Princeton University Press, £8.95 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Weiwei-isms, By Ai Weiwei, trans. Larry Warsh

Beyond the mischief making, this little black book by China's celebrity dissident calls for people power

Last summer, I interviewed the maverick Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei in his Beijing studio. The interview marked a year after Ai's release from a brutal 81-day detention when he was forced to "disappear" by authorities. During our meeting, I tried, for a moment, to steer the conversation away from politics towards an upcoming show Ai was holding in Washington, D.C. "Back to the D.C. show?" he asked impatiently. "I already forget the D.C. show!"

Picking up this collection of Ai's aphorisms, I was reminded of that moment. "Everything is art. Everything is politics," Ai declares. Later, he states that his definition of art is "about freedom of expression, a new way of communication. It is never about exhibiting in museums or about hanging it on the wall... I don't think anybody can separate art from politics."

Get a discount on this book at the Independent online bookshop

Publishing a book of quotations is, of course, a political act in itself. Weiwei-isms comes in a pocket-sized form with a simple black cover. It is deliberately the antithesis to the single most famous contemporary work to emerge from China: Mao Zedong's Little Red Book. But if Mao's book was Chinese Communist Party propaganda, Weiwei-isms is the opposite. Its very existence points a middle finger at the Party which has frequently tried to silence the artist.

Weiwei-isms will, above all, help to cement Ai as the poster-boy for Chinese dissent in the West. It is a role which he courts and relishes. His quotations, collected from his own writings, interviews and Tweets, offer musings on art, politics and Chinese life. They also show us the man himself: uncompromising, upfront, amusing, and charismatic, with an often wicked sense of humour.

At moments, Weiwei-isms demonstrates Ai's courage. "Overturning police cars is a super-intense workout. It's probably the only sport I enjoy," he says in 2009 with characteristic drollness. Yet the quote takes on a more serious meaning once you realise that this was the same year that Ai was beaten by police in the southern city of Chengdu, leading to emergency brain surgery for a cerebral haemorrhage.

At other times, Ai turns his attentions away from the Party and their cronies towards Chinese artists who have sold out for a quick buck. Art without purpose is a "self-indulgence. It is pretending to be art. It looks like art. It sells like art. But it is really a piece of shit," he says. No-one can accuse Ai of having no bite.

One important theme is the internet. Ai ran into trouble with the authorities when he published online the names of the young victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake who died when their cheaply-built schools collapsed: a scandal the government tried to cover up. The internet is a tool which has given Ai a vast voice in the world, and his Twitter account has over 187,000 followers despite being banned in China.

Ai is not only a master of generating self-publicity online but also of the short, sweet quote. At his best he can use Twitter in a way that a Japanese poet might use a haiku: harnessing the compactness of the form to his advantage. "During the days in detention, I thought most about the moon," posted Ai in 2011. Such pared-down lyricism makes his language a pleasure to read.

Yet if there is one message to take away from Weiwei-isms it is not beauty but the verb to "act". Ai asks his readers to contemplate the meaning of free speech in an authoritarian state and to help break down a system which he calls a monstrous machine. "I call on people to be 'obsessed citizens,' forever questioning and asking for accountability," he writes. "That's the only chance we have today of a healthy and happy life."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week