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motw logo 1-35Nanfu Wang’s One Child Nation is a frank, honest look at the devastating impact of China’s “one child per family” policy. Introduced by the Chinese government in 1979 as a radical way of curbing unsustainable population growth, the policy relied on powerful propaganda — and strict enforcement — to ensure compliance. In the documentary, the Chinese-born Wang, now a mother herself, explores the program’s long-term impact on her country and her people.

Because she was a girl and born in a rural part of China, Wang was actually allowed to have a younger sibling — one of the policy’s very specific exceptions — but she knew from an early age that that made her different. And the fact that her sibling turned out to be a boy also had big repercussions for Wang’s life; when the family didn’t have enough money to educate both children, her brother was favored (interviewed as an adult for the film, he gets very emotional about the message that this sent his sister).

The traditional Chinese preference for male offspring is acknowledged as fact by many of those interviewed in the film; that preference, combined with the strict one-child policy, is what led to the huge increase in international adoptions of Chinese baby girls after the program was implemented. And, as Wang documents, those adoptions weren’t all the result of families willingly placing their children in orphanages — in fact, many of the babies were trafficked, sold to the orphanages by those who found or took babies (sometimes from the side of the road), and then sold by the orphanages to their adoptive parents.

One thread of the movie follows an American family trying to uncover their adopted daughter’s true origins; when the facts of her Chinese family are uncovered, it’s powerful — and heartbreaking. Equally sad are the stories told by the interviewees who worked on the front lines enforcing the one-child policy; one doctor talks about aborting and killing thousands of fetuses because she felt she had no choice. Now, she devotes herself to treating infertile couples in an attempt to make amends. The moral weight of the government’s mandate is palpable as you watch One Child Nation; hopefully, the film will help prevent such things from happening again. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Susan Wloszczyna: There are atrocities and then there are soul-lacerating atrocities. One Child Nation is one of those documentaries as it exposes how a government can manipulate a whole population to follow a policy that supposedly is for the better good but what actually resulted is a horribly cruel and unnatural genocide of innocent babies and the demonization of pregnant women. Read full review.

Marilyn Ferdinand: During the 1970s, China’s population reached 1 billion. Fearing widespread famine, the government imposed a limit of one child per family and began enforcing it in 1979 with propaganda and strong-arm tactics. Human population growth is a real problem, but One Child Nation argues through the stark emotions of the midwife, artist, family planning official, and affected families who spoke out for the camera that legislating it out of existence is not the answer. Read full review.

Nikki Baughan: Orchestrated to avoid catastrophic population growth, China’s controversial ‘one child’ policy, which aimed to limit each family to a single child and ran from 1979 to 2015, is difficult to understand from a Western humanitarian perspective. It becomes even more horrifying a concept during Nanfu Wang and Jialang Zhabg’s intimate and unflinching documentary, not just for the heartbreaking stories of stolen and murdered children, but also for the widespread belief that those involved — from parents to village officials — had no choice in the matter. “Policy is policy,” is the oft-heard lament of the indoctrinated. Born in 1985, during the height of the one child law, and having recently become a mother herself, Wang — who has a younger brother thanks to a special decree that allowed her rural parents to have another child five years after her birth, in the hopes that it would be a boy — explores the implications of the rule on children and adults alike. Some of what she uncovers is shocking; state-run orphanages engaging in the kidnapping, trafficking and international adoption of Chinese children, the forced sterilisation of women. Some is unbearably heartbreaking. Images of discarded aborted “fetuses” (in reality, babies carried almost to full term) on city trash heaps are devastating beyond comprehension, and brings home the appalling impact of the control governments can have over women’s freedoms, and bodies.

Sheila Roberts Among the many excellent interviews, one of the most fascinating ones for me was with artist Peng Wang who was very moved by what he saw during that era and wanted to capture it in his work. In one of his projects called “Motives,” he painted fetuses on a book entitled The Thoughts of Chairman Mao. There was the image of one fetus for each page on 365 pages, suggesting this was something happening every day. Read full review.

MaryAnn Johanson Nanfu Wang’s stunning, startling documentary is a brave and bold expose of government corruption on an enormous scale, of the power of propaganda, but perhaps most importantly, of the better side of human nature winning out over the darker side. It’s also a film that could only have been made by a woman, in the particular form that it takes here, with its intimate perspectives on motherhood and on the unique oppression that women face in partriarchal cultures (which is to say, all of them). If her film can, at least, help reunite families once ripped apart, perhaps some small can come from it.

Leslie Combemale Amazon Studios is releasing grand prize winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, One Child Nation, from directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang. An examination of the one child policy that started in 1980, the extreme population control measure made it illegal for couples to have more than one child. Though it ended in 2015, the damage done to families, and millions of women forced into sterilization and abortion, continues to reverberate to this day. One Child Nation is part investigative journalism and part personal history, and it is a valuable record of one country’s disastrous social experiment. The filmmakers say they created a film, which is banned in China, to counter the inevitable propaganda bent on changing China’s history books and collective cultural memory. If the wildly skewed, propaganda-filled and daily-updated wiki page for China’s one child policy is any indication, this documentary is absolutely essential.

