Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2015

Access Restrictions

Access restricted until 08/31/2019

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Art History

First Advisor

Craig Adcock

First Committee Member

Wallace Tomasini

Second Committee Member

Robert Rorex

Third Committee Member

Christopher Roy

Fourth Committee Member

Frederick Smith


This dissertation connects the life and work of Ai Weiwei to Chinese art history. This field is dynamic and, during certain periods, an influx of outside ideas has revolutionized it. Ai’s belief in democratic values—criticized as being anti-Chinese—is part of a tradition in China emphasizing diversity. From the Hundred Schools of Thought (zhu zi baijia) during the Warring States (475 BCE-221 BCE) to the spread of Buddhism during the post-Han era (220-589), divergent thinking has been part of China’s intellectual development. This diversity, however, has been crushed by ideology during other periods.

Ai embraces diversity as the future of China. His life and work reestablish a narrative of Chinese intellectual history. This narrative is free from ideological mandates to erase the past. Ai looks at everything critically. His art reveals new ways of understanding China. His career also corresponds to the policies of opening China known as Gaige kaifang. As a result, economic issues are recurrent themes in Ai’s work. He questions the value of liberalizing China’s economy when political and judicial systems are still closed. This contradiction could have manifold consequences to the world.

Another feature of Ai’s work is the legacy he inherited from his father, the Modern poet Ai Qing. This legacy is being tasked with modernizing China. The issues about modern China are addressed in this dissertation, and it is contextualized according to a balance between Western and Chinese thought. Ai has passed down this legacy to young artists, and his example recalls the axiom “the green comes from the blue and will surpass it” (qing chu yu lan, er sheng lan.

A student’s abilities have the potential to surpass the teacher’s talent. Ai Qing was a great poet, but his son is his “masterpiece.” Ai Weiwei has hope that the next generation will be better than his. The way they improve it is by including heterodox voices in Chinese society. China is ascendant, but its opaque system appears to be contradictory to Ai’s desire for transparency and the sharing of information globally. The future could resemble the lamenting of Lu Xun’s provincial character Jiujin laotai: “Yes, indeed. Each generation is worse than the last.”

Ai’s life and work show that the future of China is far from being determined. What is certain, and what Ai has done through his art, is that China and the world must be engaged. Human rights, specifically the freedom of expression, are paramount. The outcome of the twenty-first century depends on it.


xxv, 724 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 308-317).


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Copyright © 2015 Nathan James Peterson

Available for download on Saturday, August 31, 2019