Ask the Filmmaker: Up the Yangtze’s Yung Chang

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Up the Yangtze takes a close look at the effects of the construction of China’s Three Gorges Dam, which is altering the landscape and the lives of people living along the fabled Yangtze River. Filmmaker Yung Chang shows us both the bigger picture — the transformation of the river by the biggest hydroelectric dam in history, and the rapid changes in the Chinese economy — as well as the details — 16-year-old Yu Shui, the shy daughter of an illiterate farmer who goes to work on a Farewell cruise ship in order to provide for her family.

Up the Yangtze airs on most PBS stations on Wednesday, October 8 at 10 PM. (Schedules vary, so check your local listings.)

Yung talked about how his film relates to the bigger picture of China’s modernization and development in his POV filmmaker interview:

I think Up the Yangtze relates to the bigger picture in many ways, and I was hoping to use this surreal luxury cruise boat that travels up and down the Yangtze River as a sort of microcosm to explore bigger issues. On this boat, you have western tourists from around the world who come to wave goodbye to the disappearing landscape above deck, and below there are crew workers who are mostly from families who live along the Yangtze River. In a way, I was exploring a miniature version of contemporary China, where successful Chinese are already standing side by side with the western tourists, while below deck the Chinese workers are trying to climb up that ladder.

Read more from Yung Chang‘s interview, and check out our fascinating filmmaker roundtable in which Yung and several other filmmakers who have made documentaries in China discuss their experiences filming in contemporary China.
Do you have a question for Yung Chang? Enter it in the comment field below, and he will select a few questions and answer them the week of October 13, 2008.

Added October 22, 2008: Yung answered viewer questions about his continuing relationship with the characters in his film, how viewers can contact Cindy Yu Shui and the fate of the elderly Christian woman from the film. Read his responses to viewer questions.

Ruiyan Xu
Ruiyan Xu
Former POVer Ruiyan Xu worked on developing and producing materials for POV's website. Before coming to POV, she worked in the Interactive and Broadband department at Channel Thirteen/WNET. Ruiyan was born in Shanghai and graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Modern Culture and Media.
  • janet ker

    FOREIGNID: 17507
    I loved your film and went to to find the promised updates on the characters. No luck! Please can someone help me here as I’d love to find out what happened to them.

  • Loree Byers

    FOREIGNID: 17508
    There is something about your film that easily transcends the artificial barriers of language or culture and highlights the quiet nobility of people who have no voice in the events that change the world. I have seen farms under water from dams in the western US, and wondered how difficult it was for the people to leave their homes like that. Your movie answered those questions. You must have made a deep emotional connection with all the people in your movie for them to be so honest. How does that affect you after the film is finished?

  • Loree Byers

    FOREIGNID: 17509
    Janet, on the main page for the show, in the upper left corner is a list, click on the film update banner, it will take you right to the updates with letters, pictures, etc.

  • Jim

    FOREIGNID: 17510
    The existence of the human condition vs. economical and environmental conditions threaded in your film comprise and reminds us that we are all human beings with different situations effected by situations of life. Your film clearly weaves the lives of these people within the framework and scope of the situation overall. It is nothing less than masterfull filmaking. Thought provoking and raw human drama peirce the heart. I won’t forget this film for a long time. Thank you for reminding me some people actually may have less in life, but they have more love and spirit then I will ever know myself.

  • Rob

    FOREIGNID: 17511
    Thank you for an extraordinary film. My Chinese girlfriend and I, a middle-class Caucasian from the U.S., stumbled upon the film “Up the Yangtze” just one day after returning from a 20-day tour in China, including the 3-day cruise on the Yangtze River and the side trip in peapod boats up the Shennong River. The film gave me more perspective than actually having taken the Yangtze cruise, having gone through the boat elevator at the dam, and having toured the Three Gorges dam itself. The depth and spirit of this film compared with my superficial perspective before seeing the film also made me learn something about myself. As an environmental scientist, I had certain experiences different from others on the cruise boat and different from perspectives of your film. The segment on the Chinese “guide” taking western tourists through one of the homes of a relocated farmer was brilliant. He was obviously “schooled” by the government to present a “rosy” view of the relocation. On the boat, a guide told us how some of the relocatees received homes and a job in Shanghai as well as substantial sums of money. It sounded like a pretty good deal until you consider the sociological consequences of a farmer being dropped into an extreme urban society. Have you considered doing a followup film about some of the relocated farmers who were moved to a bigger city like Shanghai and the sociological consequences of the governments relocation program?

