Book Review: Ai Weiwei’s “1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows” reflects the artist’s journey into activism

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Translated by Allan H Barr, 1000 years of joys and sorrows was written by Ai Weiwei in memory of his father Ai Qing and in memory of his son Ai Lao. The memoir opens with the author reflecting on his detention by the Chinese government, which then reminded him of his father’s experience as a political exile half a century before.

Ai Qing was born into a privileged family but raised by Big-Leaf Lotus, a peasant who drowned his newborn daughter in order to nurse Ai Qing to support her drunkard husband and their five children. Ai Qing was considered “a bad omen” by his clan and would be “his parents’ death” if they had to raise him at home.

As a young child, the boy had shown a deep talent and interest in the arts: “Out of wood, he fashioned a miniature house with doors and windows that could be opened.” But it gave his father another reason to be unhappy with his son as the arts were held in low regard in society at the time.

At 19, Ai Qing left Shanghai for Paris to pursue his passion for the arts. Being in a foreign land, his sense of isolation deepened his desire for knowledge, and he turned to literature to fill the void. Later, he will return to his stay in France and conclude that it was the best time of his life because “never again would he know such freedom and such leisure”.

As a prominent poet exposed to subversive events happening in the West, Ai Qing was seen as a threat to the Chinese state and government; “he was now a young man, with an independent spirit and the confidence to express himself”. A huge collection of books in his home often attracted unwanted attention from the authorities. With Ai Weiwei’s help, Ai Qing decided to burn his entire library.

In his early twenties, Ai Qing was put behind bars for being a member of a revolutionary group, before being exiled years later during Mao’s Cultural Revolution to a deserted place called Little Siberia to undergo a ” reshuffling of thought” after being branded a purveyor of bourgeois literature. and arts.

The family, including Ai Weiwei – who was 10 at the time – and his half-brother Gao Jian, were nesting in a dugout that “was shaped like a square hole dug in the ground, with a rough roof formed of branches of tamarisk and stalks of rice, sealed with several layers of grassy mud” for a decade.

Unable to bear the hardships of his homeland after his father was released, Ai Weiwei traveled to New York to pursue self-funded studies. He studied the arts and started participating in exhibitions before taking up photography. After being credited with The New York Times for a photo he took at a protest, he became interested in joining other movements and protests, especially those fighting for freedom of expression.

After 12 years, Ai Weiwei returned to Beijing to spend time with his sick father. He discovered that his native country had changed but remained the same all at the same time. Many roads and tall buildings had been built, but the nation was still very strict on the right to express beliefs and opinions.

Injustice and corruption fueled her desire to be the voice of the people, even if it meant following the path her father had once forcefully walked: “I had changed, it seemed, from artist to social activist . It is not at all difficult to become a social activist: as soon as you start worrying about the future of the nation, you are already on a path that could lead you directly to prison.

As the designer of the National Stadium for the Beijing Olympics, Ai Weiwei was condemned by architectural scholars who claimed he was trying to make China an experiment for Western architecture, due to the extensive use of metals in the building structure. He had also organized a program, bringing 1,001 Chinese on an overseas tour to Kassel, Germany, in an attempt to overcome the participants’ insecurities “instilled in them by political and cultural life in China”.

From then on he began to create offensive art in the form of photography, painting, writing, artifacts, architecture, film, documentaries and music to challenge the autocratic system. Obsessed with deconstructing classical order and ethics, Ai Weiwei’s provocative stance naturally upsets the authorities.

New York was to Ai Weiwei what Paris was to Ai Qing. Similarly, blogging for Ai Weiwei was what writing poetry was for his father. It wasn’t until the former actively started blogging and freely expressing his thoughts to thousands of subscribers that authorities began monitoring his every move. His blog became a public journal where he updated just about anything, including a picture of him being treated harshly by officers.

As an internationally renowned artist, Ai Weiwei has often been invited to hold overseas art exhibitions. In 2011, before boarding a flight to Taipei, he was swarmed by police at the airport and detained for 81 days, during which every move and utterance required permission from the two guards in charge. Even after he was released, authorities never really gave Ai Weiwei a specific reason why he was removed from society, just like his father.

The terrible period made him look back on the person Ai Qing was and he was struck that he never really knew his father’s story. Feeling that he could disappear forever at any time during his detention, Ai Weiwei decided to write this book so that his son Ai Lao would have a record of who his father was and the journey he had taken.

The 400 pages 1000 years of joys and sorrows wasn’t easy to complete in one sitting, as some events required you to put it down to process the author’s words, before picking up where you left off. Difficulties after difficulties make this book an intense read. With each chapter, it didn’t seem like the story got any easier. Given the nature of Ai Weiwei, who is extremely vocal and provocative, his memoir accurately reflects his journey.

This article was first published on January 24, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.

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