Who is Ai Weiwei?

You may have heard the name floating around because Ai Weiwei is one of the most famous, modern days people to hail from China. Both a visual artist and a political activist, Ai Weiwei is a name associated with rebellion and beauty. Quite different than the standard Chinese citizen, it’s worth knowing a little more about Ai Weiwei.


Chinese politics became a huge part of his life at the young age of one, when his father, a Chinese poet, was denounced during a movement called, Anti-rightist. This caused Ai Weiwei and his family to be sent to a labor camp and then exiled until the death of Mao Zedong. Once the family was allowed to return to their home city of Beijing, Ai Weiwei was enrolled in the film academy. Throwing himself into animation, Ai Weiwei also joined forces with his classmates and formed an avant-garde art group which put on regular shows.

For about 12 years, Ai Weiwei lived in the United States, experiencing life in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New York City. While he studied art and design, he eventually dropped out and began earning money through odd jobs and drawing street portraits. Learning about artists like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, he began making conceptual art while using everyday objects.

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Photo Source: Mathewniederhauser

He also met the poet, Allen Ginsberg who had unknowingly spent time with his father back in China. Their meeting was by chance at a poetry reading, but they decided to remain friends. The rest of his time in the U.S was spent taking photographs of his surroundings and playing blackjack in Atlantic City casinos where he became quite well known. After soaking up the American culture and refining his art form, Ai Weiwei headed back to China.

Returning home to Beijing due to his father’s illness, Ai Weiwei threw himself into the art scene and helped create Beijing East Village, an area for experimental artists to gather. He also helped published three books that documented this generation of artists and their lives. Moving on to pursue his interested in architecture, Ai Weiwei helped build a studio house and also founded an architectural studio.

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Photo Source: Cow Parade


A man of many interests and talents, he went on to get quite involved in political activism. Using the Weibo platform, one of the biggest social platforms in China, Ai Weiwei shared his commentary on politics, art, and thought. He also took to Twitter to share his thoughts on the government and politics once his Weibo account was shut down.

During the 8.0 earthquake in Sichuan province, Ai developed his own citizen team to investigate the site. He didn’t like that the government was being secretive about how many students died in the incident and wanted to find out for himself in order to give them the proper remembrance that he felt they deserved. He also wanted to help point out the lack of stability in the construction of the school by helping another citizen leader, Tan Zuoren, testify. It was during this time that Ai Weiwei was beaten by police, leaving permanent damage to his head.

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Photo Source: Oja Film Society

Not a fan of his antics, the government has been known to try and get Ai Weiwei removed from China. In 2010, he was placed under house arrest for suspected crimes, and during this time, the local Shanghai government demolished a studio that he built there, saying that it went against the zoning laws. Ai Weiwei argued his case, saying that the government originally gave him permission to build the studio in efforts to create a cultural district in Shanghai. However, he believes they found an excuse to demolish it as a way to punish him for documentaries that he put out that contained sensitive information and topics.

Over the years, Ai Weiwei has been prevented from leaving China, had his studio and laptop searched and was eventually arrested in 2011. While people and organizations fought his arrest both in China and internationally, Ai Weiwei still remained under lockdown for many months, with very few visits from his loved ones.

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Photo Source: Cow Parade 

Since the arrest, he has faced plenty of backlash from the government, as they try to keep an eye on him, looking for any reason to punish or give him jail time. As an activist against the government through his artistic efforts, Ai Weiwei is forever being watched.

For those who are interested in his art, there are plenty of ways to introduce yourself to his work. Much of his video centered artwork and documentaries can be found online, and for those visiting Beijing, the National Stadium is an example of his architectural work. And, if you happen to be in Beijing, make a visit to the East Village to see the art community that he helped build.

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Shannon Ullman

Hey! I'm a published American travel blogger and teacher. My travel writing has been featured on Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Matador Network and Thought Catalog. I spent over a year living and traveling around China while I taught English there. I have also visited dozens of other countries around the world.