  • E. Cole

    FOREIGNID: 17512
    You may use HTML tags for style and links.
    I would like to know what became of the family especially the daughter that had to work on the cruise boat to take care of the family.

  • Rory

    FOREIGNID: 17513
    Came across this tonight while flipping channels and my girlfriend and I were frozen in our technical tracks. Just such a wonderfully filmed and interesting story. We loved the differences and the similarities this film showed crossing different cultures. I am looking forward to your next project. If I hadn’t lost my job several months ago and had another job now, I would donate what I could to this family.
    Thank you for a very interesting and heart felt story.
    Indianapolis, IN

  • choel

    FOREIGNID: 17514
    You are an amazing story teller and filmmaker – i love the fact that your film subjects tell the story with their candid expressions, allowing the camera hold on them instead of yanking it it all over the place – …do you have plans to do a follow-up documentary concerning Cambell and Cindy?
    Have you ever thought to write and direct non-documentary features?
    You definitely know story structure…

  • kenneth snider

    FOREIGNID: 17515
    “Yangtze” wonderfully done, your POV is so centered! I guess like a river that just glances at it’s shores.

  • Devin

    FOREIGNID: 17516
    Excellent Film. Keep of the positive work. It is greatly appreciated by mankind. Blessed!

  • patricia Lambert

    FOREIGNID: 17517
    Thank you so much for making this film.. As I was watching it tonight (after trying to find something on tv), I was thinking of how lucky I am to have such a good life.. I am from Lima -Peru and I did see so many people with a very hard life. People with no voice as someone said…Always thinking of those who had a day to day less priviledge. Now I am in Brooklyn NY and see the other side of the dime.. Hope the best for Cindi and family. and the others. I can wait to see more of your work.. I won’t forget this film.

  • patricia Lambert

    FOREIGNID: 17518
    Thank you so much for making this film.. As I was watching it tonight (after trying to find something on tv), I was thinking of how lucky I am to have such a good life.. I am from Lima -Peru and I did see so many people with a very hard life. People with no voice as someone said…Always thinking of those who had a day to day less priviledge. Now I am in Brooklyn NY and see the other side of the dime.. Hope the best for Cindi and family. and the others. I can wait to see more of your work.. I won’t forget this film.

  • Arna

    FOREIGNID: 17519
    Dear Mr. Chang,
    My daughter and I have just watched Up the Yangtze, for the first time this evening. It was compelling and moving. Watching the Yu Chui’s home disappear as it was consumed by the river while the ‘farewell cruise ship’ continued on its journey was shocking and unsettling. It was worth watching and I appreciate your making the film. I believe it is also important to note that my daughter–who is eleven was also enthralled.
    I look forward to your future projects.

  • Stephanie

    FOREIGNID: 17520
    What a great film! You did a fantastic job! Is there any way to contact “Cindy” to continue to encourage her and become friends thousands of miles away? I would love to be “pen pals” with her!

  • Vanessa

    FOREIGNID: 17521
    What a beautiful and yet haunting and thought-provoking film! I read the character updates, but as a Christian, I am most concerned about the elderly Christian woman who lived by herself, Do you know what happened with her? And is there any way for me to contact her directly? Thank you.

  • Yo Yo

    FOREIGNID: 17522
    My grandparents are chinese farmers who moved to America for a better life. Over summer they went back to see what had become of their home by the river. My grandmother came home crying and my grandfather refused to talk about what they seen. “Up the Yangtze” opened my eyes to what they must have seen. Thank you.

  • Larry Smith

    FOREIGNID: 17523
    I found your film to be an absorbing and powerful work. Excellent. The young girl’s father could be a type of everyman – every small, average, illiterate peasant who gets caught up and perhaps squashed by the huge, impersonal forces of change he does not really understand. It happens all over the world.
    I never cease to be amazed how an ongoing documentary can really get into the private and personal lives of the people. (Remember the Loud family?) Is this always for the better? For example, I would not want the WHOLE WORLD to see ME being fired and being told I was overconfident, conceited, self-important or whatever such adjectives were used with the young man. Did you have any doubts or reservations about including material like this in your film?

  • Susan Bauer

    FOREIGNID: 17524
    And I thought I had it bad. I would like to help Yu Shui’s family if I can. It would be an honor. I’m not a fan of giving to churches here in the U.S., nor to most “charities,” but to give to them? Wow. Please tell me, Mr. Chang, what to do… and thank you, thank you for making such a moving documentary.

