“Living With Dead Hearts” trafficked Chinese children documentary free to view online [Updated]

For those of you with an interest in human trafficking, international adoption or China in general, you’ll probably want to see this heart-breaking documentary from ChinaGeeks. Tens of thousands of children are kidnapped each year in China and sold into domestic adoption, forced labour, prostitution, or overseas adoption. Here’s the trailer:

Living With Dead Hearts provides a simple introduction to infant and child trafficking in China, and allows a few families a chance to tell their stories. We glimpse their anguish and unrelenting attempts to track down their children, made all the worse by incompetent, callous and/or complicit gov’t officials and law enforcement.

Even one of the kidnapped tells his story, or at least the parts he knows: “I just want to know my birth parents, where I came from, and for what reason I was kidnapped and sold.”

In Carried Off, co-director Charlie Custer relays the experience of American adoptive parents searching for the truth of their Chinese child’s past, and provides greater detail about Chinese child trafficking in general.

For more about human trafficking and related issues see:

*Updated with more and better links for further reading.

“Legastories” creatively bridges the China-West cultural divide

From Access China founder and Legastories creator-performer Tim Nash:

All human beings are shaped by stories out of their culture. I invite you to journey with the Chinese people, through the legacy of stories which make them what they are today.

This looks awesome, like one of the more creative and effective ways of bridging cultural distance between China and the English-speaking world. It’s called Legastories (as in, Legacy of Stories), a one-man stage show introducing English-speakers to the Chinese people through the legacy of stories that makes them what they are today. It’s the 5000-year-long story of China in one continuous artistic narrative over 24 chapters performed live.

We heard Tim Nash speak on China on several occasions while living in Tianjin. This is bound to be fantastic. Here’s the trailer:

When I first started studying Chinese 25 years ago I very quickly came to despise it; it was very dry, it was very foreign, it was very dead. And then I went and lived with a Chinese family and suddenly China became alive. China was about people. And suddenly it was human experience that could be shared.
Language is not the issue. The key is to be able to translate a concept from one cultural context to another – whether that’s from Britain to China, from Sales to Customer Support, or husband to wife.
That’s key if we’re going to build successful relationships at any level, whether it’s within a family, within a company, between a company and its customers, or between nations. For me, the challenge of the Western world trying to build relationships with China, when the two places are so clearly different is the best place to explore some of the principles that we need to get our heads around.

For more visit legastori.es and Access China.

More about China-West cultural differences:

So you want to make a difference in China?

Good luck. ;)

Here are four quotes from three different centuries. The first three come from Jonathan Spence‘s To Change China: Western Advisers in China 1620-1960 (1969).

Jonathan Spence on education in 19th century China:

It was particularly hard for a foreigner to enter the educational sector. To the Chinese, education was the key to social harmony and political stability: from the Confucian Classics, hallowed by a tradition reaching back over two thousand years, the young learned obedience, morality, and the norms of acceptable behaviour. On the basis of their study of the Classics, they participated in ascending levels of examinations for the civil service. Success in these examinations opened up prospects for a career in government, the major source of wealth and power. To introduce new subjects — such as Western philosophy, languages, or natural science — was to threaten the basis of the Chinese state. Innovation, accordingly, was vigorously resisted. [Spence, 129]

John Fryer, missionary/educator/translator employed by the Qing dynasty, on learning Chinese:

It was all a question of time and tenacity: “Most foreigners who come to China have the notion that in a year they will master the language. They get a teacher, and pound away vigorously for a week or perhaps a month and then give up in disgust.” Accordingly, they made ludicrous mistakes which negated all their endeavors. He told his cousin of hearing a missionary in Shanghai trying to tell his Chinese audience that “Jesus is here also”; the missionary, muddling his tones and aspirates, succeeded only in assuring the puzzled listeners that “Jesus is inside shaving his head.” “If I could have my way, not a single missionary should say one word in public till he had lived with the people and studied the local dialect of his mission station at least five years, and passed an examination. Just imagine the ridicule which such people bring to Christianity.” [Spence, 145]

Mikhail Borodin, “Stalin’s man in China,” on his failure:

