Ai Weiwei at the RA: Everything is art. Everything is politics

Ai Weiwei at the RA: Everything is art. Everything is politics

Ai Weiwei’s work is not unusual in drawing upon the artist’s own life experience for inspiration, but there is none of the solipsism of Tracey Emin’s Bed in his art. Ai Weiwei’s installations, sculptures and videos – which I saw last week in his powerful, moving and deeply serious exhibition currently at the Royal Academy – affirm his  unwavering commitment to human rights and freedom of expression.

Everything is art. Everything is politics.

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Growth: the destructive god

Growth: the destructive god

Manufactured Landscapes 1

A piece in today’s Guardian by George Monbiot summed up my thoughts about the destructive nature of the economic system that we live under, with its blind commitment to constant growth, and also reminded me of a documentary film I saw recently.

Monbiot began his piece in a tone far from upbeat: ‘Another crash is coming. We all know it, now even David Cameron acknowledges it. The only questions are what the immediate catalyst will be, and when it begins’. He went on to relate the threatening symptoms of economic collapse to global capitalism’s addiction to constant growth:

If it goes down soon, as Cameron fears, in a world of empty coffers and hobbled public services it will precipitate an ideological crisis graver than the blow to Keynesianism in the 1970s. The problem that then arises – and which explains the longevity of the discredited ideology that caused the last crash – is that there is no alternative policy, accepted by mainstream political parties, with which to replace it. They will keep making the same mistakes, while expecting a different outcome.

To try to stabilise this system, governments behave like soldiers billeted in an ancient manor, burning the furniture, the paintings and the stairs to keep themselves warm for a night. They are breaking up the postwar settlement, our public health services and social safety nets, above all the living world, to produce ephemeral spurts of growth. Magnificent habitats, the benign and fragile climate in which we have prospered, species that have lived on earth for millions of years – all are being stacked on to the fire, their protection characterised as an impediment to growth. […]

Is it not time to think again? To stop sacrificing our working lives, our prospects, our surroundings to an insatiable God? To consider a different economic model, which does not demand endless pain while generating repeated crises? […]

Monbiot concludes by asking ‘the question that never gets asked: why?’

Why are we wrecking the natural world and public services to generate growth, when that growth is not delivering contentment, security or even, for most of us, greater prosperity? Why have we enthroned growth, regardless of its utility, above all other outcomes? Why, despite failures so great and so frequent, have we not changed the model? When the next crash comes, these questions will be inescapable.

Super Pit #2 Manufactured Landscapes 10

Monbiot’s words recalled the striking documentary I watched a few weeks ago: Manufactured Landscapes by Edward Burtynsky, a photographer who is internationally acclaimed for his large-scale photographs of the ‘manufactured landscapes’ created by humans – quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines and dams. The film follows Burtynsky through China, as he films the evidence and the effects of massive economic growth. There are long, breathtaking sequences, such as the opening tracking shot through an almost endless factory.

"Manufacturing #17", Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Manufactured Landscapes 3

The film is an extended meditation on the human impact on the planet through the cycle that begins with the extraction of resources, continues with industrial production and ends with the dumping of waste. It’s a testament to the unsustainability of our economic system that Monbiot writes about today.

After the mesmerising tracking shot that opens the film, we hear Edward Burtynsky’s words as he explains his objective in making Manufactured Landscapes:

Is there some way I can actually talk about nature and bring a certain appreciation for what it represents?  That we come from nature, and that we have to understand what it is so as not to harm it and then to ultimately harm ourselves. That there is an importance to have a certain reverence for what nature is because we are connected to it and we are part of it. And if we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.

So I believe that as a fundamental philosophical position when I look at the world.  I started thinking, maybe the new landscape of our time, the one to start to talk about is the landscape that we change. The one that we disrupt in pursuit of progress. I’m trying to look at the industrial landscape as a way of defining who we are and our relationship to the planet.

It’s  this thing that’s just growing, and it’s part of our economy and it’s part of our politics, and it’s a part of how we elect our governments. It’s part of everything we do. But it’s this big machine that started rolling…

Manufactured Landscapes 5 Manufactured Landscapes 7 Manufactured Landscapes 12

In a TED talk on YouTube, Burtynsky presents a slideshow of his photographs, which reveal vividly how industrial development is altering the Earth’s natural landscape: mountains of worn tyres, the hulks of rusting oil tankers waiting to be dismantled on a Bangladeshi beach, a river of bright orange waste from a nickel mine, women and children sifting through mountains of computer waste to pick out toxic but precious metals. Often the images are beautiful, but at the same time, as their significance dawns, they are horrifying.

Manufactured Landscapes 2India Climate

Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work. I set course to intersect with a contemporary view of the great ages of man; from stone, to minerals, oil, transportation, silicon, and so on. To make these ideas visible I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning. Recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries are all places that are outside of our normal experience, yet we partake of their output on a daily basis.

These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.

The opening tracking shot from Manufactured Landscapes:

The Chinese labourers who served on the Western Front

The Chinese labourers who served on the Western Front

Before I left for my trip along the cemeteries and memorials of the Western Front I had been fascinated by a talk given by the Chinese-born author, Xiaolu Guo for Radio 3’s The Essay in which she discussed the part played by the Chinese Labour Corps on the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme. They are almost entirely forgotten now, but between 1916 and 1920 the British Army recruited around 100,000 labourers in China who were shipped to Europe to work in harsh and dangerous conditions at the Front. And, following on from yesterday’s post, ten of these ‘coolies’ were shot at dawn for murder, or offences relating to murder. Mainly illiterate and socially isolated, many Chinese workers eventually succumbed to traumatic stress disorders brought on by the war and turned to violence, rape and murder in their despair and loneliness.

Members of the Chinese Labour Corps in France
Members of the Chinese Labour Corps in France

In her talk Xiaolu Guo told of travelling to Noyelle-sur-Mer with Li Ling. a 52 year old woman from Qingdao whose daughter Xiaolu had taught 15 years before in China.  Li is the granddaughter of one of the Chinese labourers or ‘coolies’ who died along the Somme during WW1.  Xiaolu explained that in China, ‘coolie’ means ‘bitter labour’ or ‘bitter strength’.  Bitterness, she added, is an important concept in Chinese, ‘something that has to be accepted … part of life’. In China hard physical labour is viewed as something which can keep a person alive, so ‘coolie’ does not bear the negative connotations the term has in the west, where it is associated with imperialism and exploitation, having been used from the 18th century to describe the slaves despatched from China to serve the west in various parts of the world.

