Not Just Sunflower Seeds – Hidden Culture Behind China Contemporary Arts by Ai Weiwei

Written by Yuqing Yang


It is well known that the artist Ai Weiwei is a Chinese dissident, an activist for humanity. Most of his works are seen as a rebellion towards the Chinese government. This is typical Ai Weiwei perceived under a projected European understanding. The hidden cultural context behind his works is largely ignored.


Ai Weiwei, 2012, photo Gao Yuan, courtesy of neugerriemschneider


Ai Weiwei was born in 1957, and his father Ai Qing was a famous poet. Ai Weiwei was young when his father was forced into hard labor during the cultural revolution, and this experience marks the generations of strives for artist freedom in his family.  Ai Weiwei also recognizes this kind of creativity in adversities in one of his interviews with BBC.

However, the audience in the West has generally ignored his cultural upbringing. The work Sunflower Seeds would be a perfect art work to reflect such cultural insights. Sunflower Seeds simply is made of one hundred million porcelain pieces in shape pf sunflower seeds, which are ubiquitous in Chinese daily lives. As Ai Weiwei further explains, “sunflower seeds are the most common object in China, no matter where you are, or poor, or rich, in remote areas or in the city.” His work is undoubtedly closely related to the Chinese people.




As shown in the documentary film made for Sunflower Seeds, this huge amount of porcelain sunflowers was handmade by 1,600 craftsmen in Jingdezhen, a renowned town for its traditional porcelain production over 1,700 years. This is the hidden story behind Sunflower Seeds. The cohesive and enduring Chinese culture is embodied by the cooperation and compassion among the skilled workers and hand-making in a communal environment. That is why Sunflower Seeds is indeed “a piece of art which contains one hundred million pieces of art.”



Ai Weiwei has observed the relationships between individuals and entirety during the production process. During the cultural revolution, it was common to see Chairman Mao surrounded by sunflowers as sunflowers were the symbol of people. The people were identical and characterless. However, when producing porcelain sunflower seeds, everybody took a different role; while producing at home, some tended the children, some cooked the meals. Together they formed a harmonious community.


Porcelain, as a medium that connects thousand years of Chinese history, is also a cultural symbol here. Sunflower Seeds is likewise more of a cultural art work instead of a political one. It is another side of the “Made in China” phenomenon.


Sunflower Seeds (detail), 2010. Ai Weiwei (b.1957). Temporary installation at the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, London.





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