I came to China to fight for an idea. The dream of accomplishing world revolution by freeing the people of the East brought me here. But China itself, with its age-old history, its countless millions, its vast social problems, its infinite capacities, astounded and overwhelmed me, and my thoughts of world revolution and the fight for freedom, in China became an end in itself, and no longer a means to an end. My task was to grasp the situation, to start the great wheel moving, and as time has passed it has carried me along with it. I myself have become only a cog in the great machine. [Spence, 202]

BBC commentator Martin Jacques on understanding China (quoted by Dr. Brent Fulton of ChinaSource.org):

Last year Martin Jacques, a BBC commentator, put it well when he said, “The great task facing the West over the next century will be to make sense of China – not in our terms but in theirs. We have to understand China as it is and as it has been, not project our own history, culture, institutions and values onto it. It will always fail that test. In truth such a mentality tells us more about our own arrogance and lack of curiosity than anything about China.”

(And of course we have lots more quotes and reviews of China Books and DVDs.)

“A pile of loose sand” and civic consciousness in China

Read Ian Johnson’s Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China (2004). Plenty of important insights to be gained from this book, particularly since “evil cults” have been in the news again and Johnson does a great job illustrating why and how certain groups can be so brutally persecuted. A related insight that I find interesting is the challenge of developing “civic consciousness” among ordinary Chinese.

“A pile of loose sand” and the lack of Chinese civic consciousness
In the early 20th century, Dr. Sun Yat-sen famously referred to the Chinese as “a pile of loose sand” and apparently saw nationalism as the solution:

For the most part the four hundred million Chinese can be spoken of as completely Han Chinese with common customs and habits. We are completely of one race. But in the world today, what position do we occupy? Compared to the other peoples of the world we have the greatest population and our civilization is four thousand years old; we should therefore be advancing in rank with the nations of Europe and America. But the Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have a hundred million people gathering together in China, in reality they are just a pile of loose sand.

That was almost a century ago. Today, China suffers from nationalism overload, yet the same lack of civic consciousness still plagues domestic China. Consider these comments from award-winning journalist Ian Johnson describing late-90’s China:

A friend of mine liked to argue . . . [that] the crackdown showed that Chinese actually didn’t care much about each other or the discrepancy in what they saw and what the [authorities] did. There was no solidarity with the persecuted, unless they were family members or personal friends. It was like the traffic accidents that one sees in big Chinese cities — crowds gather only to stare; almost no one stops to help. No wonder [the authorities] could hold on to power so easily, he said. It doesn’t have to divide and conquer its enemies; they are divided of their own accord. I had to agree with him, because I rarely encountered a person who got really angry about the way [the authorities] treated [the persecuted] adherents. While some far-thinking people saw the campaign as unjustified and cruel, most simply shrugged and wondered why people bothered to stand up for something they believed in. Concerned with their daily struggles, they couldn’t understand why [the persecuted] believers insisted on exercising publicly. “Why not just exercise in the living room?” was the most common response I got when I asked about the repression… [pp. 288-289].

For more about the specific persecuted group referred to above and a similar group, see these links:

Your blog is just an online Dàzìbào

From China in Ten Words, by Yu Hua (translated by Allan H. Barr):

In the Cultural Revolution era we were even more passionate about writing big-character posters than people are today about writing blogs. The difference between the two genres is this: The posters tended to be tediously alike, basically just a rehash of articles from the People’s Daily, their text riddled with revolutionary rhetoric and empty slogans, blathering endlessly on and on. Blogs, on the other hand, take a multitude of forms — self-promoting or abusive, disclosing intimate details here and carried away by righteous indignation there, striking affected poses right and left — and they dwell on every topic under the sun, from society and politics to economics and history and goodness knows what else. But in one respect the two genres are the same: writing big-character posters during the Cultural Revolution and keeping a blog today are both designed to assert the value of one’s own existence. [p.63]

I can’t tell if the author really means to make that distinction between dà zì bào (大字报) and blogs, or if he’s just being sly and in fact means that blogs are also “just a rehash of articles from the People’s Daily, their text riddled with revolutionary rhetoric and empty slogans, blathering endlessly on and on.” It’s hard to tell during an American election year. Either way, admit it, bloggers. 40-something years ago, this was you:

Long live our invincible thoughts! :)

For more about propaganda, mostly of the Chinese variety, see our Propaganda topic.

