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Ai Weiwei’s Memoir Tries To Tell Chinese History Honestly

Book cover of Years of Joys and sorrows
Image CreditAmazon

Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei’s new memoir, ‘A 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows,’ is a personal history of the tragedies wrought by Chinese communism.


The Chinese Community Party (CCP) never likes an honest account of history. It has spent tremendous amounts of time and resources revising Chinese history, hiding the atrocities the party committed while casting the party in the most favorable light.

For some Chinese, preserving their memories has become one of the most potent ways to hold the CCP accountable. Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei adds his voice in such an effort by publishing a new memoir, A 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows

In the book’s foreword, Ai Weiwei wrote, “Ideological indoctrination exposed us to an intense, invasive light that made our memories vanish like shows.” Ai felt a sense of urgency to provide his teenage son Ai Lao with a written record of the lives of himself and his father. 

Ai Weiwei grew up in China and is the son of a famous Chinese poet, Ai Qing. The book’s first half is about Ai Qing’s life, especially his sufferings between 1957 to 1976.

Mao Zedong launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957 to purge intellectuals who criticized the CCP’s policies. As a well-known cultural figure in China, Ai Qing was forced to undergo a spiritual and ideological “reform through labor.”

The Chinese authorities first expelled Ai Qing and his family to the cold wilderness of China’s northeast region. Then they relocated the Ai family to Xinjiang, a far western region where the CCP is committing genocide against Uyghur Muslims and minorities today. 

The Ai family suffered the most during the cultural revolution, and they were sent to the Gurbantunggut Desert, known as “Little Siberia.” Some of the best writing of this book occurs when Ai Weiwei uses almost poetic language to describe the humiliating and inhuman punishment his father had to endure.

Sixty-year-old Ai Qing was ordered to clean 13 communal toilets, “whose facilities consisted mainly of a row of squatting stations above a cesspit.” The work was labor-intensive, especially during the winter months “when the feces would freeze into icy pillars.” But here’s how Ai Qing took it, “Before he began to apply himself to each latrine, Father would always light a cigarette and size up the work, as though admiring a Rodin sculpture.” Yet Ai Qing’s health, including his eyesight, quickly deteriorated due to overwork and poor nutrition.

As difficult as Ai Qing’s sufferings were, many of his contemporaries endured far worse and some never made it out alive. Ai Qing survived the Cultural Revolution, and he and his family returned to Beijing. Later the government restored his pay and status. Many people in Ai Qing’s generation, including Ai Qing himself, chose not to talk about their experiences because they didn’t want to risk provoking the Chinese authorities and bringing more harm to their families. 

Disgust as Inspiration

The CCP has also worked overtime to revise its country’s history between 1949 to 1979. The result is that generations of Chinese born after the 1980s have no knowledge of the real history from that period. Ai Weiwei wrote that even if today’s younger generation of Chinese knew the actual history, “They might not even care, for they learn submission before they have developed an ability to raise doubts and challenge assumptions.”

But Weiwei cares because he not only bore witness to his father’s suffering but also had the front-row seat of experiencing how an authoritarian regime worked. His early life experience planted the seed of a rebellious attitude toward authorities, especially the CCP. In the second half of the book, Ai Weiwei gives a detailed account of his journey to become an artist and political activist and how the state punished him, just like his father endured decades ago.

Ai Weiwei’s artistic output spans many genres, from photos to documentary films to large installments. Ai is known for being a provocateur, and Ai’s art and his political activism often go hand-in-hand.

One of his most famous photos was is of him giving a middle finger in front of the Heavenly Peace Gate in Tiananmen Square, a place that often serves as a symbol of Communist China. Another piece of Ai’s public art was the display of 9,000 backpacks, which he used to memorialize school children who were killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, as a result of the CCP failing to enforce adequate building codes. 

Speaking of his art and activism, Ai Weiwei wrote, “My inspiration and boldness came from disgust and exasperation. My impatience with the timidity of my father’s generation… I openly declared my opposition to the status quo, reaffirming, through the act of non-cooperation, my responsibility to take a critical stance.”

While Ai earned international fame, his art and political activism eventually got him arrested. The Chinese authorities detained him for 81 days in 2011. After releasing him, the Chinese authorities accused him of tax invasion – Ai said it was a trumped-up charge – and demanded Ai to pay more than $2 million as a fine. His passport was confiscated, and he wasn’t allowed to travel abroad for several years. Today, Ai Weiwei lives in the United Kingdom as an exile. He has said many times that if he returns to China now, he would be arrested for sure.

The best quote in the book is when Ai Weiwei explains why he would remain outspoken despite the danger. He wrote, “People asked me, How do you dare say those things on your blog? If I don’t say them, it will put me in an even more dangerous situation. But if I say them, change might occur. To speak is better than not to speak; if everyone spoke, this society would have transformed itself long ago. Change happens when every citizen says what he or she wants to say; one person’s silence exposes another to danger.” 

Preserving Memories

This book is well-written but not without shortcomings. Ai is not a Trump supporter and has issued many public criticisms of Trump, especially on Trump’s border wall. In this book, Ai compared Trump’s “late-night tweets” during his presidency with Chairman Mao Zedong’s daily directives during the early days of the Cultural Revolution. Many people who dislike Trump point to this comparison as evidence that Trump is a dictator, just like Mao. 

But Ai’s comparison of Trump and Mao was wildly misplaced because there is little resemblance between Mao and Trump. During his presidency, the corporate media united with big tech and other institutions to collectively reject Trump and undermine his policies. Trump had no other outlets to get his messages out accurately than through social media. Also, there are always many competing voices on social media, and Trump never had the power to compel any American to listen to him and social media platforms eventually banned him.

In contrast, Mao wielded absolute power. He controlled all the media in China, and his messages were the only ones that appeared in Chinese media. His voice was the lone voice Chinese people were allowed and required to listen to daily during Mao’s rule, and no alternative voices or messages were allowed. The differences between Trump and Mao are so vast that insisting these two were similar undermines Ai Weiwei’s stated goal of recording history truthfully. 

Another shortcoming of the book is that Ai Weiwei avoids discussing fair criticism of his work. Some accuse him of “using contemporary political issues” only to make a name for himself, regardless of others’ feelings.

For example, in the afterword of the book, Ai mentioned several art pieces he had done to highlight the plight of the Mediterranean refugee crisis. Yet Ai omitted to mention one particular piece, in which he posed as the drowned three-year-old Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi in a photo for an Indian magazine. The image was widely criticized because many consider it ” Lazy, cheap, [and] crass.”

Ai Weiwei said he wrote the book to tell his son who he truly is. However, by omitting fair criticism and without self-reflection, it seems his son and readers don’t get a complete picture of Ai. 

The title of the book came from one of Ai Qing’s poem written after he visited the ruins of the ancient Silk Road. Ai Qing wrote:

Of a thousand years of joys and sorrows

Not a trace can be found

You who are living, living the best life you can

Don’t count on the earth to preserve memory.

Books such as Ai Weiwei’s certainly help preserve memories for someone who may care to know the truth in the future, including his own son.