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‘What I’m Always Doing Is Escaping, Escaping, Escaping’

A Conversation with Liu Xia and Ai Weiwei

Liu Xia, widow of Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and died while in Chinese custody in 2017, has opened up to the public for the first time since she began a life of exile in Germany nearly a year ago. On May 4, in a dialogue with the well-known Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, she spoke candidly of exile, memory, history, and art. The event accompanied the opening of an exhibition of her artistic photographs featuring her “Ugly Babies” and “Silk” series at the Galerie Peter Sillem in Frankfurt. I served as moderator and interpreter. The transcript below has been edited, with permission of the participants.

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Perry Link: Welcome, everyone. I sit between two artists who will have a dialogue in Chinese. Ai Weiwei can speak English, but Liu Xia does not. We apologize that none of us speaks German. Weiwei, would you like to begin?

Ai Weiwei (in English): First, I’m very happy to be here and to share time with Liu Xia and Perry. Frankfurt is a beautiful city—except today it’s too cold. My hotel stay last night was unusually good. It has even changed my impression of Germany a bit. Most of my four years in Germany has been in Berlin, where—I suppose you know—the streets are dirty, you can never walk on a flat sidewalk, and a bicycle can kill you any second. But let’s get to important questions. (Switches to Chinese.) Liu Xia, you’ve been out of China for nearly a year, right? When I think of you living in Berlin, I imagine you could not possibly be in a place that feels more foreign to you. Even I feel foreign in Berlin. And you came from an extraordinarily stressful situation inside China. You went from one extreme to another. So tell us: What have you felt over this past year?

Liu Xia: I feel extremely out of place. A daydream often comes to me: “Go buy a ticket back to Beijing, Xia! Go back!” I live with the sense that my body has arrived in Germany but my moods, my thoughts, my loves are all still in Beijing.

Ai Weiwei: The world knows that you endured unimaginable suffering before you left China. And yet you still feel a strong urge to go back. Can you explain that? What exactly do you feel you have lost by moving to Berlin? Memories, perhaps? We know that memories have been vital to your life in recent times. Do you perhaps feel that your memories—the only things still left to you—are also being cut off?

Liu Xia: My memories are of my Beijing home, where I kept my notes on my trips to see Xiaobo in prison [in Jinzhou, 420 miles away in Liaoning province, where she was allowed one visit per month]. I always noted the time when I left, the time when I returned, what happened when we met, and what we said. When his end was near, I promised him “wherever I am, you will be there. I will bring you with me.” But what happened? After he died, I couldn’t even control what they did with his ashes. [Authorities buried the ashes at sea, thereby avoiding creation of a physical site at which people might gather to mourn in the future.] (Liu Xia weeps, and some in the audience weep with her.) So that’s the condition in which I arrived in Germany. But my memories remain over there, always over there.

Ai Weiwei: What do those memories mean to you here in Germany? Have they become part of you? Perhaps all of you?

Liu Xia: (sighs) I haven’t yet been able to organize the memories, so for now we’d have to say they are all of me.

Ai Weiwei: We all know that while Xiaobo was alive you had a remarkably strong emotional bond with him, even as he was enduring extremely difficult conditions. The two of you became so close that each seemed part of the other. Without you, he would not have become who he was; without him, you would not be in the place you are today. It must be hard, when the other half of oneself suddenly is not there, to return to an individual identity. It would seem your life needs a new beginning. But of course a new beginning cannot be separated from what went before. So can you tell us how you are managing the transition? What do you do every day?

Liu Xia (in tears): I can’t answer the question of how I get through every day. If it were up to me, I would probably just lie on my bed. But I’ve met some new friends in Berlin, and they are always finding reasons to take me out onto the streets, to go have coffee, to be sure I’m not alone.

Ai Weiwei: These are not happy topics we’re talking about, and we are digging into some very personal levels. I’ve known you for some time and know that you used to be an extremely joyful person. You didn’t start out as the person we see here today; by nature you were much happier. We could call it fate, but I’m looking for a better explanation. I come back to the question . . . what do you do, every day?

Liu Xia: I don’t know. . . I . . . What I’m always doing is escaping, escaping, escaping. . . I don’t dare to look squarely.

Ai Weiwei: Look squarely at . . . what? At the life that has been thrust upon you, and at how bitter it is? From what I can see, your suffering has all come from outside.

