Participants led by artist Ai Weiwei recently completed a two-month-long recitation of the names of more than 5,000 schoolchildren who died during the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008 on the audio chat app Clubhouse. He spoke to RFA’s Mandarin Service about the ongoing efforts to ensure the victims of the disaster weren’t forgotten:
Ai Weiwei: Firstly, I’d like to tell you the backstory. The Sichuan earthquake happened in 2008, causing a large number of school buildings to collapse, killing 5,335 schoolchildren. The Chinese government has yet to make all of the details of the earthquake public. Back then, we were already asking for clarification of how many schoolchildren died. We wanted to investigate what was being referred to as “tofu buildings,” an issue with the qualify of the schools’ construction. As a result of our investigation by our Citizen Survey team, we managed to find out the full names, dates of birth, class and home addresses of 5,197 schoolchildren. This caused me a lot of problems at the time with the Chinese government, because they regarded this information as sensitive, and they don’t like the sort of social activism we do. But we managed to complete the investigation and do a lot of reporting nonetheless, because the political restrictions back then weren’t as bad as they are today. Back then, I still had a blog, and we were posting names there every day.
We have commemorated the Sichuan earthquake on every May 12 since then. We still use the slogans “Respect life,” and “Refuse to forget” to this day. I think they are very important, because they speak to that which is most lacking under an authoritarian regime. They also speak to a shared issue for humanity, which is not understanding the true value of a life, and also the tendency to erase major disasters by dint of selective memory. In the current pandemic, for example, we see that China has never released the true figures, the number of people who died. Why do I say that the numbers aren’t real? Because each one needs to rest on the name, gender and date of birth of each individual, because that is a human life, which is an entire world. There’s a saying in Buddhism, “one flower, one world,” that expresses this.
So we have kept on doing this over the past 13 years, both via my art works, and online, to remind people that this isn’t going away. There is a perennial idea that the living are a part of the dead, and the dead are also a part of the living. Life and death are closely linked. We’re not talking about something we choose, but about our responsibility to honor life and to commemorate the dead, because they are a part of us, a part of us that died.
For the first time on Clubhouse, we have gotten Chinese people together from all over the world to recite the [names of the dead schoolchildren], round the clock, starting on Qing Ming [grave-tending] Festival in April, all the way until May 12, for 39 days and 936 hours in total. I did this by setting up a dedicated website and organizing Chinese people from all over the world to take part. This was possible because there are now Chinese people across all time zones, so the different time zones took on responsibility for specific periods of time.
Usually, it takes 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 24 seconds to read the list in its entirety. We read it 161 times over 39 days.
RFA: How many people took part?
Ai Weiwei: Actually, there were very few. Most Clubhouse rooms, whether they are dedicated to politics or gossip or whatever, will run into the hundreds or thousands of people. But there was often only one or two account admins in the room while we were reading. We had a total of 41 admins across the European, U.S. East Coast, and Beijing time zones, which covers all zones.
RFA: Did anyone try to interrupt the process?
Ai Weiwei: Sometimes people came in to try to interfere, to yell at us and leave again, or to express opposition on that and related matters. Quite often they came to try to make trouble. Some even set up dedicated rooms on Clubhouse to criticize us for doing this. But there were a lot of people who came to show support. Clubhouse is a bit like a farmers’ market; it can be bustling and chaotic, so of course we got all kinds of opinions, and there were plenty of 50 centers [expressing the Chinese Communist Party line].
RFA: What was the significance of holding such an event, for you?
Ai Weiwei: Its only meaning is to remind ourselves, so that we can use our actions to reflect our values. Too often, people in a modern society forget that they can act. Even small actions are very important. Everyone has their opinions, their views on ethics, on right and wrong. But very few actually take action. This was also an art project, and a form of artistic practice. The meaning is revealed in the practice … We’re not saying that we claim the moral high ground; rather that if we didn’t do this, we would become implicated in moral corruption.
RFA: Do you have plans for similar activities in future?
Ai Weiwei: For us, this kind of action has neither past nor the future. We are a part of a larger ecology that is spontaneous, with no beginning or end. We always have something going on online. They are seeds. The seeds may survive or they may die. It depends on the human heart and the possibilities for human action.
Reported by Sun Cheng for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.