Community of Wanderers

Jia Zhangke: Ash Is Purest White, 2018, film, 2 hours, 16 minutes. Courtesy Cohen Media Group.

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DURING A QUIET interlude in the whirlwind opening act of Jia Zhangke’s new film, Ash Is Purest White (2018), the two main characters stroll through a verdant field near their hometown in the northern Chinese province of Shanxi. The year is 2001, and in the distance, a volcano looms. After eyeing the gun in his hand, Qiao asks her boyfriend Bin: “What kind of people are we?” He replies: “People of the jianghu.” “You’ve seen too many gangster movies,” she tells him. “There’s no such thing as jianghu. That world belongs to the old days.” But Bin insists, echoing a familiar Chinese saying: “Wherever there are people, there is jianghu.”

Jianghu, composed of the characters for “rivers” and “lakes,” is an elusive, millennia-old concept, now most commonly associated with the lawless and mythical setting of Chinese gangster and martial arts stories—a world of dazzling action and spectacular violence. Jia’s latest feature, whose Chinese title transliterates to “Sons and Daughters of the Jianghu,” locates this jianghu in the quotidian spaces of China’s post-socialist present, and invests it with radical new currency.

Like Jia’s previous Mountains May Depart (2015), Ash unfolds in three acts, set in the years 2001, 2006, and 2017. Act 1 introduces Bin and Qiao as the glamorous leaders of a criminal gang in Datong, Shanxi, and ends with a street brawl that lands Qiao in jail. Act 2 begins after Qiao’s release, and follows her journey to Fengjie to find Bin, who, it turns out, has abandoned her. In the final act, the two are back in Datong, when smartphones and CCTV cameras have taken over, and the influence of Bin’s gang has long waned.

Twice in the film, Bin and Qiao part ways, and twice they meet again years later, against the disorienting backdrop of a vastly transformed China. Still, a certain fidelity to the jianghu endures, particularly for Qiao. In act 2, after she finally tracks Bin down in Fengjie, he tells her: “I’m no longer a part of the jianghu.” “But I’ve been roaming the jianghu in search of you,” she responds, in a reversal of their earlier exchange. In act 3, Qiao tells a now crippled Bin that she no longer has feelings for him, but still takes him in because “the jianghu world values loyalty.”

In the context of Jia’s oeuvre, generously sampled in a survey that traveled to several major museums this spring, jianghu takes on special significance. Ash is the most self-referential of his films, revisiting characters, settings, storylines, and even actual footage from his past works. The character of Qiao, played by his longtime collaborator Zhao Tao, was conceived as a hybrid of Zhao’s two previous roles in Unknown Pleasures (2002) and Still Life (2006). Additionally, for the first time in his career, Jia delved into the archive of rushes from his past projects, and inserted unused shots into this new work. They were then combined with new footage, shot on six different types of cameras to match the varying image qualities of the original material.

Ash Is Purest White covers a period that corresponds roughly to the span of Jia’s own career. This, too, signals that Ash is a kind of retrospective. Nevertheless, in the reconfiguration of old elements, something new can emerge. Revisiting previous film worlds through the prism of jianghu, Jia reveals his vision of post-socialist China to be part of an ancient tradition. Jianghu is the key that unlocks a secret dimension of Jia’s past work, and a crucial framework through which to reread his entire artistic oeuvre.

 

A DARLING OF the global art-house circuit, Jia has long been known for his poetic portrayal of souls adrift on the margins of reform-era China, beginning with his first feature Xiao Wu in 1997. His documentary-realist aesthetic—marked by long takes and nonprofessional actors—was so indelibly affecting that, according to the cultural critic Dai Jinhua, the release of his second feature Platform (2000) “unexpectedly heralded the arrival of the ‘Jia Zhangke era’ of Chinese cinema.”1 Jia’s tendency to intermingle reality and fiction can be attributed to his consistent pursuit of documentary filmmaking alongside narrative projects. The idea for his 2006 Still Life, for example, came out of Dong (2006), a study of the contemporary painter Liu Xiaodong, which first brought Jia and his crew to the Three Gorges region.