  • phred

    FOREIGNID: 17525
    How are you able to get funds directly to the people whom the givers wish to give? It would have to be in Yuans, not dollars. If Cindy Shui’s family paid for schooling (or foodstuffs) in dollars wouldn’t they be targets for criminals and corrupt government officials? And you can’t deliver money/goods yourself monthly.

  • Rona Lee

    FOREIGNID: 17526
    Enjoyed watching your film, You did a good job! Glad to see second, third… generation “overseas” Chinese interested/appreciate (and maybe perpetuate) in the Chinese Culture, we need more people like you. Keep up the good work!
    I too was on one those Yangtze River Cruises, but was not really aware of the personal lives of the “service personnels”. Thank you for opening up my eyes.
    Just wanted to know if you speak Mandarin or did you have interpreters?
    R. Lee
    Honolulu, Hawaii

  • Larson

    FOREIGNID: 17527
    I am a former teacher of English in China. Is there any way that to contribute financially to the family in a way that will insure that they receive it?

  • susi westwood

    FOREIGNID: 17528
    Watched your film thinking it was the one i’d seen previews of in a theater. don’t think it is the same. i was saddened by the fate of Yu Shui’s family and hope their life is somewhat improved now that you have helped them out. i was wondering about the fact that her family had 3 children. were families that lived in the country able to avoid the “one child” rule?
    thank you for your great film.


    FOREIGNID: 17529

  • Lynn

    FOREIGNID: 17530
    I thought the man in the antique store talking about how hard is was to be a common man in China and then crying was so very sad and moving. Life is so difficult for the Chinese people.

  • Roberto

    FOREIGNID: 17531
    I share Joanne’s sentiment. I too, would like to know what happened to the old lady who not only was praying for herself but for also for China and its youth. Her prayer sums up the cultural, sociological and perhaps moral decay in China. This is the heavy price of modernization we see in every nation.

  • Faten. R

    FOREIGNID: 17532
    It is an exceptional documentary you did here. The authenticity of it made me feel I was travelling with you. And your perspective is realistic and powerful at all levels.
    We can see the economical issues of the country, the social problems it creates and the environment deterioration it creates: I will call it the perversion of money on the beauty of a beautiful ancestral culture, values and the demolition of gorgeous lands.
    I have to say I had tears, deep tears for Yu Shui, whom had to leave her family to fulfill her dreams of educating herself, but also to help financially her family. It is like there is a centralization of everything (jobs, schools, essential needs) in big cities, and the wealth of the country isn�t redistributed at all. I am not mentioning the oppressions and lack of democracy that horrifies me as a French lady Firm believer of human rights: LIBERTE, EGALITE FRATERNITE.
    To finish I would like to know how I could help Yu Shui to finance her studies, her dream should not be thrown away: I believe that Human Right are powered up by educated people whom will be able to fight for their freedom, justice and equality.
    Thanks for this powerful work.
    Faten. R

  • Simon Kilmurry

    FOREIGNID: 17533
    A number of people have asked how they can support Yu Shui . Please see the Update section of the film’s website at
    The filmmaker has established a fund on, and he notes in the Update:
    “Since May 2008, with donations received through, we have assisted in payment for Mr. Yu’s eye operations. We have paid for the Yu children’s high school tuition. I am hoping that with your generous contributions, we will be able to establish a long-term fund for the family. I would also like to assist other subjects in my film who need help. If you have seen Up the Yangtze and feel compelled, I encourage your participation in this very simple gesture of support. Yu Shui’s father makes the equivalent of $200 CAD / year.”

  • Karl

    FOREIGNID: 17534
    A masterful film. I was on the Yangtze in May on the MV Anna. I kept asking the question “why 175 meters” and was always given the party line i.e, flood control, hydroelectric power etc. Finally, I learned that the real reason for 175 meters was for water for upstream tributaries for irrigation purposes.

  • Judy Tran

    FOREIGNID: 17535
    Thanks for telling us this story. I have been aware of this type of displacement but the film really made it personal.
    I have a couple of questions:
    1) How did you find your subjects?
    2) What type of help do the relocatees need that monetary donations can contribute to?

  • David

    FOREIGNID: 17536
    To Yung Chang – I have been a documentary producer and executive producer for 35 years now, and have produced films for Discovery and National Geographic. Rarely have I seen a film of such beauty and intelligence as your film “Up the Yangtze.” I was mesmerized by the film. You are a unique talent. The film worked on so many levels – it was as memorable as watching a totally engaging feature film – though much more rewarding. Congratulations.

  • Steve Hagen, Miami

    FOREIGNID: 17537
    Only saw the last 30 minutes but it is a visual masterpiece, which very much succeeds in putting a face and soul to the cost of “:progress”.

