What Happened to Yingying Zhang? New Documentary Explores Disappearance of 26-Year-Old Chinese Scholar

Yingying Zhang, an agricultural researcher, had only been in the U.S. for a few months as a visiting scholar before she disappeared.

Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old Chinese scholar, traveled to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in April 2017 to pursue research in agriculture. Just three months later, she went missing from her college campus, and a former Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois was found guilty of her kidnapping and murder, and sentenced to life in prison.

A new documentary, “Finding Yingying,” goes behind the scenes of a desperate search to bring her home. Her body has never been recovered.

“The family, they were really worried that maybe several weeks later or several months later, people would … forget about Yingying and forget about the family, forget about their journey,” filmmaker Jenny Shi told Inside Edition Digital.

Shi was a journalism student studying in Chicago when she heard about Zhang’s disappearance. She traveled to Champaign to help with the search and soon met Zhang’s relatives, who had flown in from China to find her.

She became close to the family while helping them with translating, then decided to start filming the search effort. “This footage might be helpful for the family in the future,” Shi said.

While the film goes into detail about the case, following Zhang into the car of former student Brendt Christensen, who was eventually convicted in the case, it also explores Zhang’s adjustment to life in the United States.

“When she got into that guy's car, I think she's only been here less than six weeks, so she was totally new to the U.S.,” Shi said. “In her diary, she'd talk about ... how lonely she was, how homesick she was. And she'll talk about, she didn't know who else she can go for help, ask for help.”

Shi said she sympathized with Zhang, and hopes her documentary will show that Zhang was more than a victim.

“As a fellow Chinese international student, I just feel like Ying's family and the Yingying story was kind of lost in a lot of media coverage,” Shi said.

“I hope the audience, after they watch the film, they would walk away with an image of a young, talented woman who had a bright future ahead and to really see how much her life has touched others and how important she was to everyone around her.”