WHEN he was nine years old Ai Weiwei lived in a hole in the ground. The roof was made out of tamarisk branches and rice stalks, “sealed with several layers of grassy mud”. He and his father slept on a raised platform carved out of the earth. At night they could hear rats scrabbling in the walls. Before long they were covered in lice.

More than 50 years later Ai Weiwei uses a photograph of that hole in the ground as the screensaver on his mobile phone. It is the first thing he shows me when I meet him in the foyer of the Kimpton Hotel in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square.

It is a Friday morning in November. The night before, Simon Groom, Director of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Galleries of Scotland, had introduced Ai to a crowded St Mary’s Cathedral in the city’s west end as “the most famous artist in the world”.

Ai is probably best known in the UK for filling Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall with millions of tiny ceramic sunflower seeds individually made by Chinese craftsmen, or perhaps for his part in designing the Beijing National Stadium (aka the Bird’s Nest), working with the Swiss architectural practice Herzog & de Meuron for the 2008 Olympics in China.

HeraldScotland: Ai Weiwei in Tate ModernAi Weiwei in Tate Modern

But today he is in Scotland to talk about his memoir 1000 Days of Joys and Sorrows. Written for his son, it’s his powerful, inevitably painful, account of both his life and of his father’s life and the cost they both paid as a result. Like his father, Ai has been punished for speaking out against the Chinese state, most notably when he was arrested – “kidnapped” is the word he uses – at Beijing airport in 2011 and held for 81 days without any contact with the outside world.

“I don’t have the ability to compromise,” Weiwei told Simon Groom at St Mary’s. That makes him sound flinty and unyielding, but that’s not how he is in person. Even speaking in a second language which at times he finds frustrating, he’s curious, quietly spoken and eloquent.

He’s funny too. At one point in the book, when he leaves China for New York in 1981, he writes that he told his mother that he will return as “the second Picasso”.

When I mention this, he jokes, “At that time my ambition is so low I just want to become a Picasso.”

Later, when talking about his time in detention he recalls being questioned about having a son with his girlfriend. “In China that can be unacceptable,” he explains. He didn’t deny it. “I mean, I cannot say I’ve never had sex.”

This morning I’ve arrived to talk about the boy he was and the man he has become. I begin by talking about that hole in the ground. Are those years tough to talk about, I ask?

“No, no, I even put it on my phone,” he says. That’s when he displays his screensaver.

“People imagine it’s hard [to talk about]. Life is much simpler when extreme.

“That time at least I had some peace of mind. We are being punished. We know we are different. That gives you identity.”

HeraldScotland: Ai Weiwei had his passport returned in 2015 after years of persecutionAi Weiwei had his passport returned in 2015 after years of persecution

His father Ai Qing was one of China’s most famous 20th-century poets, someone who knew Chairman Mao personally.

But in 1957 Mao launched a purge on intellectuals whose work was deemed critical of the state. Ai Qing was sent to a labour camp in a remote border area of China.

That was the year of Ai Weiwei’s birth. Ten years later, during the Cultural Revolution, father and son were both dispatched to “Little Siberia”, on the edge of the Gurbantunggut Desert, where his father had to do the most humiliating menial tasks, including cleaning the primitive latrines, chipping off frozen faeces.

Every night he would also have to stand in a public gathering and be pilloried by his fellow exiles.

What impact must that have had on his son, you have to wonder?

“It’s hard to see that the one you are most close to, who gives you protection, cannot protect himself,” Ai says. “He is being insulted or humiliated. A child running up to him using sticks to beat on him. Others throw stones.

“But when you see the whole society like that you basically feel indifferent. You have to be indifferent, otherwise you can really hurt. Only later you examine it with humanity.

“At that time humanity is not a word that can be mentioned. At that time there was no such thing as humanity. You were either revolutionary or you’re counterrevolutionary. And the category for my family was counterrevolutionary.

“And you realise they need that. Because you cannot have a revolutionary without a counterrevolutionary. It’s not going to work. So, the authority in the past 70, 80 years, constantly create their enemy.”

Ai and his father were thrown on the fire of that political impulse. How did he and his father survive the mental and physical pressure of that time? “You only have one choice. To finish yourself or you stay alive. That’s the whole choice,” he says.

Some took the former option. In his book Ai describes the time he discovered a dissident who had hanged himself rather than carry on.

