28 May 2011

The Vituperative Mode of Chinese Criticism: "The Life and Times of Ai Weiwei"

A subject that has interested me for much of the past two decades is how nations, and particularly China, define themselves through discourse. My approach to this issue has generally focused on questions of discursive boundary definition and especially the treatment of those who transgress those boundaries.

As an undergraduate, I was fascinated by the denunciatory rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution and looked at the way in which editorials around the crucial period of May 1966 established themes of conspiracy and the need to do violence to that conspiracy. The subsequent period of violence and chaos was a logical outcome of the “life and death struggle” to combat the enemies within that threatened the future of the new Chinese state.

Mobilization against threats of conspiracy is not unique to China. One sees that it has been a common feature of all revolutionary societies (see Russia, France, the USA). More generally, one might very well see it as characteristic of the republican form of government, since investing sovereignty in the people (rather than, for example, in divine right) raises the question of whether all those people can be trusted to protect the interests of the state.

Moral virtue is thus one of the measures of fitness to be included as a member of the nation. This is perhaps even more the case in China, where virtue also plays an essential role in defining the political and social orders of the pre-modern state.

I found this especially true in later research I did in graduate school, in which I looked at pamphlets published in post-war Shanghai that denounced the various “traitors” (hanjian) who had been active during the period of Japanese occupation. Of particular interest to me were the denunciations of “cultural traitors,” mainly writers who had stayed behind during the occupation and continued to publish their work.

The fact that many of these “cultural traitors” were women — very popular writers like Su Qing and the young Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang) — made for some interesting dynamics, given the extent to which discussions of moral virtue in these pamphlets invariably revolved around sex. To the authors of these screeds, the Chinese “nation-race” (minzu) was perennially in danger of being contaminated by weakness, corruption, and fornication. The first step in protecting the nation in its time of danger was to expose these cowardly, corrupt, and extravagant men and seductive and bewitching women and their polluting effect on the minzu.


All this is a long way of saying that it was with an odd sense of nostalgia that I endeavored to translate the following denunciation of the enemy of the Chinese people du jour, the artist Ai Weiwei. This item first appeared in the May 2011 edition of Bauhinia magazine, under the name “Sha Liu” — who may very well be the same person as "Liu Yiheng," who has contributed other similar denunciations of Ai in Wen Wei Po (where the piece below was reprinted on May 23).

In its title — “The Life and Times of Ai Weiwei” — the piece explicitly echoes other examples of the genre, notably a similar exposé against Liu Xiaobo. (There may be earlier antecedents as well — feel free to enlighten me in the comments.) The themes of corruption, decadence, and conspiracy are, as the author might say, “there for anyone with eyes to see.” Compared to the post-war “cultural traitor” condemnations I remember, the conspiracy element is much more pronounced here and may remind more people of Cultural Revolution-era pieces.

As I was working on this, I kept asking myself why I should bother translating this. I’m no expert, but the piece below doesn’t strike me as being particularly well-written. I don’t consider myself a particular enthusiast of contemporary art, let alone performance art. I’ve never followed Ai Weiwei’s comings and goings with much interest until now, when it’s the legal (or “illegal,” as the case might be) aspects that interest me. Still, though this piece is not about justice in the sense I normally think of it, the way that Ai Weiwei is rhetorically cast out and made into an enemy of the people is almost mesmerizing.

There’s no doubt more that could be said, but if you’ve read this far, you’re probably ready to move on to the main event.

The Life and Times of Ai Weiwei
“Sha Liu”
Bauhinia Magazine (Hong Kong), May 2011

Ever since mainland “performance artist” Ai Weiwei was taken by police for investigation in accordance with the law on suspicion of economic crimes, there have been a few overseas observers who have complained loudly about the injustice being done to him. But traces of Ai Weiwei's suspected crimes of tax evasion, bigamy, and dissemination of obscene materials were long ago revealed by Ai himself to everyone on the Internet. All are equal before the law. No matter if some western media ignore the basic facts of the case and read politics into Ai’s situation—Chinese legal institutions will handle the case based on the facts and the law and will not succumb to any pressure.