China documentaries (Pt.2): rivers, migrants & entrepreneurs

I’ve recently been on a China documentary kick, so here are some brief reviews of Young & Restless in China, Up the Yangtze, and Last Train Home. Part 1 covered China: A Century of Revolution, China Blue, and Declassified: Tiananmen. Which important documentaries are missing from this list? I’d love to hear your recommendations! We found all of these at our local (Canadian) public library.

Young & Restless in China

Young & Restless in China follows nine individuals over four years (2004-2008), from migrant workers to a super-successful internationalized businessman, though no factory owners or gov’t officials. It’s like viewing nine core samples of Chinese society. If focuses on how their personal lives intersect with their careers (or lack thereof) and the current economic and spiritual state of Chinese society. In the people, their circumstances, and the places, we see a lot that we recognize from among our Chinese friends and experiences in China. For me personally, seeing how overseas-educated-and-experienced businessmen each find their own compromises with the deeply corrupt business and bureaucratic cultures of China, how aspiring female professionals and factory workers try (and sometimes fail) to balance career, freedom, marriage and motherhood, and the juxtaposition of countryside and urban realities all make this fascinating film.

Young & Restless in China was created by the same people who did China: A Century of Revolution.

Up the Yangtze

Up the Yangtze is as much art film as it is documentary, and it doesn’t seem to attempt to provide any kind of representational anecdote for what’s happening in any given sphere of Chinese society. The sparse narration provides only the bare minimum information and context, and watching it feels a lot like showing up in China for the first time, seeing a lot but not being able to really understand what you’re seeing. It’s beautifully shot, but of all the documentaries listed here it taught me the least.

It focuses on two teenagers who get jobs on a Farewell Cruise: a cocky, spoiled, male, middle class only-child and a daughter of dirt poor illiterates who live in a shack in the flood path of the soon-to-be-dammed Yangtze river. The film has its poignant moments: the family moving out of their shack as the flood waters seep in, the frustration of the daughter as she watches her hopes for a better future evaporate when her family makes her get a job instead of continuing her education, and the solitary songs and prayers of a poor and ancient-looking Christian woman. The social class contrast between the two teenagers is stark, as is that of the Western tourists and the Chinese crew.

Last Train Home

Last Train Home (归途列车) is a painfully intimate look into how the pressures of the migrant worker life tear at the fabric of one particular migrant worker family. With virtually no narration or subtitles but a few off-camera discussion prompts, we see a lot about migrants’ unbearable travel and working conditions but learn even more about what migrant work can mean for Chinese village families. While news reports typically highlight the impossibly huge train station crowds or abusive factory conditions, Last Train Home includes those things while emphasizing the migrant workers as family members — showing them less as workers and more as fathers, mothers and daughters, with grandparents and children left behind in the village. It humanizes migrant workers better than anything else I’ve seen or read.

Last Train Home is sometimes similar to Up the Yangtze in style; there’s zero narration and long, patient shots in which the viewer can try to soak up the feeling of a scene. But Last Train Home, I think, teaches us more; its characters and their general situation are representative of more people, even if the situations of most migrant families might not match this family’s situation in every aspect. Like China Blue, it shows the personal stories of specific migrant workers, but where China Blue focuses on economic injustice and migrant-employer conflict while giving us migrant worker family life as back-story or sub-plot, Last Train Home focuses on the migrants’ relational and economic realities and the strain the migrant life inflicts upon the family.

I will add a Content Warning: Last Train Home contains one scene of domestic violence.

For more about migrant workers, see our Migrant Workers category, which includes:

If you were only going to watch one of these, I’d recommend Last Train Home, with Young & Restless as a close second.

China documentaries (Pt. 1): blue jeans and revolutions

The arrival of my big-budget Jackie Chan Chinese propaganda history epic movie debut prompted me to brush up on some Chinese history, so I recently re-watched China: A Century of Revolution, and that’s put me on a Chinese documentary kick. So here are some brief reviews of China: A Century of Revolution, China Blue, and Declassified: Tiananmen. I’ll review Young & Restless in China, Up the Yangtze and Last Train Home in Part 2. We found all of these at our local (Canadian) public library. I’d love to hear your recommendations!

