Ai Weiwei

Defiant supporters turn up for activist's feast of river crabs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 November, 2010, 12:00am

The crab feast was supposed to have been cancelled but the diners came anyway, and they were not denied the chance to crack some claws.

Artist and activist Ai Weiwei may have been placed under house arrest, but the feast he threw to mock the authorities' censorship rules went ahead regardless.

About 600 of his online followers flocked to his soon-to-be-demolished studio in Shanghai.

Ai said from his Beijing home he was overwhelmed by the response, which he described as a 'strong signal' that ordinary people were willing to stand up for their rights.

'We never expected that many,' he said. 'After we announced it was cancelled, I thought maybe just 50 people would still come. But some people said it is not our building any more, it's a building for the 'grass mud horses'.

'Young people showed the world that they are not going to be intimidated. They showed they can still enjoy the sunshine and listen to music without being afraid.'

The term 'grass mud horse' is used to refer to rights activists. It is a homophone in Putonghua for a strong swear word invented to counterbalance the 'river crab' - itself a homophone for 'harmony', one of the government's favourite terms used to discourage dissent.

Those crabs were served yesterday in a symbolic defiance of government controls.

'Harmonious society, eat river crabs,' the diners chanted as the crabs were dished out - one of the few moments when the carnival atmosphere took on a more political feel.

Organisers, who were worried about the prospect of police breaking up their 'illegal gathering', said they had earlier cancelled their plans, yet the 600 came.

'We are sure we have enough crabs for everyone,' one kitchen hand said as he loaded crabs on his wok.

Ai's huge studio home, built of red brick and concrete in the traditional courtyard style, was overrun by supporters from across the country.

'As soon as I heard about this event I knew I had to come,' said one youth who flew in from Shenzhen. 'I think this gathering is the most meaningful thing we can do.

'We don't need slogans or labels. The fact so many people came will make others ask what inspired us. People in this country don't ask enough questions, but I think this is a start.'

Ai announced on Twitter he planned to treat 'mud grass horses' to a dinner of 10,000 river crabs to mark the demolition of the studio.

He said he was told by officials to demolish the US$1.1 million building because it was an illegal structure, even though it was built at the district government's invitation.

'They offered me compensation if I kept quiet, but I told them this is not about money,' he said.

Ai had planned to attend the function, but police placed him under house arrest in his Beijing home on Friday. He was expecting the restrictions to be lifted at midnight yesterday.