Faced with the decadent manner in which Ai Weiwei lives his life, the hysterical way he insults his own nation, and his willful challenges to basic standards of law, morality, and ethics, good and honest people have to ask themselves, “How could this happen? Who is behind all this?” After I interviewed some other artists and experts, I began to come away with a portrait of Ai Weiwei’s multi-faceted life.

In 1978, having just reached the age of 20, Ai Weiwei began studying at the Beijing Film Academy. In 1981, thanks to China’s policy of opening and reform, Ai—without having even graduated from university—went to America, where he commenced his decade-long career away from home. While studying in New York, Ai first began to reveal his true self and his worship of subverting orthodoxy.

Ai Weiwei returned to China in 1993. At that time, China had re-entered a new phase of rapid development under the strong push of Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour.” Wearing the halo of the foreign-trained artist and son of a celebrity, all sorts of opportunities came Ai Weiwei’s way, like exchanges with and funding from Europeans and Americans. He reaped a windfall of fame and fortune. Who would have imagined that Ai Weiwei was not satisfied with his lot as an artist? His “performance art” and unrestrained opinions flooded the media and every place where there was a “scene.” People in art circles constantly whispered about his decadent private life, and there was endless gossip about his womanizing and his son born out of wedlock. If that were the end of it, it would be merely another case of a badly-behaving “performance artist.” But Ai Weiwei kept going further and spread his “alternative” way of doing things into other realms.

( I )

China is open and tolerant of diversity, embracing all types of artistic endeavor. But Ai Weiwei’s so-called “performance art” always confused people, with its deviant and renegade mode of expression and controversial style. He liked to use nude bodies in much of his so-called performance art. His so-called photo “Eighteen Little Birds Together in Flight” was criticized by a netizen as having “ruined the essence of art.”

A distinguished art critic characterized his performance art as extremely shallow and said that he merely tricked a group of so-called vanguards and pioneers into thinking it was complex and profound. Under Ai Weiwei’s charms, naïve and inexperienced young people abandoned all shame and trampled underfoot traditional ethics and the order of things while giving outlet to their carnal desires. Relying on vulgar nudity to grab attention, Ai attracted followers who had not yet developed proper views on life and art. There are thus photos like the thoroughly disgusting so-called “One on Four” (“Tiger with Eight Tits”), in which Ai Weiwei places himself in the starring role while surrounded by four completely naked women striking coy poses.

In reports in media outlets and websites like Lianhe Zaobao, Sina, and Twitter, many artists at home and abroad criticize Ai Weiwei disdainfully, saying: “Ai Weiwei just likes to go online to expose himself in front of a crowd and seek stimulation” or “His forms are earth-shatteringly, detestably ugly.” The way that Ai Weiwei has tarnished art is something that no normal artist would dare to do.

An artist lamented: “It’s not that we can’t do the same stuff that Ai Weiwei does. We don’t dare cross the line of basic morality. Normal people would worry about being discredited in the eyes of their friends and family and aren’t willing to make that sacrifice. Artists are people first. You can’t be completely reckless. You must have a sense of propriety and impropriety.” In fact, Ai Weiwei’s performances have nothing to do with art.

Clearly, in choosing an artistic path to follow, Ai Weiwei also made a choice about values. In a country with a 5,000-year-old cultural tradition, one in which propriety and a sense of honor are deeply ingrained in its people and in which there is a strong national artistic heritage, Ai Weiwei's “maverick” behavior seems particularly unexpected. Those artists who stick to the middle road and rationality cannot help but ask, “Why is he doing things this way?”

