Weiwei and Hanhan: China’s most famous living artist VS. China’s literary bad boy?

Who is Han Han, and who is Ai Weiwei?

The former is:

  • A mega-popular Chinese blogger, who uses sarcasm and parody to lampoon incompetent governance, China’s One Party system, and ridiculous contemporary social phenemenon  in his blog, which has recieved more than 344 million hits by far;
  • A best-seller in China who has published since he was 13, yet a badboy who publicly belittled quite a few modern and contemporary Chinese writers who are usually regarded as the best of their times;
  • A professional race car driver,  who was the champion  for the most two important Chinese professional car racing contests last year;
  • A new topic of interest for mainstream America media.  The NYTIMES: Heartthrob’s blog challenges China’s Leaders. The Time Magazine, which the name of this post is paying tribute to: Han Han: China’s Literary Bad Boy.  ( But I highly recommend the first article, not the second one).  Now he is also nominated for Time Magazine’s Yearly 100 Most Influential People, and his fans quickly are spreading this news around on Chinese social networking sites in hope to vote him higher than Obama!

The Later is:

  • A mega-popular tweeter who has 31,524 followers on twitter thus far;
  • A passionate and expressive artist who likes to challenge bureaucracies, power abuse, and the evils of modernity in his art work, by  using symbolisms like giving his middle finger to the White House.  But his biggest hate is  the Chinese government.
  • An engaging activist whose causes include investigating the identities of the school children who were buried to death during the Wenchuan Earthquake in 2008.   Yet the intention behind some of his activism is under controversy, for example his attempt to politicize and publicise the demolition of art districts in Beijing by leading demonstrations in the Tian’anmen Square has been labeled by other fellow artists as  being an opportunist and a fame-grabber in the international art community.
  • the son of the a famous Chinese poet, Ai Qing, who was a victim in the Culture Revolution when Weiwei was still a schoolboy.

Why putting them side-by-side?

Because both of them have great personal styles, and they are both immensely important in China’s cyberspace.  Yet while Han Han is more popular and an opinion leader in domestic cyberspace and has just begun to receive international attention, Weiwei has been a favorite for the Western Art  community and Human Rights watchers  for a while, but his main influence inside mainland China is can be said to be limited to those who are able to use circumvention tools to scale the censorship, the Great Fire Wall in China to follow his twitter account.( twitter was blocked in China in 2009)

Despite their shared popularities, their strategies and personalities vary to a great extent as well.  Han Han does not want to set him up to be an opposition to the CCP, although he is constantly criticising it.  He wants to remain an independent voice, which means that he does not subscribe to any kind of ideologies, including those of democracy and human rights.  What drives him is his instinctual sympathy in human sufferings and immediate repulse for anything that is against the better side of humanities as a writer.  As much as he sees the ills of the current One Party system, he thinks that there is more to be said about it: the weakness of Chinese people as a race makes them especially vulnerable to dictatorship.  In one of his latest posts on the influence of Google’s exit from China, he used his usual sarcasm to poke fun at both Google and China’s netizens.   For him, Google has totally overestimated the desire for information in China’s netizens, whose “tolerance is higher than you can imagine. Their needs are lower than you can imagine” ( Courtesy to Danwei’s translation)  While many supporters of CCP would argue that material benefits should be the priority for now and the Party is justified in repressing other kinds of freedom in exchange of economic growth,  Han here,  sees Chinese people’s preference for safety and tangible benefits over spiritual life something inherent in the culture legacy.

Han’s popularity as a novelist helps him to sustain his independence financially, and thus keeping a distance from Western patronage.  He reportedly refused the invitation from the U.S. Embassy, along with a group of young bloggers to meet with President Obama when he visited China.  His excuse was that he needed to compete in a car race.  Yet his true reason of refusal of that invitation can be said to be his skepticism in diplomatic power and oversea Human Rights politics to help China to improve.   He believes in the power of thoughts and of gradual changes of conscience in the Chinese people. And in order to maintain his presence and influence in the development of such progress, he had to stay in the system, dance with it and maintain a thin line of compromise with the authority.