Li’s grandfather was illiterate, so he sent no letters home.  His war service left no documentation,  only his labour number – 4621 – given by the British government on the Chinese shore before he embarked for Europe.  He was 19 years old, just married to a servant girl, and had a 10 month old baby:

He had been seduced by the promise of earning one French franc per day and was told he would be at least ten miles from the firing line, nowhere near the Front. A few weeks later, with a rising number of casualties on the Western Front, 40,000 coolies were also recruited by the French Army to dig trenches in northern France. After being sprayed head to foot with disinfectant, and having had their ponytails chopped off, these men were packed like cargo and shipped towards the West.

In the winter of 1916, after the massacre on the Somme, the British government was desperate for manpower. China agreed to supply Britain with ‘bitter labour’ and from 1917 onwards, large numbers of Chinese (altogether 100,000) were recruited by the British in Shantung Province, as volunteers – but under military discipline. The initial British Chinese Labour Force encampment on the Western Front was at Noyelles-sur-Mer, on the Somme estuary.

Noyelles-sur-Mer Chinese Cemetery

The entrance to the Chinese Cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer 

Noyelles-sur-Mer was where Xiaolu Guo and her companion  Li Ling were headed, Li Ling hoping to find the grave of her grandfather. Xiaolu described the moment when Li found the grave:

Noyelles-sur-Mer is one of the graveyards where the largest number of coolies are buried. There are 842 gravestones carved with Chinese names, along with the numbers the coolies were given by the Labour Corp. Li Ling, holding her flowers, searches each stone for her grandfather. I help her, scanning those strange yet familiar Chinese names. After looking at about 300 gravestones, we find the right one. The stone is covered in moss, yet the man’s name and number are clearly visible:

               Li Changchun, British Chinese Labour Corps 4621. Died 12th January 1919.

I am surprised. So he died here not during the war but after the war! “How?” I ask Li Ling. She doesn’t know. Did he die from a random explosion during mine clearances? Or from starvation?  Or was he killed for desertion? There is no clue. Only some blackbirds flapping their wings in the distance. Then, beside Li Changchun’s Corps number, I see this phrase:Faithful unto death.

I look away. I can’t bear the hypocrisy let alone the indifference with which this phrase has been foisted on this man. My eyes wander along the rows of Chinese names. The inescapable wind buffets the graves, otherwise there is silence. I look back. Li Ling is carefully placing her bunch of yellow chrysanthemums on her grandfather’s tomb.

The conditions under which the Chinese labourers were employed on the Western Front were harsh, even by the standards of the time. Their contracts stipulated a seven-day working week of 10-hour days. Daily rates of pay ranged from 1 to 3 French Francs. Apart from a few demonstrations demanding better working conditions and food – a notable example being one at Etaples in 1917 – which were ruthlessly suppressed by British troops, there was generally little in the way violent protest or strikes.

From the start there was a mutual understanding that the celebration of certain essential Chinese customs, such as Chinese festivals and the ceremonial disposal of the dead, would be allowed. On the other hand, there was a strict policy of maintaining the segregation of the Labour Force from the military canteens and the civil population, particularly white women. Accordingly, other than when working, the labourers were rigorously contained within their camps.

Chinese Labour Corps IWM

An entertainment at the open-air theatre of the Chinese Labour Corps at Etaples, 23 June 1918.  Note the fence segregating members of the audience (Imperial War Museum)

These men did not take part to actual combat. They supported the frontline troops, unloading ships, building dugouts, repairing roads and railways, digging trenches and filling sandbags. Some worked in armaments factories, others in shipyards. However, when the war ended some were used for mine clearance, or to recover the bodies of soldiers and fill in miles of trenches. According to the records around 2,000 of them died during the war, most from the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic. Those who died, classified as war casualties, were buried in several French and Belgian graveyards in the North of France. The largest number of graves is located at the Chinese Cemetery of Noyelles sur Mer close to the Somme estuary, where 849 men are buried.

An article on the Western Front Association website, Forgotten Hands With Picks And Shovels, provides details of the 10 Chinese labourers who were executed by the British Army.  The ten (all listed as ‘coolies’ in the official records) were all executed by a British firing squad – shot at dawn – for murder, or offences relating to murder.

All the death sentences of the Chinese Coolies were passed between 1918 and 1920, and all the offences took place on the western Front in either France or Belgium in 1918-19. There is no explanation in official documents for these capital crimes: perhaps the stoic but socially isolated Chinese workers succumbed to stress brought on by the war, turning to violence, rape and murder in despair and loneliness.

In the town hall at Poperinge , near Ypres, a First World war execution post is on display – said to be the one to which was tied, on 8 May 1919, Wang Ch’un Ch’ih of the 107th Chinese Labour Corps, sentenced to death for murder. He is buried at Poperinge Old Military Cemetery.

Firing post, Poperinge

The firing post at Poperinge Town Hall

Researching this piece, I was surprised to learn from a BBC report that three of the Chinese men recruited for the Labour Corps are buried in Anfield Cemetery in Liverpool – amongst the 445 Commonwealth war graves from World War One in that cemetery. They would be men who fell ill en route from China, and were hospitalised on arrival in England. Anthony Hogan, researching the local remembrance website, tried to find out details of the three men – but it appears that the writing and the names in translation on the headstones may be incorrect. He writes:

The men would have been brought back to the UK injured or sick and taken to hospitals.The Belmont Road hospital is where these men may possibly have been transferred as it dealt with a lot of non British war sick and wounded, plus its location was around 1 1/2 miles from Anfield cemetery.

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Summer in the city: poppies and a sense of foreboding

Summer in the city: poppies and a sense of foreboding

Poppies 2

In the last couple of weeks a surprising sight has materialised in the middle of Liverpool: a field of poppies, swathes of red flowers densely massed against a background of green.  It’s a stunning sight, but also one that is, in this glorious summer overshadowed by the storm clouds of war in eastern Europe and the Middle East, inescapably symbolic.

How did this poppy meadow, on derelict land below the Anglican cathedral, get here?  Earlier this year, members of Liverpool’s Chinese community sowed native poppy and cornflower seeds on vacant land stretching from the Cathedral towards the Chinese Arch. The act was part of a project linking local business and community groups with partners in China. The land was sown with locally grown wildflower seed from Landlife, the local environmental organisation that fifteen years ago established the National Wildflower Centre located near to the Liverpool end of the M62.

The poppies have flourished in recent weeks, and after catching sight of them from the bus, the other evening I walked down and captured these shots on my phone’s camera .

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Red poppies: symbol of hope and good fortune in China

It was a glorious evening (a group of us, old friends from university days, sat outside Camp and Furnace savouring the warmth as darkness fell); so why, as this lovely summer stretches on, have I felt a vague sense of foreboding?

