The Making of The Middle Kingdom

In 2004, I spent six months in China working near the community of Zhudi (joo dee), a small neighborhood on the outskirts of Shanghai. Until recently a small farming town outside the city, during the time I spent there, Zhudi’s fields began to disappear as Shanghai expanded around it. The pace of change was shocking, and today Zhudi is completely surrounded by the sprawling city.

As someone who grew up in a small farming community in the American west, the experience was overwhelming. There was a unique momentum to the city. Everyone I met was scrambling for a better life, doing whatever they could to get ahead, and the sheer size and chaos of the city was mind-boggling.

I returned from Shanghai to my hometown with the city still buzzing in my head. Shanghai remained very much in my thoughts, and the seed of the idea to some day make a film about the city had been planted.

Between 2007 and 2009, I shot my first feature documentary in the mountains of southern Peru. It is one of the most peaceful settings imaginable, and the finished film examined the desire of the people to leave the countryside behind to pursue what they saw as a better life in the city.

When I finished the film, I knew I wanted to capture the story from the other side. I wanted to see the reality for the people who have left their farms and their villages behind to find a better life in the city. The move from farming communities to urban centers is playing out around the world, and in 2008, for the first time in human history, more people lived in cities than in the countryside.

I returned to Shanghai. The initial idea for the film that would become The Middle Kingdom was to follow a small farming family, similar to the family I filmed in Peru, as they left their village behind and moved to the city. As I scouted for a family, I was based near Zhudi once again, and became more and more drawn to the small community, and slowly the idea transformed. I began to interview people on the streets who had come from the countryside and were now struggling for a foothold in the city.

The idea changed for good once I met Mr. Che (chuh), a fortune-teller plying his trade in a small park at the center of Zhudi. At that point, we had interviewed more than twenty people in Zhudi (and would go on to interview around twenty more), and Mr. Che was the most open, intriguing and charismatic person we had spoken to. By way of introduction, roughly one minute into our first interview, Mr. Che informed me, in the midst of near chaos all around us, that:

“I am a peasant. I am old, with no kids to take care of. I make just enough money to make a living. My kids don’t need my money, nor do I need theirs. I am alone in this world, with no melancholy or burden. I am content.”

I knew after that interview that I wanted him to be a part of the film. More interviews followed, and the more I knew about him, the more impressed I was. At 80 years old, Mr. Che has seen a great deal in his life. Born in poverty in the countryside of Anhui Province, he lived through the Chinese Civil War, the era of Chairman Mao, and the economic reforms that would transform China into the country it is today. Getting to know Mr. Che was one of the most enriching experiences of my life, and I consider myself very lucky to have done so.

As time went on, he became the anchor around which we built the film. We have many hours of fascinating interviews and observational footage with Mr. Che that simply couldn’t fit in the film, and I look forward to sharing select bits of these on the film’s website and as special features on the DVD.

I edited the film with a fellow MSU grad, Keith Lockwood, whose contribution to the project was immense. Sifting through the hours and hours of footage, translating and subtitling the five different dialects of Mandarin heard in the film, and piecing together the story was a monumental task.

Along with Mr. Che, we settled on five other people living in Zhudi who would each bring a unique story to the film. Mr. Li, a vegetable seller, who’s calm and humor amid incredibly difficult working conditions has been an inspiration. Mr. Zhou, a retired government worker raising Huamei birds, a hard nut to crack, no doubt, but who has allowed us into his life and whose love of his birds has provided a central theme to the film. Liu Wen Xia, who we approached because of her great smile, and who came to represent a generation of young Chinese workers doing their best to create a life for themselves while separated from those they love most in the world. Zeng Xiaolan, a wide-eyed young woman who had arrived in Shanghai from the Sichuan countryside the month before we met her, and whose persistence and positivity were remarkable. And Su Er Dai, the young daughter of a Muslim family from Qinghai province, who proved to be a funny, sweet bundle of energy who served to bring the open, innocent eyes of a child to the film.

Each of them could, no doubt, carry a film on their own. Hopefully, by blending their stories together, we have created a unique, compelling look at life in China today.
The title of the film is taken from the literal translation of the Chinese name for their country, Zhongguo, which, in ancient times, referred to the idea that the country was the center of the world. For us, The Middle Kingdom came to refer to this community caught somewhere between the countryside and the city, the past and the future, and tradition and the modern world.

The Middle Kingdom screened in competition at the recent Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula. The Bozeman Doc Series will screen the film on Thursday, May 19th, at 7pm at the Emerson Center. Tickets are available at the door or before the event at Cactus Records and Movie Lovers. Tickets are also available online at    

Jason Burlage is a documentary producer/director and founder of Devolution Films, a Bozeman, Montana based production company for which he has produced films for the National Park Service, The Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Forest Service and others. Jason’s first feature documentary, Mi Chacra, won the Grand Prize at the 2010 Banff Mountain Film Festival, screened at festivals around the world, and had it’s broadcast premiere across Europe on ARTE. Jason is also the creator and curator of the Bozeman Doc Series and a graduate of the Montana State University film program.