In recent years however, there has been a formal shift in Jia’s work. Beginning with A Touch of Sin (2013), the director has veered away from his signature realist approach, toward the more stylized and choreographed mise-en-scène of action genres. Though set in contemporary China, A Touch of Sin channels the spirit of wuxia classics—mythic tales of wandering martial arts heroes—by filmmakers like King Hu and Chang Cheh. Jia himself has described Touch’s four protagonists as “can xia,” or “damaged Chinese knights-errant”—those on the bottom of society who resort to violence in order to uphold an ancient chivalric code of honor and dignity.2

Ash Is Purest White appears to continue Jia’s shift toward action movies. The first act, with its flurry of guns, illicit wealth, gang violence, and vows of loyalty, pays homage to John Woo’s Hong Kong triad thrillers of the 1980s and ’90s. Sally Yeh’s melancholy Cantopop track “Drunk for a Lifetime,” originally featured in Woo’s The Killer (1989), trickles through moments of tenderness and introspection, further recalling Woo’s triad underworld. At the end of this act, Jia’s two characters succumb to the vicissitudes of this volatile world. A bloody gang fight forces Qiao to fire a gun—an act that saves Bin’s life, but leaves her to languish in prison for five years.

This archetypal vision of the jianghu as a hypermasculine world of surrogate brotherhood and criminal gangs mutates into something more capacious and diffuse in Ash’s second act. By the time Qiao travels down the Yangtze River toward Fengjie, past the imminent flood sites of the Three Gorges Dam, Bin’s gang has already “corporatized,” its members shifting to private enterprises in order to cash in on China’s economic boom. Fresh out of prison, Qiao chafes against this new order. Still, certain signs of the old world remain, most conspicuously in the form of a tiger—a symbol of martial arts heroism that has run through all of Jia’s films since A Touch of Sin.

Each time the tiger appears, it is linked cinematographically to a character on-screen. In the first vignette of A Touch of Sin, as the Shanxi miner Dahai arms himself against corrupt village officials, a piece of fabric emblazoned with a roaring tiger hangs from his rifle. Similarly, in Mountains May Depart (2015), the cancer-stricken miner Liangzi stops to contemplate a tiger behind bars, the creature giving visual expression to his entrapped fortitude.

In Ash, the tiger appears as Qiao navigates the makeshift spaces of Fengjie. After hearing that Bin has moved on, she wanders in numb shock onto a plaza, only to be serenaded by a street performer, who offers her a flower and an off-key rendition of the Mandopop song “How Much Love Can Be Repeated.” Nearby, a caged tiger and lion are displayed as another of the troupe’s attractions. The camera follows Qiao as she walks past the animals, and lingers on them for a few seconds after she has gone offscreen.

Jia’s recurring tiger is perhaps a riff on Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), named after a Chinese expression meaning “talented individuals in hiding.” But unlike the hidden heroes of Lee’s jianghu universe—a legendary swordsman and a governor’s daughter, who leap weightlessly through bamboo treetops with impossible grace—the “tigers and dragons” of Jia’s jianghu are ordinary individuals with limited means, who cannot achieve even middle-class stability, let alone superhuman feats. This is certainly true of Qiao in Ash’s second act, when, homeless and penniless, she finds herself among those left behind in the rubble of China’s hyper-development.

 

JIA’S FOCUS ON ordinary people is one feature that distinguishes his jianghu from that of notable martial arts movies of the past two decades, including Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002), Wong Kar-Wai’s Grandmaster (2013), and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Assassin (2015). These filmmakers tend to focus on aristocrats or extraordinary fighters, reducing the other inhabitants of this jianghu universe to an undifferentiated mass (of lowly foot soldiers, servants, commoners), their bodies packed into extreme long shots as the backdrop to more elite action. Jia’s works, on the other hand, display particular sensitivity to the destinies of these nameless individuals.

