Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei?

Interview Evan Osnos

Evan Osnos

The China correspondent for The New Yorker, Osnos profiled Ai Weiwei in the magazine last spring. He says there has never been anyone in China quite like Weiwei and the notion that the artist is "this gentle scholar-monk misses half the story." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by filmmaker Alison Klayman on May 20, 2010.

When you approached the project of doing a profile on Ai Weiwei, I'm sure you took a look at everything else that's been written about him. How would you describe both the content and the quantity of what's been written about Ai Weiwei?

He's probably the most documented Chinese public figure alive in some ways, in English at least. And in Chinese -- he occupies very different roles for a Chinese audience and an English audience. For a Chinese audience, his name instantly conjures up his family history and also the history of the Chinese contemporary art movement beginning in 1979.

“The act of organizing people into a community in China is in itself a very risky thing to do, and he has dedicated himself to doing exactly that.”

For a Western audience, he's taken on in some ways, willingly and unwittingly, the role of the dissident, and that's a position that he has embraced fitfully. There are times when that suits his purposes, and there are times when he knows it's reductive and doesn't really express the full range of what he's trying to accomplish.

When you read about him, there are some reliable anecdotes and parts of his narrative that are irresistible to any writer. So you start with the story of his family's story, and eventually you hear about his own very dramatic childhood in Xinjiang in domestic exile. Then he grows up, is exposed to the West; then he comes back and becomes this revolutionary figure in Chinese art. That's a very powerful narrative.

[It's] amazing when you read the quantity of interviews he conducts -- and conducting interviews has become for him in some ways an act in and of itself. He's doing it to satisfy the people coming to ask him for interviews, but he's also doing it, I think -- there is something inherently interesting in that process, or he wouldn't be doing it over and over again. Weirdly, I once came upon a line in an interview he gave in which somebody said, "What do you dislike most?," and he said, "Repetition." And I think that's really funny, because he repeats these stories all the time, and I think he sees it as being in service to a bigger idea, which ultimately is original. Even though he repeats these stories, they constitute this broader project of his, which in its own way is completely idiosyncratic.

So when you got to interact with him, how does he compare to other profiles you have written? What were his idiosyncratic behaviors? What was it like to try and pull new things out of him? Because I'm sure you went in with a goal of writing something new about him.

He's a very gracious interviewee. He makes himself very available to you -- not in a cynical way; it's not self-promotional. The kind of work that I wanted to do with him, which was to follow him around without talking to him, he's very open to that. I think it's because he's genuinely interested in this idea of what it means to document and to record somebody's life in all this detail. He was very accommodating in that way, and that's important.

I think it's also one of the reasons he's been so often described -- compared to other Chinese intellectuals, for instance, he is more open; he's more comfortable talking about parts of his life, particularly painful parts of his life, but he's also very comfortable closing off a part of his life he doesn't want to talk about. He made it very clear to me in the interview process that he didn't want me talking to his mother. He said I was welcome to talk to anyone else, but he didn't want me talking to his mother. …

On Ai Weiwei's trip to Chengdu in April 2010, you and I both got to see Weiwei being followed by plainclothes police. Now, I'm sure you heard he was being watched, but was that the first time you experienced Weiwei being followed?

It was a very interesting experience to see how conspicuous the tail was on him. Basically, from the time we left the collapsed school at Dujiangyan, there was a guy with a comb-over in a black hatchback who was following our caravan. Ai Weiwei sort of relished it in some ways, I think. At one point, he pulled the car over and got out and ran back toward this following car, which sped off right away, and he shook his fist at it and shouted an obscenity at it and then immediately Twittered about it.

Then later in the day we were being videotaped everywhere, and he was very confrontational with the people who were videotaping him. He would come out and talk to them -- not confrontational in an angry way, but he didn't abide by the implicit rules of that relationship, which is that you're supposed to pretend that you don't know you're being followed and they're supposed to pretend that they're not following you. And he was perfectly happy to subvert the whole thing and to go greet them and welcome them and encourage them to join us for dinner.

At a certain point, it really does become very dangerous for him to do that. And he knows that, obviously. Only he really ultimately knows why he's doing that. But at dinner there were at least two different people who were taping the table at different times, and he would respond by photographing them and Twittering about them. He obviously enjoys this process.

