Ai Weiwei: Decoded

Ai Weiwei: Decoded

A guide to the symbols at play in a divine self portrait by Ai Weiwei.

4 min read

detail of a silkscreen print by Ai Weiwei

From a life spent making art, Ai Weiwei has amassed an expansive library of motifs and symbols – esoteric, laced with humour, irony and deployed at will throughout his work to convey meaning.

Many of them feature in Guardian – a limited edition silkscreen print which casts Weiwei himself as a folkloric Door God. We asked him to break them down for us, one by one.

This self portrait serves as a visualisation of my ongoing struggle within the realm of reality.

Ai Weiwei

01 · Sunflower seeds

Used in ceramic form by Weiwei for his famous installation, sunflower seeds were a common childhood snack and nod to propoganda from the Cultural Revolution which cast Mao Dezong as the sun and his citizens as sunflowers.

02 · Twitter

This now-usurped logo nods to Weiwei’s use of the internet as a vessel for free speech. He joined the platform in 2009 when the Chinese government shut down his blog, and uses it vociferously to reflect on a wealth of subjects.

03 · Surveillance cameras

A literal representation of the scrutiny Weiwei has been subjected to throughout his life. When his former studio was encircled by state surveillance cameras, he decorated each of them with a traditional red lantern.

In 2017 Ai Weiwei collaborated with architects Herzog & de Meuron to create an immersive installation in New York City. Drone-mounted infrared surveillance cameras stalked visitors – streaming their progress live for all to see as they muddled through the large, unlit space.

04 · Bank notes folded into paper planes

When Fake Cultural Development Ltd. was accused of tax evasion, the internet rushed to Weiwei’s aid. As well as transfers from around the world, bank notes folded into paper planes sailed over the walls of his studio compound.

05 · River crabs

A nod to the feast Weiwei hosted to mark the demolition of his studio in Shanghai. In Mandarin, river crab is a homophone for harmony – a government slogan coopted online for covert communication suffused with irony.

06 · Handcuffs

Referring specifically to his 81-day incarceration at the hands of the Chinese government, Weiwei uses handcuffs as a symbol for oppression and the denial of freedom.

Weiwei is well acquainted with the power of simple, seemingly-innocuous gestures as a form of protest. When the Chinese government encircled his studio with surveillance cameras, he adorned each one with a traditional red lantern – drawing attention to, without counteracting, their invasion of his privacy.

07 · Traditional costume

Weiwei’s ensemble alludes to various deities from Chinese culture, drawing parallels between his artistic endeavours and their folkloric exploits.

08 · Rebar

Steel rebars, a construction material, refer to Weiwei’s investigation of corruption after an earthquake in Sichuan Province. He used reclaimed metal – warped by disaster – in a body of work dedicated to the catastrophe.

09 · Dragon

Weiwei uses the Chinese zodiac as a conduit to explore the dissemination of cultural heritage and the complex relationship of modern China with its own history. 2024 welcomes the year of the dragon.

In 2010 Weiwei filled the Tate Modern's cavernous Turbine Hall with 100 million handmade sunflower seeds. The installation connected China's rich ceramic tradition with the ubiquity of 'Made in China' in modern mass-production.

In Straight (2008-2012), exhibited as part of a major retrospective at the Royal Academy in London, Weiwei straightened 90 tonnes of steel reinforcement. The rebars were recovered from schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.

10 · Caonima

Caonima or grass mud horse sounds similar to a popular profanity and emerged online as a way to circumvent the authoritarian control of language, which became more extreme during the Jasmine Revolution.

11 · Watermelon

Weiwei spent his formative years under exile with his father in Xinjiang Province. Melons grew well in the region’s sandy soil. In his work, they symbolise the generosity of nature and our ability to thrive under inhospitable conditions.

12 · Flowers

In 2013 Weiwei announced that he would place a bouquet of flowers in the basket of a bicycle outside his studio every day until his passport was returned. It took 600 days. For him, flowers represent freedom – intellectual and literal.

Fresh cut flowers in the basket of a bicycle outside Weiwei's studio in Beijing. Following the confiscation of his passport, he repeated this act every day for 600 days to draw attention to the injustice of his entrapment.

13 · Chinese characters

Since 2005, alongside making artworks, Weiwei’s primary focus has been writing. He observes that shifts in society are linked closely to shifts in language. By extension, he recognises the power of language to change the world.

14 · Red

In Chinese culture the colour red is a symbol of fullness and good fortune. Historically it has also been associated with justice and, in absence of justice, revolution.

15 · Door God

The door god is placed at thresholds during Lunar New Year to protect those inside from harm. Weiwei hopes that he too can dispel malevolent forces through his art and activism.

16 · Ai WeiWei

Over the course of his life Weiwei has become a symbol of reistance – advocating for justice, free speech and human rights. His self-effacing self portrait embodies an ongoing struggle with this status in realm of reality.


Guardian translates Weiwei's symbol-packed self portrait into a silkscreen print designed to echo the surface of a glossy ceramic tile, or cast concrete. Gold ink packed with metallic powder and flecks of glitter radiates from beneath a layer of fortuitous red ink.

The edition will be available to order for 24 hours only on Thursday 15 February. Signed and numbered, with free worldwide shipping.



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