Clearly, the feeling was reinforced by the sight of those poppies with their inescapable associations (at least for the British). But, more than that, I couldn’t get out of my mind – as terrible news emerged from Gaza and eastern Ukraine – the feeling that we might be living through a re-run of another glorious summer, exactly one hundred years ago.  This is Paul Fussell writing about the summer of 1914 in The Great War and Modern Memory:

Although some memories of the benign last summer before the war can be discounted as standard romantic retrospection turned even rosier by egregious contrast with what followed, all agree that the prewar summer was the most idyllic for many years.  It was warm and sunny, eminently pastoral.  One lolled outside on a folding canvas chaise, or swam, or walked in the countryside.  One read outdoors, went on picnics, had tea served from a white wicker table under the trees.  You could leave your books out on the table all night without fear of rain.  Siegfried Sassoon was busy fox hunting and playing serious county cricket.  Robert Graves went climbing in the Welsh mountains.  Edmund Blunden took country walks near Oxford, read Classics and English, and refined his pastoral diction.  Wilfred Owen was teaching English to the boys of a French family living near Bordeaux.  David Jones was studying illustration at Camberwell Art School. And for those like Strachey who preferred the pleasures of the West End, there were splendid evening parties, as well as a superb season for concerts, theatre, and the Russian ballet.

For the modern imagination that last summer has assumed the status of a permanent symbol ofor anything innocently but irrevocably lost. […] Out of the world of summer, 1914, marched a unique generation.  It believed in Progress and Art and in no way doubted the benignity even of technology. The word machine was not yet invariably coupled with the word gun.

Never such innocence again. It appears that I’m not the only one sensing the parallel.  In yesterday’s Guardian, Larry Elliott explained why he thinks the crisis following the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner in eastern Ukraine  will not escalate into a full-scale economic war.  Europe’s energy requirements and economies are too intertwined with Russia:

The European Union will talk tough but fall shy of imposing wide-ranging financial and trade sanctions as punishment for the Kremlin’s alleged role in the attack on the Malaysia Airlines jet. Meanwhile, hopes that Putin is putting pressure on the separatists in Ukraine boosted share prices.

And yet. Elliott, too recalls the idyllic summer of 1914, when a little local difficulty in Serbia seemed just a tiny cloud on the distant horizon:

Events of a century ago show that the optimism of markets is not always to be trusted. It was only in the last week of July 1914 – once Austria-Hungary had delivered its ultimatum to Serbia – that bourses woke up to the fact that the assassination in Sarajevo had the potential to lead to a war involving all the great European powers. Up until then, the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was seen as merely a local affair and nothing to worry about.

Still, life goes on, the weather is glorious, so we head off to the beach.

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‘Hot town, summer in the city’: we head for the beach at Formby

The thing about poppies is, they will grow anywhere.

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‘The Dark Road’: Ma Jian’s journey into the terrible heart of the Chinese economic miracle

‘The Dark Road’: Ma Jian’s journey into the terrible heart of the Chinese economic miracle

China one child

Ma Jian has long been a thorn in the side of the Chinese authorities. His novels – including Beijing Coma, about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and Red Dust, an account of three years of hard travelling through China’s most remote provinces one step ahead of the police – have all been banned in his home country, from which he is now exiled.

Last week I finished reading his most recent novel, The Dark Road. If you seek a dark and disturbing read, this is it: a devastating expose of the social and psychological impact of China’s one child policy that tears away the veil obscuring the brutalisation and oppression of women under the policy.  The novel is also a vivid portrayal and powerful critique of the human and environmental costs of the extraction of toxic materials from electronic waste (such as discarded mobile phones and computers) exported from the West and worked on by impoverished migrant labourers and their children in China.

Writers, Ma Jian has said, should be the witnesses of their generation: ‘What totalitarian governments most want to destroy or erase, those are the facts that are the most important to write about.’  In pursuit of this duty, Ma Jian researched The Dark Road entering  China posing as an official reporter and living as a vagrant among the fugitives from China’s one-child policy.  He gathered  accounts of, and sometimes witnessed, the horrors that he describes vividly in the novel – forced sterilisations, and brutal abortions carried out in makeshift clinics, often at late stages in pregnancy.  In an interview for Foyles Bookshop he explained:

Before I write a book I need to travel, I need to go to the places that I write about, so for this book I went on a long journey, I visited the counties where riots against the one child policy broke out in 2007 and I also travelled down rivers and spent time with the families who had escaped the authorities in order to have as many children they wanted. So I spoke to these pregnant women and learnt stories that I could never have imagined myself. I visited unofficial back street clinics and although I didn’t see any of these abortions take place, just looking at the primitive surroundings I could imagine what dreadful procedures these would be.

Ma Jian

Ma Jian

Like the earlier Red Dust, this novel takes the form of a journey through China as we follow Meili, a young peasant woman pregnant with her second child, and her husband Kongzi, a village schoolteacher and distant descendent of Confucius, as they drift down the Yangtze River with their daughter Nannan in a bid to stay one step ahead of the authorities.  They are seeking their own utopia –  ‘the one place in China where you can live in complete freedom’ – Heaven Township, where no-one checks how many children you have and it’s almost impossible to get pregnant because the of the toxic chemicals that pollute the air and water of the town, killing men’s sperm. They join other ‘family-planning fugitives’ in rickety boats and makeshift waterside shelters as they journey  down the ‘dark road’ of the Yangtze river.

In the first of many distressing scenes, the authorities catch up with the fugitives, seizing Meili on board the boat from which the couple have made a flimsy home:

A man in black sunglasses steps aboard. ‘Any woman pregnant without authorisation is both violating the family planning laws and endangering the economic development of our nation,’ he says. ‘You think you can turn up here and breed as you wish? This is the Three Gorges Dam Project Special Economic Zone, don’t you know?’
‘If  you cooperate with us, you won’t have to pay the fine,’ another man says. ‘But if you resist, we’ll get your village Party Secretary to arrest every member of your family.’

The fat man drops his empty can into the river. ‘We’ve been ordered to terminate every illegal pregnancy we discover. if we let any woman off, our salaries will be docked.’

A female officer steps forward. ‘Humanity?’ she sneers. ‘If your baby turns out to be a girl, you’ll throw her into the river, so don’t talk to me about humanity! You migrant workers travel around the country, dumping baby girls ” you go. You’re the ones who have no shame! You think we wanted to come here and deal with you squalid boat people? No, the higher authorities sent us here because of all the filth that’s been washing up downstream.’

Meili remembers the dead baby she saw floating past the other day, and suspects that this is what the woman is referring to. She wishes she could sink into the water and swim away.

What follows is a horrendous scene, described through the conciousness of the ‘infant spirit’ of this and later pregnancies of Meili, a device which Jian uses to comment on her plight as she navigates a nightmare course through forced abortions, baby-trading, child trafficking, abduction and corruption. These passages are identified in the book by bold script that alerts the reader that this is the voice of an infant spirit observes events:

The infant spirit watches Mother being tied to the steel surgical table all those years ago, her hands bound in plastic and hemp ropes, her pale, exposed bulge resembling a pig on a butcher’s table. A man in a white coat rubs his nose, then plucks Mother’s knicker elastic and watches her flinch. ‘Give her another shot, to be safe,’ he says.

