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Behind the scenes: what's it like to edit a magazine in a language no one in the office speaks?

Sophie Elmhirst on the story behind Ai Weiwei's guest-edit of the New Statesman.

Ai Weiwei in his studio outside Beijing. Photo: Sophie Elmhirst

Ai Weiwei agreed to guest edit the New Statesman in April this year. We had sent the invitation to him six months earlier via his London representatives, the Lisson Gallery, but, understandably, it took him a little while to respond. Last year, Ai spent 81 days in detention. An artist already renowned for his work and fearless irreverence towards the Chinese authorities became a global cause when he was arrested at Beijing Capital Airport and detained in a secret location. Given the level of international attention and the ongoing pressure on Ai even after he was released (he was quickly filed with a £1.5m fine for tax evasion), it seemed unlikely that we would hear back from him. But then, suddenly, he said yes.

Looking back, that out-of-nowhere yes makes more sense than it did at the time. After spending a week with Ai at his studio in Beijing, I learned that he likes to do things on instinct. The more unexpected an opportunity, the more attractive it is to him, especially if it offers a platform for challenging the Chinese government. And when he says yes, he means yes.

The project took shape gradually. It was inevitably going to be unlike any of our previous guest edits. Lisson Gallery put me in touch with Ai’s studio team in Beijing and we arranged to speak over Skype. Ai’s working hours are strict – he’s in the studio in the morning, and then out with his son in the afternoon – so the call had to happen at 4am UK time. I sat at home in my pyjamas with a laptop on my knees and found myself, half asleep, waving at Ai on the screen. We spoke for a few minutes and established two things: his issue of the New Statesman was going to be about China and its future and to make it work I should probably go to Beijing (the prospect of a series of 4am Skype calls seemed improbable to us both).

I went to Beijing on a Sunday in August, officially as a tourist (it’s unlikely I would have been welcomed into the country on a media visa with my contact in China listed as Ai Weiwei, the country’s most famous dissident) and the next day, I met Ai for the first time at his studio, in a north-east suburb of Beijing called Caochangdi. It’s a beautiful place – leafy and peaceful and in marked contrast to the sweaty, polluted streets of the city. Ai lives on one side with his wife Lu Qing and works on the other with his team. I didn’t know how much time he would be able to give me or the project – his schedule is fiercely busy and the demands on it at the time were multiple: his first major US show (now open at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC), a new book, fighting his tax case and entertaining the daily round of journalists, gallerists and friends that stop by the studio. But from that first morning onwards, Ai’s energy, attention to detail and commitment to his edition of the New Statesman has been unwavering and inspiring.

From the off, Ai had a clear idea of what he wanted to do. As he says in his leader, “I chose to dedicate my issue of the magazine to China, its people, its history, its culture, its current situation and its future.” He wanted to cover censorship, women’s rights, the justice system, Tibet, youth culture – and had a long list of potential contributors consisting of fellow Chinese activists, artists and writers. But it was during casual conversation that the true purpose of his editorship became clear. In meeting after meeting, he would be sidetracked from practical discussions about word counts and photography commissions to berate his government’s greed and corruption and to talk about his fears for his people (China’s blind population who you never see on the streets or the city’s construction workers from rural villages who sleep by the side of building sites and can only return home once a year). Ai himself might be celebrated the world over, but his attention and concern is reserved for the small fates of his countrymen, the people who nobody knows.

Over a week in Beijing I met with Ai almost every day and his team – a group of highly talented and motivated photographers, organisers and writers in their own right – pitched a stream of ideas. We could have made a book: the challenge was to edit down the material into a series of pieces that could fit into a magazine. And there was another test too: language. The vast majority of this issue of the New Statesman – for the first time in its history - was written originally in Chinese by Chinese writers, activists, academics and artists. After I returned from Beijing and had firmed up with Ai and his team which article commissions, photography essays and interviews were going to be included, we started, slowly but surely, to receive the copy, which had to be translated into English and then edited in both languages. The plan from the start was to produce the issue in both Chinese and English (see deputy editor Helen Lewis’s account of distributing the Chinese version behind the “great firewall”). Usually we produce one magazine a week; this time it was two, with one version in a language that no one in the New Statesman office could speak, read or write. But with the help of translators, Chinese friends, Ai Weiwei and his team we got there in the end.

You’ll see, if you buy a copy of the magazine, how much work Ai himself has done. Yes, he had the support of both his team and the NS, but from page to page he has conducted interviews, taken photographs, selected images and edited text. He told me in Beijing that he loves the written word more than any other medium - for its specificity, and ability to communicate precise meaning. This edition of the NS contains many words – his own and others – but perhaps it’s the final words of his leader that carry the most weight:

“If I have one message for you, the readers of the New Statesman magazine, whether you are reading this in English or in Mandarin, on the page or online, it is this: the only way we can be successful, in China and in life, is through greater communication and wider awareness, in constantly questioning our standards and our conditions. You, as readers, are part of this, you are active members of this family, and you can be proud of that. We should all be proud of that.”