'One Child Nation' Review: A Devastating History, Revealed

Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang offer a harrowing, personal look into China's one-child policy.

Amazon Studios

“The most tragic thing for a nation is to have no memory,” artist Peng Wang tells us, one-third of the way through One Child Nation“When the one-child policy is over, and people can have all the children they want, the memory of the one-child policy will be lost.” With One Child Nation, directors Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparrow) and Jialing Zhang (Complicit) attempt to prevent this national memory loss.

Of course, the problem of national memory is not exclusive to post-policy China. As is pointed out late in One Child Nation, America has its own reckoning to do. While the extremes of policy-era China — forcing abortions, mandating sterilizations, and taking children from their families — may feel foreign to us, they chillingly echo our current political moment. With increasingly strict abortion laws and government-sanctioned family separations, the current administration employs oppressive policies not unlike those that once shaped life in China. With these similarities in mind, One Child Policy‘s exploration of indoctrination, propaganda, and individual agency becomes all the more urgent.

From 1979 until 2015, the Chinese government limited families to having one child in an effort to control the nation’s exploding population. To enforce the policy, an extensive propaganda machine was created — pro-policy messages were printed onto calendars, playing cards, snack boxes. Villages were plastered with threats from the government: “Anyone who refuses to sterilize will be arrested on sight;” “Resolutely crackdown on secret pregnancies and births;” “Induce it, abort it — don’t give birth!” As Nanfu Wang notes, propaganda was so omnipresent that the policy became “blended into the background of life in China.” 

As the narrator of the film, she introduces us to the policy through her own personal experience. Born just six years before it was enacted, she grew up surrounded by propaganda and considers her own role in what Peng Wang calls “long-term indoctrination.” “I wondered if the thoughts I had were really my own,” Nanfu Wang wonders upon visiting a kindergarten in China, “or if they were simply learned.” Even children’s songs, she recalls, contained thinly veiled messages of intimidation (“If you have a second child / you violate the law. / Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” a little boy sings in one cutaway).

Nanfu Wang is a skilled guide through horrific terrain and a calming, curious presence in the face of nightmarish details. As a documentarian, she has personal connections to many of her subjects, such as the midwife who helped birth her, the head official of her home village, and her relatives. She discovers with us how intimately affected many of her relatives — from her aunts and uncles to her mother — were by the one-child policy; she learns one infant female cousin was left in a market to die, another taken by human traffickers and sold to an orphanage. During her pregnancy with Nanfu’s younger brother, her own mother was willing to set her newborn baby adrift in a basket in the river should the child be born a girl.

One Child Nation spares no details, no matter how unsettling, to fully paint a disturbing portrait of policy-era China. Women were abducted, tied up, and “dragged to us like pigs” to receive abortions and sterilization procedures, one family planning official recounts. In another segment, Peng Wang recalls the incident that led him to focus his art on the one-child policy: discovering a fetus in a landfill. The film’s unflinching honesty and thoroughness are two of its greatest strengths.

Its perfect hour-and-a-half run time is essentially spent answering one question: “How could this have happened?” The answer, as Peng Wang so eloquently put it, is long-term indoctrination. But One Child Nation gets into the nuts and bolts of how that kind of indoctrination happens. It uses artifacts, archival footage, and interviews to tell the story of how a government can coerce an entire nation with methods beyond force. As a co-director, Nanfu Wang is generous with her use of evidence, supplying us with ample clips that exemplify the kinds of materials to which the Chinese people were exposed while the one-child policy was enacted. We see musical performances and television shows, all in the style of traditional Chinese folk art, that espouse the importance of “the collective above all.”

We watch an award ceremony recognizing the government’s most successful family planning officials — that is, who performed the most forced abortions, sterilizations, and executions. When Nanfu Wang interviews one of those family planning officials, the woman’s lack of remorse is startling: she’d do it all again, she says. “I had to put national interest above my feelings.” In one of the film’s most disturbing interviews, the family planning official laughs as she recalls a distressed pregnant woman who, while fleeing, stripped naked. “Unable to catch her, we turned to the Party Secretary and asked, ‘Where should we grab her? There’s nothing to grab onto!” she chuckles.

As our travel companion, Nanfu Wang helps us through these difficult moments, but she does not hold our hand. She will not ease the blow of the truth. As a narrator, she offers just the right amount of insight, like noting when interviewees recycle well-worn party lines and recalling parallels in her own childhood. She inserts herself just enough, weaving her own tale of motherhood among her interviews.

One Child Nation is vast in scope but manages to cover impressive ground despite the film’s trim runtime. As thought-provoking as it is unsettling, One Child Nation implicitly considers the battleground that is women’s bodies and how the fight for control over those bodies still rages on. Nanfu Wang, who left China shortly before the birth of her first son, admits, “I’m struck by the irony that I left a country where the government forced women to abort, and I moved to another country where governments restrict abortions. On the surface, these seem like opposites, but both are about taking away women’s control of their own bodies.”

Although China’s policy may no longer be in practice, now replaced by a new two-child policy, Once Child Nation reminds us of the dangers of simply forgiving and forgetting, urging the preservation of our national memory.