‘Don’t kill my baby, don’t kill my -‘ Mother splutters, white foam bubbling from her mouth. But the man slides his hands beneath Mother’s bottom and pulls off her knickers. ‘Hooligan! ‘ Mother weeps. If my baby dies, its spirit will haunt you for eternity.’ She tries to spit the foam covering her mouth onto his face, but it rises only slightly then falls back on her lips.
The man begins to prod Mother’s belly.

‘Don’t do it, I beg you . . .’ she moans. ‘Let me keep this child ‘I won’t have another, I promise . . . It’s a Chinese citizen. It has a right to live . . .’

The man is handed a second syringe with a much longer needle. He inserts the tip into Mother’s belly and pushes it all the way in.

‘Stop, stop! Don’t hurt my baby…’

The infant spirit observes its first incarnation writhe and squirm as the long needle enters its head.  When the cold, astringent liquid is released into the brain, the spirit sees the cells shiver and contract, and the foetus flail about in the amniotic fluid, pounding Mother’s warm, uterine walls, then gradually grow weaker and weaker until all that moves is its quivering spine.

At the conclusion of this horrific scene, a weak and bleeding Meili, foetus dying in front of her, is informed that she has been given a half-price discount on the fees that the compulsory abortion would cost. Satire doesn’t come any bleaker.

Kongzi, Meili’s husband, a proud direct descendant of Confucius, rages:

If a panda gets pregnant, the entire nation celebrates, but if a woman gets pregnant she’s treated like a criminal. What kind of country is this?

For Ma Jian, it is Meili the peasant woman who is the heroine of his novel – resilient, determined to grab opportunities in a rapidly-modernising China, while her patriarchal spouse looks backward to a past in which everyone knew their allotted place in society. Meili represents the situation in which a woman’s body has become a battle zone over which husbands and the state fight for control. The most successful scenes in the novel are those in which Jian portrays her dignity as she attempts to evade the forces of the state whilst also resisting the intimate domestic oppression of Kongzi. As the novel continues, Meili becomes a symbol of the strength of the individual faced with harsh and oppressive circumstances.

.A worker rummages through electronic waste for the purpose of salvaging metals and other materials

A worker salvages precious metals from electronic waste in Guiyu (the model for Heaven Township)

A young girl disassembles computer CD drives. Early exposure to heavy metals produces a disproportionate rate of infant mortality and unusually low IQs among Guiyu’s children.

In a home workshop a child disassembles computer CD drives. Early exposure to heavy metals produces a disproportionate rate of infant mortality and unusually low IQs among Guiyu’s children.

For me, the scenes that worked particularly well in The Dark Road were those that described the nirvana of Heaven Township, where the air, water and land is heavily polluted by toxic poisons released by the recycling in Dickensian home workshops of cast-off computers and mobile phones from the UK and other western countries. In a series of passages, Ma Jian conjures up a nightmarish vision:

A worker shuffles into the room, takes the empty circuit boards into the yard and dunks them into basins of sulphuric acid to retrieve any remaining scraps of gold. Immediately, acrid vapours drift into the workshop causing everyone’s eyes and throat to burn. As dusk approaches, all the machines and bamboo baskets of sorted components are dragged back into the workshop and stacked up into tall piles. Meili sorts the red, white, blue, black, green and grey plastic casings at her feet into separate hemp sacks, then goes to help Old Shao label some white boxes.

At this time every evening, in the final minutes before they clock off, the women at the metal table stop chatting and concentrate on their work, their hands darting back and forth, tweezing out tiny square, circular, two-pronged, three-pronged components as though they were plucking feathers from a duck. Through the haze of blue fumes, the hot circuit boards in their hands look like miniature demolition sites.

In the interview for Foyles, Jian spoke about the significance for the novel of his portrayal of Heaven Township:

The first half of the book describes the journey that this family take along the rivers, there is sense of continual flow, of rootlessness. It’s a journey through the channels of a women’s body. When they arrive at Heaven its as though they’ve arrived in the womb and there it is much more fixed in time, there is a feeling that is about gestation, about growth. They are like water reeds flowing in the current of the rivers. When I was in Guangxi by the rivers and living among these boat communities, Shanghai and Beijing seemed a million miles away, you could have been anywhere. It didn’t even feel particularly like China, it didn’t feel like the 21st century, there was a feeling of timelessness there. The only traces of the modern world you can see in these places is the trash they’re surrounded by.

Ma Jian researched everything he records in The Dark Road first-hand, and this gives the book a documentary feel.  The nearest western equivalents to Jian’s determination to reveal the reality of (in his words) ‘a country that has lost its conscience’ might be Dickens or Orwell.  Jian reveals the one-child policy to be  nothing more than a money-making scam, just like digital-scrap business. The state earns huge revenues from fines, employing hordes of bureaucrats to enforce the policy.  Central to Ma Jian’s novel is his belief that the policy also represents a means by which the Chinese state asserts its power and retains  its control over individuals. After Meili’s fourth pregnancy and the couple’s arrival in the fields of electronic waste and deadly pollution that constitute Heaven Township, the infant spirit resists being born into such a hostile terrain.   Meili remains pregnant for five years.

Ma Jian was born in Qingdao, China, in 1953. He worked as a watch-mender’s apprentice, a painter of propaganda boards, and a photojournalist. At the age of thirty, he left his job and travelled for three years across China. In 1987 he published his first novel, Stick Out Your Tongue, which prompted the Chinese government to ban his work. Ma Jian left Beijing for Hong Kong in 1987 as a dissident, but continued to travel incognito in China, He supported the pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After the handover of Hong Kong he moved to Germany and then London, where he now lives with his partner and translator Flora Drew.

In the Foyles interviw, Ma Jian was asked whether the bleak portrayal of down-trodden Chinese suggested there was no escape for them.  He replied:

China has undergone huge social changes. One of these is the rise of women, they are the ones who have been pushing this economic miracle, who are leaving home and working in the factories of Shenzhen. Meili is one of these women. She aspires to have a better life, she wants freedom from the state but also her husband. Kungzi represents patriarchal society that’s trying to hold women back. Meili (achieves) some level of independence but when Nannan disappears its then that she realises just how dangerous it is to be a woman in China. The ten years of the book that follows Meili’s life are like an elastic band that’s she’s pushing forward and forward and she stretches to its limit and at the end it snaps and she bounces back and she returns to this level of hopelessness.


A far as I see it, the family planning system is integral to the totalitarian state. However much there is discussion for the need to get rid of it the government will be very unwilling to relinquish control. But there is also fear in the government. Family planning has now become a state secret. The records are not open to public access. So the government knows there is a dark side that needs to be hidden. They also know that in fact the whole premise of the this population policy is flawed. The experts now believe that (because of) the current economic developments the birthrate has decreased drastically and this would have happened without their doom laden projections of a population catastrophe.

