Through the personal stories of many individuals, director Nanfu Wang weaves together an intricate history of 30 years of China’s One-Child Policy in One Child Nation—and shows how it ripples through all corners of Chinese society. China’s One-Child Policy, implemented in 1979, limited families to have only one child. The policy was later ended in 2015, when the Chinese government implemented a new policy—allowing families to have two children.
The film arose from Wang’s personal interest. After her difficult childbirth, Wang journeyed back to China with her newborn son to learn about her family’s history, revealing patriarchal societal values that seep into all corners of China.
Before Wang was born, her parents picked the name Nanfu—”man pillar”—indicating that they wanted a son to be the pillar of the family. When Wang was born, and revealed to be a girl, they gave her the name anyways. Thanks to a rule in the One-Child Policy stating that parents living in rural areas could have a second child 5 years after their first child, Wang’s family gave birth to her brother Zhihao—exactly 5 years after she was born.
But what might happen if her would-be-sibling happened to be female? Many female infants in these cases are abandoned or left to die. The younger Wang, if happened to have been born female, might have been left to die. In the film, we learn that Wang’s uncle had abandoned an infant girl shortly after her birth, and an aunt had to put an infant girl up for adoption.
The One-Child Policy influences many families in the West as well. In a shift of tone, Wang directs her focus towards an American family and their mission to help adoptive parents find the real histories of their adopted children. Their story is a personal one as well. The family adopted three Chinese daughters and by repeated visits to orphanages, the family realized that many of the orphanages make up the same stories of the babies to their adoptive parents. In short, many adopted children have their origin stories fabricated by orphanages that put them up for adoption. As it turns out, adoption was such a profitable business that certain local governments—especially ones in extremely poor areas—would abduct female infants and put them up for adoption.
Perhaps one of the most emotional moments in the film comes from Wang’s visit to her village’s midwife Yuan, who claims to have performed between 50,000 and 60,000 abortions. These days, Yuan has stopped performing abortions. Instead, as if to atone for these “crimes”, she treats families with infertility issues. She directs Wang to a room where she hangs pennants of appreciation from the infertile families she treated. The pennants cover all four walls and the ceiling, akin to a sacred shrine.
But perhaps the most chilling theme in this film is the inspection of how propaganda influences the way people view society and the world. Wang brilliantly weaves together archival footage of military marches, television programs, and local shows in praise of the One-Child Policy, editing them into dystopic and often bizarrely humorous statements on the effects of statewide implementation of propaganda.
Wang argues that propaganda is pervasive and it’s hard to notice unless one stops and introspects. She argues that dissent is patriotism—dissent creates space for contemplation, introspection, a way of asking ourselves “wait a second, is what’s going on right now okay?” It is imperative to not only recognize and mourn the atrocities of the war waged on population by the One-Child Policy, but also to think about whether it is okay for an entire nation to succumb to this sort of social experiment, no questions asked.
Wang’s presence permeates throughout the film—her voice can be heard off camera, and her image can be seen in the reflections of mirrors. Although persistent in her questioning, her tone betrays no judgement: “I didn’t set out making this movie to paint black and white pictures. I want this movie to create conversations,” Wang said.
Through One Child Nation, Wang argues that the Chinese government is responsible for creating such a dire environment for disenfranchised people to resort to abandoning babies. But she also argues that by going along with, and not questioning state policy, we all are part of the problem too.
One Child Nation. Screened at its international premiere, at CPH:DOX. Produced by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang. Running time 1 hour 25 minutes.