1000 Years of Joy and Sorrow - by Ai Weiwei
I am grateful for what Ai Weiwei and Ai Qing have done for the people of China. I learned about Ai Qing’s poems in elementary school and Ai Weiwei’s work in 2008 during the Sichuan earthquake in China.
Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:
I was born in 1957, eight years after the founding of the “New China.” My father was forty-seven. When I was growing up, my father rarely talked about the past, because everything was shrouded in the thick fog of the dominant political narrative, and any inquiry into fact ran the risk of provoking a backlash too awful to contemplate.
Memories were a burden, and it was best to be done with them; soon people lost not only the will but the power to remember. When yesterday, today, and tomorrow merge into an indistinguishable blur, memory—apart from being potentially dangerous—has very little meaning at all.
When I was a young boy, the world to me was a split screen.
An unbridgeable gulf existed between the two sides.
The good thing is that my father was a writer. In poetry he recorded feelings that had lodged deep in his heart, even if those little streams of honesty and candor had no natural outlet on those many occasions when political floods carried all before them. Today, all I can do is pick up the scattered fragments left after the storm and try to piece together a picture, however incomplete it may be.
[劳动改造] “reform through labor,”
I held my tongue, neither saying goodbye nor asking if she was coming back. I don’t remember how long it took for them to disappear from view as we drove off. As far as I was concerned, staying was no different from leaving: either way, it was not our decision to make.
The truck shook violently as it lurched along a seemingly endless dirt road riven with potholes and gullies, and I had to hold tight to the frame to avoid being tossed in the air.
After several bone-shaking hours, the truck finally ground to a halt at the edge of the desert.
I made a simple oil lamp by pouring kerosene into an empty medicine bottle, poking a hole in the bottle cap, and threading a scrap of shoelace through it.
My father required little in life apart from time to read and write.
Someone had to do these things, and more often than not that someone was me.
But the excitement soon wore off.
stabbing my skin like needles.
The workers came from widely varied backgrounds, with mysterious, incommunicable pasts that this border region had helped to put behind them.
[黑五类]“Five Black Categories”—landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements, and rightists.
trimming branches here and there, then retreat a few steps to check whether the two sides were balanced.
In this era when “politics” invaded all aspects of life, at the dawn of each day one had to request Chairman Mao’s instructions before beginning work or study, and at the end of the day a similar ritual was conducted, that of reporting to the Chairman on the progress of one’s work or study that day.
But the audience actually had no interest in who he was or what he had done in life. Everything said at the meeting was seen as standard procedure and perfectly reasonable, for the revolution needed to have enemies—without them, people would feel a deep unease.
[锣和鼓]gongs and drums
When I was growing up, everyday life was saturated with this kind of overblown language, and though its meaning was hard to grasp, it seemed to have hypnotic, or narcotic, properties. Everyone was possessed by it.
we never once had fresh cornmeal to eat, only “war-relief grain” that had been in storage for goodness knows how long: it scraped your throat roughly as you swallowed, and reeked of mold and gasoline.
As night fell and an impenetrable darkness descended on the wheat fields outside, the insects kept up a constant drone. Father and I would sit on either side of our little table, the oil lamp casting our shadows—one big, one small—on the wall behind us. My mind was often as bare as the room itself, empty of imagination and empty of memories, and my father and I were like strangers, with nothing to say to each other. I would often simply stare into the lamp’s jumping flame.
Gradually, I would be transported to the places he had been, meeting the men and women he had known, and gaining some understanding of his loves and his marriages. As he talked, it was as though I wasn’t there. His storytelling seemed to have no purpose beyond making sure his stream of memories did not dry up. In Little Siberia, isolation forged a closeness between us, and material deprivation brought with it a different kind of plenty, shaping the outline of my life to come.
burned incense and prayed for good fortune every day,
she was tested to the limits of her endurance.
there emerged an infant’s piercing wail.
Even if the boy survived into adulthood, the fortune-teller said, it would be best if he never called them “Father” and “Mother,” but rather “Uncle” and “Aunt.”
his grim forecast was carved onto my father’s destiny like a birthmark.
[家和万事兴]BLISS RESIDES IN FAMILY BONDS,
In the village he was considered a reformist and was among the first to cut off his queue [长辫子], the long braid that signified Han Chinese submission to Manchu authority during the Qing period.
But Fantianjiang, like so many other Chinese villages, slumbered on, unremarkable and anonymous.
That sounds heartless, I know, but things like that did happen then—and are not unheard of today.
In those days, handicrafts were accorded little respect.
Father nodded his approval.
- on the pretext of needing to use the toilet, [借口上厕所]
- brandishing flags, 飘扬的旗帜
He was a diligent student, with a country boy’s love of nature. Socially he maintained an awkward reserve, but he felt a deep sympathy for the poor and the suffering. Peddlers, boatmen, and cart pullers, as well as the impoverished owners of thatched cottages and their grimy-faced children, were all regular subjects of his art.
It was clear they saw themselves in each other’s eyes, like two pieces of a broken stone fitting together seamlessly.
Speaking loudly over the wind’s roar, Li Youran recalled how he and my father, stomachs empty, would roam through the boulevards and squares of Paris, whistling tunes and kicking pebbles as they went. As he spoke, I could almost hear the sound of those pebbles as they skipped across the street.
Paris seemed like an impossible other world.
[手拍西瓜]splitting each fruit into two not with a knife but with a firm slap.
Home felt more foreign to him than ever.
[颠覆国家政权]bent on “damaging the republic,” a vague charge much like the political crime of “inciting the subversion of state power,” of which I would be accused in the following century.
