Wang: Ai! Weiwei too much confusion

Ai Weiwei, a very high-profile Chinese artist and dissident, was accosted in a government crackdown last Sunday, April 3. Two days later, New York Times columnist Holland Cotter championed Ai Weiwei as a hero standing up against an oppressive regime. What could have been an exhausted and hackneyed argument was redeemed when Cotter presented Ai Weiwei as the proponent of both Western and Chinese ideals. Cotter depicts Mr. Ai not only as a bohemian artist who pits himself against the system for the sake of beauty, but also as a Chinese intellectual who outspokenly criticizes corrupt rulers for the sake of morality.

I am not going to contest the recent apprehension of Ai Weiwei. I am also not going to attack the bulk of what Cotter said in his piece, “An Artist Takes Role of China’s Conscience.” I am, however, going to contend with six sentences in his column.

First (and most importantly) how can a mere six sentences provide the historical justification for his ground-breaking thesis, that Ai Weiwei is the “embodiment of a cultural type” that dates back to Confucius? Alas, if only the entire scope of Chinese intellectual history could be encapsulated with such brevity!

If Cotter is being true to history, there are only two traditional “cultural types” of dissenters to which he could have been alluding. These are the “scholar-gentleman,” or the “literati-artist.”

Ai Weiwei is neither.

It’s true that Confucius encouraged councilors to maintain moral integrity in the face of corrupt rulers, but even in the face of the vilest form of authority, Confucius still insisted that criticism be administered on the grounds of respect. Unfortunately, Cotter conflates this “respect” with a “self-sacrificing honesty” that allows the scholar-gentleman to escape royal retribution (which they rarely ever did, and we can look to the Qing and Ming dynasties for concrete evidence). But even if we accept Cotter’s analysis, does Ai Weiwei actually possess a “self-sacrificing honesty” when he has conscientiously fashioned himself into a darling of Western media?

The scholar-gentleman was facing a very real death, with his legacy to be determined by the court historian. Ai Weiwei is smarter than that; he has already assured his legacy as a martyr in Western media. He may be sacrificing himself to the wrath of the Chinese government, but Holland Cotter has described his strategy well — as one of “calculated personal risk.” Far from a “self-sacrificing honesty,” he has already calculated that he stands to gain much more than he risks. After all, if the Chinese government has any intelligence, they will not begrudge him the glory of becoming a martyr.

Ai Weiwei’s not being allowed to attend his exhibition’s opening in New York on May 2 will only add to his populist martyrdom, exacerbating problems for the Chinese government.

But I’m getting beside the point. Confucius did not care for martyrs. He was much more interested in what people did with their lives than their postmortem testament. Confucius would have been appalled at what Cotter champions as a “noble Confucian model” — the Chinese philosopher condemned indulging in “unnoble and relentless insistence,” and disapproved of “single dramatic confrontations.”

In one particularly entertaining story, a Prince of Chen and his ministers were wearing items of a courtesan’s underclothing, presumably because they had all slept with her. Their morally-grounded councilor admonished them for setting a bad example for the people. Cotter would expect the Prince of Chen to be overcome with gratitude for the councilor’s “self-sacrificing honesty,” but if he did, he certainly did not show it. The Prince of Chen had him promptly executed.

Confucius does not comment on the lewd behavior of the ruler and his ministers. Ironically, he only questions the actions of the councilor. He even laments, “Xie Ye (the councilor) died for no good reason!” In no way a moral relativist, Confucius nevertheless maintained that councilors should be more tactful than stubborn, and more pragmatic than idealistic. Confucius would rather Xie Ye have lived as a moralizing presence than died as a moral imposition on the court.

Clearly, Ai Weiwei is not the Confucian ideal of the “scholar-gentleman.”

What about the other category? Cotter doesn’t talk about the category of “literati-artist” explicitly, but this is a more plausible category for Ai Weiwei to belong to. Often recluses from intellectual and scholarly backgrounds, these artists were known for lacing their artworks with politically subversive messages.

However, Ai Weiwei diverges from this archetype in two important ways.

First, he is just not as subtle as they are. Although there are many reasons for this difference, the most compelling involves audience. In literary China, there was a common language of motifs and allusions grounded in a shared intellectual foundation. The literati painters were painting not for museums or for the public, but for themselves, friends or others who would be able to understand and appreciate the subtlety of the embedded messages.

