Interview with Li Zhanyang
Source:Artintern Author:Ai Weiwei Date: 2008-06-12 Size:
Location: Ai Weiwei’s Studio, Caochangdi (Beijing)


Ai Weiwei (Ai): Li Zhanyang, is today November 14, 2007? Or is it the 13 th?

Li Zhanyang (Li): The 14th. It’s raining.

Ai: I think the rain turned into snow. It stopped raining. The snow should be warmer. Zhanyang, where were you born, what year?

Li: 1969.

Ai: We share the same zodiac sign. You’re 12 years younger than me.

Li: Right, I’m one cycle younger.

Ai: Where were you born?

Li: Near Changchun, Jilin Province in a small town called Datun.

Ai: What did your parents do for a living?

Li: My father built homes. He was a mason.

Ai: Did he work for a firm of builders?

Li: Back then it was called a property bureau. What exactly did that entail? Well, it was economic planning; everyone worked and lived in ps. The property bureau oversaw the construction and maintenance of state-run units. Since it was impossible to work during winters in the Northeast, my father would occasionally get transferred to other units to stoke their boilers.

Ai: Interesting. He basically couldn’t work in wintertime.

Li: Your house reminded me a little of a boiler room the first time I visited.

Ai: So the bricklayer was also the mason. Were you around mud much as a kid?

Li: Real masons use many different types of earthen materials: large unfired bricks made of cement and rice straw, cement, lime, concrete and so on. With cement, you mix sand and lime. First, scrape a depression and ring it [with cement powder]; in the middle, scrape out a bowl-shaped area, then slowly stir water and the makings into the concavity in the middle, then rake the embanking sand and lime into the middle, so as to make it gradually even.

Ai: Then stir some more.

Li: Right. There is also lime.

Ai: Is the lime powder the kind that is mixed with hemp?

Li: Yes, it has to be mixed with hemp.

Ai: You have to tear the hemp and stir it in, right?

Li: Right. It clumps up if you don’t tear it first; it is really difficult to stir. First you have to add the lime, hemp and water, and then insert a long stirring stick. The lime powder requires a large metal trough because it sets easily. It doesn’t take long for a layer of water to gather at the top of the trough, so you have to stir constantly. Mixing it completely is difficult, and it is easy to get mortar in your eyes. The year I took the university entrance exam, I spent the summer working with my father. A master mason needs a labourer. I was the labourer. My father was a highly skilled plasterer.

Ai: Did someone apply the plaster for him?

Li: Yes, that would be the laborer’s job. He had impressive plastering skills! He could make a surface completely flat.

Ai: Is he retired now?

Li: Yes.

Ai: What year did he retire? How old was he?

Li: He’s been retired for nearly twenty years now. He turns 69 this year. He was born in the year of the tiger. I realize that a lot of things in my family played out like a comedy of errors.

Ai: Why do Northeasterners love the saying ‘comedy of errors’?

Li: I think it’s because we’re not very rational and don’t base our decisions on sound judgment. We tend to rely on luck. We take what God gives us. For example, my father was so anxious when I was accepted to university because it was expensive, and what little he earned wasn’t enough. He retired early in the hopes of earning more money through side jobs. The average retirement age is 60 years old, he retired at 52. But early retirement wages were only 70 percent of the normal wage. If other people earned one thousand kuai, he would only get seven hundred. Raises didn’t apply to him either. As a retiree, you were limited. His rationale was that if he took early retirement, he could earn more through side jobs. But that’s not what happened. After retirement, he took on all sorts of side jobs but still didn’t earn more. It didn’t turn out the way he planned. He might get jobs one year, but not the next. He regretted retiring. Those were difficult years. Ironically, he made the right decision by retiring early because a lot of state-run units were privatized in the years that preceded his retirement, so the benefits changed.

Ai: He didn’t officially retire, did he?

Li: He did, but national policy changed afterwards. A lot of his colleagues and apprentices thought they would reap the benefits of waiting until proper retirement age. In the end, state-run units were privatized.

Ai: This was the nation’s way of abandoning its workers.

Li: He retired right before the abandonment. A lot of his colleagues are in their sixties now and still selling produce on the streets. Sometimes when I visit home, I give them money.

Ai: So how did you go from playing with mud as a kid to studying art?

Li: When I was very young, I liked to draw. Maybe it was innate.

Ai: Innate?