Jennifer Merin One Child Nation, Nanfu Wang’s compelling documentary about China’s harrowing one child per family policy, its historic impact on the Chinese citizenry and its devastating effects that have lasted even since the policy has been reversed. Nanfu Wang, born in China during the period when the one child policy and punishment for noncompliance were in effect, is a masterful filmmaker whose documentaries chronicle women’s status in China. This is the second film Wang has shot surreptitiously China. Let’s put it this way: she might not be able to enter China again, and it’s likely that One Child Nation will never get a government-sanctioned release there. But, this important and very well made film should be seen by audiences everywhere. China’s one child policy must never be replicated!

Loren King Co-directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang were both born during China’s one child policy yet knew little about how the mandate was enforced or the devastating effect it had on Chinese families particularly in rural areas of the country. Now based in the US, the filmmakers’ One Child Nation is part investigation, part personal examination of how the sweeping policy, launched in 1980 and in effect until 2015, directly impacted individuals including parents, adoptive parents, baby brokers, an artist in exile who wrote about the travesty (his book can’t be published in China) and the women who were abducted and forced to endure abortions and sterilizations. One 84-year-old midwife estimates that she performed between 50,000 and 60,000 sterilizations and abortions, often on unwilling women who were forcibly restrained. Nanfu Wang who, as a new mother, is desperate to understand those who lived through those years, turns to her own family still living in rural China including an uncle who left his newborn baby girl in a market to die. These stories of the baby girls who were abandoned, seized by government authorities or murdered is gut wrenching. “One Child Nation” covers a lot of ground about how China’s paternalistic society, the Communist government, and a propaganda machine helped keep this flagrant human rights abuse in place for 35 years with countless casualties.

Sandie Angulo Chen: Documentary team Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s new film One Child Nation revisits the Chinese government’s infamous one child policy from the lens of Wang’s personal history – her family back in rural China. Wang goes back to her small hometown to interview her mother and maternal grandfather (who explain how her mom was able to have a second child by asking permission after Nanfu was born to try again five years later for a boy). In a culture where sons are more highly valued than girls (in their view, sons further the family name, whereas girls marry into and become solely part of their husband’s families), the policy led to abandonment (of baby girls) as well as government-sanctioned forced abortions and sterilizations. Whether the policy (which began in 1979 and ended in 2015) was truly necessary to save the overpopulated nation from widespread starvation and depression isn’t satisfactorily addressed, but it’s clear that everyone complicit in obeying the policy (from village chiefs who had to demolish the homes of resisters and midwives who admit they performed partial-birth abortions and even infanticide to humble village folks who in their desperation for a boy left their firstborn girls for dead) has scars and justifications for obeying the policy. Heartbreaking and powerful, the documentary makes viewers wonder how the impact of the policy will continue to haunt China for generations to come.

Liz Whittemore Comprised of intimate first hand accounts and government made propaganda, One Child Nation will undoubtedly tap into your soul. If you are a mother, it will offend your understanding of the world. How can government care so little for the lives of its own citizens? Fighting back, telling stories is what brings enlightenment to the ignorant and empowers progressive change. One Child Nation shows us how great filmmaking can educate a new generation. You can’t rewrite history but you can prevent it from ever happening again. Read full review.

Cate Marquis Director Nanfu Wang was born under China’s One Child policy, which restricted families to one child only from 1979 to 2015, but thought little about it growing up, or as an adult living in the U.S. – until she had a child of her own. When she returned to China with her infant son to visit her family, she began to ask questions about the policy that she had accepted unquestioningly as a child. The results of that inquiry are bracing, While any documentary might have taken a straight-forward historical approach to the one-child policy, Wang’s One Child Nation focuses on individual people, both those impacted by the policy and those who carried it out,. That choice makes this documentary more harrowing and gut-wrenching than a conventional documentary might have been. Her personal investigation takes us deep into this strictly-enforced edict which had a profound impact on the lives of all Chinese people, revealing startling, heartbreaking details about this how this family planning policy was carried out and its consequences. Wang’s skillful, probing style makes us feel like we are going down a deep rabbit hole of secrets long held, connecting dots unsuspected between the one-child policy and its legacy in the present. The searing documentary gives us insights on the people who endured it and the Chinese government that enforced it. One Child Nation is a revelatory documentary that no one should miss.


Title: One Child Nation

Directors: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang

Release Date: August 9, 2019

Running Time: 85 minutes

Language: English, Mandarin with English subtitles

Screenwriter: Documentary

Distribution Company: Amazon Studios


Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

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Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).