The waste bucket was emptied only once a day, and the cell stank of urine and feces.
In the villagers’ eyes, only pentasyllabic or heptasyllabic rhyming verse in classical Chinese deserved to be called poetry. Father offered no answer to Grandfather’s question; those traditional prejudices could not easily be overturned in just a few words. In Father’s view, poets needed to free themselves from formal constraints, using vibrant, colloquial language rather than following the contrived, effete literary fashions that had long held sway.
Father was writing tirelessly then, his mind active and rich. He felt the future calling him, urging him on, and through writing his goals came into clearer focus. If he were to ever doubt his ability to write, he told himself, life would no longer be worth living.
[卢沟桥事变]Marco Polo Bridge Incident.
he was reduced to his last feeble breaths.
If someone died while in custody, it was written off as “committing suicide for fear of punishment” and “separating oneself from the people.” It saved the cost of an executioner’s bullet.
The estrangement and hostility that we encountered from the people around us instilled in me a clear awareness of who I was, and it shaped my judgment about how social positions are defined.
Father and I also gained a greater sense of security, finding comfort in exclusion from a community so complicit in our mistreatment.
[为什么我的眼里常含泪水？ 因为我对这土地爱得深沉] Why do I so often have tears in my eyes? Because I love this land so deeply.
But teaching had only a faint connection with creative writing, and inwardly he simply hungered to write. For him, writing was as important as life itself.
In December 1936, two key military commanders of the Nationalist armies placed Chiang Kai-shek under house arrest and pressured him to abandon efforts to suppress the Communists and instead join with them in resisting Japan. This so-called Xi’an Incident brought about a second period of cooperation between the two parties.
He could arrange his life according to his own wishes, waking early and getting some writing done before breakfast.
- monks to come and recite sutras for seven days, to help the soul of the deceased make its passage to the other world. 超生
But despite all the difficulties, he had published more than two hundred poems and essays and three books of poetry, fulfilling his vow to write with the same indomitable stubbornness that a soldier would need to fight a battle.
Father accepted his lot stoically. As he put it, earlier in life he’d had no idea who cleaned toilets for him, and so it wasn’t unreasonable to expect him now to do cleaning for others. It was an outlook that reflected his tolerance, generosity of spirit, and commitment to equity. Although he loathed superstition, intimidation, and cruelty in any form, while never abandoning the principles of honesty and decency, he was able to adapt to circumstances. I have to admit I lack that level of forbearance.
As Mao saw it, criticism of the party was no less damaging to the cause than a military defeat, and would serve to weaken morale and even compromise the party’s legitimacy.
In the struggle to improve people’s lives, Ai Qing argued, literature and art share the same goals as politics, but literature and art are not an appendage to politics—they are not a gramophone or a loudspeaker for politics. Literature and art’s integration with politics finds expression in their truthfulness: the more truthful the works, the closer their alignment with the progressive political direction of their era.
the goal of this meeting was to make patently clear that literature and art had to serve the party, just as soldiers had to obey the orders of their superiors.
[人民群众] it is a question of principle. All our literature and art are for the masses, and in the first place for the workers, peasants, and soldiers.” “The masses” was one of his favorite concepts, and what he really meant when he used that term was the rank-and-file population, subject to the will and direction of the party.
Ideological cleansing, I would note, exists not only under totalitarian regimes—it is present also, in a different form, in liberal Western democracies. Under the influence of politically correct extremism, individual thought and expression are too often curbed and too often replaced by empty political slogans.
“Advance Victoriously Under the Banner of Mao Zedong,”
land reform secured a solid base of popular support for the Communists.
- In welcome remarks that were largely devoid of real content, 没有内容
[牛鬼蛇神] “ox demons and snake spirits”
[现行反革命] “active counterrevolutionaries,”
[除四旧] In the early stage of the Cultural Revolution, the stated goal was to “smash the four olds”—old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits—and replace them all with Mao Zedong Thought.
Off the bus at last, Ai Dan dashed on ahead like a happy rabbit, while Mother followed behind.
The color soon returned to Father’s face.
the look of approval on her face would always make me forget the hardship of the journey.
Once we acquired a bicycle, I would take Ai Dan to collect firewood. At the time I was still quite short and, like a circus monkey, could pedal only the top half of each revolution of the wheels.
As happens so often, the things you most wanted to know were precisely the things you would not be allowed to know, in an impenetrable, illogical puzzle.
- deepening the rift that had developed between Ai Qing and Wei Ying during their Yan’an years. 间隙
[百家争鸣，百花齐放] “let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.”
They were blissfully unaware that another political storm would soon shatter the calm.
[有则改之,无则加勉] On April 30, 1957, Mao Zedong convened representatives of China’s non-Communist constituencies for a forum, urging them to speak freely: “Say everything you know, and say it all without holding back; there is no offense in expressing your views, and listeners will profit from your advice; if we have made mistakes we will correct them, and if we haven’t made mistakes we will make sure to avoid them.” These senior figures took him at his word, and suggested—in tactful language—that the one-party state was creating divisions in society.
[引蛇出洞] All that talk, then, of encouraging candid discussion turned out to have been a premeditated effort to “tempt the snake out if its den.”
Colleagues who not long before had been shaking hands and chatting happily with her were now showing a different face altogether, in a chilling example of how quickly people could change their stand.
