In “One Child Nation,” Nanfu Wang Confronts China’s History, and Her Own
On a cloudy and humid morning in August, the documentary filmmaker Nanfu Wang was chatting with her mother, Zaodi, at her neighborhood park in New Jersey. Wang’s two-year-old son, Jamie, wearing a sailor top adorned with a cartoon lobster and some tangerine stains, gleefully swayed back and forth on a swing, occasionally asking his mother for an extra push. Zaodi, who still lives in the same small village in China where Wang was born and raised, was making her fourth visit to the States, and she was pleased to see her daughter’s progress. Wang and her husband’s new house is an upgrade from their two-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights, and Wang’s documentary “One Child Nation,” about China’s one-child policy, which was in effect from 1979 to 2015, had just hit theatres. Three nights before, Zaodi had attended a screening of the film at Film Forum, in Manhattan. “It was a full house—every single seat was filled,” she recalled. “I’m so proud. So many people came, and so many people asked her questions. I was so happy.” Her face broke into an unselfconscious smile.
“One Child Nation,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, is part investigative report, part family history. Co-directed with Jialing Zhang, the film follows a Chinese family that is jailed for human trafficking after they moved thousands of abandoned Chinese babies—almost all of them girls—into state-run orphanages, and an American couple who started a foundation to help track down the girls’ biological families. It features a village midwife who now provides free infertility services in an attempt to find redemption for the thousands of late-term abortions that she performed while the one-child policy was in effect. Wang, who was born in 1985, also interviews her family members, sometimes while holding the then newborn Jamie in her arms, and gently presses them to reveal how the policy shaped their lives and community. At one point in the film, Zaodi admits that if her second child—Zhihao, who was born five years after Nanfu—had been a girl, she would have been pressured to abandon the infant.
In unflinching and often graphic terms, the documentary shows the obscene human impact of the one-child policy: forced sterilizations and terminations, kidnappings sanctioned by local officials, and untold numbers of newborns left to their deaths. The Chinese government mounted an inescapable propaganda campaign—using billboards and posters, schoolchildren’s textbooks, even matchbooks and playing cards—to insist that the policy was the only option for the nation’s survival.
Zaodi likes her daughter’s film but disagrees with her politics. “If not for the family-planning policy, there would have been too many people in China,” Zaodi said, giving Jamie a push on the swing. She is fifty-six and has been a schoolteacher for three decades. “Quality-of-life standards would be really low. We’d live far worse off than we do now. Families can’t support so many children. From my generation, some had six or seven kids. Some don’t have enough to eat; some even starved to death.”
Her daughter was ready with a rebuttal. “These are the theories the government told you,” she said. “You are just repeating the propaganda.” Her boy was starting to whine—something about his legs. Wang bent over him, rubbed his legs, and continued her argument. “Many other countries have high population density, like Japan. Education can help improve living standards and make people voluntarily not want kids.”
“Chinese people are of low quality all around. Education is not enough,” Zaodi said, invoking the popular Chinese myth of suzhi, or inner quality.
“I am so shocked by this theory—so many people think this way, that Chinese people are of low quality and are not suitable for voting in a general election, not suitable for democracy,” Wang said. “Isn’t everyone born equal? Why would you think you are born a lesser person than an American?”
Zaodi had stopped speaking; she only smiled and nodded, appeasingly. The baby’s eyelids were drooping, and it had started to drizzle. Mother and daughter decided to head back home.
Wang was born and raised in the southern province of Jiangxi, in Wang Village, where Zaodi teaches kindergarten. The village is surrounded by rivers, and the same families have lived there for generations, most of them sharing the surname Wang. Zaodi and her late husband were substitute teachers (literally “barefoot teachers” in Mandarin); they were paid poorly, even by rural-village standards. Wang recalls foraging through trash dumps, open fields, and riverbeds for scraps of metal and plastic, which she collected and sold to recyclers for pocket money. The family didn’t have a television. “When I walked by a neighbor’s house and saw they had a TV, I was filled with longing for that little thing, bright with lights,” she said.
