Ai Weiwei: A game of chess and China's elemental flaw

I have been fascinated by Ai Weiwei, the 54-year-old provocative artist and voice of dissidence in China, since May, when I heard an interview with his English translator on one of the my favorite podcasts. He was detained and questioned and kept by the government for 81 days this year, after his blog incited uproar from citizens who agreed and officials who saw him as a dangerous beacon. A tumultuous year has left him listed as one of Time magazine's People of the Year, as "The Dissident." I find him interesting in his amorphous and fluid form and interpretation of art, connecting what we think of as "Art" with unconvention and with blogging and microblogging (i.e. Twitter and very brief forms of connecting online), combining his artistic impulses with his gift for words, writing pithy and prophetic bits. That's a kind of artistry I greatly admire, especially in the face of the Chinese State And All Its Men. There is quite a difference--and a kind of bold bravery I cannot imagine--between being an artist in a free and functioning democracy and being an outspoken artist in a state which does not value or embrace free speech, open access to information, or the fullest extent of self-expression--even if it means criticizing the men upstairs.

In his Time interview he was asked "What would you like to see in China?" This was part of his brilliantly explained answer:

We need clear rules to play the game. We need to have respect for the law. If you play a chess game but after two or three moves you change the rules, how can people play with you? Of course you will win, but after 60 years you will still be a bad chess player because you never meet anyone who can challenge you. What kind of game is that? Is it interesting? I'm sure the people who put me in jail, they're so tired. This game is not right, but who is going to say, 'Hey, let's play fairly'?

I've been studying China, Chinese politics, language, culture and history, for more than six years now, and my own thoughts on its political system have shifted at times between the two most polar ends of the argument: that either the "Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics" official plan has merit, is working, can improve and continue; or that China will inevitably give way democracy because it has already given much up to a free market economic system, and its people still hold memories of the extreme poverty and problems that stemmed from early plans in the early years after the Communist Revolution. People--around the world--have spent much time waxing on the future of China's political system. No one has explained its crucial fissure in its system so well as Ai Weiwei, himself a son of China, and the actual son of a revolutionary poet.

Bossy lady

I loved Tina Fey's memoir Bossypants. Her thoughts on being a woman in society, laughing at her own childhood, recounting the sagas of SNL writing days and Sarah Palin sketches, talk of her father, 30 Rock writing and development, motherhood, and in the intersection of all these things, was fantastic. I laughed all the way through it, especially because I listened to the audiobook, read by Ms. Fey herself! (The fact that I used an exclamation point means I'm serious. Those are rare.) It was like spending nine or so hours with her, laughing about life and being very real. Wanted to share one funny little quip, in which she is reflecting on her several-month escapade back in the fall of 2008, when she made a series of guest appearances on Saturday Night Live as Sarah Palin during the months leading up to the election. She's talking about how the vice presidential debates sketch was her favorite, and why.

 

One, I felt like I contributed a lot of jokes to this one, so my writer ego likes it best.

Two, Queen Latifah was there.

Three, I thought the speeches that Jim Downey wrote for Jason Sudeikis as Joe Biden were brilliant. Especially the stuff where Biden is trying to prove that he's not some Washington elite by talking about how he's from Scranton, Pennsylvania, "the most godforsaken place on earth." I thought that was ingenious, becuase not only was the ad hominem attack on Scranton a hilarious comedy left turn, it also exemplified what the election had become. Instead of talking about issues, everybody was trying to prove how "down-home" they were. "I'm just like you" was the subtext of every speech.

Politics and prostitution have to be the only jobs where inexperience is considered a virtue. In what other profession would you brag about not knowing stuff? "I'm not one of those fancy Harvard heart surgeons. I'm just an unlicensed plumber with a dream and I'd like to cut your chest open." The crowd cheers.

That continues to strike a cord these days...

I recommend her book highly--mostly to women, I might add, but many men will get some laughs as well. You can skip over the parts about stages of being fat and skinny in her life, and some of the motherhood bits--although those are some of the very best bits.