And yet as a boy, he says, he could find fun even in this most extreme of situations. “Oh yes, a lot of fun. You were put in a condition that you are not familiar with. That means you are in total freshness of condition, testing your curiosity and your skill in dealing with the problem.

“For example, I have to carry soup from the commune cafeteria to my house. This is a soup that is so clear there is not a drop of oil [in it]. You can see your reflection on the soup. It’s like pure water.

“There is no concrete. It’s mud or dried road. It’s never even. That’s completely a challenge and a joy to finish, because your father is waiting for that soup to arrive.

“I think once you put the bowl down there’s a sense of achievement.”

Mao’s death in 1976 marked a change in the family’s circumstances. “My father was rehabilitated,” Ai Weiwei tells me. “I hate to even say that because he shouldn’t have been punished.”

HeraldScotland: Ai Weiwei and his fatherAi Weiwei and his father

“He is still today the most well-known Chinese poet. His writing is in the textbooks of all levels, from small kids to universities. His voice is identified with the anti-feudalism and imperialism. So, they call him the voice of the people.”

You can see many echoes of his father’s experience in Ai’s own life. Like his father, he left China to live abroad in his youth. In Ai's case he went to New York where he became a sketch artist and hung around with Allen Ginsberg.

He sees the years he spent in New York from the age of 24 to 36 as hugely formative. “It’s so important because I come from the freezer to boiling water. New York city is steam. That gave a clear brand on my body.”

He can be just as critical of the US as of his homeland. Did he reject the American dream in the end? “It’s not really a rejection. it’s hard for me to conform. If you come from a different society with a very different ideology you don’t want to completely conform, to become a new citizen of the American dream. Because I have a strong doubt about it.”

Somewhere in all this Ai Weiwei the artist is born. In the book he writes that art should be “a nail in the eye, a spike in the flesh.” In the west, of course, art is a commodity.

“Well, it’s the nature of western art,” he says. “The so-called new world is dominated by capitalism. It is so clear and as Marx says every hair of capitalism is dipped in sin. All the value judgements are related to capital. That’s a problem. It simplifies and distorts human ability to look into ourselves, and to look at our society. That’s a pity, but that dominates contemporary art society.”

Ai found his own artistic voice when he returned to China in 1993. That was also when he became an activist. He started to use the internet to blog about what was happening in China. In 2008 an earthquake in Sichuan killed some 70,000 people, thousands of children among them, crushed under school buildings that collapsed as a result of shoddy construction. Ai organised an online “citizens’ investigation” to discover how many.

That kind of activism got him noticed.

Sometimes it merged with his art. When he was talking to a sex worker about the problems she and her colleagues faced, he decided to take a photograph. Everyone stripped naked for it.

“My strategy is always to put myself nude on the internet, because nudity is what the whole society is crazy about. They think this is obscene.”

In the photograph, he explains, “I’m the only boy. There are four ladies. We posed and took a photo and put online.”

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It opened him up to an obscenity charge which could have seen him jailed for five years.

But it wasn’t pornography, he points out. “It’s just nudity. It’s just like we’re sitting.” He indicates the two of us. “But without clothes.”

You don’t want to see that, I say. “I’d like to see that for your newspaper. But maybe your newspaper would censor it. In the west you have a lot of censorship.”

He knew there would eventually be a cost for such actions. “I have no illusion about the cruelty of authority. Anything can happen. Actually, among my last posts before my arrest, I said, ‘What can you do to me? You can make me disappear, but still my voice is here.’

“I know the dangers come. I thought, ‘You may knock on my door and bring me away, start an investigation, go through the procedure.’ But not kidnapping me from the airport and not telling me I cannot have a lawyer and stop me from making one phone call to my mum to say I’m in the country’s protection.”

When he wasn’t being questioned, he was held m in a tiny room, guarded by soldiers.

The authorities were keen to pin tax evasion charges to him. What I don’t understand, I say, is why they felt they needed a reason? Authoritarian governments don’t as a rule.

“They want to get me, but they don’t want the west to think of me as a prisoner of conscience or as a political prisoner.

“So, they have to find some wrongdoings.”

They threatened to keep him locked up for years but in the end decided released him after 81 days. His passport was finally returned in 2015. He moves around now. He flew into Scotland from New York.