Li: Every child is unique. I liked to draw. I would make drawings in the dirt with twigs. Neighbors would ask me to draw a cat and I drew a cat, or to draw a dog and I drew a dog. They would always tell my mother that she should nurture my love for drawing. But what was a poor family like mine to do?

Ai: Were you poorer than average, or similar to other families?

Li: Everyone was poor back then, but we were poorer than most. When I was in primary school, my father earned 46 yuan a month. With six mouths to feed, you do the math!

Ai: Less than eight yuan, six people. How did you survive?

Li: As I recall, we basically borrowed money every month. We returned the money every other month when my father got paid. But once we returned the money, we would be broke and have to borrow again.

Ai: You had no chance!

Li: Chinese people don’t need much to survive – a little food. There are too many people!

Ai: Because there are so many people.

Li: I don’t think the way we grew up was really any different from how people lived in olden times.

Ai: What do you mean by olden times? Do you mean primitives? No different from the monkeys that descended from trees?

Li: That is too long ago, I wouldn’t know about that. I think it was probably similar to the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. For example, when I was growing up, China probably wasn’t that different from the Qing Dynasty. The thoughts and customs remained similar and families all slept together on one large kang [traditional north Chinese brick or earthenware platform – a sort of horizontal chimney-bed - heated underneath, usually with coal].

Ai: What members did your family consist of?

Li: My mother and father, one older sister, one older brother and one younger sister – four children and two adults.

Ai: Wow. Two daughters and two sons, plus a mother and father. That’s three males and three females.

Li: That’s correct, six members.

Ai: You’re the third child? Born in the year of the chicken.

Li: Right. Back then, there was no talk of family planning.

Ai: Was it a harmonious household?

Li: No! It was a chaotic war zone!

Ai: Really? How so?

Li: My mother had a strange temper: fierce and explosive. Of the four children, my older brother resembled her the most and also had a bad temper. My father is an uncomplicated man. Between the two of them, one was intimidating while the other hardly spoke. It worked out. Things got worse as my brother got older. They both flew into rages frequently. There were daily arguments. I don’t recall childhood fondly. If I could go back in time, I would not return to childhood.

Ai: Return to anybody’s childhood, just not mine!

Li: It was horrible. Each minor thing became a major deal. We would be eating when all of a sudden, the table got overturned, my brother bolted out the door, my mother threatened suicide and so on. Utter chaos!

Ai: Would you say that poverty was to blame for these problems.

Li: It was partially due to the hardships of poverty. The other reason had to do with class elements because my family belonged to the class of landowners. Both my parents came from landowner families.

Ai: But they weren’t landowners, were they?

Li: No. They were liberated at a very young age and suffered a great deal. The only thing we inherited was the stigma of ‘land-owning element’. For example, if you were labeled a ‘land-owning element’, your children would stand out from the other children and get bullied. This was just the way things were. But my mother never accepted the fact that her children deserved to be bullied. She got into constant arguments. There was a neighbourhood kid called Liu Er who was a lot older, maybe ten years’ older. I was very young at the time, eight or nine years old. One time someone came looking for Liu Er, so I showed the person where he lived. Liu Er said, “Who the fuck brought you here?” Then he slapped my face; I was thunderstruck.

Ai: You thought you did the proper thing, but instead you got a slap in the face.

Li: I felt so outraged, but thought afterwards that perhaps I shouldn’t tell Mum.

Ai: What began as a local war became a global war.

Li: My face remained swollen for a long time. If I had told my mother, she would have gone looking for Liu Er’s home and started an argument. It would have been earth-shattering. Then she would have scolded my father “You’re so ineffectual; people bully us like this and you don’t dare to tackle it.” Later on she got into constant fights over this with my brother.

Ai: Where is your brother now?

Li: He works with me.

Ai: How old is he?

Li: He was born in the year of the horse, making him 41.

Ai: Has he ever been arrested?

Li: No. None of my family members were ever arrested. We’ve never stolen anything or robbed anyone!

Ai: Why was he so bad-tempered? Did he get into fights?

Li: He got into fights with people from the unit over minor things. For instance, one time during a game of Chinese chess, he gave pointers to one player who ended up winning. The loser got angry and cursed my brother. Feeling equally justified, they started fighting. That happened a lot. He’s improved with age, but he still manages to get himself into situations. It takes a lot of effort to get the message across to him.


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[Editor] Mark Lee