In late July, Chinese authorities renewed travel privileges for conceptual artist and political activist Ai Weiwei, ending a five-year prohibition following his arrest in 2011. He promptly flew to Munich and then Berlin, where he has accepted a three-year guest professorship at the city’s University of the Arts.
After arriving in Germany, Ai gave two interviews that aroused some controversy, telling the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Zeit that repression in China is bad but not as bad as in the past—defensible positions, especially if comparing today’s China to the Cultural Revolution or the period immediately after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, but still surprising to some who had come to expect extremely pointed and uncompromising statements from Ai.
Ai is now working out of his atelier, a series of converted underground storerooms in a former brewery, in the gentrified district of Prenzlauer Berg, next to the studio of star artist, collaborator, and friend Olafur Eliasson; on September 19, a major show of Ai’s work will open at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Shortly after Ai’s arrival in Berlin, I accompanied the exiled Chinese writer Liao Yiwu to meet him. Liao, who has made Berlin his home since fleeing China in 2011, had never met Ai in China, and the two men were feeling each other out, the polished, cosmopolitan Ai contrasting with the learned but rougher Liao. We had lunch at a pizzeria near Ai’s studio, along with the Chinese artist Meng Huang, two of Ai’s assistants, and Ai’s six-year-old son, Ai Lao.
Ian Johnson: You’ve been through a difficult period. How does it feel to be in Berlin?
Ai Weiwei: My feelings are, actually are…how can I describe this situation? It’s like I was on arid land and thrown into water. I’ve been running for so many years and now have reached the shore. It’s that kind of feeling. Because I never felt I belonged in water. That kind of control. That kind of pressure. And every kind of threat. I was living under constant threats. And suddenly this thing, suddenly it vanishes, and everything returns to normal. It’s a little bit like the effect at high altitudes. Some people in Tibet live at high altitudes very naturally, when they get to lowlands they also have a reaction. They have lowlands reactions. The brain bloats. Everything hurts. From head to foot everything is not right. It’s something like that.
I’m curious about your views on the role of history in China. Some people think that Chinese have forgotten everything, that they suffer from amnesia. But others think that Chinese are rediscovering their history. There are documentary films, and unofficial histories being written. How do you see it?
Ai: When a revolution doesn’t have a deep foundation in aesthetics or theory, change is quite easy. The Communist Party’s revolution had no capacity to have anything to do with history because forming a relationship with Chinese history would have been disadvantageous for it. They overturned Chinese culture as it had developed over several thousand years because they changed the system of ownership.
Liao Yiwu: I agree with this. The Communist Party used land reform to cut links to all traditions. It wiped out China’s so-called landlord class, and gentry class. From ancient times to the present, why did China have some liberty? It was because the “mountains are high and the emperor far away,” and the gentry class could use this distance to obtain liberty. But the Communist Party thoroughly cut this off through land reform. There was no independent land-owning class anymore.
What about non-governmental ways of remembering history, like underground documentary films or journals?
Ai: This [erasure of history] has gone on for too long. From the Three Anti  to the Five Anti  campaigns [against communist opponents and perceived social vices], and then to the Anti-Rightist Movement [1957-59], and to the Cultural Revolution [1966-76], the campaigns were repeated, again and again, so that not a blade of grass grows in this soil. Now a bird has taken off and perhaps in its excrement are a few seeds that can slowly start growing. But the organic growth of this environment has been destroyed.
After society has become more prosperous, some people are making some documentaries, some people are doing oral histories. But this savagely torn fabric of history has no true relationship to the past, so much so that it’s impossible to determine the nature of this society. There is too much that is missing. And add onto that the severe system of censorship, severe political control, and the severely cruel measures taken against intellectuals… so that I feel much despair.
Now we’re celebrating the how many-th anniversary of the victory over fascism, but what is based on truth and fact? Even though society is more prosperous now, are we able to recognize a few basic facts? I just mean a few facts from history, a few ingredients that you need while cooking up a dish. Like did this event take place or not? Or what happened during that battle? If you can’t figure these things out clearly, you don’t have even a factual foundation, so how can you talk about history?
What about independent filmmakers like Hu Jie, or yourself?
Ai: These are very very faint voices. For example, I did surveys of 512 students [of the more than 5,000 who died in the May 12, 2008 earthquake centered in Beichuan, Sichuan province]. This is a partial accounting: how many people actually died? Who were they? What were their names? But there isn’t much of an actual link with the overall culture of today. Because our survey, or Hu Jie’s documentary films, they can’t be discussed. History has to have a certain number of people who recognize it. But no one recognizes what we do because we can’t reach the public sphere. So it has no influence. It has no influence on education. It has no use in our public memory.
Liao: But looking at Chinese history, in the era of Sima Qian [died 86 BCE], he wrote of a traitor called Li Ling [a Han dynasty general whose defeat in 104 BCE caused a major crisis], and wrote about other [controversial] people. In his time, no one approved of his writing either. But looking at it from a long view, Sima Qian is the greatest historian of China.
Ai: Do you think that there’s a Sima Qian today?
Liao: Our China has many hundreds of millions of people, so we aren’t aware of every person.
Ai: I don’t believe this is possible. I don’t feel there is some secret existence. Just because your land is big, if you don’t have a diamond, you don’t have one. There’s no relationship. And Sima Qian, I don’t think he was unknown in his time.
Liao: But I think that doing documentaries, it has a value.
Ai: It definitely has a value. I didn’t say it didn’t have a value.
Liao: I think the value is that one person begins to do it. For example, in the beginning I paid attention to Ai Weiwei and the Yang Jia case [of a man who had been abused by police and one day killed six police officers]. At the time, Ai Weiwei was an artist. I think there were several thousand signatures [to Ai’s 2008 petition calling for Yang’s release due to extenuating circumstances]. At the time, most Chinese intellectuals didn’t support Yang Jia because after all he used violence and most intellectuals support non-violence. It made me think of Sima Qian because it was about a time when China had no hope and the only hope was that an assassin could get rid of Qin Shihuangdi [the tyrannical first emperor of China]. At the time, I realized that Ai Weiwei was similar.
What’s the link between art and history?
Ai: There’s a big link to history because I am a product of history. People of my age, and people of my father’s generation, and others I have known, have given shape to my world outlook. This world outlook includes all kinds of choices, including aesthetic choices, are all related [to history]. We were talking about history in the sense of something being recorded, and the Party cutting that. But history still has a big impact on Chinese society today, to the extent that it controls Chinese society today. This still exists because history is part of culture. Even if this culture has been cut, it is still a product of history.
Liao: This reminds me of the Donglin Faction at the end of the Ming.
Ai: I don’t know about them. Tell us.
Liao: The Donglin Faction [a union between a rising merchant class and local landlords against the central government] involved opposition to the eunuch Wei Zhongxian. They knew that the Ming Court wanted to destroy them. Out of this story people say that these intellectuals, these activists couldn’t match the actions of one woman, Taohua Shan [Peach Blossom Fan], a concubine, who had an affair with one of the Donglin Faction supporters. He was a loyalist of the Ming as it is collapsing, but he couldn’t shoulder the responsibility and ended up supporting the new dynasty, the Qing. But the concubine hung herself. She still had some sort of moral courage. This is a story about a kind of traditional loyalty that often repeats itself through Chinese history. [This is not the same plot as the opera, “Peach Blossom Fan,” in which both lovers survive but leave the secular world to join a Taoist monastery and nunnery.]
Ai Weiwei, journalists often ask you about politics. Are you fed up with these sorts of questions?
Ai: No, they help me consider issues, because these questions don’t normally occur to me. I am not someone who usually considers such questions. But if there are those questions, I try my to talk about my feelings, my personal feelings. I think contemporary art, or contemporary culture, the most useful part has a relation with considering the current situation.
Your family was tightly tied up with politics.
Ai: I grew up in the so-called Mao Zedong Era. Our era was known as one where “politics was the soul.”
And your father was a famous poet.
Ai: If you don’t understand politics you are a victim of politics. So he was baffled by everything. But those who participated in politics were even more miserable. For example Hu Feng [the Chinese writer and literary theorist who criticized Mao’s theory of art and was imprisoned for 24 years], or a lot of people like that, they basically were drowned and finished. Because this political party does not permit dissent to the extent that you can’t make a sound. It doesn’t allow you to exist.
[We switch to English.]
When you’re interviewed, is there an expectation that you’ll say certain things?
Ai: Yes, there is a very very strong expectation. Sometimes they are more patient to what I’m saying and sometimes they just jump and say, “Oh, how could you do that?”
But I’m a person who’s been “in there.” I’ve been beaten, I’ve been locked up. I’ve been under high pressure. But still, I have to really think beyond that. I have to put my personal suffering separate from the larger picture of the nation, of one country with a billion people and even the existing system—what is possible, what is not so possible, all those kinds of issues. It requires a longer discussion on a deeper level.
What do you think of the modernization theory—that when people get to a certain standard of living, when people are no longer just concerned with food or shelter, they start to demand things. We could see that historically in South Korea, or Taiwan, say 30 years ago. Does that have any relevance to China today?
Ai: It does, very obviously. If you see those young kids, they’re better off than their parents. They’ve been sent to study abroad. They can travel more freely. They get on the Internet. They get iPhones and iPads and video games.
Are the Chinese authorities aware of it?