Liu Xia: Yes, but on the inside my problem is that I don’t look squarely. I still don’t want to admit that Xiaobo is gone. In my mind, all the procedure and ceremony that followed his death was like mime on a stage—not real. I feel there might be a time, some day, when I can go write out, line by line . . . what I said to Xiaobo . . . (weeping) . . . At the end, in fact, we had very little chance to talk. But if someday I can get it all written out, then maybe my mind will be sturdy enough to take in the fact that he has left us.

Ai Weiwei: So. . . for you, the writing would be a method of healing. I can see that. When a person inhabits a special or unusual condition, it’s hard to communicate that condition to people who are outside it. To outsiders, the person inside is “different.” He or she is strange—might cry, might laugh, might get angry—in ways that seem divorced from daily life. I completely agree with your impulse to heal by writing. I feel that none of us is normal; we all are among “the ill.” We really are—and it is not an illness that other people can treat.

Perry Link: You say “we”; including yourself?

Ai Weiwei: Of course. But not including you. Don’t worry. Not including people who wear ties. (Audience laughs.) And don’t worry, the illness is not contagious. But back to the question. We are ill and no one but ourselves can cure the illness. (Addressing Liu Xia:) What do you think?

Liu Xia: We ourselves can’t cure it, either. All we can do is carry it with us.

Perry Link (addressing Ai Weiwei): Can you tell us why you count yourself among the ill?

Ai Weiwei: I’m from the same generation as Liu Xia and her husband. Xia is four years younger than I, and Xiaobo was one year older. Our generation has been through much together, and we have caught the same illness. To Liu Xia, Xiaobo’s departure might still seem like a mirage, but in fact he did die, and Liu Xia and I are still here, surviving in a mode that resembles illusion. For the last 10 or 20 years, Liu Xia has been living under round-the-clock surveillance—each utterance, every action, observed, and the basis for police intervention whenever the police might like. This is the main cause of Liu Xia’s illness. But then, she found that so-called freedom can also be toxic.

Perry Link: What’s that? How was her freedom toxic?

Ai Weiwei: I’m talking too much. Let’s let Liu Xia herself answer.

Perry Link (to Liu Xia): Is your freedom toxic?

Ai Weiwei: You lived without freedom in China for a long time, right?

Liu Xia: Right. Let me give an example of how unfree I was in China. Every night, the outside door to the building Xiaobo and I lived in was chained closed with a great iron chain. Who could imagine living this way? Then when I came to Germany . . . well, before I got on the airplane I took a lot of medicine, so I was foggy at first, but I later discovered that, in my so-called freedom, I had become a debtor. People came to me one after another saying “you should thank X,” “you need to thank Y,” “I’ve done this for you,” “I’ve done that for you,” and on and on—until I realized that, “I am free but have become everyone’s debtor.” Finally I said, “How about bringing all the creditors together in one place and letting me get the thanking over with all at once?” I did not doubt that many people had, for years, meant well as they sent letters and presents to me in China. But didn’t get any of them. Not even a postcard. The police always said I had no mail. So in Germany I often was expected to thank people for things that in fact had gone to the police. I could only fake my gratitude.

Ai Weiwei: Let’s turn to a less depressing topic and talk about art. When did you start doing artistic photography, and why? I remember you also began writing poetry in the early 1980s. What did the poetry and photography do for you? Bring happiness? Allow you to vent feelings? Transcend? What? And how did your art fit in with other things in your life?

Liu Xia (laughing): I don’t know. For the poetry, maybe it was because there were things I couldn’t digest, and poetry helped me digest them.

Ai Weiwei: Your poetry and art back then was different from what people normally think of as poetry and art because you couldn’t have viewers—or very few, anyway, like Xiaobo himself. Even in the Soviet Union or communist Eastern Europe, there was always at least a little space for free art—in salons or in underground publications. In China, though, such things basically did not exist. An artist without viewers is an incomplete circle, no? How did you feel about this problem?

Liu Xia: My art was basically for my own amusement. If I had a bit of energy I’d do a few photos—or some poems, or a painting. I didn’t think beyond that level.

Perry Link (turning to Ai Weiwei): And you? Where does your inspiration to do art come from?

Ai Weiwei: Maybe I’ll answer directly in English.

Perry Link: Good. That gives me a rest. But Liu Xia...?

Ai Weiwei: She doesn’t care anyway. (Audience laughs.)

Perry Link (to Liu Xia): He says you don’t care where his inspiration comes from.

Liu Xia: (nods)

Alexander Paul Englert

(From left to right) Ai Weiwei, Perry Link, and Liu Xia at an event in Frankfurt, Germany, May 4, 2019.

