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Ai Weiwei's graphic memoir uses the animals of the Chinese zodiac to tell his story

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ai Weiwei says he says he spends a lot of time watching animals.

AI WEIWEI: I think when you live with animals, you learn a lot. And they are often more sensible or helpful, are highly intelligent in their own way.

SIMON: The artist and outspoken activist for human rights lives with a few cats, and one of them can reach up and turn the handle of a door and open it.

AI: While he's doing that, the other cats would - laying around just watch he's doing that. Then everyone would follow him to go out to the garden. And that really surprised me, how he would know by doing that he can get out. So those cats are very smart.

SIMON: His new graphic memoir, "Zodiac," has 12 chapters, each named after an animal from the Chinese zodiac. The artist connects each animal with a story from his life. In the first, "Mouse," he recalls growing up in a village in northwestern China that was having a massive infestation of mice. The school blamed it on the Soviet Union right across the border and told children in the village to kill as many mice as they could and bring in their tails.

AI: When you go to school, you will present how many tails of mice in your hands. We didn't feel that's something very awkward. You know, everybody does it. My highest record is I can catch 81 mice a day high.

SIMON: Ai Weiwei is the son of Ai Qing, a well-known poet who fell out of favor with the Chinese Communist Party in the 1950s. That's why his family was up there in northwestern China - in a labor camp. Ai Weiwei was also spurned by the Communist Party. It began in 2008 after an earthquake in Sichuan province killed about 90,000 people.

AI: But in China, they automatically think the casualties are caused by the natural disaster, which I don't look at that way - because the schools are built by government, so should not collapse. But very often, you see school collapsed, but the other buildings standing next to it is not collapsed.

SIMON: So Ai Weiwei began his own citizen's investigation to find out why so many people had died, including many thousands of children.

AI: So I organized the team to go to the locations of earthquake and town by town and family by family, also school. We visit all the collapsed schools and interviewed those parents of the victims. By doing that, we collect over 5,000 students' name and birthday. Each day, I would post my discoveries on my blog. So that act generates the whole nation's attention.

SIMON: The government reacted swiftly. Police broke into the team's hotel room in the middle of the night to make arrests.

AI: During one conflict, they beat me and caused my brain hemorrhage. And also, they detained me many times.

SIMON: Three years later, in 2011, Ai was headed to the airport to fly to Taiwan to set up an exhibition and was stopped by police, put into a van and held in a sealed room.

AI: No really in prison, but in secret detention. I'd never been really officially accused. They just trying to use some kind of illegal way to detain me.

SIMON: He stayed in that room for 81 days, same number of mice he captured one day as a child. Eventually, Ai Weiwei was released and left China for Europe a few years later. The book ends with a picture of Ai Weiwei flashing his middle finger. It's a gesture he's become known for.

AI: Well, it's a silly gesture, but it became more and more meaningful when it's become a form of resistance. So in today's condition, we often want to raise our middle fingers.

SIMON: And he says he's raising his middle finger not just to China, but also the West.

AI: I was flaunting (ph) my middle fingers in front of White House in Washington and also Trump Tower, and also the Berlin Parliament. You know, I do many locations, hundreds of locations.

SIMON: Ai Weiwei. His graphic memoir, "Zodiac," co-written by Elettra Stamboulis and illustrated by Gianluca Costantini.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.