Resistance Heroes: Ai Weiwei
This blog post will surely cause China to ban my site. Oh, it’s already too late? Because of this post and this one? I just finished reading Ai Weiwei’s memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, translated from Chinese by Allan H. Barr and think it belongs on night tables and bookshelves everywhere, especially at a time when so many in the West begun to embrace authoritarian rule.
The memoir begins with a parallel timeline. Young Weiwei is living with his father, the acclaimed poet Ai Qing, is a remote desert in northwest China, enduring harsh conditions because of his father’s defiance of the Communist regime of Mao Zedong during the infamous Cultural Revolution. In the other timeline, he narrates Ai Qing’s journey up to that moment. Born in 1910, Ai Qing endured prison even before the 1949 communist takeover. Then, the Nationalist government accused him of being a communist because of his rebellious poetry. Living underground and doing hard time meant Ai Qing came late to fatherhood (another factor was the hardship of life in China under the Japanese invasion and occupation between 1931 and 1945; several of his children died in infancy), and Ai Weiwei, his third of four children, wasn’t born until he was 47 years old. Internal exile split up the family, so Weiwei ended up living alone with his father and taking care of most household tasks because of the rigors of his father’s hard labor and resulting infirmities. Among other abodes, the two lived for years in a one-room underground dugout with rats’ nests on the other side of a dirt wall.
The parallel timelines become one when Ai Qing is rehabilitated in the 1970s and the family is reunited in Beijing. In 1981, Ai Weiwei traveled to New York City to continue his art studies, promptly flunking out of two institutions and living in the city illegally as a result of losing his student visa. He rented an apartment in the East Village, on a corner where 30 years later, I walked my dog past every day. Much of the memoir explores how his father’s suppressed history — Ai Qing didn’t talk much about his years of resistance before going into internal exile — was reborn in his own spirit of resistance in the years after the Tiananmen Square massacre. From a photograph of him giving the finger to the shrine to his thousands of blog posts and his exhibit honoring the thousands of children who lost their lives to shoddy construction in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai Weiwei became a thorn in the side of an increasingly repressive regime. Constant surveillance escalated to a severe beating in 2009 that required treatment in Germany and 81 days in a secret prison in 2011. Like his father, he had to let his family go without him. His four-year-old son Ai Lao and the child’s mother left for safety in Germany in 2014. His passport seized at the beginning of his imprisonment, Ai Weiwei was only able to join them a year later.
The artist is now an exile, a status that has made him keenly aware of the plight of refugees around the world. I saw much of the exhibit that accompanied his documentary Human Flow when it came to New York City in 2017. The bus stop near my apartment featured one of his photos along with these lines from Somali-British poet Warsan Shire’s poem “Home”:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
Reading Ai Weiwei’s memoir at this moment in the United States adds more weight to his words, as, for instance, women in states with draconian anti-abortion laws are moving to restrict the travel of women of reproductive age lest they try to get an abortion elsewhere. The words he quoted in the memoir from his blog resonated with me, as a person who grew up in one of those states:
“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.” (p. 287)
Ai Weiwei decided to write this memoir during his 81 days in prison, so he could explain himself to his son in a way that his father didn’t for him.
So the idea came to me that if I was released, to bridge the gap between us, I would 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. (p. 362)
As a result of the Chinese government’s repression, the world now has a powerful story, a cautionary tale of life without freedom. He also chides the West for looking the other way when dissidents disappear in places like China because they all want to do business with the regime. Giving up economic opportunities to shun a regime that has gone from repression to genocide (as China has done with the Uighur minority and Russia is currently doing in Ukraine) is a hard choice, but tolerating those regimes has consequences as well, as dictatorships have a long history of undermining and then directly attacking democratic nations.
Despite its serious themes, the memoir also made me smile. Ai Weiwei brags about his talented son like any proud parent. I enjoyed his stories of living in New York City in the 1980s, the same time when I taught high school but in a different neighborhood. I wonder if I ever saw him, though, one of the street artists supporting themselves by painting portraits and caricatures in Washington Square Park. And I appreciated his commentary on his art and its inspiration, including his LEGO mosaics of dozen of other human rights heroes. In the years after his shows on Alcatraz Island and elsewhere, LEGO has created its own line of mosaics for adult builders, but those are exclusively popular culture figures like this recent release. Still, I was amused because of The LEGO Group’s early resistance (now abandoned) to providing discounted materials for his political art and then using its success as inspiration.
I am sorry that this gifted artist and his family can no longer live in their country. Although Ai Weiwei had extensive international experience even before his exile, losing home means losing important emotional and physical connections. One is never the same after saying goodbye.