Ai Weiwei's new memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, examines the roots of the artist's lifelong rebellion – The Globe and Mail

Ai Weiwei’s new book uncovers his childhood witnessing his poet father’s persecution during the Cultural Revolution, his glory years as China’s most celebrated artist and his detention in Beijing in 2011
Ai Weiwei poses for a portrait during a presentation of his new exhibition Intertwine, at Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, Portugal, in July 2021.VIOLETA SANTOS MOURA/Reuters
Before Ai Weiwei was a globe-trotting art star and notorious Chinese dissident, he was young and poor and lonely in New York. In his new memoir 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, he describes himself in the 1980s bouncing from lodging to lodging and taking menial jobs as he struggled to break into the gallery scene. So what did he learn in his American decade?
“It destroyed a lot of illusions,” he said, adding, “There is not much choice beside the place I grew up, the Communist society which was controlled by authoritarianism.” It was that or “brutal capitalism. … The Chinese have this Communist propaganda, mind control, but the West has their own way to [advance] their own values, many of them questionable.” If Ai condemns Chinese authoritarianism, saying it destroys all passion and imagination, he is also highly critical of the moral compromises the West makes in pursuit of money.
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On a video call to discuss his new book, Ai is stolid and unbending; his memoir uncovers the roots of a lifelong recalcitrance that began in his childhood witnessing his father’s persecution during the Cultural Revolution, continued through his glory years in the 2000s as China’s most celebrated artist and persisted into his detention in Beijing in 2011.
“I have been seen as a heroic act against the authoritarian state or I have been seen as critical of the hypocrisy of post-global capitalism. I wouldn’t be appreciated by either side. This is their happy moment, a celebration. Why does somebody have to speak out?”
As he resists Westerners’ attempts to turn him into their liberal hero, he will defend China on many issues, despite his continuing criticism of its government. Asked if he found it worrying that Chinese premier Xi Jinping did not attend the recent climate conference in Glasgow, he points out that the West has downloaded emissions onto China by moving manufacturing off-shore.
And if Canadians felt the homecoming of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig was some kind of diplomatic coup that exposed China’s hostage-taking for what it was, Ai sees the exchange exclusively as a Chinese victory. It ensured Meng Wanzhou’s release from charges arising over the issue of blocking trade with Iran, which he sees as an American agenda that means nothing to China.
“Eventually the U.S. lost the challenge. … Canada was so weak and the U.S. was also very weak. But what can you do? The West very much depends on China’s development,” he said. Speaking of his own attempts to expose the regime through social media, he adds: “China has always been very arrogant in a way. It doesn’t care if everybody is watching.”
Ai Weiwei at a demonstration in London in October.JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images
Ai has lifelong experience of that arrogance. Perhaps the most gripping passages in his book – and certainly the stories that will be new to many readers – are those in which he describes his father’s literary career and repeated persecution. As a boy of 10 he accompanied his father into exile to a remote village where the celebrated poet was forced to clean latrines.
Ai Qing (which was a pen name) was born in 1910 into a rural shopkeeping and landowning family but refused to conform to his father’s bourgeois expectations, escaping to Paris to study art. On his return to China in the 1930s, he began writing free verse poetry that departed from classical Chinese forms, but he was imprisoned by the Nationalist regime of the day: He was a committed socialist, a supporter of the Communists and, by the time of the Revolution in 1949, an intimate of Mao’s. However, the new Communist authorities quickly decided art was only valuable as propaganda, a position that Ai Qing questioned, arguing for freedom of expression. He was one of many cultural figures who were viewed with suspicion and persecuted during the anti-rightist campaign of the late 1950s.
Things only got worse during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s when Ai Qing was sent into internal exile in a village near the Mongolian border. The 10-year-old Weiwei, the son of his father’s third marriage, born in 1957, went with him but Weiwei’s mother stayed behind with his younger brother and did not join them for more than a year. In the village, Ai Qing was initially assigned the task of tending a forest, but took such pride in the job, he was demoted to cleaning the latrines. In the evenings, there were propaganda sessions in which he was routinely denounced. Did this not strike the young Weiwei, old enough to understand his father’s humiliation, as bitterly unfair?
“The word unfair never appears in a Chinese dictionary. There is no such thing as unfair because Communism is a god. … If you are punished by the party you are doomed.”
Still, he knew his father was no villain.
“He was a very gentle man, very soft, rational, humorous and with a very big heart. I couldn’t see anything wrong in his life.”
The family lived in their dugout in “Little Siberia” until Weiwei was 15, when they were allowed to return to the city. After Mao’s death in 1976, the elder Ai was finally rehabilitated and ever since has been recognized as China’s first modernist poet. His son describes his ideas, contacts and conversations with great intimacy: that section of the book took a lot of research, Ai says, but he points out that there is a whole academic industry devoted to his father’s life and work.