He told me stories about being followed and how he would confront them. Of course his favorite thing to do is he likes to call the cops on whoever is following him, which confounds the Chinese security apparatus, because it puts one agency in opposition to another agency, and neither one is supposed to recognize the existence of the other. I think he absolutely revels in that experience. …

... We could also talk about how many camera crews were there [in Chengdu] besides mine and how that felt. It can't be typical for you to be reporting on someone who also brings with them a personal videographer and various friends and documentary camerapersons who are all filming at once?

It was a totally bizarre situation. We were at this police station in Chengdu, and this is a place where if I had been there five years ago, you never would be allowed in the front door. It is a measure in some ways of how China is changing pretty fast that we were even allowed in the door, and we were allowed to operate as long as we were. On some level, that has to do with the fact that he is who he is. But in some regard, I think they were caught off-guard by this incredibly bizarre entourage which involved one huge and unusual-looking man, four camera crews, a couple of foreigners.

I think there were multiple points along the way at that police station where they could have ended our entire visit and told some or all of us to leave, and I think they were really trying to figure out what to do.

As we filtered in, nobody stopped us. There was obviously a commotion behind the desk as they tried to figure out what was going on. I think to a reasonable viewer who walked in and didn't know what was going on, you would have assumed it was some kind of reality show, and on some level it was in a way.

But after a while, they asked him to go down the hall for questioning. They went into this room. It was this kind of bare white walls with a computer. They had two police officers there. As Ai Weiwei said at the time, they were really following the letter of the law, because they're supposed to have two police officers there for questioning. He was surprised that they were being as welcoming and as professional as they were. At one point he sent out a Twitter message saying, "We've been received kindly and warmly." And he was genuinely surprised by that.

I give him credit for that. He has an open mind about it. In some cases, one of the criticisms of him is he tends to lump people into categories as either friend or enemy. I don't know if that ultimately holds up, because in that case, he was really impressed by the way they responded to his visit. In the end they rejected his complaint, but at the time ... they weren't thugs.

At one point he told me once when we were at a courthouse and he was filing a lawsuit against the government, and I asked him why he bothers to go through this process -- he was wasting basically the whole afternoon on a process that he knew was ultimately doomed -- and he said, "Well, you can't just say that the system is flawed; you have to work through the system and show it in all its detail before you can make a critique." And that's actually a defensible argument. I think he's probably right about that.

Anyway, we go down the hall, and we're in this room, and there was this really bizarre scene in which you had three camera crews squeezed into this tiny room with Ai Weiwei and his lawyer and two police officers, and then a fourth camera crew couldn't squeeze into the room, so it had to poke its lens in through the window, and then the police arrived with their own videotape, and then a second police officer arrived with his video machine. Ultimately you had four camera crews on Ai Weiwei's side, and you had the two police recorders. I felt totally redundant standing there with my audio recorder.

At a certain point, after they had summoned someone from the headquarters of the police station, they came in, and they asked us who we were and where we were from, took us into the other office. ... They were actually quite astute in the way they handled this situation. The first question they asked was, "Did you have permission to interview the police in this station?" Of course the answer was we didn't have permission from them. We had permission from Ai Weiwei; he's the guy we're following. But they made a reasonable point, which was that we had the voice of the police officers on tape, and at least according to their regulations, that meant we needed their permission.

I was struck by the guys who were tasked with dealing with us. They spoke very good English, which was surprising in a city like Chengdu. This is not Beijing. These are not people who encounter foreigners all the time. In fact, they probably haven't encountered a foreigner all year. And they were dealing with us with respect. I was gratified by that process. It felt like we were part of something moving, not something static.

After a while, we came up with this totally unsatisfying solution, which was that I was going to scribble down the contents of my tape and then delete the tape. I didn't actually care that much because there were four video recordings of the event, so I had options. I got the feeling that they were basically doing exactly what they were told to do by the letter of the law, which was the foreigners need to delete their recordings. Once they had gotten some minor evidence of that, they were happy going on about their day. They didn't really pursue it that far.

Eventually, Ai Weiwei came out of the office and said, "We're finished." He declared victory, and you could tell he was satisfied. He had been surprised by what had happened. I think he had gone there that day expecting a confrontation and welcoming a confrontation. That's part of his vocabulary, having these standoffs that he thinks help show the relationship of the two sides or the two forces. In the end it wasn't that, and I think he finds that complication interesting, too. …

Where do you think he learned this idea that you need to go through the system to show its flaws, that you need to confront it, and best if you document it, too, in order to critique it?

