Ai Weiwei supporters defy Chinese house arrest

A party at the dissident artist's studio in Shanghai goes ahead without its host.

Despite his being under house arrest in Beijing, around 500 supporters of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei gathered at his soon-to-be-demolished Shanghai studio on Sunday. Partygoers were served river crab and steamed buns, and held up posters of Ai that displayed the gash on his forehead which he received when he was beaten by police in 2008.

Ai told the New Statesman:

It was fantastic to see pictures from the event as it was happening. Many people that went had been warned by police not to go. So I'm touched that so many people went and had a great time.

Ai added that he was surprised the police let the event go ahead:

Maybe they were aware of all of the bad press they have had. But it might be because Shanghai cares more about its image than Beijing does. The event would have got even more attention if they had shut it down. And David Cameron is coming next week -- which is something the BBC has been writing about -- so they were clever to try and keep it quiet.

Partygoers who had travelled from outside of Shanghai were invited to stay overnight at the studio. Zhang Haibo, a 24-year-old restaurant worker living in Beijing, made the 1,000km trip to Shanghai with a small group of friends. Although Zhang was warned against attending by the Chinese government, he slept at the studio overnight on one of hundreds of beds that were dotted around the space. He told the New Statesman:

Two days ago I was invited to "drink tea" with the authorities. They said to stop supporting Ai and to stop following him on Twitter. And yesterday [6 November] they called me and said not to go to Shanghai for the banquet ... I am not an artist. And I don't care too much about Mr Ai Weiwei's work. But me and my friends are here to support him -- we also want democracy and liberty.

Another supporter, Li Dezhi, was awarded a handful of Ai's sunflower seeds, like those currently on display at Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, for completing more press-ups (89) than any of the other 20 competitors.

"Today was about having fun and to demonstrate that we support Ai Weiwei and what he stands for," said the 23-year-old from Shanghai. "I guess this event was also a piece of performance art. I knew everyone coming wouldn't stop it from being knocked-down. It was just important to be here."

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism