Ai Weiwei’s Leg-Gun Meme: The Viral Aesthetics of Visual Satire in Contemporary China

Ai Weiwei’s Leg-Gun Meme: The Viral Aesthetics of Visual Satire in Contemporary China
Ros Holmes, University of Oxford

In June 2014 Ai Weiwei posted a photograph of himself to his Instagram account in which he is shown clad only in shorts, socks and a straw hat, clutching his raised right calf in a pose which transforms his extended leg into a pointed gun. Almost overnight the image became an internet sensation, inspiring countless imitations and reenactments, both within China and amongst Ai’s 89 thousand instagram followers worldwide. While the photo could be read in a multitude of ways, the pose parodies both the 1964 Cultural Revolution Model Opera “The Red Detachment of Women” and a 2010 group dance performance entitled “The Vow” created by students from Hunan University; a choreographed production which depicts the transformation of May Fourth Movement students into soldiers of the Red Army.

What does Ai’s appropriation of this Cultural Revolution inspired imagery tell us about the legacy of Maoist aesthetics and ideology in 21st century China? While the image has been viewed as a satirical comment on contemporary China’s authoritarian cultural policies, the caption which accompanied Ai’s first post: “Beijing anti-terrorism series” points to several possible interpretations. The most obvious is a physical subversion of the Maoist propaganda which has acquired a ubiquitous presence in Beijing since the 1960s. The image could also represent Ai’s own visual commemoration of the quarter-century anniversary of Beijing’s student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, known as the ‘89 Democracy Movement, but termed a ‘counter-revolutionary riot’ by the Chinese government. A further reading links Ai’s image to a series of anti-government protests which occurred throughout China in 2014 and which were labelled as ‘terrorist’ and ‘separatist’ events by the CCP leadership.

What at first appears to be a rather playful provocation therefore carries deeper satirical and political undertones, especially in light of Ai’s choice to disseminate the image online. The internet is considered to be at the forefront of contemporary China’s ideological struggle, a point emphasised by the government’s control of internet resources and content platforms and their promotion of Maoist ideology and rhetoric via online propaganda. The popularity of Ai’s instagram image, however, reinforces that the ownership of these aesthetics is not necessarily confined to an imposed top-down rhetoric enacted by the government but rather that citizens have recourse to challenge these discourses by suggesting alternative constructions which resist the state’s ‘ownership of meanings.’ It thus reflects on the perpetuation of Maoist aesthetics in the 21st century and the potential transformation of those aesthetics into a tool of state critique and resistance, a point which assumes added import in light of contemporary China’s search for a useable past, a past which must come to terms both with the complexity of Mao’s legacy, and the uses of that legacy in shaping the country’s future. Whether Ai’s photograph represents a political action, a genuinely subversive criticism of state-controlled media, an artistic expression or simply an irreverent gesture, it has produced a global conversation about state freedom, violence, Chinese communism, artistic interpretation and global power that speaks volumes about the potency and contested legacy of Maoist aesthetics and ideology in China’s internet age.

Ros Holmes

University of Oxford