Ash Is Purest White
by writer/director Jia Zhangke
JIANGHU—HOW IT STARTED FOR ME
After a stormy night, the air dripped with humidity.
That morning, I shouldered my bookbag in preparation for school. I was nine that year, already a kid of the streets. After reaching the town’s main street, I realized there was a torrent of flood rushing headlong along the street; the water was almost at the level of an adult’s waist. A few other kids like me scattered at the side of the street while adults carrying bicycles waded in the water.
On the other side of the street, opposite the flood, was my school.
Standing on the steps of a roadside shop, I watched the flood not knowing what to do. Suddenly, a figure wearing a white shirt appeared behind me, and without saying a word, he bent over and picked me up in his arms; he waded through the flood waters and dropped me off on the other side of the street and this all happened in the span of a few seconds. By the time I was able to look back and react, he had already crossed through the flood waters once more; he was back on the other side and bringing other kids over.
As I looked up at this tall figure, I realized that it was Xiaodong, our hood’s “big brother.”
This was the era right after the Cultural Revolution; there were a lot of unemployed young men like Xiaodong around. Some were sent-down youth who had come home; some were recent high school graduates who couldn’t find work and hustled on the streets. These “big brothers” all had unique talents and skills and were artistically inclined. They often squatted on the side of the road playing the harmonica; as self-taught musicians they quickly mastered songs like “The Vagabond” and “Bella Ciao.” Xiaodong himself once made use of a slide projector and I was even a participant in the “premiere” of his storytelling slide show.
Having said that, these men were also ruthless, resorting to using their fists to solve many of their problems. Often there was no valid reason for conflict; something as simple as an exchange of glances could trigger a “war” that would engulf half the town. In times of combat, little kids like us were always behind the scenes helping to transport bricks and rocks; even a ten-year-old would have his own troop and his own “big brothers” to claim as his own. The friction between both sides didn’t necessarily have to do with any real conflicting interests; often they were just about heightened egotism and hormones run amok.
At that time, my mother was working at a newly-opened state-run shop across from the town’s bus station and a large portrait had just been put up in the shop that showed eight mighty marshals mounted on high horses advancing head-on. One day, chaos suddenly erupted in the shop—Xiaodong was under siege and surrounded by a group of more than ten people. Before anyone could figure out what was going on, the fight had already started. Swinging an iron chain with his hand, Xiaodong somehow took on this group of men in the shop all by himself without ever being overpowered. I remember his face vividly amidst the whir of the swinging iron chain. In Shanxi dialect, we call that the “steel” face of someone with great energy and inner strength whose actions exhibit experience and skill. What surprised me was his calmness—he didn’t show any trace of fear; I suddenly understood then that composure is the ultimate expression of dignity. He didn’t run away nor did he put down his weapon and beg for mercy. Instead, he faced the situation with calmness. While his head was covered in blood, he still maintained a semblance of machismo until his opponents finally scattered and ran off, leaving him to attend to his wounds by himself.
Every boy comes of age studying and imitating the ideal of being a “man.” From that day on, no matter what kind of danger or crisis I would find myself in, I would always remember how Xiaodong acted during that encounter. Fights can be lost, things can fall apart, but a man cannot be defeated. A man should act like a man.
Later on, Xiaodong got a job and he also fell in love. On my way to school in the mornings, I would see him riding through the streets with a woman on his bicycle. Rumor had it that he was shacking up with his girlfriend. In the context of the late 1970s, this was a shocking scandal and my attention started shifting from Xiaodong to the girlfriend sitting on the back of his bike. As they rode through the streets, there was the same fearless look on her beautiful face challenging all the questioning gazes of others. This image of them together became a declaration of love regardless of the cost; they were devoted to each other.
Later on, I also grew up and formed my own gang of “brothers.” Gradually, there was no more news of Xiaodong.
One summer in the 1990s, I came back from university to Fengyang. Walking by a courtyard, I noticed a middle-aged man squatting in front of an entrance. He was wearing a white sleeveless shirt and slurping a bowl of noodles with his head down. As I walked by him, I suddenly recognized something, paused, and stared at him: this was Xiaodong. He had gone from a “big brother” into a middle-aged guy with thinning hair and extending waistline. He was just focusing on that bowl of noodles without a care in the world. I had a hard time reconciling the focus he had on the noodles at that time with the focus he once had during those battles in the past. I walked away feeling strangely dazed and confused.
This episode always lingers in my mind. I wondered when I’d get to make a movie about the Jianghu we knew—not just about the fervor of the street but also about how the passage of time shapes us.
A few years ago, I heard a story: in a certain city, when two young men have a fight, there are local companies they can call up for a service. After paying a fee, these companies dispatch “brothers” to keep up an appearance. But often people on both sides of the fight end up calling the same company; the men showing up as their supporters are actually colleagues from the same company. This is all business now; what in the past used to be a matter of machismo and loyalty has turned into a service for a price.
I decided to make Ash Is Purest White (the Chinese title is Sons and Daughters of Jianghu) and tell a story that spans from 2001 to the beginning of 2018 with Shanxi as its starting point. The word “Jianghu” connotes a society full of unrest, volatility, and crises and it also connotes the complex human relationships in that society. “Sons and Daughters” connotes the men and women who dare to love and still have faith in loyalty.
When I wrote the title “Sons and Daughters of Jianghu,” it was as though I had entered into the depths of my own emotions. Before my eyes, I always see the figure of Xiaodong and his girlfriend riding a bike. They devoted themselves to each other and staked out their place in this turbulent world without fear.
(Translated by Tzu-Wen Cheng and Eugene Suen)