Ai Weiwei: I did not start out loving art. When I was a boy, it was dangerous to be an artist or a poet. It could make you an “enemy of the people,” which was one of the highest crimes. My father Ai Qing spent 20 years in a labor camp for being a poet. And he had plenty of company. Not just famous poets and artists but translators, school teachers, or anybody who expressed an independent opinion—or not even an expressed opinion but just a slightly different attitude or style—could be punished. There were millions of victims. So, when I grew up, declaring oneself an artist seemed almost the first step toward suicide. Nobody wanted to be an artist, and before long that attitude was accepted as a given. It was normal. It was like the weather. You can like the weather or hate the weather but you don’t choose the weather. You adjust. Weird things become normal. Right until today, China’s rulers like to frame China as a special case. We have this-or-that “with Chinese characteristics,” they like to say. In today’s inter-connected world this is becoming harder and harder to maintain, but they still try.

Anyway, for me art became an escape from the scorching political system. Beauty, a line, a drawing—these led into another “system” in which I could live. Now, ironically, everybody calls me a political artist. (Audience laughs.)

Perry Link: A moment ago you asked Liu Xia about Liu Xiaobo and how she can come to terms with his loss. I would like to ask you the same question. How do you think all of us, including you, can continue Xiaobo’s ideals and mission?

Ai Weiwei: I see Xiaobo as highly idealistic. He was innocent, almost to the point of naiveté, to believe what he believed and to act so faithfully on his beliefs. He reached a purity that very few can match. I know I can’t. But can such fire be kept burning? I have my doubts. Passion like that comes from individuals—very unusual ones—and the Communist Party of China knows this only too well. Its long-time policy has been to survey society for fiery idealists and to pick them off, one by one, by this means or that. Society then forgets the idealists, one by one, and even accepts that it is normal to forget them. So . . . I do have my doubts. Of course, one can write a book, and one can keep pushing Liu Xiaobo’s ideals. But will there be an effect on society? I cannot be hopeful.

Perry Link: You are slicing close to the bone, sir, because I am currently working on a biography of Liu Xiaobo. It has been wonderful for me to learn and to write about how he struggled through life to reach that “pure idealism” that you mention. I think you have a point with the word “naïve.” Liu was immensely erudite, so hardly naïve in that sense, but in his later years had a faith that did resemble naiveté: If I do the right thing, and keep on doing it, at whatever cost, things can only be better eventually. But you make me ask myself: Why am I writing this book? Will it have an effect? Other than adding weight to library shelves?

Ai Weiwei: We should leave records of what our fellow human beings have done—in science or any field. Even dreams that cannot be achieved should be recorded. So what you are doing is important.

Perry Link: I’m relieved. Perhaps we should change topics again. In 1999—almost 20 years ago now—Liu Xia’s first exhibition of artistic photography took place in Beijing with the sponsorship and help of Ai Weiwei. A very different context from Frankfurt in 2019. Could we recall that time?

Ai Weiwei: Yes. Xiaobo had just come out of the labor camp then. (Addressing Liu Xia) You and Xiaobo were married in the labor camp, no? Remind us.

Liu Xia: We were married in 1996 in Beijing, but we couldn’t register the marriage because Xiaobo didn’t have a residence permit. In October that year, he was sent to a labor camp in Dalian for three years, and for the first year and half the camp authorities wouldn’t let me see him because our marriage had not been registered. So we applied for an official marriage inside the labor camp. That startled the officials. They had never seen anybody apply to marry a prisoner before and didn’t know what to do. Our application went up the Liaoning provincial bureaucracy level by level, all the way to the top, to get approved.

Ai Weiwei: Was there a ceremony?

Liu Xia: It amounted to Xiaobo’s parents coming into the camp for a meal.

Ai Weiwei: Did you kiss?

Liu Xia: I was allowed to stay the night.

Ai Weiwei: Good! Liu Xia, in some ways I find you more practical-minded than Xiaobo. Did you ever tell him just to take it easy, not to go popping in and out of prison?

Liu Xia: I told him straight-out what the results would be if he sponsored Charter 08. I said, “If you do this, they will put you in prison, and I will be the visitor to prison. And I am not as young as I used to be . . . (chokes back tears).

Perry Link (smiling): You’re not that old!

Liu Xia (laughs): But I never told him what to do.

Ai Weiwei: But . . . he was a disobedient type, no? Did you not tell him—or you told him and it didn’t work?

Liu Xia: I never told him what to do. I just told him clearly what the consequences would be—and then it was up to him. Each of us has only a few dozen years, right? A person should do what he wants to do.