Ai: They are aware of it, but I don’t know to what degree, and I don’t know if they have the right measures. To understand the crisis you need a philosophical mind and the system never really had that kind of discussion—like the one we’re having now, and to openly discuss it. To openly discuss it means first you have a balanced view and you get every mind involved, so the solution will be more democratic rather than some authoritarian solution, which will just create more problems. All they care about are results, but life is about more than results. It’s about our involvement, our passive involvement in each individual’s mind, and that’s why we can say we love it or we hate it.
One way people engage is through social media. Obviously that’s changed things a lot but it also seems to encourage a bit of a, not civil society, but uncivil society—people cursing each other and so on.
Ai: It does much more good than evil. Of course, if you have a society that never had a public platform or public property, it’s something new. It becomes an outlet for huge pressure. It’s like an explosion, but only because the building is not well-designed. If you had ten outlets [of expression], people would be much more friendly and courteous.
That’s why a modern structure is so important to deal with contemporary problems. It’s not about ideology. All those concepts of democracy or freedom of speech. It’s really about efficient tactics to solve modern problems. That problem is to recognize and protect each individual’s rights and to contribute them to society. Of course China is far from that. First it needs a philosophical understanding and then it needs laws to protect those rights and legislation designed for separate powers. All of that is not established in China now and that’s why I say China is not a modern society.
There seem to be two major ways of analyzing China today. Some see the rights lawyers [such as Ai’s own lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang], being arrested and they focus on that and say the situation is really bad. But others say the long-term situation is improving because people are getting better educated, more prosperous, and so on. I wonder how you see it.
Ai: If I had to take sides, there’s no doubt that China is a hundred times better than before. It’s very easy to evaluate it by looking at individual income, information, travel—even law today is much more sophisticated than before. But there are a lot of ups and downs and a lot of barbaric acts [by the government], which are beyond understanding. They’re still trying to protect the system by law but not of law. The law is still being used to maintain stability.
This is your first time abroad in almost five years. Did you have to agree to anything to come abroad?
Ai: They always put pressure on me before I was arrested. They were always saying certain things I should discuss. I should not discuss politics.
But you’re talking about them.
Ai: I’m alive. It’s a symbol of my life. If I don’t talk about it then it means I am dead. I try to talk less because in China we have an expression [from Confucius] called bu zai qi wei bu mo qi zheng [“don’t meddle in affairs that are not part of your position”]. It has a certain truth because the structure is like that. Once your opinions are not taken seriously, you’ll hurt yourself. The structure is like this. You’ll definitely hurt yourself. I have more friends in jail than anyone else. Many close friends are in jail. But how can I help them? I cannot release them. If they could release them, they would not arrest them.
Do people still throw money over the wall into your compound?
Ai: No, that was a long time ago. They all knew I didn’t need the money but they said this is my chance to vote. It was very impressive and made a tremendous impact.
Would people still do that?
Ai: I don’t think so. That was a moment when China couldn’t find enough tools to stop it.
What’s your working pattern? When you work on a project, do you sit at a desk and have a certain amount of time blocked out and have a pen and paper? Or do ideas come to you and you jot them down?
Ai: I used to say that I had ideas come out when I was in the toilet, but it’s really just casual times. Often I’m discussing different matters and an idea comes out. I don’t need an office. I walk in the city. I talk to people. I’m dealing with a hundred problems at one time. It’s like whitewater rafting. It’s dangerous. You have to adjust quickly because you can easily hit a rock or something you don’t know. My life is like that. You can never look back or think about what I’ll do next time. You even cannot plan because you don’t know what’s ahead of you.
[We switch back to Chinese.]
Liao Yiwu, we’re finished.
Liao: I’m going to ask Ai Weiwei the last question. Are you in the end an idealist or a nihilist?
Ai: I’m a nihilistic idealist.
Liao: You have studied logic well!
Ai: Right, I wouldn’t say I’m an idealistic nihilist.
Liao: This is exactly how you can split Chinese culture. One is Confucius-Mencius, the Confucian school of thought. One is Laozi [or Lao Tzu] and Zhuangzi [or Chuang Tzu], the Daoist school of thought. Confucius wanted to recover an idealized society. So his whole life he rushed about trying to realize this ideal. He made a lot of compromises, but this was all to realize an ideal.
The Lao-Zhuang school completely renounces this. I am empty. I am not here to serve you. Those two follow an ideal of thorough abandonment, completely nihilistic. I would rather talk to heaven. I don’t wish to talk to you rulers. Superficially it seems that Laozi and Zhuangzi have no ideals, and despair of this society. But emotionally I think they move me the most.
Ai: After Laozi and Zhuangzi comes another philosopher.
Ai: Sunzi [or Sun Tzu]. It’s called laozhuang sunzi, “acting like an ass.”
Liao: You really have studied logic well!