Late one night, Gao Ying was sound asleep with me in her arms when a series of loud bangs woke her up. She rushed into the kitchen to find Father pounding his head against the wall in despair. She hugged him tightly as warm blood ran down his face. In that terrible era, political life was one’s primary life; without it, there was no point in living. After Ai Qing was branded a rightist, other writers avoided him like the plague. His only form of outside contact would come when he went to Zhongshan Park and played a game or two of chess with another idle visitor, someone unaware of his pariah status.
that era the word “love” was never associated with personal feelings, for love could be extended only to the state, the party, and its leader.
Eventually, it managed to knock down part of the fence and make its escape, to my father’s secret delight.
As a young boy I would see him every day toiling over the manuscript, every page marked up with revisions, deletions, and insertions. To me, his painstaking devotion to a book that might never get published exerted a mysterious allure, and later in life I would take my cue from him, courting danger by editing underground publications. For him, the act of writing was integral to life, and the will to write could never be destroyed.
“My health is not bad, but sooner or later Marx will want me to join him.
“Cultural Revolution” was his solution. The world could not be put to order without first being thrown into chaos.
[大字报] Big-character posters were the blogs and the Facebook of the Mao era, the difference being that their views and their language were under strict control,
The Cultural Revolution would be a war exercise on a national scale, in which leftists, rightists, and vacillating fence-sitters would all receive their proper due.
Now that the political storm had arrived, they were first to trim their sails to the wind, betraying and slandering people around them, in the hope of enhancing their own position.
When you turned the pages of the books, they would give off a unique aroma, telling you right away that they were from a different time and place. From an early age, we knew that these books and albums meant the world to Father, for every time he talked about them his face would light up. They helped him forget his worries.
The next day we heard cracks of gunfire, as loud and insistent as beans crackling in a stir-fry.
[龙生龙、凤生凤] “Dragons beget dragons, and phoenixes phoenixes. When rats have pups, they’re born to live in holes.” The theory of a hereditary bloodline was in vogue: the children of Five Black Category elements could never be accepted among the revolutionary elite, any more than a baby rat could become a dragon.
After Lingling and Gao Jian’s departure, the house was quieter, but we spent every day waiting for the other shoe to drop. Within weeks, Gao Jian returned. Their birth father had been willing to take Lingling into his home, but not her younger brother. To me, as a ten-year-old, this seemed bizarre, and I would continually press my stepbrother on why his father did not want him. To Gao Jian, of course, this was the most hurtful question he could be asked, and a punch in the face became his standard response to my inquiries.
Many years later, on the second day of my detention in April 2011, when I argued that I was entitled to legal protections, my interrogator threw me a meaningful look. “Don’t you know what Liu Shaoqi had in his hand that day when the Red Guards burst into his house?” he said. “He was holding a copy of the constitution.”
In China, if you try to understand your country, it’s enough to put you on a collision course with the law.
- But I could not imagine putting myself back in a situation where I would be under someone else’s thumb. 不想被别人支配
- Although I was unwilling to discover beauty, through painting I could employ an artistic language to achieve a sense of calm. The pleasure gained from this single-minded focus in turn disengaged me from other kinds of connection and gave me a feeling of release. flow
[实践是检验真理的唯一标准] By promoting the idea that practice is the sole criterion for testing truth, Deng provided a theoretical justification for discrediting many of Mao’s ideas,
He had written no poetry at all since the start of the Cultural Revolution, but now he would get up at two or three in the morning and try to write for a good three or four hours.
On January 12, 1979, at a forum for writers and artists, he said, “If there is only the freedom to criticize, but no freedom to discuss, who’s going to be willing to be creative?” Five days later, at a forum sponsored by the poetry journal Shikan, he made a related point. “Without political democracy,” he argued, “it’s impossible to talk about artistic democracy. You can’t expect democracy to be handed to you on a plate—you acquire it through struggle.” Why, for so many years, did people not say what they really thought? Because, he noted, truthfulness offended power, and it would bring down terrible punishment, ruining oneself and one’s family alike. Now and in the future, poets must speak the truth, raising issues, asking the question why.
Memories made it impossible for me to identify with China’s new realities, and ultimately, much like my father before me, I came to feel that the only way out was to leave the country altogether.
Parsons was like an expensive kindergarten, primly cajoling a bunch of wayward kids into behaving properly.
single cockroach was there on the stove to greet me.
In time I was kicked out of the Art Students League as well, and as a result I lost my student status and—like one out of seven New Yorkers—I became undocumented. Initially this was a blow, but soon I took a relaxed view of the matter, for I knew that something like this was bound to happen, given my willful tendency to let the dice fall where they may. I accepted my predicament as the price of my freedom—the mark of my freedom, even—and so long as there was still a carton of milk in the refrigerator, I felt secure.
Every aspect of my situation seemed impermanent—my immigration status, my ever-changing address, my unstable, odd-job income. But the conventional path of accumulating assets, getting a degree, securing an American passport—none of that interested me. What I wanted was for people to leave me alone, for I was in no mood to change my ways. At this point I was taking nihilism to extreme lengths, and it was the very confusion of my life that gave me a sense of my own existence.
I believed in the same god as he did, I said, it was just that I never went to church.
[严打] This “strike hard” policy harked back to the repression of “counterrevolutionaries” during the Mao era and demonstrated how little had changed.
When the show closed, rather than take the pictures home with me, I just chucked them into a dumpster.
all hell broke loose.
My family was naturally overjoyed to see me and did not press me on what I had done during my time abroad—which was just as well, since I had no good answer.
“This is your home,” my father would say to me. “Don’t hang back—feel free to do whatever you like.” He could keenly sense my discomfort.
A familiar dilemma confronted me: I knew what I didn’t want, but I was not quite sure what I did want.
