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Ai Weiwei, Art with Chinese Characteristics, and the need for both Unity and Disunity

Picking up from where Hannah left off yesterday, I want to look at a couple ideas from Ai Weiwei’s essays that jumped out at me.

Chinese Contemporary in Dilemma and Transition

Ai’s essays provide a great reminder of why Ai was so popular in China before the West took an interest in him – he isn’t speaking to a western audience and he is directly challenging Chinese culture.

In fact much of his essay on Chinese art is in direct opposition to how the gov’t tried to paint him after his arrest; Ai is in no way infatuated with Western ideology, as he wants to see a strong and prosperous Chinese art scene, and by extension China. That Chinese artists should resist western influence, and instead look more deeply into their own history to inspire their works. These ideas that China should be treated as a wholly unique civilization, sounds in some ways similar to what one hears from Global Times when discussing issues like human rights and democracy, which made me pause for a moment to question whether the imprisoned Ai of 2012 would still agree with the Ai of 2004.

Then I began to realize that these ideas about art resonate strongly with Ai’s views on politics: that while the Party is not right for China, and that individuals must have their own voice within whatever system replaces the current one, it must still be a uniquely Chinese government. It should not blindly follow the path of the West, nor can it continue on it’s current destructive course.

As Ai warns against labeling Chinese artists as anti-establishment, it is also worth remembering that we should avoid assuming that all Chinese dissidents are pro-western, or that all of those opposed to the one-child policy are necessarily pro-life.

Uli Sigg’s art collection, which Ai admires for its breadth.

Who Are You?

In the next essay we read, “Who Are You?” Ai launches into a philosophical discussion of design and it’s need to label things. In one section he says,

“In certain social situations we may say: ‘I am you, and you and I are the same.’ In other circumstances we may say: ‘I am myself and I am different from all of you.'”

At this moment in China, the Party seems to be reasserting that all Chinese people are united as a single mass, but that this push has led to a growing call from the younger generation for individual and distinct identities. There seems to be an ebb and flow to this cycle throughout all cultures, and that in times of unity (or as Hu prefers to call it “harmony”), there is often an urge to reconsider the possibility of disunity.

Within the dissident community, I would hope to see much more recognition of the idea that their efforts are one in the same. The other day a friend sent me a link to an article decrying the problem of harvesting organs from Falun Gong practitioners, but shouldn’t we really be opposed to all forms of coerced organ harvesting? Or that Chinese Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Uighur Muslims have yet to unite on issues related to the repression of their religious practices; opting instead to each go it alone (with few tangible results).

Ai also argues that, “People today expect to gain status, acceptance, or pleasure from the particular number of square meters in their homes or some set of fixed standards, a life of simply filling in the blanks.” This call for a counter-culture, in which we question whether or not the speed of development is worth the price, has begun to take shape in China over the last few years, especially after the train crash last summer.

Next week we will be reading three essays from Ai Weiwei and discussing them here on Thursday and Friday (the series will continue through August, as Ai Weiwei is a prolific essayist, and we want to make sure you get the most out of your book). They are: “A World without Honor,” “As Soon as You’re Not Careful…an Encounter with Idiocy on a Sunny Day,” and “Aftershocks.” If you are reading along, we encourage you to send your own reflections on the pieces to Hannah@SeeingRedinChina.com


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