She was raised in Tianjin, China, where she studied Japanese literature prior to moving to Japan in 1988. Entering the doctoral course in Economics at Kyoto University, she lived in Japan for 13 years. Feng Yan began making documentaries about rural China in 1994.
At the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 1993 she discovered the renowned Japanese documentarist Ogawa Shinsuke’s films. She translated his book Eiga o toru (Harvesting Films) into Chinese, and published it in Taiwan. Dreams of Changjiang (1997) was her first feature-length documentary and screened at YIDFF 1997 and the Hong Kong International Film Festival 1998. It won the Excellent Documentary Award at the Taiwan International Documentary Festival 1998. Bingai (2007) won the Excellent Documentary Award at the 4th China Documentary Film Festival 2007, as well as the Ogawa Shinsuke Prize and the Community Cinema Award at YIDFF 2007. Her recent work, Daughters of the River, is currently in post-production.