China: Comments on Ai Weiwei's River Crab Banquet

Over the weekend, prominent Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei was under house arrest, a move believed to be coming from powerful political figures in Shanghai. Ai had planned to fly to Shanghai to host a goodbye party at his condemned studio on Sunday. Although the authorities say the studio was built illegally, Ai said that the decision to pull it down was political. His campaigns on sensitive human rights issues in China have often angered officials.

While Ai remained confined in Beijing, his planned banquet to serve the river crabs – a satirical reference to official censorship – was nevertheless attended by hundreds of supporters.

Ai Weiwei's Shanghai studio

Online, there was also a storm surrounding Ai Weiwei. It started from the blog Shanghai Monthly, which contains an article asserting that supporters of Ai Weiwei were being manipulated in this show directed by Ai himself. The article, titled AWW, You Are Not Helping, claims that Ai Weiwei would not be surprised by the fact that he was being detained and not be able to attend the party:


We are not surprised by the outcome, neither is Ai Weiwei. Any person with common sense should understand that this River Crab Banquet would not be successful. Rather than viewing police interference as the turning point of the event, we should say it is part of Ai Weiwei’s script. This is a piece of action art. Ai Weiwei has predicted the outcome early on. For Ai, the presence of the police and the house arrest are not entirely unpredictable, perhaps these are what he wants. When the Guardian and The New York Times reported news of his house arrest, Ai must be quietly satisfied.


If Ai Weiwei really wants to serve ten thousand river crabs to supporters, to ‘celebrate’ the demolition of his arts studio – we even admit that this is a peaceful and harmonious protest – then he should not announce this banquet in such a high profile to the public so early on, and let the ‘international media’ to wait for it to happen. He should have used his artistic imagination and think of a way so that the banquet is possible. We have no intention to question Ai’s motivations, we are also not denying his Don Quixote spirit. However, we need to realize that this incident is not involving only one person, but hundreds of people – this is exactly the reason we don’t like Ai Weiwei: Mr. Ai is directing the whole River Crab incident, which is no different from a mass gymnastics. Everyone who decides to attend the banquet has become a chess [of Mr. Ai], a ‘thing’, or a mere part of the mass gymnastics.

On Bullogger, where the article is re-posted, commentator 今天天气哈哈哈 thinks that Ai Weiwei is just a man who thinks too highly of himself:

今天天气哈哈哈 [222.152.31.*] @ 2010-11-8 16:29:14:

Ai Weiwei is a man who thinks too much of himself. This kind of man will not think about others’ feelings.
He thinks of himself highly.
But I have to add, this is his freedom.
Just don’t be crazy with him.
For Ai Weiwei cannot change China.

However, commentator idealle thinks that the River Crab Banquet is a superb piece of action arts:

idealle[74.82.178.*] @ 2010-11-8 19:55:25:

This is Ai’s best piece of art so far. Although I feel that his other pieces are hypocritical, this one has moved me. I think that it is a sort of black humor, very artistic and spot on.
As a piece of action art, it, of course, needs to be planned. It also needs to have unpredictable consequences. In fact, the article above also plays a part in this piece of art.
Ai Weiwei is like a piece of stone, thrown into the dead water, testing its depth and turbidity, and arousing ripples throughout.

Commentator 麦克 to the original post ponders about the wider significance of Ai’s action art:


Ai Weiwei has never denied that this is a kind of opposition through artistic expressions. Similarly, people who participated in it approved of this method of expression. Their participation was entirely voluntary, and they knew about the consequences. Chinese people need to make their voices heard. Ai Weiwei is planning forefront, not behind the scene; this is an open conspiracy, not a plot!
I respect your right of disliking Ai Weiwei. Also, I do not like everything Ai Weiwei did. But I like him for shouting out on behalf of every one of us! Whether you are in or out of the establishment, he is voicing out for all of us.

Rebuking the points made in AWW, You Are Not Helping, blogger Liu Hanyu explained why he likes Ai Weiwei:


The most direct reason is this: I think Ai Weiwei is always trying his best to help more and more people to escape from fear. In many books about the Cultural Revolution and classics such as 1984, we can always feel the fear forcing into our hearts. This fear comes from enslaving education, from an atmosphere of white terror, from the Big Brother and censors all over the place, and from bizarre criminal charges which could be forced onto us.

“上海一月”的作者认为,艾未未是在鼓动这些民众来提高自己的知名度,“每个报名参加河蟹盛宴的人,都是一枚棋子、或一颗瓜子。他们成为了物,成为了团体操的千百分之一。” 这种论调与前一段官媒评判世界各国对和平奖的立场的言论十分地相似,阴谋论患者总是会把自己的阴暗内心投射到别人身上,艾未未也许算不得君子,但是像该作者这样能总是以这样龌龊的想法去揣度别人的人,绝不辜负“小人”的称谓。而艾未未,敢于在严打“非法集会”的今天,如此大张旗鼓地举行反河蟹的宴会,值得每一匹草泥马尊敬。

The authors of ‘Shanghai Monthly’ think that Ai is manipulating his supporters to sustain his popularity. ‘Everyone who decides to attend the banquet has become a chess [of Mr. Ai], a ‘thing’, or a mere part of the mass gymnastics.’ This tone is very similar to official criticisms on the stance of foreign countries on the Nobel Peace Prize. Conspiracy theorists always project their own dark shadows on other people. Ai Weiwei may not be a gentleman, but the authors, by assuming that other people think like themselves, qualifies as ‘villains’. As for Ai, just by the fact that he dares to organize this ‘illegal’ River Crab Banquet, he deserves the respect of every Grass-Mud Horse.


  • Read the full coverage of the ‘canceled’ party at Ai’s with 10,000 crabs here Harmony!

  • Charles Liu

    Andy, please read Caijin’s 11/17 story on the studio demolition titled “艾未未工作室被拆记-《财经网》” for what really happened:

    – Ai was approached not by shanghai City, but Jiadin District official Sun Jiwei about the studio in Malu. It’s built on village collective land.

    – Neither the District nor township official arranged for building permit. When Shanghai National Land Management Bureau discovered the illegal building, Ai was notified of the lack of permit in July 2010 under Article 34 Section 1 of Land Mangement law.

    (Here’s the relevant section: “”个人进行建设,需要使用土地的,必须依法申请使用国有土地…乡(镇)村公共设施和公益事业建设经依法批准使用农民集体所有的土地的除外”.)

    – Efforts were made to save the building according to public project exemtion in aforementioned section. Jiadin District offered 50% more compensation in exchange to have building donated to the village collective, but Ai refused.

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