Three stories, one film and a big picture of the class divide in China

Documentary chronicles the lives of three young people from vastly different social backgrounds, striking a chord in wider society

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2018, 7:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2018, 10:03pm

For one it is an unattainable dream, for another it is a passport to a secure future and for a third it is an option to be disregarded.

The wide-ranging attitudes to a university education are just one of a series of differences exposed in a new cinematic examination of China’s social class system by documentary director Cherelle Zheng Qiong.

Over 94 minutes, A Way Out records the lives of three young people from different social levels and regions over six years, as they make the transition from teenagers to adults.

The film has been screened over the last three months in small cinemas in first and second-tier cities.

Zheng said she wanted to present the disparity of living conditions of people from different social classes.

“In present-day China, an extreme rich-poor gap separates people from different social classes. The three characters in my film are representatives of these classes,” she said.

“I hope to call on people on various social ladders to understand each other, to communicate and interact more in order to erase this spiritual isolation. Actually people have no idea of the life of those from other social hierarchies.”

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One of the people featured in the documentary is a girl from an impoverished family in a village in northwestern Gansu province who had to quit school at 15 and two years later married her cousin.

The other two people in the film are a male student from central Hubei province and a girl from a wealthy Beijing family.

The student took the university entrance exam three times, got into a mid-level college, found a job in the provincial capital Wuhan after graduating and settled down.

Meanwhile, the Beijing girl dropped out of a prestigious middle school, travelled around Europe, studied at an art university in Germany and finally opened her own art investment company.

Zheng said she came up with the idea for the documentary after talking to the Beijing girl’s mother, who told her that 17-year-old Yuan Hanhan had decided to leave the exclusive art middle school simply because she did not like the teachers.

“She easily dropped out of a school that was coveted by students from not only Beijing but also the whole of China. I was so surprised by her decision.”

Zheng said she kept wondering how the teenager could take this step without considering the consequences. She then realised that because of her background Hanhan had been offered so many different choices since childhood, giving her much wider horizons than most teenagers in China and making her a more independent thinker.

Her privileged upbringing is in sharp contrast to Zheng’s. The 48-year-old director comes from Xianning, a backwater city in Hubei province, and her parents were ordinary workers. She took the university entrance tests three times, but still could not get a place at a college.

She took a job at a factory in Xianning before getting the chance to work in Beijing.

“I have been struggling for survival all these years. This is a process full of blindness, loss, hesitation and pain from not being able to find a way out,” Zheng said. “My experience is very common in China.”

So in 2009 she started her documentary focusing on three young Chinese people from very different family backgrounds.

She said it would be clear to audiences that Hanhan was free to do as she pleased, because her Beijing family was well off.


The documentary also follows the life of Ma Baijuan from Gansu, who was 12 and attending a primary school with four other pupils in her village in Huining county when Zheng began filming her.

Baijuan’s father was in his 60s and she had a 14-year-old brother. When talking in 2009 she said she was happy and hoped to continue her studies.

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“My dream is to go to a college in Beijing,” she said, reading an essay she had written. “I hope in future I can find a job and earn 1,000 yuan a month [US$145], so that I can buy flour because there is not enough flour for my family. I also hope to build a house and dig a well for my home as water is badly needed here.”

Three years later, her family moved to Zhongwei, a small city in neighbouring Ningxia, where her brother was a migrant worker. She started at a school, but at 15 was forced by her family to leave and look for work. On screen her father says girls don’t need much of an education and their “way out relies on their future husband”.

However, despite applying to restaurants and hotels, she was told she was too young to be hired and did not have the necessary computer skills.

The last time Zheng visited Baijuan’s family was at the end of 2012 when the father refused to let her film them unless she paid them 20,000 yuan. Zheng refused and stopped filming the family. She heard later that in 2014 at the age of 17, Baijuan had married her cousin.

The third person to feature in A Way Out, Xu Jia, was from a poor family in Xianning, Zheng’s hometown.

His father had died in a road accident and he felt his family’s circumstances could only improve if he went to university.

Driven by this belief and under great stress he passed the entrance exam at his third attempt and in the summer of 2009 and got a place at a university in Wuhan, majoring in automation.

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When filmed three years later he was looking for work and was relieved to get hired by a power equipment manufacturer. And then in 2015 married a woman he had met at university.


Hanhan’s life is in stark contrast to that of Xu Jia and Baijuan. After dropping out of the elite middle school in 2009, Hanhan, then aged 17, stayed at home, watching movies, reading books and writing poems.

“I am not an isolated case in my middle school,” she said. “One third of my classmates quit school, with some preparing to study abroad.”

To kill the boredom she opened a small cafe in the capital, but it went out of business after three months. And then after travelling round Europe, Hanhan headed to Düsseldorf in Germany to study at an art university in 2012 but she rarely worked on her painting technique, saying “staying in the studio makes my stomach ache”.

In 2015, she worked as an intern at an art gallery in Shanghai to get a practical understanding of running an art business. And by the end of the year, Yuan had set up her own art investment company in Beijing.


Zheng said the documentary cost less than 1 million yuan to produce and had so far been seen by more than 15,000 people in runs at smaller cinemas.

“I am pretty satisfied with this result. I am glad that people like this quiet and lonely film,” Zheng said.

The production struck a chord with Lily Tang, a white-collar worker in Guangzhou, who said it reflected a major social problem – wealth disparity.

She felt it would resonate with people like her who were born after 1980 and faced a lot of responsibilities as they approached middle age.

“The movie tells an obvious and cruel truth: what kind of family you were born is more important than your efforts,” Tang said.

A 40-year-old stay-at-home mother in Shanghai, who only gave her name as Jing, said the documentary reminded her of her own life journey.

“I am from an ordinary family and have endured similar experiences of studying hard for a university place, competing for a good job and working hard to settle down and accumulate wealth,” she said. “I feel close to the stories of the three young people in the movie.”

One internet user said he felt sad for Baijuan. “There are many people like Baijuan in China. They can’t change their fate at all,” he wrote. “Their don’t have their own life and what they are doing is struggling to survive.”