The Dark Road is a tough read, but one that opens your eyes to the sordid reality behind that underpins China’s rapid economic development.  It is, I think, a less impressive novel than either Red Dust or Beijing Coma – but an important work, nevertheless, that takes the western reader on a journey into the terrible heart of the Chinese economic miracle.  What happens to my computer or mobile phone when I discard it for the latest model?  Now I know.

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Ai Weiwei in the chapel at YSP: ‘The art always wins’

Ai Weiwei in the chapel at YSP: ‘The art always wins’

Iron Tree 1

‘Iron tree’ by Ai Weiwei outside the chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

At Yorkshire Sculpture Park they recently completed the renovation of a sandstone chapel built in 1744 for the owners of Bretton Hall, the Palladian mansion that stands at the heart of the estate now devoted to art. The chapel was a place of worship for the owners of the estate and the local community for over 200 years until it was deconsecrated in the 1970s. Enter it now and you enter a contemplative space occupied by a new installation by Ai Weiwei, a profound and meditative work by an artist whose government has strictly limited his travel and confiscated his passport.

Fairytale – 1001 Chairs consists of 45 antique Chinese chairs dating from the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), each one different and yet arranged so uniformly in nine orderly rows in the nave, each chair occupying an identical, rigorously-defined space so that they seem to lose their individuality. And this is exactly Ai Weiwei’s point.

Unable to travel to Yorkshire, and working from plans and photographs of the chapel, Ai selected 45 chairs from a project displayed in Kassel in 2007 for which he brought (metaphorically) 1001 Chinese citizens to Kassel for 20 days, representing each person (otherwise unable to travel outside China) with an antique chair. Ai Weiwei chose 1001 to make a point about the collective and the individual: 1000 is a mass, one is an individual.

FairytaleAi Weiwei, Fairytale-1001 Chairs

Ai Weiwei, ‘Fairytale-1001 Chairs’ (photos by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

In the chapel you are invited to choose a chair and sit.  You are handed poems to read by Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing (1910-1996).  For this is art that is both deeply political and more meditative than any other work by Ai that I have seen. The tranquil space, with its plain stone floor and bare whitewashed walls invokes stillness.  As sunlight slants through the unembellished windowpanes, Ai’s Fairytale Chairs and his father’s words combine to provoke thoughts about power, privilege and the freedom of individual.  The chapel is a refuge, a sanctuary in which thought can take wing.

Fairytale detail

The individual: detail from ‘Fairytale-1001 Chairs’ (photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

Each of these chairs is a valuable antique which once would have seated a privileged member of Chinese society, and now might be bought at a great price and leave China to stand in the room of a wealthy individual on the far side of the world. To be invited to sit on a chair like this is a freedom not granted to our Chinese contemporaries. These chairs were once the preserve of the privileged, but now – through Ai Weiwei’s intervention – as the crowds of visitors to the YSP sift through the chapel and sit for a moment’s contemplation, they represent democracy.

Society allows artists to explore what we don’t know in ways that are distinct from the approaches of science, religion and philosophy. As a result, art bears a unique responsibility in the search for truth.

Ai Weiwei’s work repeatedly draws attention to unethical government policies. He gained international attention for his collaborative work on the design of Beijing’s National Stadium,nicknamed the Bird’s Nest, built for the 2008 Olympics (he later said that he was ‘proud of the architecture, but hated the way it was used’). His work has often been angry and controversial, including the series of photographs in which he gave the finger to the Chinese government and other international leaders, and breathtaking installation in Munich created from 9,000 children’s backpacks which was his protest over the thousands of students killed when their schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (he blamed the death toll on the Chinese government corruption that permitted shoddy construction).

For nearly a decade, Ai has been harassed, placed under constant surveillance, and sometimes imprisoned. In 2011, state police seized him, threw a black bag over his head and drove him to an undisclosed location, where he languished for 81 days in a tiny prison cell. He is now banned from leaving China and his home remains under constant surveillance. Despite these restrictions, Ai has continued his criticism of the Chinese Communist leadership – which he regards as repressive, immoral and illegitimate – in works that demonstrate a deepening concern with autocratic power and the absence of human rjghts.  Were it not for his international celebrity and the worldwide protests last time he was jailed, Ai would probably be in prison like Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence.

Ai’s political activism and confrontational art stem from a tumultuous childhood. In the chapel I sit for a while and read poems by his father, Ai Qing, one of China’s most revered poets, who was imprisoned by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party in 1932.  It was during the three years he spent in jail that Ai Qing began to write poetry. During the Sino-Japanese war (1931-45), swept along by the rising storm of patriotism in China, Ai Qing travelled to Yan’an, in northern China, the centre of the Communist-controlled area. He officially joined the Party in 1941, and was once close to Mao Tse-tung, who talked to him on several occasions about literary policy. His poems from this time reveal an empathy with China’s poor and their harsh existence.  One of the poems I had been given to read was ‘The North’, written in 1938 in Tongguan; this is the last stanza:

I love this wretched country,
This age-old country,
This country
That has nourished what I have loved:
The world’s most long-suffering 
And most venerable people

Ai Qing’s poems celebrated the natural world and the lives of ordinary people – and the Communist cause, as here in these lines from ‘The Announcement of the Dawn’, another poem available to read in the chapel:

For my sake,
Poet, arise.

And please tell them
That what they wait for is coming.

Tell them I have come, treading the dew,
Guided by the light of the last star.

I come out of the east,
From the sea of billowing waves.

I shall bring light to the world,
Carry warmth to humankind.

Poet, through the lips of a good man,
Please bring them the message.

Tell those whose eyes smart with longing,
Those distant cities and villages steeped in sorrow.

Let them welcome me,
The harbinger of day, messenger of light.

Open every window to welcome me,
Open all the gates to welcome me.

Please blow every whistle in welcome,
Sound every trumpet in welcome.

Let street-cleaners sweep the streets clean,
Let trucks come to remove the garbage,

Let the workers walk on the streets with big strides,
Let the trams pass the squares in splendid procession.

