'One Child Nation' Illuminates One Horror, Reveals Another


Starting as a personal look at the damages wrought by decades of China's one-child policy, One Child Nation exposes a deeper, baser level of national corruption.

One Child Nation
Nanfu Wang, Zhang Lynn

Amazon Studios

August 2019


In the 1970s, China faced a population crisis with potentially devastating consequences. Still years away from economic transformation, the government feared exponential population growth would result in Malthusian collapse and chaos. In possibly the most far-reaching social engineering project in human history, the Chinese government decreed each family would be allowed just one baby. Those in rural areas, where there was more need for workers, could have a second one, so long as they were born five years apart.

The One Child Policy was in effect from 1979 to 2015. In that time, families accused of breaking the policy were fined, harassed, and even had their homes demolished as a warning to others. Women underwent forced sterilizations and abortions in untold numbers.

An audience award winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Nanfu Wang and Zhang Lynn's One Child Nation is one of the few serious examinations of the policy's human costs. Because its scope is overwhelming, Wang (director of the 2016 activist documentary, Hooligan Sparrow) and Lynn start with a micro rather than macro focus. Born in a remote part of Jiangxi province in 1985, Wang was immersed in Communist Party propaganda about the policy from her childhood. She shows footage of operas, parades, TV shows, and posters (whose maniacally grinning message could be boiled down to "The One Child Policy is Great!"), pointing out herself in a chorus singing one of the painfully hectoring songs.

Having lived in America for years, Wang returns to her home village after realizing she had never truly thought about the ramifications of the policy. "Becoming a mother felt like giving birth to my memories." In her village, she interviews everybody from relatives like her younger brother (whose existence used to embarrass her, thanks to the power of propaganda), to the old village chief about what they remember about the early days of the policy and what they did. ©

(Sundance Institute / IMDB)

As with many government-dictated mass-casualty catastrophes which use ordinary people as tools, the responses range from defensive to resignation, from uncomprehending horror to soul-scouring guilt. "Policy is policy, what could we do?" says the worried chief before his wife castigates Wang for trying to get him in trouble. Wang's younger brother wonders whether, if he had been born a girl, he would have been "discarded" and left to die like so many others in the traditionally patriarchal society. A family planning official proclaims the policy right, calling it a "war" and insisting that otherwise, China would have "perished".

One of the movie's most stunning segments shows Wang's visit to her old midwife. The serene-seeming 84-year-old woman describes in nightmarish terms the tens of thousands of sterilizations and abortions (mostly very late-term, with babies induced and then killed) she performed on unwilling women, many of whom had been kidnapped, tied up, and dragged into the clinic "like animals". Attempting to "atone for my sins", she now only treats infertility, showing two entire rooms in her home wreathed in banners sent by thankful couples.

Despite the stark, riveting power of its personal narrative, One Child Nation could have used more debate on whether the ends justified the means. On one side are the female babies dropped in baskets in marketplaces to die from exposure or starvation, and the forced abortions, which seem more like Handmaid's Tale butchery than proper medical procedure. (Wang notes in an aside that the policy's punishments feel no different than American anti-abortion laws, as both to her are about controlling women.) On the other is the argument like that proffered by Wang's mother, who chides the filmmaker for after-the-fact moralizing, reminding her of the time's rampant starvation and saying that unlimited births would have led to "cannibalism".

The filmmakers then turn the corner and discover another side to the story, one that has only rarely been told, and even then has led to censorship and threats. She discovers stories of an underground network that trafficked unwanted babies to orphanages. Many of those babies ended up being adopted by Western countries. Although at first this appears to be a win-win solution to the problem of excess births, Wang and Lynn discover that there is a far uglier, seamier side to it that is both shocking in its ugliness and yet utterly unsurprising for anyone even remotely acquainted with the corruption endemic to modern-day China.

Quiet and spare, One Child Nation is a brutal story, made more bloodcurdling—like so many documents of 20th-21st century atrocities—by the seeming nonchalance with which it is told.





How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?


The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.


'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.


​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.


Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.


Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.


Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.


Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.


Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.


Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.