Freedom Through Art: Challenging Censorship & the Violation of Human Rights

Social Studies - Grade 11

This unit of inquiry is not a recipe book but rather a launchpad to inspire new BIG IDEAS. We encourage you to use and/or modify one, or several of the BIG IDEAS below. Adapt it to the grade/ ability level of your students.


Enduring Understanding

Individual lives can effect change in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.


Guiding Questions

How does Ai Weiwei’s work merge the role of artist and political activist? 
How does censorship affect what the media reports and what citizens learn? 


Mind Opening

Choose or devise practices to encourage students to be open to new experiences and ways of thinking in your classroom. For example, the MindUP in-school program.


Discovery & Inspiration:

Launch the Project

Introduce the Theme: Present the Enduring Understanding and Guiding Questions using vocabulary that is appropriate for your grade level.

About Vancouver Biennale: Play a short video.

Create Project Space: Brainstorm ideas to make the  project theme visual and visible using bulletin boards, and/or a project corner to share relevant materials and inquiry questions and processes.

Reference Resources:

Introduction to Sculpture and Public Art Unit Plan for information on how art has evolved over time and the unique experience sculptures and/or public art brings.

Vancouver Biennale 2014-2016 Exhibition Theme: Open Borders / Crossroads Vancouver 

•  About Artist and Artwork (PDF)


Other Resources

Covered in the Reference Material for Inquiry Challenges list of this unit plan


Learning to Learn

Art Inquiry

  Make a visit to F Grass (Ai Weiwei, China) and encourage students to freely explore and interact with the art pieces individually and in groups OR

BIG IDEAS Anywhere educators: View F Grass Guided Tour Video MUTE ON and encourage students to explore at different angles individually and in groups.

  This Art Inquiry process enables the students to practice observing, describing, interpreting, and sharing visual information and personal experiences.

  Use the Art Inquiry Worksheet (PDF) to guide and capture their ideas and impressions. Customize or create your own Art Inquiry Worksheet as appropriate for your project and class needs.


Shared Insights

•  Sharing Art Inquiry Experience: Ask students to share the Art Inquiry Worksheet responses in class.

•  View Guided Tour Video: View F Grass Guided Tour Video again with SOUND ON.

• Background Knowledge about the artist:

1/  Using a KWL worksheet, ask students if they have ever heard of the artist Ai Weiwei and to write down what they know about him.

2/  View  Sept, 2013 CBC National Canadian broadcast exclusive  (13:14 minutes) as an introduction to Ai Weiwei as a person, his work, and his politics and discuss what new information they just learned.

Ai Weiwei’s Early Life, Communism & The Cultural Revolution – What are some of the causes and consequences of the Cultural Revolution in China? How did the artist’s early years and experiences shape his perspective of the Chinese government and his approach to art making?

1/  Artist’s Early Life: Watch a 2-minute segment from Ai Weiwei Never Sorry [from 1:12:30 to 1:14:00] on how Ai Weiwei’s father, the famous poet Ai Qing, was treated during the Cultural Revolution. Students to reflect on why they think Ai Weiwei’s father was treated that way.

2/  Introduce Cultural Revolution: Ask students what do they know about China’s Cultural Revolution? Ask students to explore and investigate China’s Cultural Revolution

Reference Materials:

Timeline and brief history of China in the 20th century (Chinese Civil War, The Nationalist Movement, Mao Zedong and the Great Leap Forward)

Power Point Palooza – two powerpoints

3/  Differing Perspectives of the Cultural Revolution: After reviewing previous session, watch the video  (14 min.) or read the article (CBS News, “The Legacy of Mao Zedong”), covering the rise of the communists to the controversy over the Beijing Olympics.
4/  Themes of the Cultural Revolution: Group students according to their interest to investigate one of the following: Government Leaders; The Red Guards; Re-Education Camps; Targets & Tactics;  Communism & Mao’s Little Red Book; Resistance. Each group to share and present their consolidated findings using their choice of a presentation tool such as Animoto to the class. (Educators can get a free Animoto account Here).
5/  Introduce/revisit the concept of Cause and Consequence and/or view the following Cause and Consequence Video. Each group can complete the Cause & Consequence Worksheet (PDF) and answer these final questions regarding the multiple causes and consequences of the Cultural Revolution:  What were some of the immediate consequences of the Cultural Revolution?  What were some long-term consequences of the Cultural Revolution? What significance does the event have in China today? 
6/  Watch the first minute of  Ai Weiwei: Life is in danger every day video where Ai Weiwei speaks about the influence of his father on his life and work. Do you think Ai Weiwei’s experience of the Cultural Revolution might have influenced his approach to art making? Why? Why not?

 Artist Themes: Ai Weiwei’s Adult Life, Challenging Authority through ArtHow does Ai Weiwei’s work merge the role of artist and political activist? How does Ai Weiwei challenge the Chinese government’s authority through his artwork?
1/  Referencing the following quotes from Ai Weiwei Never Sorry documentary video:

 “I don’t want to be part of this denying of the reality. We live in this time. We have to speak out.” – Ai Weiwei

“Typical Chinese critics are mild but skillful. They don’t directly criticize the Communist Party or government.

