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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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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