There's a tradition in the history of dissent in authoritarian countries of a certain kind of dissident, and their form of dissent is to live their lives as normally as possible. Adam Michnik, who is the Polish dissident, once said famously, "Our most eloquent form of dissent is to live our lives as if we are not living in a closed society."

I think Ai Weiwei subscribes to that belief, whether it's explicitly in their tradition or not. But he takes his life and ramps it up into Technicolor. But it's basically a normal life. He's not writing quixotic political communiqués for other intellectuals. He actually is trying to deal with people on a little more of a popular basis. You know, he likes to be naked a lot. He likes to do things that he knows will get a lot of attention, but he's interacting with these things on multiple levels. …

When Weiwei invited his Twitter fans to dinner in Chengdu, you had a chance to talk to a lot of the ones that came to the laoma tihua restaurant. What was the mood, and who were the people that came?

Over the course of that afternoon, he'd been Twittering about the fact that he was going to have dinner that night at a laoma tihua restaurant, which is a place that specializes in a certain type of pig's trotter in broth, and it's a specialty in Chengdu, and for him it has a political resonance because it's the same place where he was detained in 2009, which of course led to him being beaten up and was a signal moment in his development as an activist. So he was very open about the fact that he was going to this restaurant for dinner, and I didn't have a sense of how many people were going to show up.

As soon as we got to the restaurant, it was this weird sensation where all these people who had been standing on the sidewalk, milling around, doing things, turned out to be people who came to have dinner with him. They came and coalesced into the community of people who shared a certain body of shared ideas. It was a combination of lawyers and journalists and IT people and young professionals, and a combination of other people who you wouldn't expect, older people who are not part of the Twitter universe in China but are clearly connected to Ai Weiwei by ideas or connections of some kind.

Then it was this really weird sensation where everybody knew that by simply eating dinner there, it was an act of defiance. They were taking photographs of each other and posting the photographs to Twitter.

You know, I talked to a lot of the people who were there at dinner and asked them why they came and whether they were worried about being there, because after all, they were being videotaped while they were there, and, unlike Ai Weiwei, who has the protection that comes with being a celebrity and an internationally known artist, these were average citizens from Chengdu, and I really wondered why they would take the risk of being there with him.

In the end, for them, they had different reasons. There was a young lawyer who I spoke to, and she said: "I have a lot to learn from Ai Weiwei. He lives his life in service of trying to get information from people who don't want to provide it. That is a lesson that means a lot to me." And she said in her case, of course, she was worried about being seen with him, but the fact was she wanted to live in what she called a "normal society" where people who do good are rewarded for it and people who do things that are unjust are punished for it, and she wants to do things like mourn the dead. That's what she considers to be the standard of a normal society.

For an audience that doesn't really know what it means to be a "dissident" in China, what's "over the line" and what's not? How would you describe what Weiwei did that night? It was almost like calling a "flash mob," spontaneously inviting people to dinner over Twitter.

He's really gotten himself into unknown territory. There's never been someone in China who has this combination of qualities, which is he's an intellectual and a completely self-aware activist, and also has the ability to draw people from across this very wide spectrum. The act of organizing people into a community in China is in itself a very risky thing to do, and he has dedicated himself to doing exactly that. That puts him into a very small community of people. There's not all that many people in China who are willing to do that, or are willing to do it and have the ability to do it, and have the charisma or personal image to be able to draw people from across a broad spectrum.

There's a reason the Chinese government is very concerned about Ai Weiwei. It's because he has all of these ingredients in his life that allow him to attract enormous attention across a very broad spectrum of the population.

... So why isn't Weiwei in jail? Is that the big question when you think about Ai Weiwei? On the other hand, compared to the number of people in China, the number of people who know about him is quite small.

Setting aside the question of why he's not in jail, because that's just not a question that's been answered yet, what happens to him ultimately will be the test of what he represents in China. But I think you're right. On some level, there's a limit to what the government really worries about when it comes to a guy like Ai Weiwei, who's talking to a limited audience of people. He's talking to people who more or less already agree with him. That's not a concern for the government as it would be if he was a popular blockbuster filmmaker who's making things that millions and millions of people would see.

On the other hand, the population he's talking to is a very powerful population in the history of China. It's intellectuals, it's students, and it's people who take an interest in public affairs and the future of the country. So it's not a population that the government takes lightly.

I don't think we know why ultimately he has been able to get away with what he's been able to get away with. Actually, I don't really like that formulation in terms of saying "getting away with," because that's a little bit of a loaded term. To put it another way, we don't actually know why Ai Weiwei has been able to do things that other people have not been permitted to do, but I think it's a combination of the fact that he's very well known and he's doing things that nobody has done before, so it's a little bit of uncharted territory. ...

What kind of skepticism did you bring to the assignment of writing his profile?

I suppose from the beginning I was wary of how much he was manipulating the interviewer and how much of this was about ego for him and just about satisfying his own notions of celebrity. Or maybe it was just about wanting to get rich, because that's certainly an option for him. I came away ultimately convinced that he never told me something that wasn't true -- and that I find to be a very rare and admirable quality.

Usually when you interview somebody for a number of hours, they'll say something that is self-aggrandizing or is a manipulation of the facts. Beyond the most minute details, which wouldn't be an intentional distortion, he never said anything that would make him sound more original or important than he really is. I found that to be impressive.

The other thing about him is he does not seem to care very much about money. I mean, he cares about money in the sense that he's dedicated himself and parts of his life to doing nothing else but making money, but that has really been in service of survival. For a long time, when he was living in New York, he more or less spent most of his time gambling, and he was good at it. But he also says -- and I don't know if this is true, because I never really tested it -- that he has basically stopped playing cards now.

He's done these things at different times in his life. He turns these chapters on and off. For a while he was known as nothing more than an antiques dealer. For a long time, that's one of the reasons why a lot of people in the contemporary art world didn't take him seriously, because they saw him as an opportunist -- a guy who was trading antiques, knew some things about antiquities, and that was about the extent of it. I don't think he did much to try to dissuade them of that impression.

Do you think that his online activism is just another chapter, then, and later he will turn that off, too?

As much as he has dedicated himself to being an activist in this particular form and at significant personal risk -- he could lose everything by doing what he's doing now. On the other hand, I don't find it implausible that he will one day decide to shift course and decide to no longer be a political activist and to dedicate himself to something entirely different.

A couple of years ago, he more or less stopped being an architect at the moment when he was one of China's most sought-after architects. He still do[es] a couple projects when he chooses to, but he really did stop doing a lot of the work he was doing at the time. That's sort of his prerogative, and I think he likes doing that.

One of the things you see that separates him from a lot of other big Chinese artists is that there are some big-name Chinese artists -- and it's not unique to China -- but once they hit on a formula that's successful, they'll keep doing the same kind of work over and over again. And he hasn't really done that. He's actually done remarkably different work at different points in his life, and I think that's because he gets bored. That rings true with what he said, which is that the thing he hates most in life is repetition.

What were some of the critiques of Ai Weiwei that you encountered from peers or other people? And was it hard to elicit comments from people that show another side of him?

There's a lot of people who are willing to talk about Ai Weiwei and their frustrations with him. Some of them are his friends. Basically, in the opinion of his critics, Ai Weiwei is too interested in reducing the complexities of China into something black and white. They look around and say China is full of opportunities today that it didn't have a few years ago, and the sheer existence of Ai Weiwei is evidence that China has changed. And they're right about that.

On the other hand, people don't give him enough credit for all the complexity he permits into his world. The criticism of him is that as he reduces things down to black and white, he is provoking a conflict that doesn't need to be there.

At one point after he was involved in this protest on Chang'an Jie [Chang'an Ave., the road in front of Tiananmen Square], another artist wrote a piece that circulated online and got a lot of visibility among other artists. In there, she went so far as to call him a traitor and to say that by provoking this very dramatic political gesture of marching on Chang'an Jie, he had destroyed the platform for negotiating with the government. It was a melodramatic way of framing of what is a more common critique of him, which is that he goes for confrontation rather than seeking a more negotiated solution.

One of his friends, Feng Boyi, the critic and curator who is a friend of his, said that he thinks Ai Weiwei has a Cold War mentality, which is that he tends to see the sides of problems rather than seeing things the way people tend to see things, in a shared view. It's not hard to find. The truth is he is in so many ways out of step with his peers in the Chinese art world. There has been, over the last few especially, a tendency for those at the highest ranks of the Chinese contemporary art world to see all the ways in which they are able to operate now, not all the ways to see the ways they are not able to operate. He, of course, has chosen to remain focused on all the ways China has remained closed. ...

Was Ai Weiwei voicing a prevalent opinion among intellectuals and cultural figures when he criticized the Olympics?

When Ai Weiwei got involved in the Olympics, it was at that point really an abstract idea. The Olympics were so far away. When China was awarded the Olympics, it was with the aspiration on everybody's part that this would push China toward a more open society. I think that's why Ai Weiwei and everybody got involved.

As the years went by and it became clear that this was going to be an event structured very carefully in service of the Chinese government, Ai Weiwei picked up on a broader sense of malaise among Chinese intellectuals, the sense that this was going to be a Chinese event. ...

Let me put it another way. When Ai Weiwei made the choice to criticize the Olympics, it was also something that happened to him. I don't think he really set out to become this leading dissident of the Olympics. What happened was he got interviewed at this critical moment, which was one year before the Olympics began, and he answered as he always does -- honestly -- about what was going through his mind. The way he is, he tends to be erratic in his responses, and on any other given day, with a different set of priorities in his mind, he might have answered differently, and it all might have turned out a little differently. Not to say that he wouldn't have necessarily broken his relation with the Olympics, but I don't know if he would have necessarily come out as the most strident critic of the Beijing Olympics.

So he found himself in this position, and it was generally consistent with his ideas. He has a deep suspicion of things that are hypocritical in that process. ... The thing that he really rejected was the idea that these games, they had been presented to him and to the world as an act of integration and openness, and from his perspective, they were being turned into a moment of celebration of the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, and he didn't want to be a part of that.

One of the things that is really interesting about his critique of the Olympics is that at the time, it didn't seem as radical as it does in retrospect. At the time, there was a growing sense of unease about what the Olympics was going to be, in the sense that in the years before the Olympics, China had committed, for instance, to the Internet not being filtered and that the visas would be given out fairly liberally to people coming from abroad.

It turned out that in the months leading up to the Olympics, China kept a very tight grip on the way the Olympics were going to run, and so a lot of the hopes and promises that people had imagined for the Olympics weren't coming to pass, and I think he picked up on that in a lot of ways. I think that's part of the reason that he is who he is, is that he has pretty sensitive nerve endings for where the public opinion of a pretty important class of people is going in China, and he becomes the most eloquent articulator of those things.

That gets to the question of who his audience is. One of the reasons I think he's gotten so enamored with the power of the Internet is that for the first time in his life, he's speaking to a broader audience than he ever has before.

When he was a kid, he was the son of a leading cultural figure. When he was a kid, he really did circulate in this rarified world. The people who exposed him to art were friends of his father, leading translators and cultural figures who had been marginalized over the course of the Cultural Revolution, and they were these people who were desperate to be able to tutor another generation, and they found Ai Weiwei. That's more or less how he got exposed to any outside influence.

Later he drifted. He's such an effective chameleon that he can go into these different subcultures in different parts of his life and then move on. For a while, he became very comfortable in the New York demimonde, this Lower East Side life that for him was really gratifying. He got to be the guide for all these different Chinese people coming in.

Then he came back to China and became a respected contemporary artist in China, but I think in the end he was probably bored by that. After all, this was a community that he knew. He had already mastered that world and that language, and all of a sudden he discovered he could talk to a completely different population and talk to them in a way that he hadn't before. That was thrilling for him. All of a sudden, he put himself in conversation with kids all over the country, kids of various kinds, meaning college students and the people who live their lives online. In some cases the call him Ai Shen online, "Holy Ai" or "Ai God." I don't know what the right translation would be, but that's a very dangerous description in China, but he doesn't try to dissuade them. ...

What's the difference you observed of Ai Weiwei in English and Ai Weiwei in Chinese?

He is much more nuanced in Chinese, obviously, and actually I encouraged him to speak Chinese with me, because when he goes into English, he has some -- as we all do when we're speaking a foreign language -- we have some rehearsed bits of ourselves that we're comfortable expressing. Whenever we speak a foreign language, we're a different person, and he's much more bombastic in Chinese than he is in English. He's more profane. He's more himself. In English he sounds deceptively gentle, which is one of the things that I find funny.