  • Joyce T.

    FOREIGNID: 17538
    Thank you for contributing this film. I fully agree with Steve from Miami in that it, “succeeds in putting a face and soul to the cost of ‘progress.’” I found the story very beautifully shot and eloquently told. The ending montage of how the river was originally, to the father and his family looking out upon the spot where their meager home now lies submerged brought me to tears, and my mind has been consumed with curiosity on the outcome of the faithful elderly woman. What became of her??
    Chicago, IL

  • Nancy C

    FOREIGNID: 17539
    I was on a Yangtze cruise in May 2007. I was curious about the conditions of those who served us very diligently. This film revealed that to me. As an American, I feet that our youth has missed something in their upbringing. An appreciation of opportunities given them . These people know what it means to earn the respect of those they serve. They are for the most part humble and grateful. I wish more American tourists would understand that and treat them with the regard they deserve as they work to allow us the pleasure of glimsing a small part of theri lives and their great country..


    FOREIGNID: 17540
    I only watched the last 40 minutes of your film a few nights ago on local pbs station…I was overwhelmed at how wonderfully and skillfully you told the stories of the people. Could you tell me about the elderly Christian lady in the film and how we might help her?

  • Joseph A Dandrea Jr

    FOREIGNID: 17541
    II have a strong affinity for China because of several close friendships there. Your work was skillful, insightful, sensitive and must reflect your own awareness, sensitivity and professional skills. Maybe mostly even your own humanity. I was moved to tears numerous times for several reasons, both for individuals and the culture. You work is a credit to you, your family, to China and maybe some to a life in the USA (since I think u were raised here).

  • Noah Tai

    FOREIGNID: 17542
    I would like to know if you have the contact infor for Cindy. I would like to get in touch with her to see if I could help sending her back to school to pursue her dream.

  • Gael Mooney

    FOREIGNID: 17543
    Your film is one of the most powerful and moving documentaries that I have ever seen. I was deeply moved by the simplicity and dignity of Yu Shui’s family and their plight. I would like to know more about how they doing financially and emotionally now after losing their home and their land. I would also like to know what happened to their animals (who for me added an important dimension to the film) and whether they survived the flood.
    Congratulations on making such a powerful documentary that addressing themes of deep and abiding significance for all humanity.
    Gael Mooney

  • Garik

    FOREIGNID: 17544
    1) What happened to the kitten?
    2) Where do other migrants end up without donation from the thoughtful western pbs audience?

  • rita clemons

    FOREIGNID: 17545
    i just have to say this was one of the most fascintating film i have ever seen.i an very proud of cindy . i hope you will alow us to here about her from time to time. you should have an academy award for your ability to show a film that was confrontal. buy with a personal touch so that everyone sees the truth but understand the cost to the people were manymy god bless you.keep doing films like this . your admirer

  • Kevin

    FOREIGNID: 17546
    Honestly, I have to say that this film has changed me in a way that I wish more people could experience. I had goose-bumps when I was watching. When the store owner broke down and cried when he said that he just wanted a roof over his head, the feelings I had were indescribable. I can not find the words to express the thanks I have for being able to view such a film as this. The use of the cruise ship in your film worked perfectly to contrast the westerners and the locals lifestyles. Thank you for creating such a masterpiece for the rest of us to experience. I hope you continue to create films that give the rest of the world a window into the lives of men, women, and children in their daily struggles so as to give the world respect and reverence for those who have to work extremely hard for everything everyday. Thank you , Kevin.

  • Garik

    FOREIGNID: 17547
    Great documentary, by the way.
    Yung, the fact that you are “western from east” is the key point for one successful film has been created.
    That is why you’ve captured it from the right angle and delivered it without any noise and waste. Way to go.
    P.S. Canadian documentary has huge potential because of immigration factor and multicultural policy.

  • O. N. Tam

    FOREIGNID: 17548
    Dear Mr. Chang,
    Thank you. For showing me that we can have a a hand in improving the life condition of others. By putting our cultural, educational and economic assets to good use, we can, as Chinese Canadians, continue to realize the dreams that our forefathers could not: we can bring a better life to our ‘tongbao’.

  • Jeanette

    FOREIGNID: 17549
    You may use HTML tags for style and links.
    I recently returned from a short cruise on the river and was very curious about the crew members’ lives. I also was amazed by the surviving farms on the steep hills along the river and worried and wondered about the farmers displaced by the dam. Your movie filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge as well as brought tears to my eyes as the farmer’s small home and land disappeared under the water. I left China with admiration and for the hard working and resilient Chinese people as well as with concern and sympathy for the millions uprooted by the ” economic miracle”.

