1,000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai Weiwei review: a rebel walking in his father's footsteps

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Ai Weiwei – Laura Lezza/Getty Images

“I gather you’re a celebrity.” So began the interrogation of Ai Weiwei by a Chinese state security official, file open on the table before him and cigarette in hand. Far beyond the electrified fence and security cameras of the facility where he was being held, Ai was international news. It was April 2011, and the most famous Chinese artist in the world – hailed for his Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium, Sunflower Seeds exhibition at the Tate Modern and courageous criticism of China’s authoritarian leadership – had disappeared from Beijing Airport, with nothing heard of him since. Here in this room, things were rather different.

Ai was a nobody; a mere “tax-dodger” and “con-man”, claimed his interrogator, whose work was cheap to make yet somehow sold for “astronomical prices”. He was forever confusing the Chinese public with his pedantic pursuit of “some little point” or other. He was in cahoots with – possibly in the pockets of – “anti-China forces” around the world.

It was during this 81-day period of incarceration that Ai’s idea for 1,000 Years of Joys and Sorrows took shape. He resolved to merge in memoir his own ordeal with the struggles of his father Ai Qing, a celebrated poet. Like many cosmopolitan liberals of his generation, Ai Qing, who died in 1996, had hoped that intellectual inquiry and artistic freedom might become the wellspring for political change in China. Instead, having been attracted to Communism in the early 1940s, he later fell foul of Mao Zedong’s narrow, sometimes hysterical insistence that art must serve politics.

Never very close to his father, Ai provides a rather two-dimensional portrait: more dutiful than intimate or revelatory, and yet benefitting from an artist’s eye. The Cultural Revolution’s cruelty and mangling of meaning – a “Liberation” truck drives the young Ai and his father to a labour camp – appears blessedly contingent when set against sketches of raw, vivid nature: powerful, ancient camphor trees set solidly in rich clay soil, iron-oxide red; the steaming stink of sheep’s innards, which Ai procures, washes and boils for his famished father. If nature transcends politics, so too does the nobility of the artist. Ai recalls his father pausing before attending to one of the countless toilets that he was required to clean, to “light a cigarette and size up the work, as though admiring a Rodin sculpture”.

It is the father-son parallels that really power the book, driving home a set of clear moral messages. One is the importance of openness and curiosity: Ai Qing spent time studying in Paris; for Ai Weiwei it was New York City (both returned to China lacking any qualifications – “bearing no trophies”, as Ai says of himself). Another is that an artist’s work and life must form a coherent, integrated whole.

The poet Ai Qing, father of Ai Weiwei, in 1978 – Alamy

For Ai after his return from New York, it was mischievous reaction to the disappointments of Beijing that led him to create some of his earliest work. In photographing the smashing of a Han dynasty earthenware urn, he was “damaging the past and reconstructing it… [learning that] disdain is a chasm that no power can cross”. Moving later into documentary-making and social media – famously enlisting fellow “netizens” to discover the names of children killed when the 2008 Sichuan earthquake destroyed poorly constructed schools – Ai found that in a society like his, art and activism cannot but go hand in hand.

That discovery led eventually to Ai Weiwei’s detention in 2011. It forms by far the most compelling part of the book, depicting in tragi-comic detail a security state that relies less on ideological commitment amongst its staff than an unending supply of young, naive boys capable of being lured into guard duties so grindingly boring and repetitive that some of them end up quizzing Ai on the ways of the world – referring to him as “Sex Uncle”. These exchanges are crisply and humanely recreated, as are those with Ai’s well-educated interrogators. One of them concludes that Ai is not evil; he is a (mere) purveyor of Dadaist cultural subversion, a latter-day Duchamp.

Observations like this have the effect of rendering what comes before in the book slightly unsatisfying in retrospect. There is little, until we hear from the security services, that might surprise or offend Western readers for whom Ai Weiwei ranks alongside the Dalai Lama in standing up to the Chinese Communist Party. We needn’t for a moment buy into accusations that Ai is “anti-China”: this is part of a wider attempt by the CCP to conflate party, state and nation, and it ignores Ai’s attempts to work with Chinese institutions like the law courts in pursuing justice. Nor must we side with critics of Ai Weiwei’s art and activism, as lacking in nuance or appreciation of why some Chinese might be proud of their country’s achievements. But some may wish, nonetheless, that Ai had found a way of placing himself on both sides of that interrogation table, with the file in the middle more fully in view.

1,000 Years of Joys and Sorrows is published by Bodley Head at £25. To order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop

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