29th August 2023

Ai Weiwei’s Free Speech Puzzle

Ai Weiwei’s Free Speech Puzzle, 27 August 2023

A sermon preached by Kenneth Padley, Canon Treasurer


This morning we continue our August sermon series, reflecting on the major summer art installation here in Salisbury Cathedral. The installation is called To Be Free and it is made up of nine works by six artists in diverse media. Together they invite us to explore five freedoms. Among these is freedom of speech.


Freedom of speech is a topic of profound concern to Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. It is, literally, baked into his work called Free Speech Puzzle that you can view in the Trinity chapel at the far end of the Cathedral. Free Speech Puzzle is a map of China made up of small ceramic tiles. The design is inspired by traditional Chinese fortune pendants, each one decorated with hand-painted Chinese characters that translate into English as – you guessed it – ‘Free Speech’.


Free Speech Puzzle is imbued with personal significance for Ai Weiwei. He designed it in 2015, just a few years after he had been detained without charge for nearly 3 months by the Chinese government.


Like all maps, Ai Weiwei’s Free Speech Puzzle asks questions about identity and boundaries. Our perception of identity and boundaries is inevitably shaped by our context and upbringing. Among the differences in this regard between what we might broadly characterise as ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ culture is the value placed by the Chinese on the collective over against the individual. We saw an example of this in the way that China imposed coronavirus restrictions that were longer than those experienced in Europe. For the Chinese government, this was considered important for national cohesion and welfare.


Freedom of speech is another example of such difference. In the interests of the collective, China does not permit the same individual rights of expression which we enjoy in the West. To this end, I read that the communist government has flung up a digital barrier, the Great Firewall of China, which restricts the entry of information into the country through the internet. The foreign affairs journalist Tim Marshall writes that ‘this outward facing firewall is supposed to protect the Chinese population from such damaging ideas as democracy, free speech and unplugged culture’[1]. Tim Marshall goes on to describe how the Great Firewall also has inner-facing walls, preventing the dissemination of information within China which might subvert Communist Party control. For me, Ai Weiwei’s Free Speech Puzzle expresses something of this in the way it partitions the map of China into smaller units, as a result of which free speech appears confined within smaller bubbles.


I am interested in these bubbles, their shape and how they fit together. I see them posing wider questions about political and cultural control. Initially I thought that the pieces represented the administrative regions of China. However, there are more pieces in Ai Weiwei’s Free Speech Puzzle than there are regions in China, and some of the larger Chinese regions are covered by two or more of Ai Weiwei’s tiles. This got me thinking about the map as a whole. Because it is a map of China as China is understood by the Han Chinese, the majority ethnic population of the country. It is a map of China which includes buffer zones integrated and claimed by the Han as protection of their populous heartland in the Yangtze and Yellow River basins.

  • The map includes Xinjiang, the northwestern region where many Muslim Uighurs long for an independent country that they would call East Turkestan.
  • The map includes Tibet, from where the indigenous Buddhist leadership of the Dalai Lama fled into exile. The Dalai Lama’s chosen deputy, the Panchen Lama, was arrested in 1995, at which time he was just six years old, the world’s youngest Prisoner of Conscience. He has not been seen since.
  • And the map includes Taiwan, the island democracy in the South China Sea which has only been ruled from the mainland for 5% of the last century, yet which Beijing claims as its 23rd


International borders expressed as firm divisions on maps are an unavoidable reality of post-nomadic human existence. But they impact freedom of determination as much as free speech when collective identities cut across political boundaries. Sometimes these cases are complex, as with the Kurds, an ethnic group found in significant numbers within several nation states. Sometimes these cases seem egregious, as in the case of the Catalans, where a democratic plebiscite in 2017 in favour of independence was rejected by the Spanish government. And, for some, these cases may feel interminable, where the desires of a minority defy present political arithmetic, for instance in Cornwall. The puzzle of competing freedoms is that they are not fully mutually compatible. Unlike Ai Weiwei’s Puzzle, the pieces do not always neatly fit together.


So ultimately, for me, Ai Weiwei’s contribution to this summer’s art in the Cathedral is to invite us to consider how diverse cultural identities can coexist within the jigsaw of a shared space, in particular how a mature society might best respect minority rights. This is a not a field in which Christianity has a strong track record because a desire for uniformity has often overridden the celebration of diversity and the creative cohesion of tensions. Think for example about the oppression of the Inquisition, the churches’ failure to honour and include members of LGBT communities, and the subtle subconscious messages which most congregations transmit towards people whom they (?we) regard as ‘not like us’.


Nonetheless, this is an issue in which our tradition challenges us to try again. It challenges us because Christian identity cuts across earthly divisions.

  • As Paul taught the Galatians, ‘as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. [So] there is no longer Jew or Greek… no longer slave or free… no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’.
  • And as Jesus taught and enacted in his miracles, God’s Kingdom embraces those whom society excludes through labels of ‘otherness’. The disturbed, the foreign, and the impure are all symbolically accepted by the hospitality which Jesus shows respectively in his healing of the mentally ill, the Roman centurion’s servant, and the woman with a haemorrhage.


In addition, the gospel invites us to shift perspective by considering freedom of speech from the divine perspective. Freedom of speech is a quality that is found primarily in God and then, derivatively, in us. It is God who speaks creation from nothing, saying ‘let there be light’; God in Jesus who breathes the resurrection into his followers; and God whose Spirit calls us by name to be her disciples. He leads, we follow; She speaks, we hear.


Christian freedom is not a Western freedom which strives to maximise my utility to the disadvantage of others. Nor is it a Communist freedom which can prioritise the perceived interest of the collective over individuals. It is a paradoxical freedom which is discovered when we hear the God who speaks. It is a freedom which God speaks to all, whatever our background or circumstances. And, as such, it is a freedom which can flourish in democracies as much as dictatorships and which transcends the divisions that humans draw on maps.



[1] Marshall, Tim, Divided, 28.