1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows

A Memoir

About the Book

The “intimate and expansive” (Time) memoir of “one of the most important artists working in the world today” (Financial Times), telling a remarkable history of China over the last hundred years while also illuminating his artistic process
“Poignant . . . An illuminating through-line emerges in the many parallels Ai traces between his life and his father’s.”—The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)
ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Time, BookPage, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews
Once a close associate of Mao Zedong and the nation’s most celebrated poet, Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing, was branded a rightist during the Cultural Revolution, and he and his family were banished to a desolate place known as “Little Siberia,” where Ai Qing was sentenced to hard labor cleaning public toilets. Ai Weiwei recounts his childhood in exile, and his difficult decision to leave his family to study art in America, where he befriended Allen Ginsberg and was inspired by Andy Warhol and the artworks of Marcel Duchamp. With candor and wit, he details his return to China and his rise from artistic unknown to art world superstar and international human rights activist—and how his work has been shaped by living under a totalitarian regime.

Ai Weiwei’s sculptures and installations have been viewed by millions around the globe, and his architectural achievements include helping to design the iconic Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing. His political activism has long made him a target of the Chinese authorities, which culminated in months of secret detention without charge in 2011. Here, for the first time, Ai Weiwei explores the origins of his exceptional creativity and passionate political beliefs through his life story and that of his father, whose creativity was stifled.

At once ambitious and intimate, Ai Weiwei’s 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows offers a deep understanding of the myriad forces that have shaped modern China, and serves as a timely reminder of the urgent need to protect freedom of expression.
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Praise for 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows

“[This memoir] is both intimate and expansive, an interrogation of art and freedom. . . . It’s a fascinating sociopolitical history, and a behind-the-scenes look at how one of the world’s most significant living artists became who he is.”Time

1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows can be seen as another act of defiance. . . . The book [is Ai Weiwei’s] effort to reclaim his country’s and his family’s dramatic past.”The Wall Street Journal Magazine

“Illuminating . . .a document of conviction and activism . . . a clear-eyed account of two artists working against convention, buffeted by the whims of absurdist politics.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Poignant . . . An illuminating through-line emerges in the many parallels Ai traces between his life and his father’s. . . . Ai does not allow his own scraps to remain buried. To unearth them is an act of unburdening, an open letter to progeny, a suturing of past and present. It is the refusal to be a pawn—and the most potent assertion of a self.”The New York Times Book Review

“Absorbing . . . Ai Weiwei’s steadfast devotion to free expression and resistance to the Chinese Communist Party’s unrelenting pressures make this book glow as if irradiated with righteousness.” —Orville Schell, The New York Review of Books

“This memoir is a remarkable book—and an important one. . . . 1000 Years is a breathtaking self-examination of a brave artist.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Ai Weiwei is one of the world’s greatest living artists. He is a master of multiple media. His work is always thought-provoking, unpredictable, and immensely personal.”—Elton John, author of Me

“With uncommon humanity, humbling scholarship, and poignant intimacy, Ai Weiwei recounts a life of courage, argument, defeat, and triumph. His is one of the great voices of our time.”—Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity and Far and Away: How Travel Can Change the World

“Like the author’s brilliant installations and films, the book is an impassioned testament to the enduring powers of art—to challenge the state and the status quo, to affirm essential and inconvenient truths, and to assert the indispensable agency of imagination and will in the face of political repression.”—Michiko Kakutani, author of Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread

“This is the rarest sort of memoir, rising above the arc of history to grasp at the limits of the soul.”—Edward Snowden, author of Permanent Record

“Ai Weiwei’s intimate, unflinching memoir is an instant classic in the literature of China’s rise, a protest against the destruction of memory, and a glorious testament to the power of free expression.”—Evan Osnos, author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

“One thousand years of joys and sorrows are here concentrated into a mere one hundred. They are years that teem with life of a startling variety. The presentation is artful and the translation exquisite.”—Perry Link, author of An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics

“Revelatory and moving.”Booklist (starred review)

“Engrossing . . . Highly recommended.”Library Journal (starred review)

“Fluid, heartfelt.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
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1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows

Chapter One

Pellucid Night

Boisterous laughter erupts along the path

A bunch of boozers stumble out of the sleeping village

Clatter their way toward the sleeping fields

On this night, this pellucid night

—Lines from “Pellucid Night,” written by my father in a Shanghai prison in 1932

I was born in 1957, eight years after the founding of the “New China.” My father was forty-seven. When I was growing up, my father rarely talked about the past, because everything was shrouded in the thick fog of the dominant political narrative, and any inquiry into fact ran the risk of provoking a backlash too awful to contemplate. In satisfying the demands of the new order, the Chinese people suffered a withering of spiritual life and lost the ability to tell things as they had truly occurred.

It was half a century before I began to reflect on this. On April 3, 2011, as I was about to fly out of Beijing’s Capital Airport, a swarm of plainclothes police descended on me, and for the next eighty-one days I disappeared into a black hole. During my confinement I began to reflect on the past: I thought of my father, in particular, and tried to imagine what life had been like for him behind the bars of a Nationalist prison eighty years earlier. I realized I knew very little about his ordeal, and I had never taken an active interest in his experiences. In the era in which I grew up, ideological indoctrination exposed us to an intense, invasive light that made our memories vanish like shadows. Memories were a burden, and it was best to be done with them; soon people lost not only the will but the power to remember. When yesterday, today, and tomorrow merge into an indistinguishable blur, memory—apart from being potentially dangerous—has very little meaning at all.

Many of my earliest memories are fractured. When I was a young boy, the world to me was a split screen. On one side, U.S. imperialists strutted around in tuxedos and top hats, walking sticks in hand, trailed by their running dogs: the British, French, Germans, Italians, and Japanese, along with the Kuomintang reactionaries entrenched on Taiwan. On the other side stood Mao Zedong and the sunflowers flanking him—that’s to say: the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, seeking independence and liberation from colonialism and imperialism; it was we who represented the light and the future. In propaganda pictures, the Vietnamese leader, “Grandpa” Ho Chi Minh, was accompanied by fearless young Vietnamese in bamboo hats, their guns trained on the U.S. warplanes in the sky above. Every day we were treated to heroic stories of their victories over the Yankee bandits. An unbridgeable gulf existed between the two sides.

In that information-deprived era, personal choice was like floating duckweed, rootless and insubstantial. Denied the nourishment of individual interests and attachments, memory, wrung out to dry, ruptured and crumbled: “The proletariat has to liberate all of humanity before it can liberate itself,” the saying went. After all the convulsions that China had experienced, genuine emotions and personal memory were reduced to tiny scraps and easily replaced by the discourse of struggle and continuous revolution.

The good thing is that my father was a writer. In poetry he recorded feelings that had lodged deep in his heart, even if those little streams of honesty and candor had no natural outlet on those many occasions when political floods carried all before them. Today, all I can do is pick up the scattered fragments left after the storm and try to piece together a picture, however incomplete it may be.

The year I was born, Mao Zedong unleashed a political storm—the Anti-Rightist Campaign, designed to purge “rightist” intellectuals who had criticized the government. The whirlpool that swallowed up my father upended my life too, leaving a mark on me that I carry to this day. As a leading “rightist” among Chinese writers, my father was exiled and forced to undergo “reform through labor,” bringing to an abrupt end the relatively comfortable life that he had enjoyed after the establishment of the new regime in 1949. Expelled at first to the icy wilderness of the far northeast, we were later transferred to the town of Shihezi, at the foot of Xinjiang’s Tian Shan mountain range. Like a little boat finding refuge in a typhoon, we sheltered there until the political winds shifted direction again.

Then, in 1967, Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” entered a new stage, and my father, now seen as a purveyor of bourgeois literature and art, was once again placed on the blacklist of ideological targets, along with other Trotskyists, apostates, and anti-party elements. I was about to turn ten, and the events that followed have stayed with me always.