Let the villages wake up in the damp mist,
And open their gates to welcome me …

Ai Qing joined the Communist Party in 1941, and for a time was close to Mao Tse-tung, with whom he would sometimes discuss literary policy. When Ai Qing returned to Beijing in 1949 he was already a cadre in the new government, and began to concentrate his talents more and more on writing poems in praise of Mao Tse-tung and Stalin. Then, in 1958, he wrote a poem that extolled the virtues of a culture that celebrated rather than repressed multiple voices. For this he was publicly denounced as ‘a rightist’ and exiled with his family to a re-education camp, where he was humiliated, beaten and forced to clean toilets for nearly two decades. Ai Weiwei  was one year old and spent his early years in the camp, then another 16 years in exile before the family was allowed to return to Beijing in 1976 following the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution.  In an interview with David Sheff in 2013, Ai Weiwei recalled the years of exile:

I’m a person who likes to make an argument rather than just give emotion or expression a form and shape in art. I became an artist only because I was oppressed by society. I was born into a very political society. When I was a child, my father told me, as a joke, “You can be a politician.” I was 10 years old. I didn’t understand it, because I already knew that politicians were the enemy, the ones who crushed him. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But now I understand. I can be political. I can say something even though we grew up without true education, memorizing Chairman Mao’s slogans. I memorized hundreds of them. I can still sing his songs, recite his poetry. Every morning at school we stood in front of his image, memorizing one of his sentences telling what we should do today to make ourselves a better person.

Another poem by Ai Qing that I read as a sit in the stillness and light of the chapel at the YSP is ‘Wall’, written on a visit to Germany in 1979.  These are the opening and closing stanzas:

A wall is like a knife
It slices a city in half
One half is on the east
The other half is on the west

How tall is this wall?
How thick is it?
How long is it?
Even if it were taller, thicker and longer
It couldn’t be as tall, as thick and as long
As China’s Great Wall
It is only a vestige of history
A nation’s wound
Nobody likes this wall
And how could it block out
A billion people
Whose thoughts are freer than the wind?
Whose will is more entrenched than the earth?
Whose wishes are more infinite than time?

Ai Weiwei has selected three more works for the chapel. ‘Ruyi’ (which means ‘as as one wishes’ is a vividly-coloured porcelain sculpture in the form of a traditional Chinese sceptre of the same name, used by nobles, monks and scholars for around 2,000 years. Ruyi denoted authority and granted individuals the right to speak and be heard, ‘thus enabling orderly and democratic discourse’.

Ai Weiwei, Map of China, 2012. Courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photo Jonty WildeMap of China, 2008 made from wood reclaimed from Qing dynasty temples

Ai Weiwei, ‘Map of China’, 2008 (photos by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

Map of China is a massive piece, carved from wood reclaimed from dismantled Qing dynasty temples.  On the wall opposite are displayed two timelines. One consists of some of the terrible dates in China’s history in the last 100 years: the estimated famine deaths across China (five million in 1928-30; 10 million in 1943; 25-45 million after the end of the Great Leap Forward in 1961); troops opening fire on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Beijing in 1989; the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Sichuan province, killing tens of thousands in 2008.  In a parallel column are listed dates very personal to the artist: 1932, his father, the celebrated poet Ai Qing, begins to write because he cannot paint while imprisoned as a member of the League of Left Wing Artists; 1958, Ai Qing interned in a labour camp as a “rightist” with his family, including the baby Ai Weiwei, where he spends the next 16 years cleaning the village toilets.

Then there are recent dates from the artist’s own life: 2008, artistic adviser for the Olympic stadium; 2009, project to publish all the unacknowledged names of child victims of the earthquake, and cranial surgery following assault by police; 2010, house arrest as ‘Sunflower Seeds’ opens at Tate Modern; 2011, accused of ‘economic crimes’ and imprisoned for 81 days, his Shanghai studio demolished. The most recent date simply reads: ‘2014, passport confiscated’.


Ai Weiwei, Lantern, 2014 (Photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

Upstairs is ‘Lantern’, carved in marble excavated from the same quarries used by emperors to build the Forbidden City, and more recently, to build Mao’s tomb. For some years the Chinese authorities have surrounded Ai’s home with surveillance cameras and every step he takes outside is recorded and monitored. In a gesture of mockery and defiance, Ai  began to decorate the CCTV cameras with red Chinese lanterns.  Then he began to carve the ‘Lantern’ series from marble. In this way the ephemeral becomes permanent, or – as Ai has said – ‘The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.’

Iron Tree 2

Ai Weiwei: ‘Iron Tree’, 2013

One tree, another tree,
Each standing alone and erect.
The wind and air
Tell their distance apart.

But beneath the cover of earth
Their roots reach out
And at depths that cannot be seen
The roots of the trees intertwine.
– Ai Qing, ‘Tree’,1940

Stepping out of the chapel into the sunlight you are confronted by one of Ai’s most recent works – the six-metre high ‘Iron Tree’, the largest and most complex sculpture to date in a tree series begun in  2009, and inspired by pieces of wood sold by street vendors.

Iron Tree detail 2 Iron Tree detail 1 Iron Tree 3

Ai Weiwei: ‘Iron Tree’, 2013, details

The work has been constructed from casts of branches, roots and trunks from different trees. Although like a living tree in form, the sculpture is very obviously pieced and joined together with large iron bolts.  ‘Iron Tree’ comprises 97 pieces cast in iron from parts of trees, and interlocked using a classic – and here exaggerated – Chinese method of joining, with prominent nuts and screws. The work ‘expresses Ai’s interest in fragments and the importance of the individual, without which the whole would not exist’.

Creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential.  Simply put, aside from using one’s own imagination – perhaps more importantly – creativity is the power to act.  Only through our actions can our expectations for change turn into reality.
– Ai Weiwei


It’s 25 years since a million protesters demanding democratic freedoms gathered in Tiananmen Square, only for the protests to be brutally crushed.  Good piece in the Guardian by author of Beijing Coma, Ma Jian who took part in the protests and is now exiled.

See also


Masterpieces of Chinese Painting: poem, paint and line

Masterpieces of Chinese Painting: poem, paint and line

Not being fish, how do we know their happiness?
We can only take an idea and make it into a painting.
To probe the subtleties of the ordinary,
We must describe the indescribable.
– Inscription on 13th century painting, ‘The Pleasures of the Fish’, by Chou Tung-ch’ing

A flock of twenty white cranes appear in a carefully designed compositional swirl in an azure sky above city gates that rise mysteriously from an illuminated layer of cloud, a scene of otherworldly beauty.  We are at the V&A, just one room into the expansive and educational exhibition, Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, 700 – 1900, standing before Auspicious Cranes, a rapturous, hypnotic image that appears as if in a dream. Continue reading “Masterpieces of Chinese Painting: poem, paint and line”

Ai Weiwei: throwing stones at autocracy

Ai Weiwei:  throwing stones at autocracy

There are a lot of cats hanging around Ai Weiwei’s  family compound in Beijing.  One of them has actually learned how to open doors.  In Alison Klayman’s superb first documentary, Ai Weiwei:  Never Sorry, Ai remarks that the difference between human beings and cats is that when cats open a door, they don’t close it behind them. Klayman’s film is a celebration of a subversive artist who turns resistance into a creative act. Continue reading “Ai Weiwei: throwing stones at autocracy”

Ai Weiwei: the unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail

The artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei disappeared into detention on 3 April and no-one has heard from him since.  He was stopped from boarding a flight at Beijing airport last Sunday and escorted away by police, together with his friend Wan Tao.  Earlier that week, Ai announced that he was building a studio in Berlin, partially in response to the increasing pressure he faced in China.

