BookBrowse Reviews 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai Weiwei

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows

A Memoir

by Ai Weiwei

1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai Weiwei X
1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai Weiwei
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Nov 2021, 400 pages

    Sep 2022, 400 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer Hon Khalaf
Buy This Book

About this Book



This powerful memoir by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei captures the cultural and intergenerational backdrop of his life and explores the connection between artistic creation and the human right to free expression.

Ai Weiwei is such an influential and innovative artist and activist that a memoir focused purely on his life and works would have been interesting enough. 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows is much more than that. It also chronicles a search for meaning as the author connects the intergenerational experiences of himself, his father and his son. Throughout the memoir, Ai Weiwei ruminates on the abstract meaning of art and human expression — and its place in society. Ultimately, he realizes that society and artistic individual expression are frequently (and perhaps fundamentally) at odds with one another — a revelation that was hard-won through his illegal detention as a political prisoner.

The memoir starts with Ai Weiwei's father, Ai Qing, a famous Chinese poet who, in spite of being initially favored by Chairman Mao, eventually faced instability and exile as he was branded a "rightist" in 1957 for criticizing the government. This continued through the Cultural Revolution due to the content of his poems and essays, and the other writers in his circle. Eventually, Ai Qing was allowed to return to society and his label as a rightist was officially "corrected" in 1979.

This is the foundation and background of Ai Weiwei's own journey, which he sees reflected in his father's rise and fall in fortune and favor. Growing up in exile resulted in a sense of rootlessness and defiance, and Ai Weiwei traveled to New York to study art in the 1980s, an opportunity that was newly available due to reforms in China following Mao's death in 1976. When he returned to China in 1993, he was vilified by the government for his art (see Beyond the Book). Ai Weiwei and Ai Qing's lives are connected and mirrored even though they lived through different eras. For both, the constant and steady act of self-expression inevitably results in societal and political reaction and control.

Sometimes considering what a person fails to acknowledge when telling their life story can be even more revealing of their inner truth. Ai Weiwei's memoir is incredibly expansive and compassionate, spanning topics such as animal rights, victims of natural disasters and the struggles of refugees. He sees complex humanity in diverse men, from successful Western artists to the rural Chinese prison guards who detained him. Yet there is a very glaring failure to recognize the significance of the women in his life, who are relegated to background supporting roles. His memoir focuses only on himself, his father and his son as the characters in his life that connect through a shared experience with the rest of the world.

At the same time, this doesn't detract from the profound truths that Ai Weiwei is able to share, gleaned from a life of pushing artistic and political boundaries. While he started off with more conventional forms of artistic expression, taking up painting as a boy, a turning point seems to have occurred with his introduction to Dadaism and conceptual art in New York City as a young man. This was the catalyst for his journey into realizing that all human expression and thought can become an artistic endeavor — which is why his works are so diverse and expansive. He has "destroyed" Han Dynasty Urns, created documentaries and a sanctuary for cats. Perhaps most beautifully, Ai Weiwei also arranged a largescale cultural exchange through "Fairytale," by having 1001 Chinese people travel to Kassel, Germany. This piece allowed the Chinese participants to experience the magic and growth involved in free international movement. (His documentary on this piece is available in full on YouTube.) Essentially, in creating constantly changing and diverse works, Ai Weiwei is continually exercising his fundamental drive and human right to expression — which eventually brought him at odds with the Chinese government.

We come to find that this book was born from Ai Weiwei's illegal detention and restriction of movement in 2011. On his way to Taipei, he was stopped at the airport and then secretly held in prison without due process, and placed under constant surveillance and interrogation for 81 days. There were a number of potential charges that were floated in front of him during the interrogation — such as subverting state power, disseminating pornography, economic crimes and art fraud. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the real crime is Ai Weiwei's voice. As his life has represented an evolution of artistic and human expression, it was perhaps inevitable that it would become politicized. Upon experiencing this fundamental truth about the nature of individual expression against a larger collective that seeks to maintain a status quo, Ai Weiwei comes to realize that his struggle is not unique or singular. Instead, it was foreshadowed by his father's endeavors a lifetime ago, and will likely be echoed by his son and many others to come.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in January 2022, and has been updated for the September 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!


Read-Alikes Full readalike results are for members only

If you liked 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, try these:

  • Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden jacket

    Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden

    by Zhuqing Li

    Published 2023

    About this book

    Sisters separated by war forge new identities as they are forced to choose between family, nation, and their own independence.

  • The Impossible City jacket

    The Impossible City

    by Karen Cheung

    Published 2022

    About this book

    A boldly rendered - and deeply intimate - account of Hong Kong today, from a resilient young woman whose stories explore what it means to survive in a city teeming with broken promises.

We have 6 read-alikes for 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, but non-members are limited to two results. To see the complete list of this book's read-alikes, you need to be a member.
Search read-alikes
How we choose read-alikes

Become a Member

Join BookBrowse today to start discovering exceptional books!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: After the Miracle
    After the Miracle
    by Max Wallace
    Many people have heard one particular story about Helen Keller—how the saintly teacher, Annie ...
  • Book Jacket: The Lost Wife
    The Lost Wife
    by Susanna Moore
    The Lost Wife is a hard-hitting novella based in part on a white settler named Sarah Wakefield's ...
  • Book Jacket
    Firekeeper's Daughter
    by Angeline Boulley
    Voted 2021 Best Young Adult Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers

    Angeline Boulley's young adult ...
  • Book Jacket: Hello Beautiful
    Hello Beautiful
    by Ann Napolitano
    Ann Napolitano's much-anticipated Hello Beautiful pulls the reader into a warm, loving familial ...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
The First Conspiracy
by Brad Meltzer & Josh Mensch
A remarkable and previously untold piece of American history—the secret plot to kill George Washington

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Pieces of Blue
    by Holly Goldberg Sloan

    A hilarious and heartfelt novel for fans of Maria Semple and Emma Straub.

Win This Book
Win Girlfriend on Mars

30 Copies to Give Away!

A funny and poignant debut novel that skewers billionaire-funded space travel in a love story of interplanetary proportions.



Solve this clue:

S I F A R Day

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.