There are many bright stars in the mainland artistic world, with no shortage of talents. As China has become more and more open, there have been more frequent artistic exchanges between China and the rest of the world. But anyone with eyes can observe two things about contemporary Chinese artists favored by the western powers: First, there is no hint of anyone who does traditional Chinese painting, for they have no eyes for this traditional cultural legacy. Second, those Chinese artists who follow the main European and American artistic paths will never gain favor, even if they are extremely accomplished. What kind of artists do they favor? Precisely the kind of so-called performance artists like Ai Weiwei who turn against the nation and rebel against Chinese traditions.

Western grantors toss a few scattered pieces of silver in support of this handful of Chinese “maverick” artists, and what they hope to get in return is clear to all: They attempt to use these ingratiating and compliant ones in China to tear down China's cultural traditions and China's mainstream ideas, morality, and fashion. If they do not comply or they admit that they later realize the error of their ways, then they will be criticized from all sides. People cannot help but ask: where are they trying to lead the culture of the Chinese people?

( II )

Ai Weiwei chose and had great praise for a kind of lifestyle, one that he never grew tired of. According to reports on BBC, DWNews, Lianhe Zaobao, and Twitter, Ai Weiwei took advantage of his work and gradually turned employees of his studio into mistresses. He also had ambiguous relationships with several so-called female “democratic” figures and even extended his hand to some radical-thinking but naïve and inexperienced young female students and young women. For him, lingering among all these different young bodies is probably some kind of “artistic voyage.”

He did not hide any of his actions from his family. Ai Weiwei's family all knew about his illegitimate son. His sister even remarked, “If there's bigamy, then Lu Qing should be the one to make the complaint.” Clear-eyed people might ask why, as Ai Weiwei's legal wife, Lu Qing did report him? The answer is plain and simple: either Lu Qing tacitly accepts Ai Weiwei's lifestyle or else she herself is an advocate of this kind of lifestyle.

Experts say that we should not underestimate the negative effect of Ai Weiwei's libertine lifestyle on teenagers. A casual attitude toward sex led to the “Beat Generation” in America. The relevant authorities in the mainland should take a responsible attitude for teenagers and make a serious effort to wipe out pornographic images and stop their spread. China's national fortunes are tied to its youth, and no power can be allowed to lead them towards depravity.

( III )

These days, Ai Weiwei has descended into the muck of politics. In a so-called performance art photographs, Ai Weiwei gives the finger to Tiananmen and bares his chest with the word “fuck” written on it in front of Tiananmen. Not only does he insult a lawful political regime, he also shows contempt for China's 5,000-year outstanding traditional culture.

Unlike others who comment on politics, Ai Weiwei openly challenges everything connected to the Chinese government and attacks and abuses the government's every policy and action. Anything the Chinese people consider glorious and worthy of pride, he will stop at nothing to slander and vilify it. He habitually pours salt in people's wounds and manufactures confrontation among the masses.

When Beijing successfully held the 2008 Olympics, Ai Weiwei insisted on raining on the parade, attacking the games as “lacking soul” and disparaging the Chinese nation's long-held dream.

During the 2010 Shanghai Expo, he placed a closed-circuit TV system in the space where the Little Mermaid statue usually sits in Copenhagen, Denmark, so that people could view the Little Mermaid exhibit at the Expo and understand “how the Chinese people live under a kind of surveillance in their daily lives.”

On the DWNews website, Lianhe Zaobao, and Twitter, there was an item that said: “May 16, 2008: On the one hand, you have children trapped beneath the debris of the great Sichuan earthquake, in their final struggle to stay alive, and people racing against time to rescue every possible remaining life in the disaster zone. On the other hand, there was Ai Weiwei and his gang, who were beside themselves with joy carrying on live oral sex shows as performance art and posting images on his blog for all to see as a deliberate provocation to the basic moral consciousness of humanity.”

