PLAYBOY: That’s the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Sources say 200 to 2,600 people were killed, while the Chinese government claims there were no student fatalities.
AI: Yes. This man was such a high official. I answered, “I never planned to write anything. It doesn’t affect me so much. I have so many everyday happenings to deal with that normally I don’t write about history.” But then I said, “But if you ask me not to write about it, I cannot say yes. I may write something because you ask me not to.” The next day my blog was shut off. Police also came to my mom’s home. My mom called me. I was in the American Embassy because [Representative] Nancy Pelosi was in China. She had changed her tone, because she used to be a human-rights defender. Now she talks about how beautiful China is. I was quite disappointed with her, and I just left. I answered the phone and my mom said, “Weiwei, there are a few police here asking for your address.” I said, “Just wait. I’m coming over.”
I was full of energy and ready to have some kind of fight, because Pelosi had just said how beautiful this nation has become, and I was so mad. At my mom’s house, this guy is very arrogant. He’s undercover. He said, “I just want to know where you live.” I said, “First, show me your badge. Who are you?” That got him, because he didn’t have a badge; he forgot to bring it. I said, “Then just leave. Get out of here. Bring your identification.” He said, “You have no right to ask me for my identification.” Nobody ever does that to them. Once they say, “Police,” everybody is so scared they do whatever the police say. He wouldn’t leave. I said, “Okay, wait.” I dialed 911. I said, “There’s somebody intruding into my home, and I think it’s a robbery or something.” Two police came. They walked in and saw this guy was their boss. It’s embarrassing for them. This new guy said, “Okay, we have to go to the station.” I said, “Show me your badge.” He said, “I don’t have it.” I asked, “How do I know you are police?” They said, “We have uniforms.” I said, “Anybody can have a uniform.” They said, “We have police cars parked outside.” I said, “Who knows if you stole this car?” They went away and came back with badges, and I went to the station. Later they told me in detention, “You’re watching too many Hollywood movies.” I did something ridiculous and stupid, but I had a good time.
PLAYBOY: Did they officially arrest you?
AI: They interrogated me. It took hours because they’re not very educated. They wrote everything down very slowly, but finally they let me go. They didn’t bring charges. I said, “The next time you come, you should bring handcuffs.” Those were my last words to them. Then they shut down my blog.
PLAYBOY: What was the public reaction when your blog disappeared?
AI: There was no way to talk about it. There’s no independent press, so you cannot make a story. No one knows.
PLAYBOY: Might that kind of suppression and repression soften under the leadership of the new president, Xi Jinping, who took over this year?
AI: He gave a speech at the beginning. The main idea was: If you are weak, you will be beaten. I think it’s a very uncivilized rule. It’s like jungle rule. Nothing will change.
PLAYBOY: As China has opened to the West, what’s the impact of a nondemocratic system in which the Communist Party selects its leaders from within?
AI: The way to survive in this party is to hide yourself or to become a person who obeys orders from above. These are not people with new ideas who are bold. One generation chooses the next, and one is worse than the former. It’s like inbreeding. After so many generations, it becomes weaker and weaker. You can see in the first generation—Chairman Mao’s generation, Castro’s generation—the first revolutionaries are strong characters, maybe crazy but a bit romantic. Idealistic. Now you see nothing. They cannot even remember what their ancestors said.
PLAYBOY: Along with your Twitter messages, is your art largely a result of frustration with the current political system?
AI: I’m a person who likes to make an argument rather than just give emotion or expression a form and shape in art. I became an artist only because I was oppressed by society. I was born into a very political society. When I was a child, my father told me, as a joke, “You can be a politician.” I was 10 years old. I didn’t understand it, because I already knew that politicians were the enemy, the ones who crushed him. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But now I understand. I can be political. I can say something even though we grew up without true education, memorizing Chairman Mao’s slogans. I memorized hundreds of them. I can still sing his songs, recite his poetry. Every morning at school we stood in front of his image, memorizing one of his sentences telling what we should do today to make ourselves a better person.
