Ai Weiwei says it was Allen Ginsberg, whom he befriended as an unknown immigrant in New York in the 1980s, that first told him to write his memoirs. At the time, Ai had little interest in doing so, feeling “no attachment to his memories”. This might have been because much of his youth was spent in the company of his father as he served a painful exile in Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution. It was only when Ai himself was detained by Chinese security forces for 81 days in 2011, and was separated from his young son, that he felt a compulsion to write things down.
The Chinese artist-turned-activist’s memoir is as much about his father, the celebrated modernist poet Ai Qing, as himself. Like many Chinese of his generation, Ai Qing’s story was also that of modern China. Born in 1910, six months before the Wuchang Uprising that would eventually overthrow the Qing dynasty, as a young man he established a reputation as an innovator of Chinese poetry, freeing it from age-old formal and thematic constraints. Upon the Japanese occupation of China, he threw his lot in with the Communists, moving to Shaanxi province to live among them.
As early as 1942, he realised that no ideological nuances were permitted in Mao’s party, but he remained faithful to the cause, serving as a cultural apparatchik after the 1949 revolution. After his defence of the feminist writer Ding Ling in 1957, he was marked as a rightist, and so began almost two decades of re-education and the disappearance of his poetry from the public sphere.
Ai Weiwei, born the same year as his father’s fall from grace, lived with Ai Qing for much of his exile in China’s western regions. You sense the memoir is a work of atonement by the younger Ai, who admits to feeling indifferent as a young man to his father’s suffering. Ai Qing, in his son’s telling, emerges as a saintly character, uncomplaining during the humiliations and back-breaking labours of his exile and unembittered by the CCP’s cynical recuperation of his work when it rehabilitated him in the 1970s.
After publicly highlighting corrupt building practices that likely increased the death toll of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai Weiwei himself became a person of interest to the Chinese government, and his disappearance three years later caused an international outcry. He had by now established a reputation outside of China for his provocative and often enigmatic conceptual art. His status as a dissident would make him world-famous.
The chapters that recount his detention (and his prior harassment by the police) are among the book’s most enthralling, leavened with a dark humour and a humane respect for his captors, both browbeaten police forced to pay their own expenses and peasant soldiers. Ai also uses the discussions he had with his interrogators to flesh out the thinking behind his art, which Western readers might find an invaluable exegesis.
Though Ai’s troubles continued for another four years of house arrest until he was allowed to leave the country (he now lives in Portugal), he admits that his persecution pales next to what his father endured, and he is thankful for living in a “relatively tolerant era”. He is nonetheless pessimistic about change coming to his native country any time soon, reasoning that dictatorships tend not to end of their own accord.
He has also long been more lucid about the Chinese Community Party than many power-brokers in the West have been; his constant needling of authority during the Hu Jintao years made him a Banquo at the feast when Western countries were rushing to do business with China while looking the other way on human rights. Now that the CCP’s repression has become more overt still under Xi Jinping, Ai has been vindicated.
Unlike many other exiled Chinese critics of the Party–no doubt under the sway of ardent anticommunist allies or dismayed by the Western left’s shameful indifference to human rights in China–Ai has resisted the temptation to take a rightward turn in the West. He has continued to advocate on behalf of the dispossessed, including Syrian and Palestinian refugees, and has spoken out in support of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. He is also fiercely critical of the hypocrisy of the international art establishment in its dutiful sidelining of him at Chinese art shows to please Beijing.
1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows–its title drawn from an Ai Qing poem–is much better written than the average autobiography. Ai’s prose has a breezy poeticism to it, well rendered in Allan H. Barr’s fluid translation. It presents a fascinating, if at times self-satisfied, portrait of a polymath who remains only partially understood in the West, and one who has a far greater faith in his fellow citizens than the government that continues to rule over them does.
Originally published by The Irish Times