[三无人员] those who had no ID, no permit, and no regular income were labeled “three-noes” and packed off to perform manual labor outside the city until they had scraped together enough money to pay for a train ticket, at which point they would be sent back to where they came from.
like a traditional Chinese physician dispensing cures, I would feel their pulse and offer a prescription, my advice being the same in all cases: they should make no effort to please other people and just concentrate on preserving their vital energy. To conventional culture, I said, art should be a nail in the eye, a spike in the flesh, gravel in the shoe: the reason why art cannot be ignored is that it destabilizes what seems settled and secure. Change is an objective fact, and whether you like it or not, only by confronting challenges can you be sure you have enough kindling to keep the fire in your spirit burning. Don’t try to dream other people’s dreams, I told them; you have to face up to your own predicament honestly, on your own terms. There’s a huge gulf between your aesthetic passions as an artist and the indifference of the real world.
a baking-hot summer afternoon,
in a process as calm and unhurried as breathing.
The difficulty in making something happen, I have found, is often directly correlated to its importance: things that come easy aren’t worth doing.
Things have to follow a set procedure in China, no matter how you argue your case. An individual has no right to challenge authority, and humiliation is often presented as an honor that you are fortunate to receive. Power erases individual thoughts and feelings, always. And thus, when mourners trooped in to pay final respects to my father, they found the Chinese Communist Party flag, with its giant yellow hammer and sickle, draped across his chest.
Although he never tried to influence my decisions and never asked anything of me, like a star in the sky or a tree in a field he was always there as a compass point, and in a quiet and mysterious way he helped me to navigate in a direction all my own. By the very absence of explicit guidance, a spiritual connection was forged between us; Father, in his way, protected me.
[人有多大胆,地有多大产] “The bolder a man dares, the richer his land bears.”
And a challenge always gives me the motivation to move forward.
When we went to the Ministry of Commerce to register our new company, we offered three possible names in Chinese, and the clerk solemnly selected发课 from among the three nominees. In written Chinese, these characters, placed together, are meaningless and innocuous, but in the Pinyin system they are romanized as FAKE, which of course looks just like an English synonym for “phony.” Even more appealingly, when pronounced in standard Chinese, the characters fākè(发课) also sound very much like the English word “fuck.” One way or another, the name should warn you that it’s a mistake to always take me seriously.
For a while I invested all my energy in the often tedious real-world issues of design-and-build and the inevitable back-and-forth with developers and construction teams. The endless difficulties I encountered were symptomatic of the world in which we lived, and my experiences and reflections over many years, including during my early life with my father, had unconsciously prepared me for these challenges. But architecture is a part of public life, where the idea of expressing yourself fully is unthinkable. When authority determines meaning, independent thought does not exist, and everything is an extension of the discourse of power.
The early stages of developing a concept are a bit like the hours leading up to a baby’s delivery: everyone careful but tense, eager to contribute but waiting for the right moment to intervene.
Since then, literature and art had simply been reduced to cheap, utilitarian propaganda tools, and even now they had only the dimmest prospects.
To me, art is in a dynamic relationship with reality, with our way of life and attitude to life, and it should not be placed in a separate compartment. I have no interest in art that tries to keep itself distinct from reality.
“Your very act of writing to me will mean that you have already experienced a miracle, in that you are now looking at the world with a new set of eyes and have acquired a new way of thinking.”
I am no admirer of order—whether order appears in Eastern or Western guise, it always triggers suspicion in me. I dislike the constraints on human nature and the restrictions on choice that order imposes. When you break away from mandated meaning, you enter a state of tension with your surroundings, and it is then, when you are uncomfortable, that you are at your most alert.
Often I find myself confused, but it is precisely such confusion that leads me forward.
[举国哀悼] As news of the disaster spread, the whole nation was plunged into mourning.
The looming Olympics shared space in the public consciousness with disasters both natural and man-made, each exacerbated by Beijing’s fumbling for control of the narrative.
- After that, Yang Jia filed a complaint against the police, and as time went on the rights and wrongs of the matter became all the more difficult to establish. Upon his arrest, Yang Jia’s first words were “If I have to put up with this mistreatment all my life, then I’d rather be an outlaw. Whatever you do, you need to give me a proper accounting. If you don’t, then I’ll give you an accounting of mine.” The trial was riddled with procedural irregularities. Yang’s state-appointed defense lawyer declined to call key witnesses and failed to inquire into the causes of the incident, forfeiting any possibility of a new development in the case. 给我个说法
When administrative power is unlimited, when the judiciary is subject to no scrutiny, when information is shielded from public view, society is bound to operate in the absence of justice and morality. Corruption of the judiciary is the public face of a morally bankrupt body politic, a scar disfiguring the era in which we live. The appeals court upheld the death sentence, and, having written extensively about the case on my blog, I could think of nothing more to say. Just one month later, Yang Jia was executed. His mother, Wang Jingmei, was notified only after the fact. She had been consistently denied the right to speak up in his defense. On the day of his arrest, she had been detained by the Beijing police, and she was then confined to a mental hospital under an assumed name and forced to undergo “medical treatment.”
The eyes of the world, meanwhile, were elsewhere.
As the opening ceremony began and fireworks exploded on the TV screen on the wall, I scribbled some reactions on the back of Wang Fen’s visit report: “In this world where everything has a political dimension, we are now told we mustn’t politicize things: this is simply a sporting event, detached from history and ideas and values—detached from human nature, even. Politics always reminds us who has built two different worlds and two totally different dreams. There are many things we need to repudiate, but let’s first say goodbye to autocracy, no matter what form it takes and no matter how it’s justified, because the result is always the same: denial of equality, perversion of justice, warping of happiness.”
the nation presented a false smile to the world.