On the other hand, Ai Weiwei’s paintings are to be appreciated not by a literary Chinese audience, but by an international public. Only, his audience is far too geographically and culturally diverse to share as intimate a visual language as the literary Chinese. What this mass public can universally understand, however, are tropes like what Cotter refers to as “aesthetic tradition-busters,” pieces like painting Coca-Cola logos on ancient Chinese pots, breaking up classical Chinese furniture and photographing himself making rude gestures in front of iconic buildings.

More importantly, the literati-artists painted with a vision to restore — never to revolutionize. During the Yuan and Qing dynasties, they yearned to return to the days when China was under the rule of the Han people, and the subversiveness of their paintings was colored by a conservative nostalgia for the past. Ai Weiwei has no such respect for the past. As Cotter so conveniently enumerates, much of Ai’s artwork vandalizes artifacts from Chinese art history, which is then repackaged as a statement of conceptual, contemporary art.

Ai Weiwei doesn’t like the current government, but what does he want to replace it with? Does he really have a vision for the end goal? It is much harder to construct a building than it is to tear it down. Sure, I’ve seen his calls for freedom of speech, but it is one thing to see those rights and freedoms established in the Constitution, and another entirely different to see them enforced. No vision of freedom or progress can ever be viable without a vision for an order that will preserve and protect it. So, Mr. Ai, where is this vision? And Mr. Cotter, how can you claim that he inherits the Confucian ideal when he has neither the retrospectively nostalgic character of the literati-artist nor the respectfully reform-minded character of the scholar-gentleman?

The only thing that irks me more than the Chinese government manipulating Confucian doctrine is Westerners attempting to do the same. At least with the Chinese government, I know it is not a feat of ignorance. When we correct for such ignorance by going back to the sources, it becomes clear that Ai Weiwei is not the rightful inheritor of the Confucian tradition.

But then again, neither is the Chinese government.

A good government justifies itself — Confucius would say that a government confident in its moral standing would have no need to trifle with someone like Ai Weiwei.


  • dubgabriel

    How can you sit back and Criticize the man for what the press says, that is almost as low as judging Hollywood stars by what tabloid’s say. And how much time have you spent in China and really know how a figure like Ai Waiwai impact the people of China, you pin Ai Weiwei that is a product trying to appeal for westerners, When he has threw his art, recognition and value system has and people like Liu Xiaobo become a voice for many who have felt the same feelings but were to fearful to act upon it. Just because a Man lives with out fear does not make him a martyr.

    Some how your piece is entirely based on criticism another piece of journalism and truth be told your piece should be left in the comment section of the original piece like this is then to pass it off as a journalistic piece. I expect more from Yale Journalism.

  • dubgabriel

    Ai Weiwei doesn’t like the current government, but what does he want to replace it with? Does he really have a vision for the end goal? ps, He always says reform and never claims to be a politician to start a new Govt. What he is, is a Artist, but I guess it is easier at Yale to only think of things in terms of politicians.

    Ai Weiwei has no such respect for the past. As Cotter so conveniently enumerates, much of Ai’s artwork vandalizes artifacts from Chinese art history, which is then repackaged as a statement of conceptual, contemporary art.
    – You have no concept of Art and the message it is trying to project! If you want to look at what Vandalizes Chinese history is when they tear down old Quarters in Beijing, only to build shopping malls that they make to look old in it’s place! I have seen it with my own eyes, only to find what is left of the original quarters behind a 20 foot wall, which I was told by police that I should not go to and was instructed to stay by the Häagen-Dazs store that was made to look old, are you getting it yet? it is a commentary on the re-packaging of China.

  • ngawangchoephel

    You, Chinese police and the Chinese government should be ashamed of yourselves to criticize, beat and arrest Ai Weiwei. And its shame for Yale to allow this piece to be published.

    Ai Weiwei is more than an artist. Artist is an artist. But you and the Chinese government can define artist, freedom and human rights for 1.3 billion Chinese. And Ai Weiwei is fighting against Chinese like you and Chinese government. You will see his vision soon before you die.

  • hnfmr

    So what wrongdoings has Ai Weiwei done? Your Confucian anecdote is just pedantic and your criticism towards Ai is without base. And why should one seek to replace a government just because he/she doesn’t like it?