Ai acted as artistic consultant to the architects of the famous Bird’s Nest structure inspired by Chinese ceramics.THOMAS PETER/Reuters
Being the son of Ai Qing might be a bit like being the son of T.S. Eliot or James Joyce: Much is expected but also much is permitted. The artist grew more and more political on his return from New York in 1993 as he emerged as a central force on Beijing’s burgeoning art scene and established a conceptual practice that implied social critique. In the West, it was often said that Ai Weiwei could get away with all this because he was Ai Qing’s son: China was opening to the world and the Chinese wouldn’t dare touch him.
And indeed, for a while it seemed like everything was permitted to China’s great art star, the perfect representative of a new economic and cultural powerhouse. As he painted the Coke logo on a Hang dynasty jar or filled the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London with millions of individually crafted porcelain sunflower seeds, he seemed to summarize the dilemmas of China’s encounter with capitalism. In 2003, he had even been asked to design a building, the stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Ai acted as artistic consultant to the architects on the project that produced the famous Bird’s Nest structure inspired by Chinese ceramics.
But three months before the Games were set to open, the Sichuan earthquake happened, and thousands of Chinese children were killed in shoddily constructed schools. As Ai recounts in his memoir, this was the moment he discovered the power of the Internet: He had been blogging actively for several years and now he and his studio staff began crowd-sourcing the names of the dead children, much to the alarm of Chinese authorities who were trying to play down the disaster.
“I felt a desperate desire to make something happen. I felt this is it, I have come to the end. … I pushed very strongly about the situation, to do this investigation directly, questioning the authorities. They could not really openly compete with me so I knew they would have to do something else.”
He began a game of cat and mouse with officers continually tailing and surveilling him, while he refused to stop his activities. In 2011, the state finally arrested him and held him incommunicado for 81 days, talking about tax evasion but never charging him.
“I don’t have fear,” Ai said of his imprisonment. “I do have anger, but that anger is very damaging to myself.” He tried to hold himself back from getting angry at individuals, remembering they had no power over the situation either. “It’s such a huge society, 1.4 billion people, but at the same time, there is nobody there. Nobody can bear responsibility for anything. That is a huge monster, and it’s unpredictable.”
In his book, his descriptions of the conditions of his incarceration would be funny if they weren’t so painful: Guards were forced to stand right by his side 24 hours a day, watching his every move. “I often think about them; they are wasting their lives, doing nothing.”
He was released relatively quickly, possibly because the regime could not risk disappearing the son of its most patriotic poet but Ai had got his warning. He describes himself as someone who moves through life casually, without a particular plan, which may explain a courage that can seem foolhardy from the outside.
But he is also a calm and unemotional character; there are very few sentimental details in his memoir, which leaves his personal life largely untouched. By the time of his release he was estranged from his wife, the artist Lu Qing and, in one of the book’s few intimate moments, Lu tells him she feels the only thing that keeps them together are their cats and dogs.
In 2008, he had begun a relationship with the filmmaker Wang Fen and it was the upbringing of their son, Ai Lao, born in 2010, that finally seems to have shaken him. Once the Chinese restored his passport in 2015, he moved to Berlin immediately, and then, in 2019, to Britain, where his family is now based in Cambridge. (Ai himself says he has no base, travelling constantly and living in hotel rooms. He keeps studios in Berlin, Beijing and Portugal.)
Coro-Nation is a documentary film by Ai Weiwei about the lockdown in Wuhan, China, during the COVID-19 outbreak.Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio
His move to the West has fuelled increasingly global themes in his art and also coincides with his turn to documentary.
“Visual art in the West has become decorative, for the super rich and powerful. It has lost its meaning. … It doesn’t really relate to the moral or philosophical questions,” he said, contrasting that to the way documentaries deal directly with life-and-death issues. In 2017, he addressed the refugee crisis with Human Flow; last year, collaborators in China provided him with remarkable footage from the pandemic’s epicentre to create Coro-Nation, a film about the loss of personal freedoms in the midst of the Wuhan lockdown. That film can be streamed but didn’t make it to the festival circuit, where it was submitted to the Toronto International Film Festival but not chosen: Ai cites that as an example of how he is also censored in the West, as festivals directors fear alienating Chinese film buyers. (A representative for TIFF said that the festival had declined many films in 2020, receiving 6,000 submissions for a reduced program of only 50 slots.) If once he rebelled against the restrictions of the East, he now chafes against the complicity of the West.
Ai says he wrote his book, in which he seeks to understand his father’s path and explain his own, so that his son could understand him. Today, Ai Lao is 12 and attending school in Cambridge, where, his father suggests, the boy has his own Western life and doesn’t care much about the travails of the older generation.
“I finished the book. I feel a heavy rock in my heart has been put down. I have said what I should tell him and he has grown up to the age where he can make his own decision.”
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