Weiwei on the other hand, speaks a language that is much more familiar to the Western audience.  He is usually very expressive and outspoken in his art work and media productions about the evils of one-party authoritarianism, and unlike Han Han, who tried to preserve a middle ground and independence, Weiwei is uncompromising in his pursuit of the ideal he believes in.   And he is not afraid to seek alliance in the Western community when they are sympathizing to his cause.  He speaks a very decent English and thus has been invited to a growing amount of public discussions about  his work and internet activism in China.  Yet his obstinateness in his cause can sometimes becomes a total disregard for other’s opinion and arguments in public space.  During his recent conversation with Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, he started out calling Dorsey a God for China’s netizens, yet was growing more and more impatient at Dorsey’s explanation of the logistical difficulty and timelines for twitter to set up a Chinese interface by the end of the conversation.  If his artistic passion has led him to regard Dorsey as a God, perhaps  that same passion has also led him to quickly dismiss Dorsey as another bureaucratic hypocrite.   Another interesting twist in that conversation was during the Q&A session, when a middle-aged America-born-Chinese business woman, after spending quite a few minutes explaining why economic development should still be the priority for China’s leader now, and the somewhat implausibility to have all kinds of freedom at once, asked Weiwei what would be a reasonable timeline for China to achieve the freedom he aspires to.  Weiwei  was immediately irratated by her argument, saw her as yet another profit-driven evil business men who are the natural allies of the corrupted  government, and even made an attempt to intimidate her by asking her to reveal her name and her company.   His moral pressuring style almost reminds me of the Culture Revolution, during which his father had suffered.

Whose approach is better?

They both have their critics.  Those who are skeptical of Han Han dislike his casual flings in the fashion, music and entertainment industries, and the fact that he is too handsome, all of which for them, took away the seriousness in his influence.   Yet isn’t the fact that he is so capable of multi-tasking has earned him unparallel popularity?  While its true that perhaps half of his fans are female and adore him for his looks and sports achievements, the fact that they are constantly exposed to his writing and thoughts that might change the way they look at the society they live in is exactly Han’s goal.   Some others criticize him of only destructing the system by picking up the ills, but who does not do ground-level activism to push for a new system.   Yet as we mentioned before, Han is no subscriber to ideologies, and no passionate advocate of democracy.  As much he is criticising the current system, like Lu Xun, the famous modern Chinese writer, he believes in the change of people’s mindset, instead of advocating any political systems. His faith of change is coming from the inside and lies in the Chinese people.  And to maintain his influence, he had to stay inside the system, which means he has to keep a delicate relationship with the authorities.

Weiwei on the other hand, has done many ground-level activism that has brought out measurable benefits to some specific individuals.  But due to his public break-up from the authority, his blog is censored in China and his influence is thus much more limited than Han Han.  But perhaps because of the nature of his work and the language he uses, his message was  not appreciated by many ordinary Chinese to begin with, and they certainly also does not appreciate all the media sensation and attention he is  causing by expressing anger.   They prefer Han’s humours style in which you can take it either to be just for fun, or extremely serious.

But who is better?  Hard to say.  I personally like Han Han more, for all his brilliant yet subtle satire of China, its people and government.   And I hope he would be able to maintain the thin line of tolerance with the authority to continue his work.   And as much as I distaste Weiwei’s irritable temper and linear way of thinking, I appreciate what he is trying to do for the school children of Wenchuan.  Perhaps China needs both.  It needs consciencious gentlemen like Han Han, who can articulate,  reason and lead the public opinion, but it also needs tough guys like Weiwei who just go out, get things done, and never compromise.


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3 responses to “Weiwei and Hanhan: China’s most famous living artist VS. China’s literary bad boy?

  1. Pingback: Global Voices Online » China: Most influential most read blogger

  2. Super-Duper site! I am loving it!! Will come back again – taking your feeds too now, Thanks.

  3. Pingback: LE WEB CHINOIS, UN ÉNORME INTRANET ? « Tournez Les Boutons

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