“The theory of evolution must confront a final mystery: how life began,” I tell the camera, my eyes squinting under the blazing summer sun.
In truth, it’s an awkward sight: me nervously fumbling my lines as I try to keep my balance on the uneven ground, a surreal moonscape of boulders behind me, sculpted into grotesque shapes by centuries of abrasive desert winds.
Strictly speaking, I wasn’t supposed to be there at all. My crew and I had stumbled across the highway-adjacent geology park by accident while on a trip through the northwestern Qinghai province. Although it was a perfect location for a shoot, the park turned us away because we didn’t have an official filming permit. Desperate, I posted a call for help on social media. Within minutes, I had five replies; within an hour, the park let us in. Turns out a fan of my podcast knew a senior official at the local tourism bureau, who helped expedite the permit process.
If all this seems slapdash, that’s because it is. I’ve long wanted to see a Chinese-produced science documentary as compelling as the shows aired by the BBC or National Geographic, but while I’d hoped state broadcaster China Central Television would take on the mission, domestic producers seem far more interested in history and the humanities than hard science.
Disappointed and impatient, I took matters into my own hands. Last year, with a few million yuan of my own money, I set about producing a 10-episode docuseries: “Seek Out Natural Mysteries.” I was 41 years old and had no prior experience hosting science documentaries.
That’s not to say I was wholly unqualified. My career as a science communicator began in 2011, when I was still running an English education firm. Initially, I just shared popular science articles I had written in my spare time on blogs and forums. But the more popular I got, the more motivated I became. In 2017, I was making enough money to quit my job and become a full-time popular science author and podcaster. Two years later, I started writing the scripts for “Seek Out,” many of them based on my earlier work.
The show explores four major scientific puzzles: life’s origins, mass extinction, light curves, and ball lightning. Filming commenced this May, after a delay of several months caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and took place on location across China, from the Gobi Desert to the sunny beaches of the South China Sea. Along the way, I received an outpouring of support, from free rides or accommodations, to help getting permission to film. Indeed, the public’s enthusiasm and generosity really made the show. We reached out to many prominent scientists in China for interviews, and all of them, even the camera-shy ones, expressed support for the idea of making a Chinese science documentary.
Since Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” premiered in the 1980s, there have been a litany of excellent science documentaries produced around the world. But none of them were created by Chinese filmmakers. It’s not that the country is weak in science research, nor is there a lack of audience interest. Rather, the industry simply needed a trailblazer. Investors are not willing to fund science documentaries, because there’s no track record of success. The country’s sci-fi industry once faced similar obstacles, but when “The Wandering Earth” broke box office records last year, investors rushed to pour cash into sci-fi films.
Wang Jie and a member of his production team during the shooting of “Seek Out Natural Mysteries.” Courtesy of Wang Jie
I’m hoping to do something similar for science documentaries and to prove that Chinese productions can compete head-to-head with their international counterparts. That said, I know the production values of “Seek Out” appear amateur compared with those for BBC or National Geographic documentaries. Part of the problem is financial: “Seek Out” was produced for a fraction of the budget of a BBC show. But more critical is the country’s dire lack of production personnel: designers capable of grasping scientific concepts and visualizing them for a mass audience and videographers willing to endure harsh filming environments, like tracking down animal feces in freezing weather.
Some have asked me why I am so determined to make my own science documentaries when international production companies are already doing such an excellent job. But I believe it really makes a difference that we’re telling the story of scientific advancement in Chinese. China has hundreds of millions of adults who are eager to learn about science, to say nothing of all the kids who dream of one day becoming a scientist.
So when I released the trailer in July, I was heartened to receive countless comments like, “I’m so glad to see a science documentary narrated in Chinese. Finally, I don’t have to read the subtitles.” And since the show premiered for free on nearly every Chinese streaming platform this month, I’ve received donations from fans ranging from a few hundred to several thousand yuan. It’s nowhere near enough to cover the production costs, but it’s the support I care about, not the money. All my work — my plans, the months of behind-the-scenes toil and drudgery — has resonated with audiences.
“Seek Out” is my debut documentary, but I’m planning to make a show a year over the next half decade. For our second season, I already have several topics in mind, including the origin of Homo sapiens.
As the theory of evolution itself attests, sometimes it’s the littlest things that make all the difference. My docuseries may not be the next “Cosmos,” but I hope it can inspire and motivate a new generation of scientists, producers, and filmmakers to dream big and close the gap with their international peers. In the meantime, I plan to keep fighting for my own dreams: motivating audiences to participate in science, spreading scientific knowledge and the scientific spirit, and seeking truth wherever I can find it.
As told to Sixth Tone’s Ye Ruolin.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Wang Jie and a member of his production team during the shooting of “Seek Out Natural Mysteries.” Courtesy of Wang Jie)