In May of that year, one of the leading revolutionary radicals in Shihezi visited us in our home. My father had been living too cushy a life, he said, and now they were going to send him to a remote paramilitary production unit for “remolding.”

Father offered no response.

“Are you looking to us to give you a farewell party?” the man sneered.

Not long after that, a “Liberation” truck pulled up outside the front door of our house. We loaded it with a few simple items of furniture and a pile of coal, and tossed our bedrolls on top—we didn’t have much else to take. It began to drizzle as Father took a seat in the front cabin; my stepbrother, Gao Jian, and I clambered onto the back of the truck and squatted under the canvas. The place we were going was on the edge of the Gurbantünggüt Desert; it was known locally as “Little Siberia.”

Rather than go with us, my mother decided to take my little brother, Ai Dan, back to Beijing. After ten years in exile, she was no longer young, and she couldn’t stomach the prospect of living in even more primitive conditions. Shihezi was the farthest she was willing to go. There was no way to keep the family together. I did not beg Mother to go with us, nor did I plead with her to leave my little brother behind. I held my tongue, neither saying goodbye nor asking if she was coming back. I don’t remember how long it took for them to disappear from view as we drove off. As far as I was concerned, staying was no different from leaving: either way, it was not our decision to make.

The truck shook violently as it lurched along a seemingly endless dirt road riven with potholes and gullies, and I had to hold tight to the frame to avoid being tossed in the air. A mat beside us was picked up by a gust of wind and within seconds it swirled away, disappearing into the cloud of dust thrown up in our wake.

After several bone-shaking hours, the truck finally ground to a halt at the edge of the desert. We had arrived at our destination: Xinjiang Military District Production and Construction Corps, Agricultural Division 8, Regiment 23, Branch 3, Company 2. It was one of many such units established in China’s border regions in the 1950s, with two goals in mind. In times of peace, Production and Construction Corps workers would develop land for cultivation and engage in agricultural production, boosting the nation’s economy. If war broke out with one of China’s neighbors, or if there was unrest among the ethnic minority population, the workers would take up their military role and assist in national defense efforts. As we were to learn firsthand, such units sometimes had an additional function—the housing of offenders banished from their native homes elsewhere in China.

It was dusk, and the sound of a flute came wafting over from a row of low-standing cottages; several young workers were standing outside, watching us curiously. We were assigned a room that had a double bed but nothing else. My father and I moved in the small table and four stools that we had brought from Shihezi. The floor was tamped earth and the walls were mud brick with wheat stalks sticking out. I made a simple oil lamp by pouring kerosene into an empty medicine bottle, poking a hole in the bottle cap, and threading a scrap of shoelace through it.

My father required little in life apart from time to read and write. And he had few responsibilities. It was my mother who had always handled the housework, and she had never expected us to lend a hand. But now it was just my father, Gao Jian, and me, and our living arrangements aroused the curiosity of the other workers, rough-and-ready “military farm warriors” who were blunt in their inquiries. “Is that your grandpa?” they would ask me, or “Do you miss your mom?” In time I learned how to look after things myself.

I tried to build us a stove, so that we could get heat and boil water. But the stove leaked smoke from everywhere except the chimney, and tending it made my eyes smart and left me choking, until I realized that air had to flow freely into the chamber. Then there were the other daily chores, like fetching water from the well, picking up meals from the canteen, feeding the stove with firewood, and shoveling away the cinders. Someone had to do these things, and more often than not that someone was me.

About the Author

Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei is one of the world’s most important living artists. Born in 1957, he lives in Cambridge, UK. More by Ai Weiwei
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About the Author

Allan H. Barr
Allan H. Barr is the translator of Yu Hua's novels Cries in the Drizzle and The Seventh Day, his essay collection China in Ten Words, and his short story collection Boy in the Twilight. He teaches Chinese at Pomona College in California. More by Allan H. Barr
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