PLAYBOY: Were the obscenity charges based on the art pieces you made in which you are nude?
AI: They weren’t even art. People always come and want to take photos, so as a kind of joke I said one time, “Okay, let’s take a photo.” I took off my clothes. I jumped. I used this thing, a doll called a grass mud horse, to cover my dick. It’s a joke, really.
PLAYBOY: A grass mud horse?
AI: It’s a fake thing created for the internet to fight government censorship. You can say caˇonímaˇ, or “grass mud horse,” which isn’t a real animal; it’s internet-made. It’s a fake animal’s name, so you can say it, but it also means “fuck your mother.” You cannot say “fuck your mother” on the internet in China, but you can say this animal’s name. So I made this photograph and someone put it on the internet and people got excited about it. It was for fun, just for some excitement at the moment. You have a combination of meaning there, “grass mud horse” and “fuck your mother.” Saying this to the central government will be the most brutal thing you can say in China; you can be killed for doing that.
There was another photo of me and these four women who came to see me one day. I try to avoid seeing so many people, so I joked, “Okay, we’ll have to take nude photos.” I thought that would scare them away, but everybody agreed and we did it. One of the women is an activist for sex workers who speaks out about AIDS, and others are students. It was a kind of statement.
PLAYBOY: Does the reaction to the nudes say something about Chinese culture in general compared with Western culture when it comes to sex? Is China more puritanical?
AI: I don’t think so. I think China is an old culture and sex is very developed. It’s just as rich as any old culture. These photos are not about sex. It’s about privacy. Someone put this photo online and called it One Tiger, Eight Breasts. Sounds like a porn title, right?
PLAYBOY: While you were imprisoned, were you ever harmed physically?
AI: No, just intimidated.
PLAYBOY: Earlier you’d been hit by a police officer when you went to testify in the trial of Tan Zuoren, the Sichuan writer and activist who had also been investigating the earthquake. He had been accused of inciting the subversion of state power. You were accosted in a hotel and struck on the head by an officer. What exactly happened?
AI: There was a bang on the door, “Open up. It’s the police!” They locked us up for 11 hours so we couldn’t go to the trial. Tan Zuoren is in jail now, serving a five-year sentence. I was going to court to support him. I brought my materials to show he was innocent.
PLAYBOY: How severe was the blow?
AI: I felt pain and went to the hospital with a friend and two police. I had a regular checkup and nothing was wrong, but later it developed into a hemorrhage. The doctor said if I came to see him any later I’d be dead.
PLAYBOY: Are there any aftereffects of the hemorrhage?
AI: You hear my way of talking—it’s slow. I can sense it’s slower; the words jump out slower than they should. My memory is very bad now.
PLAYBOY: After that assault and your arrest at the hands of the state, do you still consider yourself a patriot?
AI: Even though maybe I am, I will never announce myself as a patriot. You’re not entitled to say you’re a patriot if you don’t have a nation.
PLAYBOY: Don’t you consider China your nation?
AI: No. You have a nation when you share the nation itself, when it holds up your beliefs or you’re identified with it. If a country ignores your right to vote, you’re not a citizen. You cannot make any kind of decision. You cannot relate to other people because you cannot support each other. You cannot share joy because there’s no way to communicate freely. How can you call yourself a citizen? You don’t bear responsibility. Anything that happens is not because of you; it’s because of the government. The nation is not the people; it’s the party. It represents only the party’s ideas. The party controls the army. It controls the judicial system. It controls the natural resources. It’s a group of elites, maybe 500 families, maybe fewer.
PLAYBOY: Finally, when you were released from prison, were you again hooded so you wouldn’t know where you were?
AI: Yes, everything was the same. Two police sat on two sides and one military soldier in the front. They brought me to a local police station and there I met my mom and my wife. My mom had to sign a paper to guarantee my release for one year of probation.
PLAYBOY: What are considered violations of your parole?
AI: Before I was released I had to sign an agreement with about nine different principles, including that I cannot go on the internet, cannot talk about what happened inside the detention center, cannot talk to journalists, cannot meet with people who are activists, cannot write articles.
PLAYBOY: It seems you’ve ignored every one.
AI: Basically yes. First I tried to do less. They have said, “We can always arrest you again and we don’t ever have to release you.”
PLAYBOY: Doesn’t that warning scare you? Are you tempted to cease speaking out?
AI: Of course it scares me. It’s not a joke. But I cannot gradually let my life deteriorate without talking about what’s on my mind. That’s not possible. I will not stop.