Ai Weiwei claims that he had only the faintest sense of what the Internet was when he began blogging in 2005. The Chinese artist, then famous for collaborating on the design for Beijing's Olympic stadium, had been invited to participate in a series of celebrity blogs hosted by sina.com, the mainland's largest Web portal. He became instantly obsessed with the possibilities of social media, blogging for hours each day. Over the ensuing three and a half years, he wrote more than twenty-seven hundred posts on everything from French footballer Zinedine Zidane to the architecture of Atlantic City to the election of Barack Obama. But one subject dominated Ai's digital writings: the social, political, and spiritual tumult that has attended China's economic rise.
Chinese authorities closed Ai's blog in June 2009. Now, about one hundred of his writings have been translated and collected in an essential book, Ai Weiwei's Blog. Ai might not have spent much time on the Internet prior to his rebirth as a digital activist, but he was certainly no media naïf. His father was a renowned poet who was denounced during the Cultural Revolution and sentenced to decades in a labor camp. Ai attended the Beijing Film Academy alongside Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, and after briefly terrorizing the city's art establishment, he spent most of the 1980s and early '90s working and studying in New York. He became a star of the global art world in the 2000s, initially for his brash, irreverent defacement (or destruction) of centuries-old Chinese artifacts. He eventually moved toward more ambitious installation pieces animated by themes of interconnectedness and community. Last fall, he filled the cavernous entrance hall of Tate Modern in London with one hundred million handpainted porcelain sunflower seeds.
These collected writings offer little insight into Ai's creative process; rather, they document his constant experiments with China's political boundaries. Gradually, arcs emerge. In his early posts, he comes across as open and inquisitive, embedding his grievances deep within philosophical excursions and allegory. By the end, Chinese patriotism and its requirement of personal sacrifice are revealed to be narrative cover for what many people experience daily as soul-killing absurdity: "During the thirty years of letting a few of the people get rich first, how many people have sacrificed their fingers?" he asks while scanning statistics about workplace injuries.
Ai's initial ruminations about the beauty and utility of architectural design anticipate his savage criticism of the shoddy "tofu-dregs engineering," as it has memorably been called, of many Sichuan schoolhouses, which simply crumbled during the 2008 earthquake. (At least seven thousand school buildings in the province collapsed, and more than sixty-eight thousand people, including many schoolchildren, were killed.) Another of Ai's early, more formal posts ponders our faith in the photograph as "truth itself"; he prefers to approach the image as but one version of reality, an awareness that seems radical given the centralization of information in China. "The truth is always terrible, unfit for presentation, unspeakable, and difficult for the people to handle," he writes in April 2009, during his campaign to compile a list of the students who perished during the Sichuan earthquake. "Just speaking the truth would be 'subversion of the state.'" A month later, as surveillance cameras point toward Ai's home and his phone is wiretapped, he reaches wit's end and takes to his blog to confront the authorities directly. "The world is yours, thus you must act justly and honorably," he scoffs. Shortly thereafter, he is forced offline.
Numerous seemingly random posts about the ideas of Andy Warhol communicate a sly, knowing context for how Ai has chosen to use his image. Warhol made a shell game of meaning, leaving open the interpretation that his own celebrity was one giant joke. For a follower like Ai, hailing from a context where there were no self-made men, Warhol's ironic, mischievous treatment of history, serious culture, and sundry other totems signified a powerful possibility.
Perhaps the mellow pace of Ai's rise and his interest in the careers of artists like his father and Warhol offered him ample time to consider the potential of celebrity. Unlike Han Han, the young Chinese blogger and race-car driver whose career seems a trial balloon for a new kind of Chinese super-celebrity, Ai represents a more hopeful, collective possibility for China's digital future. He found 1,001 participants for Fairytale, his contribution to the 2007 Documenta exhibition, through his blog and brought them to Kassel, Germany, to live and roam in temporary homes he had designed for them. After the Sichuan earthquake, he initiated an online "citizen investigation" in order to collect the names of the children who had perished.
Blogging, in its more familiar Western context, assumes that we take ourselves more seriously than usual, which is why so many bloggers seem sustained by a spirit of narcissism. In Ai's China, where surveillance and "harmonization"—the government's euphemism for censorship—are routine, and where the promise of Warholian individuality doesn't circulate quite so freely, blogs and other forms of social media suggest the potential for a mass subversion that might just as easily be called a healthy civil society. It is writing that is willfully unofficial, in a context where daily life must be underwritten by the state. Today, Ai is obsessed with Twitter and "microblogging." It is a reminder that social networking's greatest potential might be elsewhere: Egypt, Tunisia, Ai's China, where cats aren't so LOL funny and one is constantly mindful of "who the blog host really is."
Hua Hsu is an English professor at Vassar College and blogs for The Atlantic.