As if this weren't bad enough, recall that in July 2008, a young man from Beijing named Yang Jia stormed into the law-enforcement building in Shanghai's Zhabei District and attacked police officers with a knife, leading to the deaths of six police officers. Three months later, Yang Jia was convicted of murder and executed in accordance with the law. In this case—one handled entirely in accordance with Chinese law—Ai Weiwei made unwarranted accusations and filmed a documentary about Yang Jia entitled The Outcast in order to sow confusion in people's minds.

One day in February 2010, seven people were beaten up while defending the 008 Art Zone in Beijing's Chaoyang District from demolition. This should have been an ordinary criminal case, but that afternoon Ai Weiwei organized his so-called “Tiananmen stroll” protest. One of the people involved in the incident, an artist named Yu Gao, wrote an exposé on her blog entitled “Ai Weiwei, You Acted Too Rashly and Your Audacity is Shameless.” She wrote: “I heard that you went to Zhengyang that afternoon to encourage everyone to march, but no one paid any attention to you. So you started scolding: 'After 60 years, you all still believe the government. You should take a look in the mirror and curse yourselves three times for being idiots!'” Yu Gao also revealed that Ai Weiwei had someone telephone each of them to say that if the police started asking questions, they must not mention Ai Weiwei. The dust has already settled on this affair, but it shows that Ai Weiwei will only be happy when China is in chaos.

In 2011, Ai Weiwei's studio produced a documentary interview on the execution of a young man from Inner Mongolia named Hugejiletu. It goes without saying that, by sticking his nose in so-called ethnic problems, his intention was to confuse people, create rifts, attack the government, and “tear apart” society. The aims of Ai Weiwei and the powers that support him are clear: they are trying to import instability to China.

( IV )

Why does Ai Weiwei do all these “alternative” things? Some good and honest people might ask: why are there so many plots in this day and age?

It just so happens that I have at hand a copy of the “Ten Commandments” for dealing with China that are included in the “Rules of Operation” for the intelligence service of a certain country that everyone knows. Let me excerpt a few passages:
  • Try to use material [culture] to lure and corrupt their youth and encourage them to despise, scorn, and gradually oppose openly the ideological education they have received.
  • Create a lively interest in and opportunities [to access] pornography and further encourage their sexual promiscuity.
  • You must shift the attention of young people from their tradition of placing the government at the center [of their worldview] and concentrate their minds on pornography and make them feel no shame about being shallow or vain.
  • Periodically fabricate some deliberately provocative incidents to plant separatist ideas in people's subconscious.
  • You must especially look for opportunities among minority ethnic groups, create regional, ethnic, and emotional divisions between them, and manufacture hatreds among people.
  • Whenever you see an opportunity, no matter the size or how tangible, you must take advantage to promote the “democracy movement.”
  • Continually manufacture “news” to discredit their leaders.
  • Use all resources to undermine their traditional value system and destroy their morality.
Thinking over what I've just read, I feel a sense of horror. Aren't these just the kinds of things that Ai Weiwei was engaging in? Isn't his so-called avant-garde, vanguard “performance art” [aimed at] destroying China's outstanding cultural traditions, attacking the value system of human civilization, undermining ordinary social order, and disparaging the prestige of the government? Isn't Ai Weiwei advocating sexual decadence and promiscuity and fabricating provocative incidents? Regardless of what his actual status might have been, in recent years Ai Weiwei has ultimately been dutifully carrying out these orders. It's no wonder, then, that as soon as Ai Weiwei was placed under investigation, certain western powers got so upset. Even before China's judicial institutions had handed down any punishment of Ai Weiwei, they were ready to jump in and make a ruckus.

The days are past when China was poor and weak and could be carved up and humiliated by others. Those of Ai Weiwei's ilk who are blinded by lust for gain have underestimated China's determination and will to safeguard its national interests, its people's welfare, its social stability, and the dignity of its legal system. The feudal era is over, and no longer is anyone exempted from criminal responsibility because of any imperial “get out of jail free” card. Ai Weiwei, who so loved “judging” Chinese society, should also be judged by the law.

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