But Ai Weiwei is different. He uses the most aggressive words to point out society’s dark side.” -Chen Danqing

In groups, students select and research one or several of Ai Weiwei’s artworks (see listed sample options). Treating it as a piece of Historical Evidence  you think is the intended audience? What was going on in China at the time that this art was created that might help us interpret it? What materials has Ai Weiwei used? Is there special significance to these materials? Does this work challenge government authority?  If yes, what symbols or metaphors does Ai Weiwei use to accomplish this?

2/  By using Aurasma on their posters the classroom can be transformed into an augmented reality museum.  Using these posters, students stage and exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s work for their peers, teachers, administrators and parents. This short YouTube clip shows you how to use Aurasma. Here is what Aurasma looks like at the Grammy Museum. 

Possible Artwork to Investigate:
Study in Perspective
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn
Han Dynasty Urn with Coca Cola Logo, 1994
Bird’s Nest, Olympics
Snake Ceiling
So Sorry/exhibit
Tate Modern/100 million sunflower seeds


Inquiry Challenges

• Protest & Human Rights in China: Analyzing the Causes & Consequences of the Tiananmen Square Massacre – What were the causes & consequences of the Tiananmen Square massacre? Should the Tiananmen Square Protests be remembered as a justified social movement for democratic reform or the military defending the nation against violent counter-revolutionary elements? Note: Ai Weiwei was living in New York when the Tiananmen Square Massacre occurred in the documentary Ai Weiwei Never Sorry and he explains the effect it had on him.

Part A:

1/  Watch the BBC News clip of the events occurring during the night of June 3-4, 1989 and solicit student reaction to the video. Explain that the aim of this inquiry is to uncover the sequence of events that caused the events of June 3-4 1989, known as the Beijing Massacre, the Tiananmen Square Massacre or the Six Four Incident.
2/  Geography and Significance: Teacher shows a photo gallery of Tiananmen Square as it is today and reads this description of the square by Canadian Jan Wong in the Resource Guide (this web site by the Long Bow Group provides an interactive tour of Tiananmen Square with additional links)
3/  Classroom discussion:  What is the significance (historical, social, cultural) of the geographical placement of Tiananmen Square in Beijing?
4/  Introduce/revisit the concept of Cause and Consequence and/or view the following Cause and Consequence Video.
5/  Group analysis delving into the sequence of events of the Tiananmen Square massacre and ranking them according to their perceived influence for presentation to the class (using a digital timeline generator like Capzles* or larges sheets of paper).
6/  Groups might also answer the following questions as part of their presentation to the class: What do you think were some of the short-term and long-term consequences of the Tiananmen Square Massacre?  Were there any unintended consequences?  If so, what were they? How might this event have been prevented? What significance does the event have in China today?  
7/  Class discussion: The Chinese Government later claimed that violence began as a result of a minority of demonstrators attacking the troops. Do you think this is accurate?  Why are exact casualty numbers unknown? Why is there such a difference between estimates?

Part B:

• Protest & Human Rights in China: Investigating Evidence, “Tank Man” &  the Tiananmen Square Massacre –  What is the historical value of the pictures and footage from the Tiananmen Square Massacre?

1/  Watch video footage of  “Tank Man” the day after the Tiananmen Square Massacre
2/  Introduce/revisit the concept of Historical Evidence and/or view the following video on Evidence and Interpretation.
3/  Group research on the video: When was this video taken? Where was it taken? Who was the videographer?  What was going on in China when the video was taken that might help us interpret it?  What things capture your attention in this video?  Why do you think this video was taken?
4/  Class discussion of the results of the group research.
5/  Teacher introduces these three final questions for groups to work through and share: Does this man’s courage represent a student movement defeated or resolved?  These pictures, along with others of the massacre, were beamed around the world. How, do you think, people reacted to them?  What is the historical value of these pictures and footage?  Are these images available for Chinese citizens to view on the Internet today?  Why or why not?


Primary Sources:
The National Security Archive: Documents from Tiananmen Square Protests
Chinese Government Position: It is Necessary to Take a Clear-Cut Stand Against Disturbances
Tiananmen Square Protesters Position: Tiananmen Square Declaration of Human Rights
Interview with Student Leader and Protester Chai Ling
The Atlantic Monthly: Images of Tiananmen Square Protests
New York Times: Archival News Records of Tiananmen Square Protests
TIME Magazine: News Archives of Tiananmen Square
Modern History Sourcebook: China Since World War II
Primary Sources: Tiananmen Square Protests

Secondary Sources:
PBS Frontline: Tank Man
Moving the Mountain Film
BBC: The Lost Voices of Tiananmen
History Channel: Tiananmen Square Declassified

Freedom in China Today: Part I:  Human Rights – How are human rights at risk in nations ruled by communist regimes?

