As the convoy of 18 SUVs pulls to a halt on the narrow road above Sanjiang, Wenchuan county, Sichuan, the gleeful shrieks of an excited crowd float upwards through the autumnal mist. The vehicles have made the three-hour journey from the provincial capital Chengdu, spending two hours of it crawling through countryside affected by the cataclysmic earthquake in May. We say countryside in fact, the view through the windows is an unsettling inversion of what the term normally evokes. Giant fissures sunder the hills and there are yawning voids where roads should be. Broad swaths of boulders and debris remain on the mountain slopes just as violent landslides deposited them on that terrible afternoon nearly seven months ago. Down in a flooded valley, bare and broken tree trunks poke through the water like the spars of a vanquished armada, and over everything hangs the cold, the damp and the fog.
Villagers have been lining the road to Sanjiang, awaiting the convoy's arrival, and now they slip and surge down muddy paths in the hope of getting closer to its head. A vehicle door finally swings open and Donatella Versace of all people shyly emerges from her sanctum of tinted windows and tobacco smoke. Standing in blonde tresses and heels, she is a fabulously incongruous sight here in the mountains. But the good villagers of Sichuan have no idea who she is. They are here, instead, to see her companion for the day Li Lianjie, otherwise known as Jet Li. And when he appears before them, a great roar erupts.
The celebrity duo is visiting a school and counseling facility for children affected by the Sichuan earthquake, paid for by Versace and operated under the auspices of Li's charity, the One Foundation. The occasion is only theoretically private. Hundreds of people pour in from the road or strain at the wire mesh that separates the school from the tract of temporary housing it adjoins. There is barely room to stage the songs and dances that the children have so assiduously rehearsed. When Li and Versace tour a classroom, they do so while amazed farmers press faces at every window. Those who can't get close shove mobile phones through the bars in the hope of capturing a grainy memento. As the stars emerge, they find themselves in a perilously crowded courtyard of people and paparazzi. There are three film crews jostling for sight lines. Tempers fray, pushing starts and a local policeman begins to yell at the top of his voice at a knot of uncomprehending Italian journalists. Li's and Versace's entourages make time-out gestures at each other, cutting the visit short and bundling everyone into the SUVs for the long drive back to Chengdu airport and the evening flight to Beijing. It has been an exhausting business, spending a day in Li's wake. "Oh this is nothing," laughs his personal videographer. "You should have seen the crowds when we were in Shanghai."
The Real One
The cosseted youngest of five siblings, a child sports star and a big-screen actor from the age of 19, Beijing-born Li has known nothing but attention for every one of his 45 years. But the smiles that emanate from the trailing multitudes are often of a different kind now. They are not just the silly simpers that form in response to a celebrity sighting. They are also the warm, seraphic beams accorded to individuals who walk a righteous path. People generally don't ask Li to do flying kicks or the wushu horse stance for the camera these days. They don't even want his autograph much. What they want to do, amid the moral vacuum of modern China, is feed off the aura of a man preaching compassion and civic duty. When Li takes the rostrum, he reminds people of a time before land grabs, kickbacks and beatings of a China in which people were not counterfeiting, short-changing, corner-cutting, milk-adulterating hucksters but virtuous and simple. "Before this country opened up, people were more focused on their spiritual lives," he says. "Since this country opened we have been more focused on the material life. For the sake of Chinese culture, it's time for a balance."
Established in April 2007, the One Foundation is Li's contribution toward that balance, and for its sake he has taken time out from films, becoming a full-time relief worker and traveling tirelessly on foundation business. This month he is set to appear at a Clinton Global Initiative meeting in Hong Kong. "Philanthropy is my passion and my life now," he says. "I wake up and eat and I'm thinking about it. I'm still thinking in the bath. I talk to everyone I can." It is difficult to name any other A-list celebrity, not even Bono, who has made such a total commitment. There are plenty who touch down in Africa between albums or movies, but none has actually walked off the job as Li has done, at the top of his game.