China: A Century of Revolution

China: A Century of Revolution is a 6-hour sweep of China’s 20th century history from 1911 to 1997. That’s a lot of complicated history to cover in not very much time, and perhaps this film’s greatest weakness is that it leaves a lot out. But the details it does include — the interviews — are priceless. From ancient-looking Mao-suited peasants recalling the adventure and tragedy they experienced in pre-Liberation China to former Red Guard and Tiananmen leaders, from true believers in Mao to controversial figures like Li Zhisui, watching people who have experienced the history I’ve read about tell their stories was powerful. And the people interviewed are interesting characters themselves — some funny, some heartbreaking, all memorable. It’s also packed with great archive footage. There is no way it’s not banned in China, but thanks to the largely unregulated black market for rip-off DVDs, I bought a copy at a store in a shopping centre on 紫金山路 in Tianjin for about $3. It was being sold next to the old revolutionary operas from the Cultural Revolution.

For more about China’s modern history, see our Chinese history category, which includes:

China Blue

China Blue portrays life in a denim factory for three village teenage girls who’ve migrated to the coast in search of work to support their family. It’s a surprisingly intimate and exposing look at the conditions and management of a typical (actually better-than-average) Chinese factory. I don’t know how they pulled it off, though they were apparently interrogated by the police on numerous occasions and had film confiscated. Although the film shows rather than tells, it certainly has an axe to grind — Chinese workers are blatantly abused and the fault ultimately lies not with the Chinese factory owners, but with the organizations who benefit most from the labour exploitation: the Western corporations who insist on rock-bottom prices and high-pressure deadlines, whose halfhearted auditing of their suppliers’ working conditions is really just for P.R. and legal coverage back home, not for the workers’ protection. Basically, the film draws a damning direct causal connection between exploited Chinese teenagers in sweatshops and Western corporations and consumers.

They managed to film all kinds of things, funny and dramatic, including:

  • workers wondering about the people who would wear the jeans and how incredibly big they must be;
  • an emotional confrontation between overworked, unpaid workers and the boss, co-led by an experienced 14-year-old;
  • business negotiations between a foreign customer and the factory boss, illustrating where the pressure to abuse workers past their breaking point comes from;
  • a Spring Festival village family reunion, what all migrant labourers look forward to but some can’t afford;
  • both the boss’ and workers’ first-hand opinions of the other.

While the consumer connection to Chinese labour exploitation is the biggest theme, China Blue has other significant and interesting things to show us. The girls talk a bit about (and we see throughout the film) what it means to be a girl when your family wanted a boy, and the pressure on rural migrants that causes them to tolerate the coarse, abusive conditions of the factory. The factory consumes everyone from the top management to the factory floor; even the boss looks and sounds exhausted when the shipping deadline looms on large, rush orders. The film seems to compare the various ways people try to retain their humanity in such an environment: the boss practices calligraphy in his roof-top garden, one teenage worker analogizes her migrant labourer life through kung-fu stories in her journal, another pursues romance. A Spring Festival village family reunion for one girl shows us the good side rural Chinese life, and what the workers look forward to and save for all year long (while the main protagonist can’t afford to return home for Chinese New Year because her first month’s pay was held as a “deposit”). The relationship between worker and consumer is, I think, powerfully highlighted near the end in when two of the girls discuss the risk of slipping something into a shipment of jeans.

One grain of salt worth pointing out: when reading the fine print, you’ll find that the voice-overs are not done by the workers themselves, but are based on their journals and interviews.

For more on Western consumers and Chinese factory worker abuse, see:

Declassified: Tiananmen

I stopped paying attention to History Channel productions a while back, since, to my mind, they put the “taint” in “edutainment” (as in, “taint one nor the other”). Their Tiananmen documentary from 2005 is par for the course. The narration is so hyped and over-dramatized that the blood lust is just palpable. However, I grudgingly suggest you watch it solely for the video footage, much of which you don’t see in Century of Revolution. You can see it for free on YouTube.

For more about Tiananmen, see:

If you were only going to watch one of these, I’d recommend Century of Revolution if you’re into history, and China Blue if you’re into social justice and contemporary global issues.