[三聚氰胺] In the summer of 2008, melamine—a chemical that can cause kidney stones and trigger the failure of kidney function—was discovered in infant formula and other milk products sold in China.
[维稳] “stability maintenance” measures—the government’s push to silence those who were pressing for an inquiry into the shoddy construction of all those schools.
First they claimed they had no such list. Then they admitted that there was a list but said they could not share it: all the details fit for public consumption had already been released, and what hadn’t been made public was a state secret. Such an explanation was laughable, of course, and when I pointed this out, the person at the other end would ask me who I was, convinced I had to be some hostile element bankrolled by a foreign, anti-China power—some even asked me outright if I was a spy or with the CIA. “All you’re doing is pouring salt on the parents’ wounds,” they fumed. “If you’d just kept quiet, they would have already forgotten about it.” But every day I would receive messages from parents whose one hope was that their children would not be forgotten. The construction quality of the schools was a taboo topic: media coverage of the earthquake focused exclusively on how successfully the party was leading the people in triumph over the disaster.
[豆腐渣工程] “tofu-dregs construction”
5,196 schoolchildren who died, along with their age, sex, school, and class, as well as their parents’ information.
Ultimately, what shocked me most, apart from the tragic deaths of so many children, was people’s increasing indifference to it all—how they deserted the cause, forgot about it, fell silent—as though the disaster had nothing to do with them.
I had changed, it seemed, from being an artist to being a social activist. It is not at all difficult to become a social activist: as soon as you start expressing concern about the nation’s future, you’re already on a path that could take you straight to jail. But in a certain sense, I was facing a fragile regime, and I realized that this called for action on my part, to expose its wickedness. I see what is in front of me as a “readymade,” just like Duchamp’s urinal. Reality creates greater possibilities for my art, and this realization is the source of my confidence.
for every scrap of information that I sent out could last only as long as it took for the censor to delete it.
As I watched the flames consuming this showcase building, I kept wishing that the whole thing would go crashing to the ground and take with it the propaganda machine that it represented.
ironically, the bronze heads had been designed in the first place as playthings for China’s Manchu rulers, who had conquered China in the seventeenth century and treated Han Chinese as a subject people. On my blog I asked, “What kind of slave would love the whip that once flogged him?”
Human rights were downplayed in the interests of globalization and economic growth, confirming that, East or West, it’s money that talks.
“I’m prepared,” I responded, “or rather, there are no preparations I need to make. I’m just a single individual, after all, and Ai Weiwei is the full extent of what I can offer and what they can get.”
While I had more at stake now that I was a father, I also had all the more reason to fight for a better future, one that would keep China’s children safe from harm.
the eyes of others I was waging a Sisyphean struggle, posting content that was constantly being deleted.
There was a simple reason why the government refused to let an alternative voice be heard and why it wanted the owner of that voice to disappear from view: the people in power know that once there is a free exchange of ideas, their days are numbered.
As I sat there on my stool, the screen in front of me seemed like a fantastic octopus, its countless tentacles connecting with any corner of the internet world. As I tapped away on the keyboard with my two middle fingers, imagining how this action could put an end to this stale and decadent world, I experienced a sense of weightlessness.
[稳定压倒一切] The government, arguing that “stability has priority over everything else,” responded accordingly. Its budget for “stability maintenance” began to exceed the national defense budget, and internet controls continued to tighten.
[翻墙] That left me with Twitter, but Twitter was on the other side of China’s firewall and I needed a VPN to “jump the wall.”
- played second fiddle. 放在一边
“It’s not too sore—a small thing only. I experienced the stupidity, shamelessness, and meanness of the police, but compared to the system, they’re dwarfs.”
He was like everyone in the government, who, no matter what their position, is betting on the whole system backing them up. They know you can’t outlast them—you don’t have the resources to do that. It’s they who will exhaust you. When we argue and reason with them as if they are accountable to the people, we just reveal that we haven’t yet cottoned on.
If you don’t have the right to raise questions, you have no real freedom, and I refused to accept the idea that the state’s authority can’t be opposed, challenged, or interrogated. In the face of power, I would always be at a disadvantage, I knew, but I was a born contrarian, and there’s no other way for me to live except by taking an oppositional stance. I wasn’t at all prudent and politic that day, but I was curious to know how far this attitude could take me.
The title of the Munich exhibition, So Sorry, had been suggested by Chris Dercon, alluding to the insincere apologies that come in useful when an individual—or a government—wants to gloss over some misdeed and sweep it under the rug.
There are all kinds of tragedy in the world, but the biggest tragedy is when you ignore the lives of others.
bit like being asked to convey a whole lifetime’s experience in a single word.
Sunflower seeds, I decided, would fit the bill perfectly.
But even in our darkest days, we might well have had a little handful of sunflower seeds in our pockets. They offered spiritual comfort as well as a modest answer to our hunger, and people were always cracking seeds between their teeth.
If you want to uphold your rights, I told them, you can’t protest in a confined space. If your mother beats you, to make a fuss inside the house is not going to get you anywhere—you need to be out in the street where the neighbors can see.
Copycat clones of Facebook and Twitter existed, but they served the regime’s ideological agenda, and their contents were strictly controlled.
You could see each seed, but at the same time you couldn’t, for each was drowned in an enormous flood of countless similar seeds. If you wanted something to express my understanding of China—and something that every Chinese person knows—that thing has to be the sunflower seed.
“When a state restricts a citizen’s movements,” I wrote, “this means it has become a prison… Never love a person or a country that you don’t have the freedom to leave.”