In the Fengjie section of Ash, for example, as Qiao walks past a group of displaced folks, surrounded by household objects likely rescued just before demolition of their homes and shops, the camera stays with them even after she walks off. This wide shot is followed by five close-ups of individual human figures (and one dog) in the crowd, each a lyrical portrait that invites intimate identification. These shots, equalizing in their effect, transpose Qiao’s homelessness onto other faces and lives, revealing hers to be a common condition.

Another departure from action genres is that Jia’s combat scenes are relatively short and sparse. In both A Touch of Sin and Ash Is Purest White, acts of violence arise only occasionally, and always after considerable build-up—a striking difference from the long, spectacular fights that dominate most martial arts and gangster films. For the rest of the time, Jia’s camera retains its interest in the mundane moments of daily life (a midday insulin injection, a bumpy bus ride, an arduous walk against a dust storm), prioritizing the exposure of environmental elements and structural forces over the advancement of plot.

These deviations suggest that it would be unjust to categorize Jia’s latest efforts as forays into action genre filmmaking. In the end, Jia seems less interested in violence than in the evocation of certain ancient social bonds. While Ash’s action-packed first segment explicitly recalls martial arts and gangster tropes, it is act 2 that most vividly captures the world of jianghu as Jia conceives it—a subaltern brotherhood of transients.

Indeed, Qiao in act 2, like Zhao Tao’s character in A Touch of Sin, channels the martial arts figure of the xianü (female knight-errant) as she makes her way through a tumultuous underworld governed by its own code, full of both hidden dangers and unexpected human warmth. Early on, Qiao is thrust into this jianghu unceremoniously, when her wallet gets stolen on the ship to Fengjie. Destitute and shunned by former friends, Qiao resorts to a series of scams to get by. The most elaborate of these involves conning money from wealthy men who likely have secret mistresses. Taking the dupes aside in a restaurant, she confronts them with the line: “I’m her sister, she had a miscarriage.”

This ploy taps into the subterranean relations and obligations that underlie contemporary Chinese society. And sure enough, it works with the second man Qiao accosts. Stammering and shamefaced, he places stacks of bills in her purse. Whether out of fear of exposure or genuine care, the man abides by his duty toward his mistress. This shared ethical responsibility between human beings is what allows the jianghu world to operate and endure. And when Qiao doesn’t have to exploit it for survival, she too acts according to this code of mutual care: while wandering around Fengjie, she defends a woman from physical assault by two men, before recognizing her as the thief from the ship.

Social liberality is also what allows a famished Qiao to crash a stranger’s wedding banquet by pretending to be an invited guest. This method of obtaining alms is actually a well-established practice by Chinese beggars. In Street Criers (2005), his cultural history of Chinese mendicancy, Hanchao Lu notes that, by custom, if an uninvited person showed up to a life-course event, “such a person would always be received and offered a seat at the dining table.”3 Lu identifies a jianghu populace not often depicted in action films: “vagrants of all sorts, including itinerant entertainers, quacks, swindlers, charlatans, tramps, hoboes, ‘knights-errant’ and so on.”4

Significantly, Lu classes the knight-errant—the favored hero of the martial arts genre—with more dispossessed and disreputable types. What unites these figures isn’t their fighting skill or criminal activity, but their peripheral status and errantry. This sense of being at home among drifters highlights the paradoxical nature of jianghu existence: denizens are at once withdrawn from society and yet out acting in the world, exiled from home and yet entangled in a web of human relations. Rather than a concrete place, the jianghu is something that these people carry with them.

Lu’s account ties in with Jia’s own brief description of the jianghu as “a group of people who leave home and, as they wander about, seek out life’s possibilities and search for a new home they can feel emotionally connected to.”5 Though Qiao is a homeless traveler in Fengjie, Jia shows that she is never quite alone and never really loses her way. Bin betrays her, but the jianghu world he once espoused (but never truly understood) endures in the other rootless souls Qiao encounters, and in Qiao herself.