PLAYBOY: What’s an example of a sentence you learned?
AI: “Today I want to be a servant of the people, so I want to clean up my neighbor’s street front,” or “Really study hard to become a useful person to society to prepare myself to fight against capitalism,” or “Build yourself as a strong person for the bright Communist future.” Every day we repeated those sentences. In the evening we stood in front of Mao to confess what we did wrong. “Today at school I had slightly selfish thinking.” It’s called self-criticism. For meals, I went to the commune dorm, to the cafeteria. When you give the empty bowl to the cook, before they give you the food—normally just one spoonful of one food, boiled corn or something—you say one sentence of Chairman Mao. The cook will say another sentence, then give you food.
While you’re a child, you have to automatically follow this. You don’t know enough to question anything, because your knowledge is so limited. You don’t even know there’s another way. You have never read a single novel, poetry or other writing or heard a song that is different. It’s like North Korea today. So there’s no way you can question it. My father could question it because he had some experience in Paris. But of course he could not say anything about it. So when my father said I should be a politician, he was saying I should be something different. Because of my father’s experience, I experienced the complete story of what a nation or human society without justice or fairness can be. If I talk about my youth, that deeply affected me—the society lacking essential right or wrong or justice.
PLAYBOY: Did your father encourage you to question Chairman Mao’s teachings?
AI: No, if he said something to me, he’d be putting me in danger, because I may react differently and then be crushed. He would never say anything to us. But we talked about that life later. I hated society when I was 17, 18, 19. I wanted to escape. Only art created some way to express something different. I had a kind of corner. First I got into art because I wanted to escape the politics. It’s through certain kinds of acts that you can fully express your feelings.
PLAYBOY: When your father was incarcerated in the labor camp, what happened to your mother?
AI: Our whole family was sent there. It was a difficult time.
PLAYBOY: What do you remember?
AI: I remember a lot. My father tried to commit suicide every time they put him in more difficult situations. I remember in the hard-labor camp he called me after his work one day. Our home had no light. It got dark very early. After work, he just laid down on the bed. He had never really done physical work before he was 58. After a day of heavy work, he was exhausted, in pain. He thinks he’s going to die. He called me to the bed and said, “I’m going to die very soon.” He wrote down two names. He said, “After I die, you should go to see these two persons and they will raise you.” I was speechless. I didn’t know what to say. I was 10. But I showed no emotions because at that moment I had no emotion; I just accepted it.
PLAYBOY: Were you traumatized by experiences like this?
AI: It’s hard to measure that kind of thing.
PLAYBOY: Why wouldn’t your mother have raised you?
AI: My mother was with my younger brother and they went away. She could not take care of two children, I guess.
PLAYBOY: Is that why you were sent to New York in 1981? Were they worried and wanted to get you out of China?
AI: I went to New York because I had a girlfriend who went. Her relatives sent her outside to study, and she asked them if they would also help me. By then I was eager to go out.
PLAYBOY: What was your first impression of the U.S.?
AI: The first time, the plane landed at nine in the evening. Our airplane circled the city. The moment I saw New York City, I was so happy. All the propaganda from the Communists was about how bad and corrupt capitalism is. I saw New York and saw a river of light, and it was like moving in a dream. Never in my life did I imagine it could be like that. When I grew up, there was no energy, no electricity. I always remember the image of New York.
PLAYBOY: What did you do in the U.S.? You were 23. How did you earn a living?
AI: I found jobs to make some money. I did housecleaning and repairs. I worked as a gardener and babysitter and whatever kind of job I could find. I was also in an English program for half a year. Then after that I went to my girlfriend’s. She was at the University of California, Berkeley. I went to the Berkeley Adult School to study English.
PLAYBOY: Were you also making art?
AI: I occasionally did some drawings. Then I went to Parsons the New School for Design one year later in New York to do art.