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Don’t read too much into the Olympics and other practical advice from Ai Weiwei

Today, we continue our ongoing series on Ai Weiwei’s book, Time and place.

A World Without Honor

By 2006 China had already tapped Zhang Yimou to direct the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. To Ai this was completely unacceptable, and he decided to devote a rather fiery post to the injustice of this decision. It was  shortly before this that the once daring director had begun to back away from the line. As a friend who had attended film school with Zhang told me, it seemed to her that the gov’t had finally “gotten” him.

But Ai’s essay is still relevant today, especially as we sit through two more weeks of Olympics. He says, “Every competition has a winner, and the victorious side always uses its success to prove a fact.” This should be kept in mind when debating whether or not America’s “free-market” system of athletic training vs. the Chinese state-backed approach is more successful. It isn’t really something we’re going to learn from a few games of basketball or 110 meters of hurdles (interestingly, if one combines the total number of medals won this year by China and Russia and compare them to the number won by the U.S. and G.B. you find they come out exactly even).

Ai goes deeper into the nature of competitions in the Chinese context and argues that, “A world with no true goodness and no beauty is necessarily this way. In all competitions here, there are only painstakingly arranged victors, losers, and observers. The weak triumph and the superior suffer defeat, and losers defeat those who should be victors. This is already common knowledge, for the theory of evolution does not apply here.” This seems to get more to the heart of the value of competition within a market system vs. the current system in China that tends to give advantages to State companies. This point has been mentioned time and again by a friend whose private company once boomed only to be squeezed out of the market by “losers” who had been handed victory.

As soon as You’re not careful…an Encounter with Idiocy on a Sunny Day

In this blog post Ai Weiwei recounts his participation in a forum that was discussing Chinese culture in crisis. I’m not sure if he even made it to the event before he decided it would be a waste of time, but being who he is, he decided at the very least he could “contribute” to the conversation. This seems to have taken the form of swearing at one of the presenters who seemed bent on devaluing low-culture like Internet writing. The presenter, who began by bashing Yu Hua so violently that Ai believed for a moment that Yu Hua must be some kind of inanimate object, proceeded then to attack Han Han as a fleeting personality. It was at that point Ai called BS.

In a somewhat telling line Ai says, “I don’t understand why “egocentric” people can’t become masters. Does that even really matter? Isn’t everyone self indulgent?” I’ve always wondered whether Ai’s various forms of art were self-less jabs at authority or if they were the attention seeking behavior that the Global Times claims they are. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what Ai’s motivations are as much as what kind of affect his art has on those who see it. This week at a presentation a man asked me why Ai Weiwei was the only dissident that most Americans were aware of. I replied by saying that Ai was simply one of the most fun to watch. So now I’m pondering if Ai’s actions can be called “egocentric” if the result is a global awareness of the ongoing struggle to create a China ruled by law.


In this short essay Ai compares the devastation of the Tangshan Earthquake to the destructive force of the Cultural Revolution. As he says, “There are two types of disasters: visible and quantifiable natural disasters, and invisible, immeasurable psychological disasters.” He also reminds his readers that the Tangshan earthquake and the death of several Chinese leaders imbued the event with mystical interpretations. This coincidence has been mentioned time and again this year as China ramps up for leadership change.

I think Ai is absolutely right to say there are still “aftershocks” of the Cultural Revolution. One of my Chinese friends says he still shouts criticisms in his sleep, sitting upright in bed and pointing at imaginary class enemies. It also seems to have fueled the current generation of activists and dissidents. What else can possibly come of having your childhood shaped by violence and revolt?

Ai’s final paragraph contains a sentiment I’ve heard repeated often, and it does seem to be true. “The extermination of a nation’s collective memory and its ability for self-reflection is like a living organism’s rejection of its own immune system. The main difference is that this nation won’t die, it will only lose its sense of reason.”

On Friday we’ll continue this series with reflections from Hannah after reading “On The Bird’s Nest” and “The Longest Road.”

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