Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei walks by his work "Life Cycle", a migrants' boat made of bamboo, during a press preview of his new exhibition "Rapture" in Lisbon, Portugal

A new memoir by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei honors his father's poetry and politics

Chinese political dissident and artist Ai Weiwei has published a new book called "1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows." He took the time to discuss with The World's Carol Hills what it was like growing up as the son of a dissident poet.

The World

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei walks by his work "Life Cycle", a migrants' boat made of bamboo, during a press preview of his new exhibition "Rapture" in Lisbon, Portugal, June 3, 2021.

Armando Franca/AP/File photo

Ai Weiwei is China's most famous contemporary artist and activist. And he is unsparing in his criticism of the Chinese government.

Ten years ago, Ai Weiwei spent 80 days in detention. When the Chinese government released him, he felt an urgency to write down his story. If he was detained again, he thought, he wanted his then-2-year-old son to know who he was.

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Another factor that led Ai Weiwei to pen and paper was his own father, Ai Qing, a famous poet whose persecution during China's Cultural Revolution, defined Ai Weiwei's upbringing.

"I realized I knew very little about my father," he said. "I thought, I needed to do a lot of research to understand who he was. That's basically why I wrote this memo."

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Ai Weiwei's memoir, called "1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows," has just been published. He discussed his book and his life growing up as the child of a poet and political dissident with The World's Carol Hills.

Carol Hills: Your father was quite a remarkable man. He was an intellectual who was both wooed by Mao Zedong in the 1940s and then spurned by him after the revolution. Why did Mao Zedong want his support?
Ai Weiwei: So, my father was already very well-known among the young, progressive students or intellectuals. He created a new language, which really relates to modernism, and his poetry is very, very emotional. He really used modern daily language to write poetry.
And Mao Zedong and the communists wanted his support because they wanted intellectuals to sign on with the communists?
Not only that, he was already very influential and also a lot of people [who were] reading his poetry became revolutionary. So, they thought his writing will be very influential in terms of the communist struggle.

 

You know, your father then threw his hat in with the communists, somewhat reluctantly, but then fell out of favor after the revolution. The communists kind of turned on him and intellectuals and said all art and literature had to support the Communist Party. There's a really poignant image in your book when you describe being 10 years old and you're helping your father burn his books. This was at the start of the Cultural Revolution. Do you remember what you felt at that time?
Well, [I was a] young boy, and of course, you felt your parents were scared. That kind of feeling was not only in your family, it was the whole society [who were] so afraid of something happening to them. And then my father decided to burn all his poetry books and the art books, because the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution, they always came to my home to search for some kind of anti-revolution traces. They would kick the door open and check on all the letters or books.

 

You were forced to live in cold and remote parts of China for a period of time. You lived in a dugout with him. Food was scarce. I mean, the images that we learn about the Cultural Revolution are ones you saw up close. Your father was forced to wear a dunce cap and parade around the village being jeered at. Did the experience of growing up as somebody whose father was being persecuted, did it make you, in some ways, feel comfortable with being an outsider?
You have no choice. It can be extremely harsh, but many people lost their lives during that period, and in that kind of struggle.

 

Did that experience, though, make you wary about ever being an insider?
Since I was born, my father was being criticized, so, I always felt we are being singled out from the society as an anti-party or anti-people. So, this is a given condition.

 

For much of your time as a critic and dissident when you were still in China, you've had ways to communicate with the outside. You've had Twitter, Facebook, email, the international media. Your father didn't have any of that. Does that make you think differently about how he handled his own persecution and the harsh experiences you went through as a kid?
Yes, that is a dramatic difference. Maybe because I realized my father is lacking any possibilities to express his true feelings — not even one sentence. So, that pushed me into the internet because I really wanted to have my voice heard clearly. There's no such opportunity for a new Chinese ... in the past 1,000 years. And I think I grabbed an opportunity and I did a lot on the internet.
You live in exile now. You have your self-expression back. But have you lost something in the trade-off?
I think, yes. I don't have a so-called normal life, a natural life now. I'm traveling, I'm always staying in hotels, always have a sense of unfamiliarness with me. So, you know, you become a true foreigner or a true outsider.

 

Ai Weiwei, what would you like your father to understand about you?
It's my responsibility to be myself.
And do you think you're being yourself?
I'm trying.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.