Ai Weiwei kicks off this memoir 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows (Trans. Allan H. Barr) with one of his father’s poems ‘Yarkhoto’ with its overtones of Shelley’s Ozymandias:
It’s almost as if a caravan is wending its way through town
A clamour of voices mingling with the tinkle of camel bells
The markets bustling as before
An incessant flow of carts and horses
But no – the splendid palace
Has lapsed into ruin
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.
Ai Qing 1980
Born in 1957, Ai Weiwei was the son of Ai Qing, a famous poet who also happened to be part of Mao Zedong’s friendship circle, before the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the subsequent Cultural Revolution turned just about everyone – including Ai Qing – into an enemy of the state.
These tumultuous events brought to an end the relatively comfortable life that the family had been able to live. Ai Qing the poet and lecturer was suddenly labelled by the regime as a ‘purveyor of bourgeois literature and art,’ exiled, and subject to years of forced labour and other indignities in a frozen wasteland known as ‘Little Siberia’. Into such an extreme existence, Ai Qing was accompanied by his now 11 year old son, Ai Weiwei.
Here, they were allocated a ‘dugout’ in which to live:
“ a square hole dug into the ground with a crude roof formed of tamarisk branches and rice stalks, sealed with several layers of grassy mud.”
Perhaps after the Bird’s Nest Stadium he designed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, or perhaps after he carpeted the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern with 100 million sunflower seeds – each individually made by hand – Ai Weiwei would go on to become one of China’s best known exports. He is also one of their best known social activists as a result of which he has spent some considerable part of his life on a direct collision course with the authorities.
Ai Weiwei starts the main part of his own story around 1981 when it became possible for him to travel as a student to the US – where he subsequently spent 10 years – before returning to China. He writes:
“In many people’s eyes, electing to go to America for study was tantamount to defection. From 1949 onwards, it had been virtually impossible for Chinese to undertake study abroad that was not state sponsored. The country had been isolated from the west for more than 30 years, and from the Soviet bloc for more than 20 years. Now, with the resumption of relations with the United States and Europe, I was in the first wave of students going abroad at their own expense.”
It is not clear how much studying gets done during this period in the US – in fact the narrative becomes opaque at this stage. Ai Weiwei tells us that if we wish to know more of this section of his life we should read his brother Ai Dan’s book (his brother visited him in the US). But there seems little doubt that his social activist persona became crystallised during this phase of his life.
By the time Ai Weiwei returns from the US to China in 1993, that country’s economy has grown by leaps and bounds but he says: “the things that really needed changing had not changed at all.” The artist finds himself on a one man mission to change that. And if this book is about anything it is about a sense of mission.
There are some surprising announcements during the narrative, eg: ‘I had been married for 10 years at that time and…’ oh really? Must have missed the announcement. But this is not a memoir about marital relationships, it is a memoir about filial ones: Ai Weiwei’s own relationship to his father and later on, his to his son Ai Lao.
Although he talks briefly about the conception of some of his art works, there is little description of the interior processes behind them and a sense that much is not being said; there is a sense that he is by nature a cautious man and that he has lived his entire life having to be cautious despite his comparative outspokenness and activism, despite his world fame. Or because of those things. He knows he puts himself at risk and yet keeps to his chosen course.
The book covers the Tiananmen Square massacre 1989; the arrival of the internet in China (1994); the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan; the death of hundreds of children when their junior school collapsed in an earthquake – Ai Weiwei conducted an investigation into the building’s poor construction; the Twitter Revolution, the Arab Spring in 2011 and in April of that same year, his own disappearance by state police.
Blogging – an activity that many (including me) take for granted – was a remarkable freedom. A method of communication which gained Ai Weiwei millions of followers.
“Authority couldn’t be everywhere at once… I glimpsed an alluring land of free expression”
Alas this glimpse was relatively shortlived.
“The full name for State Security is ‘Domestic Security Protection’; its operations are veiled in secrecy… State Security’s targets include political dissidents, non-governmental organisations and human rights activists.”
By 2003 the Chinese Government had already launched the Orwellian sounding ‘Ministry of Public Security’ which included internet monitoring, and by 2009 Ai’s blog was shut down by the state. In 2013 the NSA whistleblower and activist Edward Snowden would inform the world from the Mira hotel in Hong Kong, that the US had more or less followed suit. Although Snowden is not (so far as I know) a visual artist he knows a thing or two about the personal cost of speaking truth to power. He has endorsed Ai’s work as ‘a remarkable testament to the eternal power of the simple, daring, truth…’. .
1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary life, I can’t recommend it enough. I will shelve my copy next to Ed Snowden’s Permanent Record. For they surely belong together.