But my so-called thorniness stemmed simply from my concern for disempowered Chinese.
The choice of words was wrong, I remarked. “It’s not that I’m cooperating—it’s that you’re compelling me.”
asking him not to abandon core values for some short-term advantage.
In its business deals with China, the West always avoids issues of freedom of speech and citizens’ rights—one of the most glaring moral failures of our time. The West has an obligation to reaffirm human rights, for otherwise its conduct is tantamount to a neocolonialist exploitation of developing nations.
But I had no plans to move abroad for good—in my mind, China’s alien regime was the one that needed to get up and leave.
“Better give Ai Weiwei a heads-up: he’s in a lot of trouble now. Tell him to stop doing all that stuff that makes foreigners happy but hurts the feelings of the Chinese people.”
But I drew comfort from the knowledge that my father had been imprisoned eighty years earlier: being accused of much the same crimes as he was would only serve to raise my spirits.
Over the next several hours we sparred back and forth, me trying to pin him down on exactly why I was in custody, him cycling through indictments as though trying them on for size.
But Lu Qing and I had never registered our marriage in Beijing, I told the investigator, so divorce was not an option.
Although Wang Fen and I did not live together, we made no secret of our relationship, I noted: on Ai Lao’s birth certificate, I was recorded as his father and Wang Fen as his mother.
“If this breaks the law,” I said, “then there are countless lawbreakers.” “That’s true,” he countered, “but those other people don’t curse the government, they don’t make a ruckus like you do. You’re constantly stirring up trouble, so high and mighty, so full of yourself. And you have all those followers.” He made no effort to conceal how selectively they were applying legal sanctions.
Again the investigator refused to listen to my arguments. To him, there was no point in talking about law, because law was his specialty, not mine. And anyway, he was just a cog in the machine of state. He asked what I was planning to say in my statement in court.
He smirked at the stiffness of this declaration. “This is what you should say: ‘I admit my guilt and submit to punishment.’
Even if the charge could be made to stick, I argued, I would simply be asked to pay the arrears and any penalties, without being held criminally responsible. Later I would learn that financial issues were not what had prompted my detention at all. After I was disappeared, the police raided my studio and confiscated computers and disks, leaving the company’s account books untouched.
“You criticize the government,” he said, “and your attacks make the country look bad. Look at this desk here. It’s a fine desk, with a level surface and four strong legs. But you seize on some little point and won’t let it go, constantly insisting that there’s a problem with it. This causes confusion in public opinion and makes people think there really is something wrong.”
that of Henan, a poor inland province where joining the army is practically the only way to make a living.
[豆腐块] I was expected to fold my quilt into a neat, straight-edged stack each morning.
I had taken similar pictures in front of the White House and the Eiffel Tower, I pointed out.
One thing I told the students was that there has never been a totalitarian government that willingly perished. “It’s pointless to expect it to reform itself,” I said, “and we can’t wait for it to die a natural death.”
That night, as the hours stretched out ahead of me, I thought of my father, and I realized just how incomplete my understanding of him was. Xu’s remark about the Cultural Revolution was no exaggeration, and I certainly appreciated the relative tolerance of this current era. My father had endured a harsher one, when so many people paid with their lives for the words they uttered. I had never asked him what he was thinking, never wondered what the world was like for him as he looked at it through his one good eye. I felt a deep pang of regret at the unbridgeable gap between him and me. Then and there, the idea of writing this book came to me, for I did not want Ai Lao to suffer the same regret.
- Every time I defecated, the guard would watch attentively as I wiped my ass. 便便
The events of the day would fade, and all I could do was use memories to fill the time, looking back at people and events, like gazing at a kite on a long string flying farther and farther, until it cannot be seen at all. Thinking about the past was like taking items out of a bag one by one, until you give it a shake and it’s completely empty, leaving you bereft. Amid the stillness I would start thinking about Ai Lao, and soon I would find tears were coursing down my cheeks.
- The reek of garlic would linger in the room until dawn. 大蒜臭味
The soldiers would regularly crack their joints—a crisp snapping sound like a turnip being broken into two pieces. Whether clenching their fists, waving their arms, squatting down, or bending and twisting their waists and necks, every part of their bodies seemed to make a sound.
Whether this was to assert their existence or vent frustration, I had no idea.
I began to sympathize with them. They were like me, in a way, confined and constricted, their present ruptured from the past, and lacking anticipation of their future. Sooner or later the prisoners would move elsewhere, but these men would have to continue standing guard—the one skill they possessed—until the day that a whistle would blow and suddenly they’d have to leave and return to the place they came from.
They began to preface their inquiries with an appreciative “Dear Sex Uncle,” and when I was filling in some of the many gaps in their sex education, time would fly by.
I lost track of time, for one day was much like any other, rigidly structured with its set routines.
I did not want to see her, I told him flatly. This was not at all the reaction he expected, but I had no wish to be part of some demeaning charade. I knew I wouldn’t be able to talk freely about my imprisonment, and my problems involved me alone. I didn’t need sympathy—what I needed was justice. But justice was nowhere to be seen, and offering family ties as a substitute was a cynical ploy. I wanted no part of it. Since the first day that my rights were denied, I’d had no illusions about the process: in the face of the state’s accusations, I told myself to prepare for the worst. It was the investigators who had said I would not be able to see anyone for six months, but now, on the forty-third day, the authorities must have come under pressure, and so they needed to prove to the outside world that I was still alive. In the end, Investigator Xu told me categorically that I had to see Lu Qing, arguing variously that they were making a remarkable exception in my case, that this was part of the procedures, and that I could not say no. There were four points I must communicate to Lu Qing, he told me. First, I was suspected of economic crimes, but I was not to mention the investigations or the lines of questioning, and by no means was I to mention political issues. Second, I had been treated fairly and had not been tortured. Third, I was cooperating willingly with the investigation and believed the government would reach a reasonable conclusion. Fourth, the family was to avoid foreign media and ignore all rumors and provocations.