Ultimately, Jia’s embrace of action genres can be distilled down to his investment in the jianghu as a robust social world that transcends both global capitalism and government-sanctioned notions of nationhood. Jia’s vision aligns with literary scholar Petrus Liu’s description of the jianghu as “a stateless tradition of the people,”6 with roots in ancient Chinese philosophy, which has outlived many kingdoms and dynasties.7

 

JIANGHU NOT ONLY gives name to an enduring social world in Ash, it also reveals hitherto hidden dimensions of Jia’s previous film worlds. By incorporating characters, settings, props, and footage from the director’s older works, Ash situates them within the milieu of a common jianghu. Qiao in act 1 of Ash, for example, resembles Zhao Tao’s earlier character in Unknown Pleasures (2002)—a dancer from Datong, also named Qiao, who sports the same blunt bob and retro outfits. In one handheld sequence, the two young men from Unknown Pleasures even make a brief cameo on-screen in Ash—revealing that particular shot to have been taken from Jia’s archive of rushes.

This permeability between the two film worlds—quite literally, in terms of footage—allows the realist approach of Jia’s earlier work to bleed into the more genre-oriented Ash, suggesting a deep continuity beneath the ostensible rupture. Ash’s backdrop of the jianghu gives new coherence to various instances in Unknown Pleasures: at one point, Qiao asks the reckless young man Xiao Ji, “Where are you from?” He replies matter-of-factly, “The streets.” Later, at a diner, Xiao Ji describes to Qiao a robbery scene from Pulp Fiction, before eventually attempting to reenact a segment of Tarantino’s gangster thriller with tragicomic results.

Likewise, Ash’s evocation of Still Life shifts the latter’s portrait of migrant life around the Three Gorges Dam into a different register. Elements of the earlier film take on new meaning: John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) is repeatedly referenced, and during a lunchtime conversation, a demolition worker uses the Chinese phrase “in the jianghu, one does not belong to oneself” to describe the conditions of his existence.

If this phrase expresses in part the migrant worker’s sense of entrapment, the ultra-rich characters in Jia’s Mountains May Depart show that life free from the jianghu may actually be worse. Daole (Dollar) and his father, Zhang Jinsheng, become increasingly unmoored the farther they move from their small hometown in Shanxi. In the film’s third section, set in Australia in 2025, Jinsheng barks at his son in their luxury penthouse: “Do you know what freedom is? China doesn’t permit individuals to own guns, but Australia just changed the law. You can buy guns. I now own a pile of guns, but I don’t even have a single enemy to fire them at! So what is freedom? Freedom is bullshit!” This outburst reveals the falsity of the freedom promised by global capitalism—it is in fact an incurable homesickness. Curiously, Jinsheng describes a state of total freedom that is the precise opposite of the socially enmeshed existence conveyed by the expression “when in the jianghu, one does not belong to oneself.”

After Mao, China’s transition to a globalized and market-driven society has led human connections to become increasingly bare and transactional. For the past two decades, Jia Zhangke has illuminated and ruminated on the erosion of a shared social world under these conditions. Ash Is Purest White uncovers the more redemptive side of Jia’s vision of post-socialist China, by showing the communal world that persists despite the encroachment of global capitalism’s absolute loneliness. Across Jia’s many porous film worlds, the “losers” of China’s new economic order can still find a kind of home in the jianghu. One shot toward the end of Ash’s second act captures this ancient sense of belonging.

Following her devastating breakup with Bin, Qiao finds solace at a late-night cabaret show, where the same street performer from the plaza belts out the same bittersweet “How Much Love Can Be Repeated.” A wide panning shot of the audience shows Qiao sitting among a sea of other faces, bathed in the same neon-yellow light. This visually resonates with Jia’s other deep-focus views of crowds, such as the searing finale of A Touch of Sin, which shows the weathered faces of Shanxi workers in the audience of an open-air Chinese opera performance. These shots can be read as cinematic emblems of Jia’s jianghu—a community of wanderers forged amid the chaos, confusion, and sorrow of forced displacement and migration.