  • xueshigao

    Rookie ‘journalist’ like you think you can write op-ed on anything.

    As radical as it sounds, I’d like question if you have any eligibility to comment on such issue. Did you ever experience the oppressive air of a senseless communist state? Do you ever feel for hard-working good people who got their houses demolished by government without their permission? Did you really know how much degrading experience average Chinese has so that the State can throw on a fake appearance to the world? Do you know how many Chinese have to go to Hongkong to buy milk because both the market and government have failed them on food quality? Do you know how sad it is that citizens can’t hold officials accountable when corruption has cost the lives of their relatives?….I went to talk to those people, I probably have more eligibility than you to talk about those matters.

    And as crazy as I may sound, Ai Weiwei gives people hope. he gives normal struggling Chinese people courage and refreshment, which people like you will never fully understand.

    In short, you are wrong. My respect for Yale just took a hit thanks to you.

  • sfphoto

    I agree with everyone that commented so far. When you write a piece like you did, you should probably do some research on Ai Wei Wei. He’s a modern, Chinese artist who has been using his art to fight for basic human rights, which is lacking in China. His platform is not to become a “politician”, or “rebuild a government”…he is an outspoken artist who wants political reform in China. He doesn’t claim to be a “martyr” or even “brave”… he simply speaks out against human atrocities in his home country through his art.

    As someone who is Chinese and who’s parents are from China, I was quite ashamed to even have stumbled and read such a ridiculous article.

    The next time you write a piece of journalism, do your research, and don’t write such BS!

  • dubgabriel

    Avenger, if you dismiss Ai Weiwei as kitch, your truly a idiot. why would the Chinese Govt. Beat the man, tear down his studio, house arrest him and now arrest him, if we was just kitch, really, get a life! to call Human Rights a lost cause then you are a Nazi A-Hole my fiend and a straight up idiot!

  • freeaiweiweinow

    Alice Wong has clearly lost sight of the overall picture:

    1. Ai’s unforgivable crime, in the view of the Chinese government, is the fact that he sought to simply collect the names of the thousands of children killed in the Sichuan earthquake as result of shoddy construction of the schools. There were strong indications that the shoddy construction was a consequence of corruption.

    2. When one of his supporters was put on trial for helping to collect names, Ai tried to attend the trial but was beaten about the head by police to such an extent that he had to get emergency surgery to drain the blood from his brain. No policeman was ever held responsible for the beating. For an audio recording of the beating as it happened, see the March 2011 PBS Frontline documentary here:

    3. Earlier this year, the government, without explanation, bulldozed his studio in Shanghai that he had recently constructed.

    4. The first government editorial about his detention mentioned no crimes, but denounced him as a “maverick” and an “activist.”

    5. Now he’s being investigated for “economic crimes,” but this is clearly a pre-text to silence him. As The Guardian notes, a report by Beijing’s Renmin University in 2005 estimated that 90% of Chinese officials spend more than they nominally earn, so if Ai’s economic crimes do exist, they are unlikely to be the real problem. (

    6. This is the same government that has continued to imprison a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. As The Guardian notes, his detention comes amid a wider crackdown on activists and dissidents, which human rights campaigners describe as the worst in over a decade. (

  • xueshigao

    @theAvenger Wow I haven’t met any person whose language are so savage like yours in years.

    I assume people in this place have a certain level of mutual respect for each other due to our higher education.

    Anyway, I guess you didn’t even finish reading my comments. I disclosed the exact reason that I might have more eligibility on the issue.

    Please don’t comment on my comment before you know my comment.

    And please don’t attack people, except for you, everybody here are discussing the issue per se.

  • carcdrcons

    Greetings, Sleeper Agent Wang… Oh, is that a little creepy? Who said a Chinese has to give a *beep* about Confucius, anyway? You make bold assumptions on Ai’s intentions, and use them as facts to attack him. Sorry, that doesn’t work for me, neither does your supposed-clever pun.

  • emptis

    Well, when and where and how did Ai claim that he is a follower of the Confucius defined by you? Do you understand any piece of works by Confucius? Do you know Taoism and Buddhism? What would you say if Ai Weiwei doesn’t buy Confucius at all just as the same as Laozi? Have you copied and pasted the article here to make the whole thing much more ridiculous?

