Born in Tangshan, Hebei, in a family of military personnel, Jiang relocated to Beijing at the age of ten. In 1980, he entered China's foremost acting school, the Central Academy of Drama, graduating in 1984. That same year, he started acting both on the stage (with the China Youth Theater) and in films.
After appearing in many television series and films, Jiang became known in China for his role in the 1992 television series A Native of Beijing in New York, based on the novel Beijinger in New York, which made him one of the most popular actors of his generation. In addition to these he also starred in Hibiscus Town (1984), Black Snow (1990), The Emperor's Shadow (1996) and The Soong Sisters (1997). Apart from Red Sorghum, Jiang also collaborated with Zhang Yimou for the 1997 film Keep Cool.
Jiang wrote and directed his first film in 1994, In the Heat of the Sun, adapted from a novel by Wang Shuo. A tale set in the Cultural Revolution, it won for its young lead actor Xia Yu the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival and garnered six Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan. Jiang's second feature film, Devils on the Doorstep, set during the Japanese occupation of China in the early 1940s, won him the Grand Prix in the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. In 2001 he was a member of the jury at the 23rd Moscow International Film Festival.
Jiang has also acted in television series, such as Da Qing Fengyun (2006), in which he played Hong Taiji.
Jiang was married to French actress Sandrine Chenivesse, with whom he has a daughter. He is now married to Chinese actress Zhou Yun and they have two sons.
In 2013 he was named as a member of the jury at the 70th Venice International Film Festival.
Jiang co-starred in the Star Wars anthology film Rogue One, released in December 2016. In the film, he portrays Baze Malbus, a native of the moon of Jedha who is drawn into the war against the Galactic Empire.
Jiang's father is Jiang Hongqi, a veteran of the Korean War. Described as taciturn and bookish, he played a minor role in his son's 2011 film, Let the Bullets Fly. Jiang Wen's mother Gao Yang — “a cheerful, extroverted woman” — worked as a piano teacher. Jiang Wen is the eldest son in the family; in addition to his younger brother, Jiang Wu, he has a younger sister, Jiang Huan.
Close to his family, Jiang Wen has a deep bond with his parents: whenever he is on site for shooting or acting, he arranges for them to come to his workplace so that he can spend time with them. Each movie he makes, he saves the best seats for them and asks for their opinions. Even on artistic composition, he sometimes resorts to them for advice. It was his parents' endorsement on the original novel of A Native of Beijing in New York that propelled Jiang Wen into his performance. Later, during the filming of his first feature film, In the Heat of the Sun, Jiang Wen again considered their evaluation of Xia Yu, before settling on him as the leading actor.
Hibiscus Town was the movie that first catapulted Jiang Wen, a then-obscure university student, into fame and popularity. His partner in the film was Liu Xiaoqing, he was 23 and she was 31, and they were passionately involved during the shooting, making a sensational news in the entertainment industry at that time. Reportedly, the crew was very supportive of their relationship. After successive appearances in Hibiscus Town and Red Sorghum, Jiang Wen was gradually garnering his own reputation, and yet in the face of Liu Xiaoqing, who was already an internationally acclaimed actress, he was still the fledging junior. Even after years, Liu Xiaoqing never admitted this romance herself, only claimed that the media pressure was so suffocating that she once conceived going abroad. Years later at one ceremony, Director Xie Jin finally verified this rumor, revealing that they had actually lived together for three years. In 1994, they broke up in an amicable manner, and have managed to keep alive their friendship to this day.
Jiang Wen and his French ex-wife Sandrine Chenivesse first encountered each other at an artistic celebrity gathering in 1995: he was sitting alone at a corner, staring blankly at space, so she went up introducing herself to him, and that was the beginning of their romance. Chenivesse was a Doctor of Anthropology at the University of Paris, who happened to be researching topics in philosophy and Taoism in China. In the autumn of 1997, they registered for marriage in Paris and had a daughter together, but they remained low-key on media until their appearance on the red carpet of the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. In 2005, Chenivesse announced divorce with Jiang Wen after coming back from France with their daughter, the main factor of the divorce being their long-distance separation.
In 2001, during the filming of Warriors of Heaven and Earth, famous actress Zhao Wei introduced Zhou Yun, a cast member from the same movie, to Jiang Wen. Zhou Yun, a laureate Miss Beauty of Wen Zhou Beauty Pageant, was mesmerized by the City of Beijing and decided to pursue an acting career there, so she entered the same school with Jiang Wen, the Central Academy of Drama. Graduating from the same school and disciplined by the same mentor, Jiang Wen and Zhou Yun, despite a 15-year age gap, shared the same passion and interest. Later, Jiang Wen recommended Zhou Yun to the cast of The Music Box, but each left the crew after a creative difference between Jiang Wen and the director Chen Yifei. Their successive withdrawals spawned much speculations about the ambiguous relationship between them, and rumors started to spread. Once, when Zhou Yun was studying a character at Jiang Wen's Studio, she happened on him drinking and sulking for missing his daughter. When Jiang Wen sobered up, he opened up to her about his history with the French ex-wife. It was when Jiang Wen was confiding to her that she realized her affection for him and decided to stay with him. At the end of 2005, they were officially married, and now they have two sons.