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Development of Chinese documentaries

By Chen Yi | 2013-07-31 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
The documentaries are characterized by two features. One is to tell the truth; another one is to communicate with history directly. Therefore, documentaries are the best carrier of national history. 
Diversification in topics and narrative strategies of documentaries
Since 1978, Chinese documentaries that focused on nation state have become the main trend. These documentaries came into public eyes with abundant topics, diversified techniques, and broad expressions connecting China with the world. While with the introduction of western documentaries, Chinese mainstream documentaries have gradually taken western ideas and methods for reference to adjust previous realistic narrative strategies to better ones.
During the early time of the foundation of People’s Republic of China, two most important topics of documentaries were originated from the fact that China has vast territories and abundant resource and a long history. After several years, China needed to inherit its cultural and historic legacy and to reshape national confidence and pride.
After the year of 2000, China has developed into a new stage with a stable and rapid economic growth. Besides the introduction of culture, natural scenery, historic relics, and memorials about great figures in China, national discourse in contemporary documentaries is much related to current events which are much more deeply revealed than those in normal news based documentaries. It is notable that documentary producers began to realize that some documentaries with unique political and cultural ideas would make a difference in the commercial market during the development. This realization will make lots of profits for the whole production team. It explains the reason why many documentary teams adopt marketing theories to explore the hidden commercial values behind those unique topics. Those producers are ‘marketing the nation’ through making documentaries.
Not only more and more events fulfill documentary topics, but also realistic narrative strategies become much more diversified than before. The tricky problem for mainstream documentaries to tackle is to balance between ‘grand narrative’ and ‘tiny narrative’ in realistic topics. During 1950s to 1960s, all documentaries belong to ‘grand narrative’ without exception. Until 1980s to 1990s, it had the tendency to transfer into ‘tiny narrative’ documentaries. However, ‘tiny narrative’ in Chinese televised documentaries didn’t replace the role of ‘grand narrative’ strategies. This was really obvious in the central televised documentary production organizations. Actually, most recent successful documentaries in China stick to be on basis of ‘grand narrative’ strategies and connect those two narratives. Any narrative expression itself is contained in the historical, political and social life. Therefore, it is not allowed to put those two narratives in opposite shoes. Instead, the inclusion of ‘tiny narrative’ in ‘grand narrative’ for contemporary Chinese documentaries shows the diversification in ‘grand narrative’ strategies.
Three elements in documentary production body
Contemporary Chinese documentaries especially televised documentaries which stand for national discourse through realistic topics are released by unique production system. Essentially, there are three subjective elements in the production system: first of all, the state as a leading force of documentary production; Second, various production organizations as direct functioning units of documentary production; third, producers who directly working on producing documentaries.
Since 1978, due to the decline of news based documentary films and the development of televisions, televised documentaries have taken the place of news based documentary films. China has realized the significance of televised documentaries and has put televised documentary production on agenda.
Various production organizations especially all or different levels of television stations play the role of organizers.  For instance, the organization and operation of documentaries such as Living Space were initiated at the national television station—CCTV (China Central Television), which had affected documentary productions in two aspects. On the one hand, it strengthened the link among the inner system because of setting up producer system and inner contracts for programs. Many excellent producers who left “danwei” (a work unit more properly used to refer to a place of employment during the period when the China was under planned economy system or when used in the context of one of state-owned enterprises) were involved in the mainstream production of televised documentaries. By this way of attracting a number of good producers, it enriched program styles and improved traditional documentary production and discourse in documentary.  On the other hand, by this way, it set up an example for local television stations. Many local television stations learned from CCTV and even put their knowledge forward to establish documentary workshops and studios. The transform from “danwei” into “company” became the main trend for documentary marketization in 1990s.
Chinese contemporary televised documentaries are mostly produced independently by television stations. Since 1990s, television stations cooperated with departments of state organs, local governments, large-scale enterprises and public institutions, and private TV production organizations. Furthermore, a small amount of documentaries were produced by private TV production organizations and broadcasted by permission of television stations. Besides, televised documentaries are different from ordinary news programs. According to rules, ordinary news programs can only be produced by televisions stations independently. Therefore, the production space, production body and production process are relatively complicated in televised documentaries.
The composition and production conditions of documentary producers are the third structural factor in documentary production. When we trace back the time, we can find out the track of the development in documentary producers. Preeminent producers are divided into lofty ideal type, professional type and cultural consciousness type.
On the one hand, it is used to putting the conclusive function of structure on the first place, that is, organization determines the behavior of individual documentary production through approaches such as system construction, available funds, awards and punishments. On the other hand, individual behaviors can affect the control of documentary production from organizations in reverse. As individual producers, they can exert an influence in documentary production with their own ambitions and attitudes. They can have a significant influence on documentary production organizations and even documentary production of the whole country by their own production achievements as well.
 Chen Yi from Suzhou University Phoenix Institute of Media.
Translated by Zhang Mengying