In 2011, the Chinese government imprisoned the prolific artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei for 81 days on charges of “economic crimes”—though the real reason was his outspoken political activism. Though harrowing, the experience spurred Ai Weiwei to see the parallels between his father’s tumultuous life and his own. Now, in his moving and passionate memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, Ai Weiwei looks back on growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution and recounts the extraordinary life of his father, the exiled poet Ai Qing.
The first half of the memoir is dedicated to Ai Qing, who, along with his family, was forced into exile in 1957, the year Ai Weiwei was born. Because of his status as a writer and poet, and his strained relationship with the Communist regime, Ai Qing was viewed as a threat and forced to do back-breaking work in a labor camp, such as cleaning camp latrines and pruning forests, all while facing constant public humiliation and sometimes physical abuse. As conditions became more dangerous for political prisoners under Chairman Mao Zedong’s rule, Ai Qing’s family was relocated several times, with precipitously worsening conditions. At one point, they were sent to “Little Siberia” in northeast China, where they were forced to live in a lice- and rat-infested dugout.
Through it all, Ai Qing remained stoic and never allowed anything to break his spirit. He did his work well, never complained and waited patiently for the punishment to end. Although Ai Weiwei was still a child at the time, he, too, knew better than to complain. He hated the blind obedience to Mao but understood that it was necessary. After Mao’s death in 1976, Ai Weiwei’s family moved to Beijing, and in 1979, Ai Qing was considered fully rehabilitated by the government and no longer a “rightist.” He continued writing and publishing poetry, and one of his poems was read during the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The second half of the memoir turns to Ai Weiwei’s life—his artistic study in the United States, his move back to Beijing, his career as an artist and his many encounters with political censorship. He writes of his arrest and imprisonment with clarity and detail, and readers can feel the anxiety of political turmoil and the power of disobedience as he defies Chinese authorities, over and over again. Sprinkled throughout the book are lovely black-and-white sketches and drawings by Ai Weiwei, as well as many of his father’s emotive poems. These pieces of art remind readers that, although this memoir is a political and personal history, Ai Weiwei is first and foremost committed to artistic expression.
This heart-rending yet exhilarating book gives a rare look into how war and revolution affect innocent bystanders who are just trying to live. It’s simultaneously an informative political history of the last 100 years in China, an intimate portrait of familial bonds through the generations and a testament to the power of art.