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The books that inspire Ai Weiwei

An artist, a poet, a documentarian, a photographer, an architect, a sculptor. Yet, Ai Weiwei is as renowned for his activism as his striking visual art. He has been unafraid of open criticism of the Chinese government and their to-be-desired stance on human rights and democracy, despite being held in 2011 for 81 days without charge. He is a crucial figure in the investigation of Chinese cultural development and a proponent of moving China into a more ethical future.

One of China’s most notorious dissidents, he has had a chaotic life, to say the least. When he was just a year old, Weiwei’s family were forced into an exiled labour camp where his father’s role was to clean the shared toilets. Such early experiences of oppression and maltreatment shaped the man into the radical that he is and has been for decades.

However, such a strenuous childhood not only turned Weiwei’s thoughts inward regarding the unfair treatment he and his family were going through, but it also contributed to a desire to delve into stories of the fantastical, where he could escape his persecution.

In a written piece in which Weiwei answers questions from his son, he explains, “My boyhood took place under some really tough conditions, and that meant that my happiest childhood stories were my fantasies. When real-life cramps a person, the imagination blossoms. My imaginings of a world different from mine sprang from snippets of language that I heard from my father. They weren’t stories themselves, but they expanded my inner world; they let me know there could be another world—as if parallel to this one—where pain and despair did not rule, where something else was possible.”

Evidently, stories and the written language play a significant role in the artist’s life. Last year, his long-awaited memoir 1000 Year of Joys and Sorrows was published to much critical acclaim. The book examines the systems that have contributed to the post-industrial China that we know today, as well as how such authoritarianism led to the harsh realities of making art.

Last year, Ai Weiwei shared sixteen books that he considers his most memorable and essential reads. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Weiwei’s list weighs in heavily on poetry, politics are philosophy. There are European and Chinese writers in good measure, new books and those that are millennia old. On one of his picks, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, Weiwei said, “It is one of the most important interpretations and helps us understand the relationship between mankind and the universe. What we do cannot be dissociated from this interpretation, as it provides us with the biggest picture of what the universe is like.” Perhaps the same could be said of all great books in general.

So here they are.

The books that inspire Ai Weiwei

  • Existentialism Is a Humanism – Jean-Paul Sartre (1946)
  • The Communist Manifesto – Karl Marx (1848)
  • The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry (c. 11th – 7th Centuries BC)
  • Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (1973)
  • The Classic of Mountains and Seas (c. 4th Century BC)
  • Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism – Vladimir Lenin (1917)
  • Gypsy Romance – Federico Garcia Lorca (1928)
  • Life on the Mississippi – Mark Twain (1883)
  • The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) – Andy Warhol (1975)
  • Permanent Record – Edward Snowden (2019)
  • Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman (1855)
  • The Trial – Franz Kafka (1925)
  • Tao Te Ching – Laozi (c. 4th Century BC)
  • Philosophical Investigations – Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953)
  • A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking (1988)
  • Heavenly Questions – Qu Yuan (c. 475 – 221 BC)