  • Scott

    FOREIGNID: 17550
    Mr. Chang, is there any way we can send Yu Shui (and through her, her family) email? I am sure I am not the only one who wants to wish them well and maybe send them a postcard from my home country.

  • Helene Halperin

    FOREIGNID: 17551
    Dear Mr Chang,
    I wonder if you can realize how magnetized I was by your wonderful film? It was my journey, in April 2006, on the Victoria Cruise line that you chronicled so well! The perspective you gave me on my journey, and what was happening in the lives of those who surved us on that ship is unforgettable. I was treated so well by the crew, who seemed so sincere and kind. We rewarded them with gratuities, but I never realized how bad the conditions were for some of their family members who lived along the river. I saw many villages along the way, and I could tell as we drove through on the buses that took us on the shore excusions that many people living in the relocation villages higher up the banks had little or no work. They seemed lost and out of place. Has any of that changed in the two years since I visited? What are the income sources for the people like the parents of little Cindy who was on the ship?
    The cruise was very nice, but there was an air of melancholy along the river that I could not shake. It was April, and still cold and damp. The air was foggy and thick, and the cheerfulness of the people serving on the ship was in sharp contrast to the faces we saw along the banks as we drifted by. I wonder if you can tell me if there are any protests going on by the relocated people? What is life like now for them? Has there been any problem with the change in the flow of the river?
    Thank you so much for such a thoughtful, well done film You showed so many points of view, that it was truly rewarding to watch!
    Helene Halperin
    Los Alamitos, Ca.

  • Pam in Van Nuys

    FOREIGNID: 17552
    Cindy was likeable enough and very fortunate to have had a caring co-worker to change her attitude. did you encourage this during the filmmaking and at the same time, did you let Jerry fall into his own pit, just for the sake of contrast in the film? I was disappointed that Jerry’s possibly only one opportunity to shine was tarnished not only by his lack of character, but by the missed opportunity of all around him to take a part in confronting his arrogance and perhaps preventing his dismissal. Would that have ruined your story?

  • Philip

    FOREIGNID: 17553
    Ni Hau… I was very happy to see an accurate picture of the “regular folks” and their struggle to exist in the emerging “New China”. Being from a multicultural family and spending some time in the “Old Taiwan” with a family in the Japanese Built section of Taipei I can really get choked up watching the plight and emotional stress of the parents depicted. If there is any way to contact via mail (doubt the parents have a computer) I would be honored if their address is available to you. I’m a semi-retired teacher and would just like to let the father and mother know I’m still in school…at 59 years of age. Just some friendly conversation with them from a struggling lower class vet teacher could be nice. I’ll obey all the rules leaving out the politics and media comments. Just some correspondence to let them know they’re not alone and we appreciate their place in the “Wheel of Life”.
    Thank you for the show. It was very enlightening

  • Philip in Arizona

    FOREIGNID: 17554
    Ni Hau!
    I really enjoyed the POV presentation showing the struggles of the “non Olympic” folks along the river. The emotional plight of the parents really struck home. As a semi retired teacher and still in school at 59 years of age I felt the urge to reach out to the father and mother to let them know they aren’t alone in this “Big Wheel of Life”. They were articulate and very powerful in their identity to struggle to the end. If there is a way to contact them via postal services ( I doubt they have much access to a computer) for correspondence I would greatly appreciate their address. I am familiar with the “rules of communication” having had pen-pals with our classroom during the Soviet era with Russian and Romanian teachers…no politics or media comments.
    Again, the show was really nice. The fact we can still export the old typified tourist was a bit awkward to see. I went “native” in Taipei with a Chinese/Indigenous family in the old Japanese built section during the Chang Kai Shek days. The experience was very educational and I still have fond memories.

  • Ayana Gilbert

    FOREIGNID: 17555
    I really enjoyed watching Up the Yangtze on PBS. I actually watched the film around 2 or 3 am. I am really interested in finding out what happened with the young girl and her family, oh and the young man that was fired from the boat. I’d really like to know how his family felt about him being dismissed, and also I would like to know how Cindy’s family is doing and is the weight of the family soley on her.

  • Cheryl Davies

    FOREIGNID: 17556
    I have seen the comment that I have already, but there is no reply to it. What did happen to the elderly Christian lady. That was the updated that I wanted to see the most and it is not here. Did she receive any help like the others. Please tell us more.