The Western world has been contemplating China since the early times of Marco Polo. Recent and former researchers have approached East-West relationships and much attention has been paid to the Western portrayal of the country. However, little has been said about how Chinese culture has traditionally been depicted in audiovisual media and analysis of the images of China in documentary films is particularly scarce. From the first Attack on a China Mission (1900) to The dying rooms (1995), British filmmakers have portrayed China in many different ways. The aim of this paper is to outline general patterns of representation in documentary films on China produced in the UK, looking at some of the most outstanding films of the century. We find that positive and negative images of the country and the people have successively been on the screens and that the balance between them has traditionally depended more on international relationships between China and the UK, than on China’s reality itself. Access to information and changes in the documentary production sector have proved to be determining too. More than ever before, our understanding of China is of crucial importance today, and the results of this paper show how media practices can either hinder or smooth the path to mutual comprehension.