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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

Ai Weiwei is Not Free – What we learned about China from his imprisonment

It’s very tempting at this moment to celebrate the release of Ai Weiwei, but the current situation is a painful reminder of just how far China has left to go before it actually respects Human Rights.

The lead story today is that Ai Weiwei was released from prison on bail after confessing to his economic crimes (tax evasion). He has agreed to pay his fines, and is out because of good behavior in confessing and because of a chronic illness. Other sources add that this is partially in response to international calls for his release.

Today, we’ll be picking this apart.

It is wrong to say that Ai Weiwei is free. In the next few months there is a good chance that he will be arrested again, and at the very least will be indefinitely on house arrest. His “freedom” comes at a tremendous price for him and his family. Just last week the New York Times covered a story about another activist who had been severely beaten while under house arrest. Even after the activist was sent to prison his family has been continuously harassed, being forced to move out of Beijing, and being unable to find a company willing to hire his wife.

Freedom is much more than the absence of a jail cell. Ai Weiwei’s home will become his new prison. It is known that in house arrests security cameras are installed, sheets of metal are placed over the windows, guards are stationed nearby to monitor the house and its residents at all times and all communication and news sources are cut off. As long as he stays in China, I doubt that he will ever be allowed to return to his infamous twitter account, or even comment on the situation in China (we might see some forced art though).

It is a small comfort to know at least to know where Ai Weiwei is. For nearly three months after he was arrested in the Beijing airport, no one knew where he was being held. After his wife’s visit with him a few weeks ago, it was made clear that the location was not an official prison.

Ai Weiwei has been charged with evading taxes, and destroying financial documents, which is very convenient given that there is no evidence. They do however have his confession. As forced confessions are still admissible in Chinese courts (they are “working” on that), it is highly likely that he was tortured in someway to extract those confessions. In the future, when they arrest him again for questioning their rule, they will remind the Chinese people that he is nothing more than a common criminal (this is what they did to Liu Xiaobo).

Today is also not a turning point for China’s human rights situation. There are still more than 130 Chinese activists currently sitting in Chinese “prisons” (as I’m writing this article, journalists are trying to confirm that Xu Zhiyong has been taken). Many have been charged with “subverting state power“, people like Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. A typical sentence for questioning the Party’s rule is more than 10 years, while the maximum sentence for child molestation is 5 years.

I think it is also incredibly important to debunk this claim that international pressure had anything to do with his release on bail. China showed the world that it did not care what people in other countries think when they arrested him. Human rights groups are making this claim because they want people to feel like their actions helped insure his release. I’m not saying that these actions served no purpose, they helped create a greater understand abroad of the situation here, but that they did not influence the gov’t. To make this point perfectly clear, in 4 days Hu Jintao will be meeting with the leader of Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir, who is wanted for genocide by the International Criminal Court. If they are willing to meet with him after all of the actions taken to bring light to what happened in Darfur, why would they care what you think about the disappearance of one Chinese artist?

Ultimately what has happened is a net gain for the Chinese gov’t. They have silenced Ai Weiwei, and they can now dodge criticisms from abroad. We must continue to put pressure on China until there is actual, meaningful change in how they approach human rights.

further reading about Ai’s current situation can be followed on China Digital Times.

Finally I would like to wrap up with a few quotes from the man the party fears so much (all of these are from here):

“Grabbing a rapist was labelled anti-China, questioning shoddy constructions which caused the loss of children was labelled anti-China, exposing contaminated food was labelled anti-China, revealing whatever chaos was labelled anti-China. Child trafficking, HIV-positive blood donation, sweatshop coal mines, law-enforcement agencies violating laws, fake news, corruption, unconstitutionality, green dam censorship system, so long as revealing these issues were labelled anti-China. Are you a human being if you are not anti-China?”

“Overturning police cars is a super-tough workout physically. I enjoy this sport event which probably is the only sport event I like, and I will definitely participate in it.”

” In this country, tyranny deprives not only ordinary people of their rights to life, but also their rights to express their opinions, including the right to question, the right to inquire and the right to know. All the efforts to acquire the rights have been destroyed by the authorities at all costs. People who died of tyranny had no place to be buried.”

“What can they do to me? None other than deportation, kidnapping and imprisonment of me or make me completely vanish. They don’t feature imagination and creativity, and they are lack of happiness and the capability to soar up into the sky, what a pathetic political group.”

“Everyone ignores me from now on, and they are not concerned about what I’ve said as well as my plight. Unfortunately, my plight is also the plight of China.”