Until Wednesday, the Chinese authorities refused to comment on his whereabouts, despite calls for his release from the UK, the United States and the European Union.  The artist’s detention is part of the toughest crackdown on activists and dissidents in China for a decade, with at least 24 people criminally detained, three more formally arrested for incitement to subversion and a dozen missing.

China is still fuming over the award last autumn of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo, the former professor who was at the forefront of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.  He was jailed in December 2009 for 11 years on subversion charges after co-authoring Charter 08, a manifesto that spread quickly on the Internet calling for political reform and greater rights in China.

Ominously, an editorial the other day in the state-run Global Times newspaper appeared to confirm the worst fears about Ai Weiwei:

Ai Weiwei […] has been close to the red line of Chinese law. As long as Ai Weiwei continuously marches forward, he will inevitably touch the red line one day. Ai Weiwei will be judged by history, but he will pay a price for his special choice.

Back in 1964 Bob Dylan wrote ‘Chimes of Freedom’ in which he summoned up the image of an electric storm, the thunder ‘tolling for the rebel, the rake, the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked, the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake, and for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail’.  A year or so earlier, in ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, he had asked, ‘How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Last week, with Ai Weiwei ‘misplaced inside a jail’, Dylan meekly performed a set in Beijing which had been scrutinised, censored and approved by the Chinese Culture Ministry. He failed even to mention Ai Weiwei, and kowtowed to the Chinese authorities’ insistence that he not perform ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.  Inexcusable.

Writing  in The Independent, Joan Smith noted that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented countless human rights abuses in China, and in 2008, the year of the Beijing Games, even the UK Foreign Office was compelled to list China among ‘major countries of concern’ in its annual human rights report. Yet the diplomatic and economic policy of cozying up to China continues, with, for example, David Cameron visiting Beijing on a trade mission during the furore over Liu’s Nobel Peace Prize.  Smith continues:

Guys, I have something to say to you: it’s not working. Beijing only has to throw a party and you all turn up as though Tiananmen Square never happened, so why should the regime change? Being nice to the hard-line Communists who rule China – awarding them the Games, muting public criticism, endlessly sending political and business leaders to shake hands with them – has had no measurable effect on human rights. Ordinary people in China are still denied the most basic freedoms, harassed by state security officials – Ai filmed them in his recent video – and disappearing into labour camps.

The arrests of recent weeks demonstrate not the Communist Party’s strength but its weakness. Its claims to power and popularity are so illegitimate that it dare not allow its critics to remain free…

This was Ai Weiwei’s Web of Light, strung across Exchange Flags during the Liverpool Biennial 2008, perhaps Liverpudlians favourite artwork in that year’s Biennial. An article in The Guardian last year explained how Ai’s attitude to authority was forged in his childhood experiences before and during the cultural revolution:

“I experienced humanity before I should. When I was very young,” he says. If that sounds grandiloquent, consider his history: Ai spent years of his childhood in a labour camp in the far north-west of China, on the edge of the Gobi desert. His father, Ai Qing, was an artist and one of China’s most revered modern poets, but fell foul of the late 1950s anti-rightist campaign. Life was precarious, and his parents had little time to spare for their offspring. “It was like being a little boy in the centre of a storm. Just always scared or surprised by surroundings that you cannot make sense of. And you have no comparisons because you have no memory of what another life can be,” he says.

Ai Qing, a cosmopolitan intellectual who had translated symbolist poets, spent years cleaning toilets. “Sometimes he shared stories with us, like his early [years] in Paris and the kind of paintings and artworks he liked – always things full of joy,” says Ai Weiwei. “But it had nothing to do with our surroundings – they were very tough. For years he wouldn’t take one day off. We always saw him as this very tired worker coming home with no energy; just having to lay down and sleep.”

To close, here’s Ai Weiwei in uncompromising mood in a photo posted on his blog, now shut down by the Chinese authorities.

 Footnote:  Ai Weiwei was finally released on 22 June, after 81 days in detention.

Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds at Tate Modern


We visited Tate Modern to see the Gauguin exhibition, but while we there I decided to take a look at the current installation in the Turbine Hall – Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds.  I have my doubts about this work.  It consists of 100 million porcelain, hand-painted sunflower seeds that took an entire factory of workers in the city of Jingdezhen, once famous for its production of imperial porcelain, more than two years to produce.

Most critics have been appreciative of this work.  I certainly appreciate Weiwei’s position as an artist experiencing state restrictions (for example, being prevented from leaving China during the week that Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  And I appreciate the interpretation placed on the exhibit by many art critics, perhaps best expressed by Andrew Graham-Dixon:

Why seeds of stone? A certain grim irony may be intended, a comment on life as it must be lived by most Chinese people. These are seeds that can never open, never grow into the million forms of life their form promises. Each represents a kind of stillborn existence, while it is the  fate of the whole mass of them to be – literally, in the act performed daily by the work’s audience – downtrodden.

But I can’t help visualising the dreadful daily monotony of those two years during which the female workers of that Chinese factory laboured at their hand-painting.  That certainly seems like a grim irony.

Nobel Commitee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, left, and committee member Kaci Kullman Five place the Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma on an empty chair representing Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo

Nobel Commitee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, left, and committee member Kaci Kullman Five place the Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma on an empty chair representing Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo during the award ceremony in Oslo, December 10, 2010. This was the first time in 74 years the award was not handed over to the winner or a representative, because Liu is serving an 11-year sentence in China on subversion charges for urging sweeping changes to Beijing’s one-party communist political system.


You can read Andrew Graham-Dixon’s review in full here.  An earlier post about Ai Weiwei is here.  And I loved Ai Weiwei’s Web of Light at the 2008 Liverpool Biennial.

Ai Weiwei: ‘I have to speak for people who are afraid’

This was Ai Weiwei’s Web of Light, strung across Exchange Flags during the Liverpool Biennial 2008. I was reminded of this stunning installation, perhaps Liverpudlians’ favourite from the Biennial, reading an informative piece about its creator, Ai Weiwei in today’s Guardian.

The article notes that Tate Modern has commissioned Weiwei to fill its Turbine Hall later this year, but goes on to focus on his delicate relationship with the Chinese government, resulting from his angry and sustained denunciations of officialdom through interviews, documentaries and the internet. The article explains that his attitude to authority was forged in his childhood experiences before and during the cultural revolution:

“I experienced humanity before I should. When I was very young,” he says. If that sounds grandiloquent, consider his history: Ai spent years of his childhood in a labour camp in the far north-west of China, on the edge of the Gobi desert. His father, Ai Qing, was an artist and one of China’s most revered modern poets, but fell foul of the late 1950s anti-rightist campaign. Life was precarious, and his parents had little time to spare for their offspring. “It was like being a little boy in the centre of a storm. Just always scared or surprised by surroundings that you cannot make sense of. And you have no comparisons because you have no memory of what another life can be,” he says.