  • emptis

    You can see a master of Zen inside Ai Weiwei if you have a little feel of arts and, a little bit of compassion in the light of emptiness. Yes compassion is the heart of Ai’s latest works, which you don’t seem to be able to imagine.

  • xueshigao

    No matter how much sophisticated language you employ, how matter how hard you try to show off your logic reasoning, your article is barely with morals, and totally neglect the plight of people in China under authoritarianism, repression, persecution and torture.

    I suggest the author read more china history as well as world history to understand how human beings came to cherish human rights, liberty and democracy and other universal values.

  • carcdrcons

    @xueshigao I read only one word from this article: mercenary. Logic? not much. Chinese-style cynicism? yes.

  • InterestedInBiology

    Wow. Somebody has a Google alert on Weiwei.

  • River Tam

    Ah, we’re bringing out the ChiCom apologists and the Chinese expats all at the same time.

  • Seth

    Ms. Wang, I admonish you.

    If, in your article, you chose to criticize Ai Weiwei, I might agree with you. But you do not. Instead, you make the simple yet outrageous assertion that Ai’s approach is not Confucian. What absurdity! Are you not familiar with Chinese history? Are you not familiar with the work of Confucius and his disciples?

    You say that Confucius condemned “single dramatic confrontations”. But surely you’re aware of the time that Mencius famously painted lewd images on the walls of the Jixia Academy to show the immorality of the Waring States period rulers (some call this the original street art).

    Or what of the time Confucius himself laid bare the corruption of the state of Lu leaders by inserting profanity into the poetry of the Book of Songs?

    Cotter is indeed right in saying Ai Weiwei is the inheritor of the Confucian legacy of dissent. Ms. Wang should understand this.

  • dubgabriel

    If you look at Ms. Wangs other articles they focus on topics like “How should a modern woman make the first move?” So just because she is of Chinese decent either she or her editors found that she would be qualified to write a article on Politics and Art in China. I am sure she is a student and I feel bad that her attempt to be a journalist on world affairs got so twisted by her misinformation and lack of investigative journalism, maybe she is just a young and influenced by what she see’s in our current media, where trivial topics like How should a modern woman make the first move get’s more coverage on places like CNN then actual news and where when you do get news, it is filled with biased reporting (Fox).
    Ms. Wang, As you can see on how your piece has gained you the most attention in your young journalistic career, I reccomend you either stick with the gossip pieces on how to pick up boys or let this criticism inspire you to be a great journalist that truly investigates the news, something that is missing in the current media.

  • dubgabriel

    I also feel, even though the comments by the Avenger were truly idiotic, I also believe that his comment should not of been removed by the staff of Yale News. Just because his views were against the views that I am everyone else who left there comments does not give the right to a editor to censor him , esp since the Yale staff was the one who approved this piece of journalism or shall i say, more so, commentary piece in the first place. We must respect out first amendment even when it is not views of our own and esp since the whole basis of this discussion is about freedom of speech in the first place.

  • yalieeleven

    @dubgabriel its an editorial piece so yes it is commentary (idiot).

  • yalieeleven

    also everyone this piece is hilarious in its meta-ness. its not criticizing Ai Weiwei (in fact if you read carefully, its criticizing the Chinese government a lot more)…its criticizing Westerners who pretend they understand Confucius

  • dubgabriel

    well, when you have comments like “Ai Weiwei doesn’t like the current government, but what does he want to replace it with? Does he really have a vision for the end goal?”
    She obviously has no concepts of what the subject matter she is writing about.

  • dubgabriel

    and by the way, this piece is from the Weekend section, not the Opinion section, so how can you call it a commentary when it is classified by this section under news, not opinion?

  • 201Y1

    I didn’t even read this article… but don’t you all have something better to be doing?

  • dubgabriel

    Oh, I guess we have tons of more important things to do then speak out on human rights.

  • xueshigao

    apparently some not only think universal values are unimportant but even deny the existence of them, what a shame!

  • bluechina

    >>>The only thing that irks me more than the Chinese government manipulating Confucian doctrine is Westerners attempting to do the same. At least with the Chinese government, I know it is not a feat of ignorance.<<< I hold the opposite view. I find it much more disturbing when people or governments who know better deliberately engage in the manipulation of facts (or in this instance doctrine) to arrogate power to themselves than when individuals make misstatements owing not to malice but to their own misunderstandings. I’m guess I’m just funny that way.