I delivered my prepackaged lines, and she listened intently to what I was saying, hoping to discern the real me beneath the mask I wore.
Lu Qing, for her part, said she had seen Wang Fen and Ai Lao. They were both well and I was not to worry. She had no doubt been coached by state security, just like me.
Investigator Xu put it to me bluntly: I could expect a sentence of at least ten years. “Don’t have any illusions,” he told me repeatedly. “You’ll get out one day, but Ai Lao will have grown up by then, and your mother may well have passed away.” This plunged me into misery. I was disgusted that he was speaking of my family in this way, in an effort to break me down. According to him, I was an “enemy of the state,” and I could not just go on stonewalling. According to his logic, I had to repent my crimes; only then could he come to my rescue and lighten the punishment. Now, as a public enemy, I could stand as an equal with my father. After an eighty-year gap, in this same land, similar offenses enabled us to meet.
After saying his piece, he went quiet, deflated like a leaky ball.
They were going to keep my passport for the time being, he said. My eyes were covered for the last time and I was ushered into a vehicle by one of my regular guards—the one who had once told me, “Here, everything they say is false. There’s not one word that’s true.” He said that by the end of his first day in the army he had already regretted joining.
The reason for my release was just as opaque as the reason for my detention. I was surprised to see my mother. She clasped my hand tightly, as though reunited with a lost child and determined not to lose him again. Her hands were soft and warm, but under the skin I could feel the bones and veins.
All you assholes do is make things more difficult for the government.” Liu Yanping asked him to clean up his language and reminded him that every word of his tirade would shortly be appearing online.
The police had tried to persuade my assistants to spy. They told Xu Ye that if he stayed on at the studio, they would guarantee him an extra income, and all he needed to do was “see us now and again.”
The day after I was seized, material appeared on the internet attacking me. According to the Xinhua News Agency, I was suspected of tax evasion and taking money from foreigners: “Ai Weiwei, though an artist in name, is in practice a political opportunist.” Online commenters hired by the government concocted stories, impugning my integrity and insulting my mother, Wang Fen, and even my sister Lingling, who actually had little contact with me.
Xinhua News Agency issued a dispatch reporting that FAKE, under the control of Ai Weiwei, had committed offenses including tax evasion and destruction of evidence, but because I showed a positive attitude and suffered from health problems I had been released on bail.
By defying the restraints placed on me, I risked being taken into custody once more, but to me the loss of the freedom to express myself was itself tantamount to captivity.
“Ai Weiwei,” he said, “if you just open your eyebrows more, you’ll be happy.” Ai Lao always calls me by my full name. “You’re a good dad,” he went on. “And so, I am going to have a son too, and that son will have a son, and that son will have a son.” “What do you think about Ai Weiwei being taken away?” I asked. His answer took me aback. “That was no big deal,” he said. “They were doing a commercial for you, to make you more famous.”
“Love?” He pondered for a moment. “Love is a water bottle that’s easily broken, but if you drop it on the floor it doesn’t break.”
“Dad, do you know why I’m not happy? Because I feel that time in this world passes too quickly.” “So think of a way to make time pass more slowly. You’re such a resourceful entomologist.” “The only way is to be sad. Being sad makes time pass slower.”
Once, in the car, I was telling him stories and asked, “What should we write on a hero’s tombstone?” “Dad, write this,” he said. “ ‘I hope a breeze that likes him blows over his tombstone.’ ” I loved that line. Keep it for me, I thought.
“Ai Weiwei, we’re fed up with you attacking the state and the government. We’re going to make you die an ugly death: we’re going to tell everyone what a disreputable life you lead, what a big tax dodger you’ve been, how untrustworthy you are.” They were preparing to deal with me in the same way as they dealt with any political opponent: by pinning a fabricated crime on me. My answer was always the same: “Do you think young people will believe what you say?” “Well,” they said, “90 percent of the people will.”
On November 1, 2011, after I’d been out on bail for several months, the government accused FAKE of tax evasion, and two days later enforcement officers from the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau delivered to the studio in Caochangdi a tax bill of 15.22 million yuan (about $ 2.4 million). They demanded that within fifteen days FAKE pay the entire sum, comprising tax arrears, late fee, and fine. “Unless you’re fined, you’ll never shut up!” was the way the police put it to me. The fine was unprecedented, an exorbitant sum, larger than the annual net income of a huge enterprise such as the China Railway Group. There was a balance of only two thousand yuan in FAKE’s account. If I couldn’t pay the full amount, they said I could pay in installments—or simply shut down the company. That was their ultimate goal.
It was a gamble that we couldn’t possibly win. Undeterred, I did everything I could to bring things out into the open and litigate the case. But the court refused to let my lawyer read and copy the original documents on which the tax ruling was based, and it also rejected our request for an open hearing. There could be no change in the decision, we were told, because the order had come from above: “If the state says you haven’t paid your taxes, don’t argue. Are you a complete idiot? Would the state ever change its position? If it wants you dead, then there’s no way you’re going to get out alive—forget about it!”
the tangible expressions of solidarity showed the extent of popular outrage at the abuses inherent in my secret detention and the under-the-table manipulations of the judiciary.
