Ai Weiwei's Life of Dissent

In 1957, the year of Ai Weiwei’s birth, China’s leader, Chairman Mao, launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign, a purge of intellectuals whose work was deemed critical of the state. By the end of the year, about 300,000 people had been rounded up, the majority of them exiled to the country’s remote border regions to undergo “reform through labour”. Ai’s father, Ai Qing, a respected poet, was one of them.

“The whirlpool that swallowed up my father upended my life too, leaving a mark on me that I carry with me to this day,” Ai writes in the opening chapter of this ambitious memoir, in which his father’s story gives way to, and often echoes, his own. In 1967, his father’s life was upended once again, when he was transported to a desert region known as Little Siberia to undergo political “remoulding”.

His wife, exhausted and demoralised, returned to Beijing with their youngest son, but Ai, not yet 10, chose to go with his father. For almost a decade, they existed in “a square hole dug into the ground, with a crude roof formed of tamarisk branches and rice stalks, sealed with several layers of grassy mud”. His father was assigned to trim trees on a nearby farm and, after a long day’s labour, was forced to attend a public gathering of his fellow exiles, during which he would often be singled out and denounced as a “bourgeois novelist”.

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