“It confirmed in me how powerful those words printed on paper, and the images in between, could be,” says the artist and human rights activist, whose new book is “Human Flow: Stories From the Global Refugee Crisis.”
What books are on your night stand?
This is really a question that gets to me. I don’t have a bookshelf or books next to my bed.
What’s the last great book you read?
The last great book I read was “Permanent Record,” by Edward Snowden.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
I stopped reading classic novels before I was 24 years old.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
My ideal reading experience was when I was living in exile at a detention camp with my father, Ai Qing, during the Cultural Revolution. At that time, we burned all of his books to avoid further political persecution. I was not yet 10 years old; I believe it was 1967. We burned all of his beautiful art catalogs, poetry books and novels, many of them published abroad and brought back to China after his travels. My father had to burn them all because ownership of those books could be seen as a sign of antirevolutionary, anticommunist and unpatriotic sentiment. It confirmed in me how powerful those words printed on paper, and the images in between, could be. Before we burned everything, I had read some of the poetry of Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Walt Whitman and Rabindranath Tagore. But I was very young and understood little then.
When we were in the detention camp, my father was compelled to hard labor. During that period, the only books we could read were political works. My sister helped me when I asked her to bring me more books. She sent me books such as “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” by Vladimir Lenin, and “The Communist Manifesto,” by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. I completely disassociated with the concepts in those books, but I can still feel the power of the language and logic structure.
Those were my most memorable reading experiences. Afterward, I haven’t read much.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
I have a book called the “Yingzao Fashi,” which was a Song dynasty era construction manual originally written 1,000 years ago. I have a copy of that book, which I bought from an auction house. I have a Bible that had once belonged to Sun Wenyuan, a former chancellor of Soochow University in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. He was persecuted for his Christian faith by the Communist Party after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The Bible was his most personal belonging and the margins of each page were filled with his written notes, very delicate and clear writing of his study and interpretations.
What book, if any, most influenced your decision to become a visual artist or contributed to your artistic development?
I would say that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s and Franz Kafka’s works have been influential, and, if you include artists, Duchamp’s writing as well. It’s just a few, but still, shining intellectual minds.
Who are your favorite artist-writers? Your favorite memoir by an artist?
I mentioned Duchamp earlier, but I also like Andy Warhol’s writing, which was easy to read for a non-English speaker. As a student in the United States, “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again” was the first serious book I touched.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
The book that brought me the closest to another person was one owned by my father. He was the most well-known poet in China, but was prohibited from reading and writing. He secretly kept a French encyclopedia even during the most difficult period when he was forced to clean the public latrines. Under a little oil lamp each night, he would rifle through the encyclopedia and gather information to write a text on Roman history and the Roman Empire. He read some of these paragraphs to me and this brought many memorable moments.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
Philosophy and individual freedom are topics that touch me and one small book I had read was Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism Is a Humanism.”
What books would you recommend to somebody who wants to learn more about contemporary China?
My memoir will be published next year and it will be an essential book to understand contemporary China.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
An individual who expresses their personal feelings and logic through a newly established vocabulary. That is the light that leads me to continue reading. Almost every great poet has that ability. A few writers also have it as well.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I enjoyed Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” and Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose,” as well as Ernest Hemingway’s writing.
I didn’t have much of a choice in what I avoided. During the time I needed to read, I was prohibited from doing so, both by society and my family. My family did so to protect me from entering into a world that could give one imagination and power, a world that had marked them out for victimization. So that time passed. I missed out, but still, I am equipped with daily experience which helps me not to have to read so many things. Fortunately, I don’t need to read that much to build up my soul and to meet the challenges presented by reality. I think reading without using those emotions in reality is a waste and only makes a human being a hypocrite, and that hypocritical character is evident in almost every aspect of modern society. Hypocrites read a lot, too much, but have nothing to do with the real exercise of the meaning in those books.
How do you organize your books?
I like to place them flat, one on top of another. I feel more comfortable when they are lying down, rather than standing up. It is another reason I don’t read often. I like to see them as powerful, existing beings. There are many books I have purchased multiple copies of. The act of buying the book gives me pleasure.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have books that I treasure. During the filming of “Human Flow,” I found a Quran in an old bookstore in Lebanon. It was hundreds of years old and beautifully bound. Even though I don’t understand a single word, I still appreciate the beauty of the cover design with its gold patterns. I have a copy of “One Thousand and One Nights” published by a French publisher in the 17th century. And I previously mentioned the Bible which had belonged to a Christian martyr.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
People are very nice to me and send me books all the time. I am afraid that almost none of them are worth collecting or even spending time with.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Don Quixote is my favorite literary character. There are no bad characters in novels, they are all good characters.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
“The Good Soldier Svejk,” by Jaroslav Hasek, has stuck with me.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I had not formed any reading tastes before they could be changed, but I am more interested in serious writing, very personal and private writing.
Have you ever gotten in trouble for reading a book?
My troubles began with my father being an intellectual and a writer, so I can say all of my troubles resulted from my family reading books.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Czeslaw Milosz, Allen Ginsberg and I. B. Singer.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I have put down every book before finishing. I have never really finished a book. Or I finish before really starting because some books I don’t read the chapters in the front, only reading some pages or chapters at the end.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
My son, Ai Lao. He’s 11 years old now, but since he was born he has been the ultimate reader of whatever I have done, so I’m sorry he has to bear that.
What do you plan to read next?
I am online all the time and Twitter is my book, my literary stream, since 2009. In 2005, I began writing on my Chinese blog and I have written millions of words. I greatly enjoy how people express themselves in 140 characters, some using the form to write a novel, a diary, poetry, or to gossip, including fake news. It is like a river flowing. Last night, I tweeted at least 50 times at 2 o’clock in the morning, making an argument and laughing about it. Yeah, that is my ultimate reading.
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