Wang was close with her father, Qinhua, who was a storyteller and a big reader; he introduced her to “Treasure Island” when she was seven. He had suffered from heart disease since childhood, and, although he was initially admitted to study at a university, he failed a physical exam that was required for prospective college students in nineteen-seventies China. After the birth of Wang’s brother, Zhihao, their father took out a loan and bought chickens to raise, preparing and selling savory tea eggs to earn extra cash. Wang remembers shouting, despite her shyness, “Tea eggs! Five cents each!” at passersby in streets and alleys. When her father died, of a stroke, at the age of thirty-four, he left behind several notebooks: diaries and some manuscripts of short fiction and poems. “My father’s life was full of bitterness,” Wang said. “He made many attempts at different things in his life but never succeeded. His biggest dream was to go to college.”
Wang was eleven when her father died, and her brother was seven. She developed insomnia; her mother became depressed. It was clear that there was no way Zaodi could repay the loan on top of paying school fees for two children much longer. She decided that her daughter should go to technical school, instead of high school, so that she could begin supporting the family sooner; there, Wang would train to become a general-education teacher, with a focus on English. Wang cried at her mother’s decision but obeyed readily. “I agreed with the mindset that my brother was too young to leave school,” she said. “And what would a boy do if he doesn’t go to high school and college?”
Wang worked as a salesgirl in her uncle’s souvenir store, in the provincial capital, Nanchang, and as an English teacher in Fengcheng, putting herself through college part-time before testing into a master’s program in Shanghai, where she was offered an administrative job. But the idea of doing the same thing, day after day, year after year, was dismaying to her. Her mother was shocked. When you have a stable job and an assigned apartment in Shanghai, Zaodi thought, what more could you want?
What her daughter wanted was to dig deeper into her newfound sense of the injustice that was permeating her world, hinging on class and gender. “If the health-care system hadn’t been unjust, my father wouldn’t have died—we didn’t have money and couldn’t afford to send him to a hospital,” Wang said. “Because I was a girl and I wasn’t able to go to high school, I was discriminated against, and it was difficult to find a job.” She wanted to find ways to expose injustice wherever it existed and was disappointed with the state of journalism in China. So she applied to fourteen state universities in the U.S., and was offered a full scholarship by the master’s program in media studies at Ohio University.
Wang was twenty-six and doing many things for the first time: getting a visa, travelling outside of China, watching films in English, touching a camera. (She once spent hours trying to remove a lens, before discovering the release button.) A class on documentary film, she recalled, “was like an explosion.” Up until that point, Wang’s experience of documentaries had been limited to historical and wildlife films made by China Central Television (CCTV), the state television broadcaster. Michael Moore’s “Sicko” and “Roger and Me” revealed to her that movies could be at once “political and entertaining”; Alan Berliner’s “Nobody’s Business” showed that documentaries could make the stuff of ordinary life into compelling and universal art. “I didn’t know any of this existed,” she said. “And I was, like, O.K., this is what I want to do.”
Wang remembers this time as, in some respects, the happiest of her life. “You can feel that you are growing and learning every day. That kind of energy and satisfaction is tremendous.” At the same time, she was extremely homesick. “It was almost like two worlds, and the world before is a past life,” she said. “All my best friends, my entire life, was behind me.”
She landed at N.Y.U. for graduate school, where her thesis project was a film she shot in China, called “Hooligan Sparrow,” about Ye Haiyan, a sex-workers’ advocate who led a protest seeking justice for a group of elementary-school students in Hainan who were sexually abused by their principal. Two weeks into filming, Chinese secret-police forces called Zaodi to ask about her daughter’s whereabouts. A former roommate of Wang’s in Shanghai was taken to a police station for questioning. Plainclothes policemen would surround and harass Wang while she was filming, and, in one instance that’s captured in the documentary, they seized her footage; fortunately, a friend was secretly recording the scene. Without intending to, Wang became part of the story she was telling, with her own video diaries becoming fodder for her movie.
“Hooligan Sparrow” won a George Polk Award and a Peabody, and Wang considers it to be her political awakening. “I often say that it felt like ‘The Truman Show,’ in that moment when they bring down the wall and he finally sees the real world. That’s very much how I felt,” Wang said. “And now, on the other side of the wall, I see all my friends and people I know. But they don’t ever see my side.”
