Every autobiography, by privileging a single person’s story, is inherently a statement that its subject deserves particular attention. While few would contest that China’s most famous contemporary artist and activist merits that focus, it’s entirely in keeping with Ai Weiwei’s taste for provocation that his memoir refuses to play by the rules. His story is heavily framed with an account of both his father’s life and China’s recent history. The result is a deeply contextualised personal narrative that, by shifting the focus away from Ai himself, seems humble and often self-effacing, while giving expression to his belief that ‘so-called history is a part of self-knowledge’.
His father, Ai Qing, was born in 1910. Like many of his generation, he grew up with democratic and socialist ideals. Rejecting the orderly patterns of Chinese poetic tradition, he wrote free verse that found a wide audience. Three years spent in Paris broadened his artistic and political horizons.