Ai Qing, a cosmopolitan intellectual who had translated symbolist poets, spent years cleaning toilets. “Sometimes he shared stories with us, like his early [years] in Paris and the kind of paintings and artworks he liked – always things full of joy,” says Ai Weiwei. “But it had nothing to do with our surroundings – they were very tough. For years he wouldn’t take one day off. We always saw him as this very tired worker coming home with no energy; just having to lay down and sleep.”

Ai Weiwei says his father’s experiences have left him with a sense of duty

To speak for the generation, or generations, who didn’t have a chance to speak out … And I also have to speak out for people around me who are afraid, who think it is not worth it or who have totally given up hope. So I want to set an example: you can do it and this is OK, to speak out.

Red Dust by Ma Jian

Ma Jian

Ma Jian

After reading Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma earlier this month, I’ve just finished his earlier work, Red Dust, his account of three years of arduous travelling through China’s most remote provinces, adopting various identities to avoid police surveillance. It’s a wonderful book – possibly the best travel account I’ve read – that has some similarities with Soul Mountain by the 2000 Nobel Prize winner, Gao Xingjian.

In August 1983 Ma Jian, dissident poet and painter turns 30. His ex-wife has just pronounced him a political criminal and forbidden him to see his daughter. His girlfriend has taken up with a convict and betrayed him to the police. His painting is no good: ‘Not one of his paintings,’ notes a colleague, ‘conveys the joy and excitement of life under the Four Modernisations.’ He has long hair and wears denim. The director of his work unit condemns him in front of his fellows: ‘His lax, free-wheeling lifestyle… shows all the signs of the Spiritual Pollution the central authorities have been telling us about.’

Ma Jian takes to the road. He packs his camera, some rice coupons, a little money and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and for three years wanders the distant provinces of China. Red Dust is the account of these travels. It’s an extraordinary journey: Ma Jian walks great distances, sleeps rough in the most primitive circumstances, suffers illness, extreme cold and extreme heat, hunger and exhaustion. He is pursued by the police. He is robbed. He is attacked by dogs. In the wastes of the Chaidam Basin he is forced to drink his own urine to survive. Three days lost in the Gobi drives him to the brink of madness. At one point, on the very edge of China, he narrowly escapes being washed down the Salween river to the border with Burma and certain death at the hands of Burmese or Chinese border guards, escaping the river only to find he has to climb a sheer cliff face in the dark, certain that at any moment he could lose his grip and fall to his death.

From the deserts and villages of China’s northwest he walks his way to Deng Xiaoping’s booming capitalist enclaves in the south. He travels back towards the east coast, finds himself in the rainforests near the Burmese border, and finally ends up in Tibet.

Along the way, Ma Jian mixes descriptions of the local landmarks and behaviour of the people he meets, with encounters with dissident contacts and friends aacross China. He provides a vivid description of the rapidity of the changes in China after Mao’s death.

This is a spiritual quest. Before he left Beijing, Ma Jian took Buddhist vows. His goal are places of Buddhist pillgrimage and, above all,  Tibet. But all he finds is a land and a people despoiled and corrupted by totalitarian rule and the rush to ‘market socialism’. In each town people are buying or selling something – rope, cats, last year’s calendars, next week’s brides. By the end he is weary of the road:

The further I walk, the less I know why. I have become a marching machine. As long as I have a bag on my back I will walk, until I drop. The path takes control. I follow it blindly.  I have lost all sense of direction. Why did I choose to live this way?  I am not a dog, after all.

Red Dust has been described in the Independent as ‘a tour de force…a powerful picaresque cross between the sort of travel book any Western author would give his eye-teeth to write, and a disturbing confession…it stands out among the many literary offerings of the Cultural Revolution`s ‘lost generation.’  This is a travel book that is as much an account of an internal journey of the mind as the traverse of a physical landscape:

This stinking body no longer belongs to me, my mind is as empty as a plastic bag caught in the high wind. Suddenly, I think of Beijing, and realise that although it is crammed with police, at least there is a bed and pillow waiting for me there. I came to Tibet hoping to find answers to all my unasked questions, but I have discovered that even when the questions are clear, there are no clear answers. I am sick of travelling. I need to hold onto something familiar, even if it is just a tea cup. I cannot survive in the wilds — nature is infinite but my life has bounds. I need to live in big cities that have hospitals, bookshops and women. I left Beijing because I wanted to be alone and to forge my own path, but I know now that no path is solitary, we all tread across other people’s beginnings and ends. I have stopped here, not because the Himalayas stand in the way,  but because my inward journey has reached its end. In fact, we all tread a path — the gold-digger, the coil-remover, Myima who left her turquoise behind and rose to the sky. We are just travelling in different directions, that’s all. This path has ended, but from now on, my journey will he much harder…

Writing in the Guardian in July 2008, Ma Jian stated:

I am a writer. Being critical is a writer’s responsibility. In China, however, writers are encouraged to sing the praises of the government. Since being too critical may lead to the banning of their work, many exercise self-censorship or write books to please the market.

I left Beijing in the late 1980s to live in Hong Kong because, having been blacklisted by the government, I couldn’t publish my works on the mainland. My novella Stick out Your Tongue, which draws on my experience of travelling in Tibet, had been denounced as ‘filthy and shameful’ and banned. In spring 1989 I returned to witness the student-led democratic movement. As the government brutally cracked down on the protest, my brother went into a coma after an accident. I just couldn’t find the words to describe the sense of shock and despair I felt then; it forced me to see the evil face of the regime.

My brother finally woke up after six months. I went back to Hong Kong until the handover in 1997. Then I moved to London. When I make trips back to China I am often struck how people seem to have forgotten about ‘4 June’. The whole of society, increasingly money-oriented, seems to have slipped into a coma. I spent 10 years writing Beijing Coma, exploring the double tragedies that took place in 1989. I want to wake people up from this vegetative state.

I divide my time between London and Beijing. I am trying to persuade my family to spend more time in China. It’s no fun to be in exile. I can’t even figure out the basic 26 letters, let along operate in English. I often feel that although I’ve found the sky of freedom above my head, I’ve lost the soil I stand on. I need to be back in my motherland, where I can find inspirations.

I am concerned as to whether the government will let me back in after the publication of Beijing Coma in China later this year. But I have to speak the truth. My next book is a novel about the cost of the inhuman family-planning policy. But it is not just books. I openly criticise this dictatorial regime in my articles and interviews or whenever I can. If we don’t, it will never change. And I want to remind people; when a country forgets its past, it will have no future.