That distance might be partly a matter of language: the script and video diaries of “Hooligan Sparrow” are in English, as is all of the voice-over for “One Child Nation.” (Between these projects, Wang made her second feature, “I Am Another You,” about a young drifter she met in Florida.) Wang said that she tried to make a Chinese version of “Hooligan Sparrow,” but the Chinese vocabulary for human rights felt uncomfortable. “In China, words like ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ are given negative undertones,” she said. “I realized that I couldn’t tell this story in Chinese. I know what the translations are, and I know the expressions. But it feels embarrassing and unnatural. I almost feel as if I don’t dare to say these words.”
A few months after the one-child policy was relaxed, in 2015, a colleague of Wang’s asked her what she thought about it. “I said that I didn’t think it affected my life at all,” she recalled. “It was like my mind wouldn’t look beyond what I was taught.”
But when Wang became pregnant with her son, in 2017, she started to feel connected to the world and the people in it in new ways. “I became super aware of every single danger around me, and of dangers in the future, like climate change,” she said. She looked at strangers and acquaintances differently: as people who were tenderly loved by their mothers. She talked about the one-child policy with her mother, who recounted brutal stories of coerced sterilizations and abortions. Zaodi had told her daughter versions of these stories before. “But it was the first time I actually imagined those stories from the perspective of an adult, as a woman and as a mother,” Wang said.
After “Hooligan Sparrow,” Wang knew to be more careful while making “One Child Nation.” During filming, she avoided taking public transportation that required I.D., in order to avoid surveillance, and she filmed mostly indoors and rarely in public. She said that the filmmaking process sometimes felt feel like going through therapy, with painful memories sometimes rushing back. “In middle school, in Fengcheng, everyone else was an only child,” she said. “I felt poor and backward and uneducated and ashamed—those were the labels that were put on people.”
Wang is close with her brother, who works in Beijing as a programmer for Amazon (which is also, coincidentally, the distributor of “One Child Nation”). She harbors no hard feelings about any favoritism that he was shown as a child—in fact, she seems to harbor few hard feelings in general. “What happens, happens” is something that she likes to say. “It probably sounds insane,” she remarked once, about safety concerns during filming, “but if I experience something bad, it’s one of the experiences in life, too.” She has few complaints about growing up poor; she says that she only wished she had been exposed to music. At one point during our conversations, she told me about feeling desperate enough to apply for a sub–minimum-wage job after finishing her graduate degree at N.Y.U. Attempting to commiserate with her about this low point, I threw out the word “hopeless.” She gently corrected me. “Hopeless is a heavy word,” she said.
As we were leaving the park, we spotted a couple of deer behind some trees. “Deer! Two of them,” Wang said to Jamie, as she pushed him in the stroller. On the walk home, Zaodi told me that she hopes her daughter will not make more movies about China. “It reflects poorly on her,” she said. “In the village, people will look at her disapprovingly. And, if the government finds out, it will be bad, too. I worry that she will be arrested.”
Wang said that she has been saddened when friends have confronted her about how she has portrayed China. “They think that I have changed, and that I was brainwashed in the West,” she said. “I hate to see the injustice, the dissatisfaction, and seeing my loved ones being oblivious to propaganda—but there’s nothing more I can do.”
Later that day, while her mother and son were taking afternoon naps, Wang went upstairs to the third floor of her house, where she plans to use a tiny loft space, beneath a skylight, as her office. (She edited “One Child Nation” in her old apartment in Crown Heights, in between Jamie’s naps and feedings, and her iMac shared a desk with her breast pump.) In the loft, two iMacs were waiting to be plugged in, and a few boxes were scattered on the floor: one contained her prizes, another housed old production notes. Zaodi said that she is pleased that her daughter plans to make her next documentary in a country far from China, although its central figure is an activist, and its themes are Communism, propaganda, and human rights.
Wang vividly remembers the summer day that her father’s body was brought back from the morgue, to his family’s house, in Wang Village. For three days, he was laid in their living room for people to pay their respects. Wang, at twelve, didn’t understand what death meant. “I felt that he was still alive, and just choosing not to communicate with others,” she said. When people started to put nails in the casket, she thought they were murdering him—he would be trapped inside and die. Howling, she tried to fight them, and adults in her family pulled her away. In the year that followed, she developed a superstitious belief that she was going to die at thirty-four, like he did.
She turns thirty-four in December and no longer expects to die this year. But she says that the urge to live a bigger, hungrier life—as if to make up for the time she expected to lose—has stayed with her. “It’s not about extending my life expectancy, the length, but expanding the width of my life,” she said. “Every time I make a film, the film also makes me.”