving out Chinese New Year strangely) and how they are practiced in Taiwan. This unit, including sixteen slides and thirty-two pages of text, focuses on the historical basis of these festivals and compares them to similar American celebrations. Traditional Chinese Celebrations is most suitable for 6-9 graders.
For more advanced students (tenth grade through college), the Freer Gallery of Art in D.C. assembled a unit called The Chinese Scholar's Studio: The Education and Lifestyle of the Chinese Literati. Any student who thinks he/she is receiving too much homework should be directed to Lesson 1, which describes the extraordinarily rigorous education of boys in China in pre-modern times. Lesson 2, on the other hand, discusses the leisurely lifestyle of older men, who upon successfully passing their examinations and serving as officials, are free to absorb themselves in nature, music, art and poetry. This unit is mostly textual, but does include six slides featuring artwork and supplies used by the literati. (Be aware that slides three and four may be reversed).