Abstract

Ai Weiwei is famous for crossing boundaries, especially the boundary between art and politics. To appreciate the often contradictory nature of Ai's work, this essay employs multiple narratives: “Ai the Heroic Warrior” who criticizes the Chinese government; “Ai the Court Jester” who plays with the Chinese state and Western media; and “Ai the Middleman” who acts as a broker between China and the West, between young and old people, and between civil society and the state in the PRC. The essay concludes that a fourth narrative can bring together these three stories in a multicoded understanding of Ai's work: “Ai the Citizen Intellectual” who sometimes works with the state, and at other times against it—but always for the good of China. By comparing Ai's work with that of other public intellectuals and placing it in the context of debates about civil society, the conclusion argues that “citizen intellectual” also tells us about a broader movement of activists and public intellectuals who are creating a new form of political space in postsocialist China.

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