[草泥马] grass-mud horse
“Why is public security so concerned about a tax case?” I asked. “And what’s the problem with our going public about it?” He began to speak more slowly. “We could have handled this peaceably, do you understand? No matter what you do, the verdict in the tax case is settled.” His basic point was this: if I would simply shut up, they would let bygones be bygones.
Difficulties are hard to express, but it is precisely when daily experiences present a barrier to exercising logic that art begins to show its power.
[冒着雾霾] would often brave the smog and go for walks in Chaoyang Park.
What father would not recoil at the thought that he cannot protect his own child? I could practically feel a lurking assailant breathing down my neck.
I could be disappeared, but art could not, just as my father’s poetry continued to live on in people’s minds even when he was in exile.
For me, inspiration comes from resistance—without that, my efforts would be fruitless. Having a real—and powerful—adversary was my good fortune, making freedom all the more tangible—freedom comes from all the sacrifices you make to achieve it. Limitations come only from a fear inside the heart, and art is the antidote to fear. I did not need sympathy, for courage itself is an aesthetic feeling, and it’s only when true feeling is transformed into something broadly understood that art can avoid drying up.
I had been awarded the CCAA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 and had been on the selection committee for the previous three prizes. Some forty Chinese artists’ work was on display at this exhibition, and they all knew me and my work, but not one of them stood up to object. It was as though the censorship had never happened, as though airbrushing me out of the picture was perfectly normal.
Tolerating the distortion of history is the first step toward tolerating humiliation in real life. To register my protest, on Instagram I posted a photograph of the boxes of my ceramic sunflower seeds that had been moved out of the exhibition hall and were now locked away in an office.
A few Chinese officials may have paid a formal visit, but it’s highly unlikely that this would have led to any enlightenment on their part.
You have to wonder why these organizations insist on traveling so far to seek their own humiliation.
But in a perverse way, dictatorship in China has served as a perfect partner for the free world, doing things that the West cannot do, and the occasional humiliation is seen as an acceptable price to pay if it enables continued glory and prosperity for the Western partner. Sadly, the freedom that Westerners so enjoy loses its meaning if the West does not fight for freedom elsewhere.
Today’s censorship touches on all aspects of life—from the internet and newspapers to books, concerts, and art exhibitions. It nullifies the individual’s sense of self and experience of life: ideas give way to compliance, speech becomes flattery, and existence is reduced to servility.
In the end I realized that what I was facing was not simply a huge, arbitrary political system but an expanse of barren territory where freedom was mocked, betrayal was encouraged, and deception was praised.
“Wasn’t it you people who made me so influential?” I said.
As Wang Fen and Ai Lao passed out of sight, I felt a weight had been lifted. I no longer needed to worry whether they were somewhere safe.
Ai Lao told me he had put a hammer in the freezer. “It’s a present for you,” he said. “The hammer represents Ai Weiwei. No matter how much hassle he gets from the police, Ai Weiwei is always Ai Weiwei—he’s not going to change. When the ice thaws, the hammer is still the hammer.”
They did not like the idea of my going to the United States, even if that was the Western country where I had spent the most time. Germany, in their view, was a preferable option—indeed, they asked me to submit a formal application to travel to Germany for a follow-up examination of my head injury.
I endeavor always to do right by him. No matter whether he is nonchalant or indifferent, he is my final arbiter, and his approval will be the ultimate measure of whether my efforts have paid off. When I remember my father, the regret that I feel stems from my lack of curiosity about the difficulties he endured, and from the lack of empathy and understanding I showed when I was younger. During those long weeks in secret detention, my fear was not that I might not be able to see my son again, but that I might not have the chance to let him really know me. So the idea came to me that if I was released, to bridge the gap between us, I should write down what I knew of my father and tell my son honestly who I am, what life means to me, why freedom is so precious, and why autocracy fears art. I hoped that my convictions could become something he could see and feel in his heart and mind. That way, if one day Ai Lao wanted to know more, it would be there—my own story, and his grandfather’s.
As I see it, any advocacy of freedom is inseparable from an effort to attain it, for freedom is not a goal but a direction, and it comes into being through the very act of resistance. As an artist, I have a responsibility to turn that belief into something fascinating and breathtaking. Even if my art at times seems insubstantial in comparison with all that I am up against, it will endure as a part of the tangible record. I continue to press for equity, for equity offers the fullest possible realization of the individual’s interests in a group context. Or as Ai Lao has put it, “Fairness means making everyone happy.”
an ancient Silk Road city in Xinjiang: Of a thousand years of joys and sorrows Not a trace can be found You who are living, live the best life you can Don’t count on the earth to preserve memory
In those months before I was able to rejoin Ai Lao, I wrote down what I would have preferred not to remember, for it is these recollections that help me forget.
They continued to surge forth like a flood, preferring that their children survive amid prejudice rather than see their lives imperiled in the war-torn ruins of their homeland.
[无底洞] bottomless black hole.
Self-expression is central to human existence. Without the sound of human voices, without warmth and color in our lives, without attentive glances, Earth is just an insensate rock suspended in space.
Although he and I were not emotionally close, our connection has undoubtedly played a role in determining the road I have taken and the position in which I find myself. I have experienced some of the personal struggles and larger political difficulties that he encountered, and like him I have been labeled an enemy of the state.
When I was released, after eighty-one days in detention, the first thing I did was to start recording my story on tape, beginning with what happened during my disappearance, to preserve a detailed account while the events were still fresh in my mind.
I also profited from the guidance
I would like to extend a special thanks to my translator, Allan Barr… his natural, straightforward language has done much to compensate for the deficiencies of my own writing.
- Ai Weiwei is an artist who advocates for human rights and freedom of speech.