Ai Weiwei Plumbs His Chaotic Childhood in New Memoir

While confined for 81 days after his 2011 arrest, artist Ai Weiwei thought about his father’s life, the celebrated poet and politically exiled Ai Qing. Until that moment, Ai Weiwei writes, “memories were a burden,” both potentially dangerous and draining to hold. In his memoir 1,000 Years of Joys and Sorrows (Crown Publishing, translated by Allan H. Barr), Ai Weiwei tethers his identity to his father and chaotic childhood.

In 1910, Ai Qing was born at an inauspicious time of day after an arduous labor, signaling misfortune for the family. He was entrusted to a wet nurse for the first three years of his life and was only permitted to call his parents “Aunt” and “Uncle” to mitigate their fate. This origin story foreshadows the gripping episodic dramas of the rebellious Ai Qing. Shifting political tides swept up his individual assertions: in 1929, he embarked on a 35-day voyage to Paris to study painting, only to return to China a poet amidst a Japanese invasion; not long after, he was arrested and incarcerated for possessing a poster degrading military and political leader Chiang Kai-shek. Eventually, Ai Qing was purged from the Communist party in 1957 for his literary and intellectual affiliations.

Of the growing collection of books that addresses the 50 political campaigns that Chinese artists experienced between the establishment of the Republic in 1949 and Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, this memoir uniquely details the psychologically exhausting resettlement process of citizens branded as rightists. Art history texts typically acknowledge that families were split up during the Cultural Revolution or for reeducation, but Ai Weiwei traumatically clarifies how families, including his, could not survive and stay together because the government made food and medicine scarce, schools inaccessible, and divided neighbors. His recollections are so vividly violent that when he identifies his father as one of 370 individuals that survived among the hundreds of thousands of people who were punitively sent to labor in rural industrial towns, the reader is not startled by the number.

A sampling of Ai Weiwei’s work shown at the Stars Art Exhibition in Beijing in 1979, reproduced in his memoir.

1,000 Years is almost structured as two books, with Ai Weiwei emerging on page 165 as the main character when he moves to New York in 1981. The intense contextual imagery around his father’s story does not extend into Ai’s chapters. From the Beijing National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, to the destruction of a Han dynasty urn, every one of the artist’s projects is mentioned, but most in a peripheral manner. The generalities are sporadically punctuated by more in-depth discussion, such as of “Fairytale” (2007), performed at Documenta in Kassel, Germany. It included an installation of Qing dynasty chairs and a dormitory that would house 1,001 Chinese tourists that never previously traveled abroad. The touching description of the project focuses on the planning and organizing process, including the procurement of a passport for a woman who simply identified her name on papers as “so-and-so’s mother.”

If Ai Weiwei didn’t exist, the West would have invented him. This statement was published by Smithsonian Magazine 10 years ago, but I’ve heard it repeated by art historians ever since. 1,000 Years is offered in 18 languages, evidence that the West continues to be obsessed with China and insists (or prefers) artists who make political work. This memoir will not alter this judgement. Instead, Ai offers a cathartic gesture to his father by telling his story from the position of a son struggling to understand his parents’ choices. I am not convinced by the conclusion of the book that the artist found peace as narrator, but readers will find a new perspective on the complicated events that still cage and catapult Chinese artists today. 

1,000 Years of Joys and Sorrows: A Memoir by Ai Weiwei and is published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, and is available online.

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