I’d read that he was based in Portugal these days. “I live anywhere,” he says. “Life is so temporary. Why should I worry so much?”

China today is very different to the one he left in the early 1980s. “It’s become half-United States, half-Communist,” he says.

The result, he says, is a country that is forging ahead of everywhere else. “I think they are winning. Easily, if you see how fast they are moving.

“If I come to the west, you can see how far the west is behind. Unthinkable. Airport, the road, the train. It’s far behind.

“Chairman Mao had the idea at the end of the 1950s that in 10 years we will catch up with the US and we will pass it.

“It was a failure because China did not have enough resources. But you can see his ambition, his vision, and that’s being gradually achieved by the new government today. They certainly have the confidence that they will do that by 2049, the 100th birthday of the nation.

“It’s simple. They have 1.4bn people. Each of them wants to become rich, so they work hard, maybe five times harder than the people in the west. They don’t have vacations, they leave their child in the countryside, only see them once a year.

“They can manage to work in the harshest conditions day by day. They don’t have a weekend for past 30, 40 years.

“So that’s very different from the west. You enjoy your democracy, luxurious life, pensions and protections. You refuse to work more. All this makes China laugh. They know what they are doing. Let’s see.”

When we meet it is the last scheduled day of COP26 (it will drag on another day).

“It’s still going on?” Ai Weiwei asks when I bring it up. He is not optimistic about us getting to grips with climate change.

“The issue is humans have been overly exploiting natural resources. This everybody should understand.

“But I don’t think there is a government capable or willing intellectually to understand that we are talking about the human future. It is not about this nation or that using gas. It is about our human future and that is related to everybody and that takes global action and leadership to work together

“You cannot just point the finger at anyone.”

China may have surpassed US emissions these days, he says, but then China has also become the workshop for the west.

“We all know,” he says of the world’s governments, “they are not going to touch the domination of corporate culture. If that is not being limited … But how can they limit? It’s capitalism. They have to encourage it, so, basically, it’s not going to happen.

So, you’re not optimistic about the future then? “About what future? About human future? I’m not, because human society is suicidal, selfish and very greedy. This is human nature.”

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You’re saying we’re doomed? “What will make humans intelligent enough to be happy about our planet rather than think we have to move to another planet?”

How then, I ask, can he bring himself to keep making art in the light of all of this.

“I don’t have to make art,” he says. “It’s just my habit. It’s not absolutely necessary. I do less and less. I do some documentary films, I do writings, I do things with my intuition rather than think I’m an artist.”

What next? “I have no plan, no purpose.”

This is an ending. Before I go, I ask him what his memoir represents for him. “The book is a solid record for my son to understand his father and his grandfather. He might not even be interested, but it’s my obligation.”

Ai Weiwei has fulfilled his obligation. That’s the least of what he’s done.

1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai Weiwei is published by The Bodley Head, £25

 

Ai Weiwei on the Bird’s Nest Stadium

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Ai Weiwei’s involvement in the design of the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing is one of his greatest achievements. And yet in doing so he was helping create propaganda for the Chinese Community Party. He must have known that at the time.

“Not at the beginning,” Ai says. “I was so drawn to architecture. I would do anything for architecture.”

Working with the Swiss architects, their design won via anonymous competition, much to the chagrin of China’s leaders who would have preferred a Chinese winner.

“They approached me [and asked], ‘Can you tell me how important you are in there? How many Chinese ingredients you put in the food?’

“I said it’s nothing to do with Chinese, and they are very disappointed.

“They even have temptation to switch, but it is too late because the Olympics come and that is the target for the party to really tell the world how unified, how strong they are.

“It is a very crucial moment, not just for Chinese Communist party but also for all the western investors in China.”

Even so, he says, “I know the project may have completely collapsed because I have an inside person in Chinese society who said, ‘They already decided to change your architecture, but they are facing problems.’

“They asked a top lawyer … I never tell anybody this … ‘If we switch what will happen?’

“The lawyers tell them, ‘You will be facing a credibility problem because this is an international competition.’

“So, they let it happen. And it was the best, they can never get anything better than that.

“I decided never to do architecture again because it’s too political and at the same time I said I’m not going to be part of the ceremony because I realised that it had become pure propaganda.”

Can you be proud of the building then?

“Oh, the building is fantastic. I think maybe every 100 years there is one building like that.”