A couple of times while I was working on this story, I talked to a couple of people in the West, gallerists and collectors who are admirers of his. They seem to regard him as a kind of teddy-bear figure, which I found laughable, because he is, when he wants to be, ferocious, and reducing him to a teddy bear is probably misunderstanding the guy pretty significantly. On the other hand, he also knows how to do that, and he has a gentleness about him, and he's very thoughtful about people. If he wants to take care of a guest, he's very thoughtful, and that's sincere. I don't think he's doing it to manipulate people. But the idea that he's this gentle scholar-monk misses half the story.

I called this woman gallerist for an interview, and she picked up the phone and said: "Do you love Ai Weiwei the way I do? Isn't he the most lovable figure?" But, you know, I can understand why they love him, but expressing that in that way is funny to me. ...

In that way, is Weiwei kind of like "radical chic"? People abroad can easily take up him and the cause of human rights in China because it's far from them and feels like an external issue from their lives?

He does in some ways reinforce people's pre-existing ideas about China, but some of those pre-existing ideas aren't wrong. One of the things that is important about what he's doing is that there's a tendency in this day and age on so many people's part to want to explain away the flaws in China's current situation, because things have gotten so much better. China has improved radically over the last generation, and there's this tendency to want to say the things that are still not perfect are Chinese characteristics, or they are understandable; we shouldn't hold China to account for what it's promised to its people. And he says that's not good enough.

You have to have people like that in a society. If you don't have people like that in any society, whether it's open or closed, then that's a form of concession. There's this quote from [dissident and first president of the Czech Republic] Vaclav Havel where he says, "People have always criticized the Don Quixotes, saying that their plans are never going to come to fruition." And he says, "I'm walking proof that occasionally these things do happen." I never wanted to compare Ai Weiwei to Vaclav Havel because I think it's an ambitious comparison, but, you know, there's some truth to that statement.

Ai Weiwei is often known for being the most famous contemporary Chinese artist, but one thing contemporary Chinese art is known for is exorbitant prices at auction. In that sense Weiwei might not stack up, so what is the situation of the relative price of works by Weiwei?

One of the curious facts about him in the Chinese art world is that he does not sell his artwork for the highest prices. In some ways, that's because his stuff is inaccessible to collectors. He doesn't create things that people would want to hang on their walls, or can even try to hang on their walls. In other cases, it's because he's opted out of some parts of the system that allow you to sell your work for higher prices. He doesn't sell his work at auctions. He's not represented by a major dealer. He produces things in multiple editions, which means that some museums don't want to collect them in the first place because they seem to be made for sale rather than pure artistic value, so they would say. People have told me as much. Advisers to some museums say they've had a hard time convincing some museums to buy his work because they're not sure how many pieces he's made of it.

Is there a split between his artistic persona and his activist, popular-figure-representing-China-to-the-West persona? ...

He speaks in flamboyantly earthy language. He loves four-letter words, and he loves being able to say things that are completely understandable to the average reader. On the other hand, he makes art that can be obscure or esoteric. I don't find those two things incompatible at all. I think it's a sign of the breadth of his vocabulary. That for him is the challenge, is being able to narrowcast to these different audiences. I also don't think his art is as esoteric as some people say it is. It's just hard to collect.

He has really manipulated this idea of being a Chinese artist. Some people say he's the first global Chinese art star, and that's probably true. On the other hand, his themes are incredibly Chinese. When he's making furniture out of dismantled Chinese temples, that's a distinctly Chinese argument.

He said to me at one point, "If I was living in any society, I'd be making these arguments about transparency and government responsibility to its people." I don't know if that's entirely true. He is completely to the core, in his DNA, Chinese in every way. It's about who his family was, it's about who he is, and it's about what his audience thinks when they see him and his work.

Is he patriotic?

He's definitely patriotic. His father was intensely patriotic.

There's this interesting thing that I found in the archives at The New Yorker, where his father went to The New Yorker in 1981. After his father had been rehabilitated he and a couple leading writers were sent to the United States on a writers' tour, both to gather information about what was going on in the United States and to show the world that Chinese writers survived.

He visited The New Yorker, and there's this wonderful scene in which they asked his father about the fact that he was wearing what they called a Mao suit. His father bristled at that, and he said, "This has never been a Mao suit; this is a Sun Yat-sen suit." And he said several other things that were really patriotic statements. He was unbowed. He was a revolutionary through and through, and he saw the things that happened to him as a failure of judgment on the part of weak men.

Editors' Note: His father, Ai Qing, was a famous poet who had been branded a class enemy and exiled to western China.

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Posted March 29, 2011

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