1/  Think, Pair, Share Activity on the topic of human rights.What does the term ‘human rights’ mean to you?  How do you define ‘human rights’? What do you think your ‘human rights’ are?  
2/  Groups examine the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and consider making alterations to their original definition.
3/  Groups look at the Sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and inquire into the following question:  Is Canada abiding by the Universal Declaration of Human RightsDo human rights violations occur in Canada? What happens when they do?
4/  Students review the website Human Rights in China (HRIC) and examine the following question: Is China abiding by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Do human rights violations occur in China? What happens when they do?
5/  Referencing the documentary  Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, introduce students to the following quotes:

“If there is no judicial independence, everyone is put in jeopardy; if there is no free speech, every single life has lived in vain.” @aiww

6/  Group Discussion: Why is it easier to get away with human rights violations in nations ruled by communist governments than it is by nations ruled by democratic governments?  

Helpful Sites:

United Nations
United Nations Watch: the UN and human rights
Human rights watch
Country reports on human rights practices for 1999

Freedom in China Today: Part II:  Censorship of the PressHow censorship affects what the media reports and what citizens learn?   How is Media “Free” or “Not Free”?

Part A:

1/  Students inquire: What websites are blocked in your school? Why are these websites blocked? Do you agree or disagree with this? Why would a government want to block information?  Is there a difference between monitoring information and blocking information?

2/  Group Inquiry of 1989 Tiananmen Square protests using a Canadian and simulated Chinese search engines:

Use a Canadian search engine such as and enter “Tiananmen Square”. Each group is to record answers to the following questions:How many links can be accessed by this search? Scan through the first three sites. What seems to be the content of these links? What words are repeated?

Use a simulated Chinese search engine such as Google-China’s website (Chinese characters may be displayed as squares) and enter “Tiananmen Square” in the search box. Each group is to answer the following questions: How many links can be accessed by this one search? Scan through the first three sites. What seems to be the content of these sites? What words pop up? What sites pop up when using Google-China?

Group discussion: How does the content of these search pages differ? Why do you think the content differs?

3/  Class reading activity: BBC article “On This Day: 4 June 1989”

Students to take turns reading and discuss the following points:  Why are accurate numbers of casualties of the students protesting at Tiananmen Square difficult to determine? Why do you think Google-China’s search engine and the Chinese government block access to sites like this BBC story?  To what extent do you think that the BBC article reflects a bias?  Discuss the meaning of the  following quote from the documentary  Ai Weiwei Never Sorry:

“If it’s not publicized, it’s like it never happened, right?” – Ai Weiwei

Part B:

1/  Class begins with an investigation into China’s Freedom of the Press Rating by the non-profit organization Freedom House.
2/  Class discussion on factors that contribute to this rating.

3/  Students investigate the following questions: What make the press “free.”?  What is the relationship between political freedom and a free press?

4/  Students examine the Freedom House Map of Freedom of the Press and inquire into other countries that do not have a free press.

5/  Introduce the class to The Empirical Analysis of Internet Filtering in China Study*.

6/  Groups examination of the following sample blocked search terms:

  • Tibet
  • Democracy China
  • Freedom China
  • Taiwan China
  • Dissident China
  • Justice China
  • Equality
  • Revolution
  • Counterrevolution China

Group inquiry into the following questions:Why do you think the Chinese government restricted and continues to restrict access to some sites pertaining to “equality,” “democracy” or “dissidents”?  What other terms do you think the Chinese government would censor? Why? Are there any search terms that the Canadian government might monitor or censor? Identify these terms and explain. Is a censored Google in China better than no Google? Explain.

7/  Groups are tasked with blackening out words in the BBC article “On This Day: 4 June 1989” that the Chinese government would find objectionable. After censoring the article, students assess how censoring the information affects their understanding of the events and evaluate its impact on controlling information.

*In 2002, researchers at Harvard University tested Google Internet access in China to determine which search terms were frequently blocked. The researchers checked to see if the search terms typed in Chinese locations would connect to the same sites that a Google search in the United States would yield. For example, when the researchers typed terms such as “equality” or “democracy china” into Google’s search engine in the United States, they were linked to media organizations such as the BBC or Time Inc. or to universities such as Stanford University or Columbia University. In China, these same sites were frequently blocked


Student Creation & Taking Actions

How would you communicate your ideas as an artist if you could not leave your country?

 Referencing the documentary  Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, introduce students to the following quotes:

“Blogs and the Internet are great inventions for our time because they give regular people an opportunity to change public opinion.” – Ai Weiwei

 “Never retreat, retweet!” @aiww

Due to Ai Weiwei’s political activism, the artist’s physical movements continue to be restricted by the Chinese government.

1/  Watch this newscast  that details the background to Ai Weiwei’s music video, where reflects on his time spent in prison.  Discuss student reactions to the video. Show students this second video interview recorded in Ai Weiwei Beijing studio on Oct. 9th, by Evan Osnos of The New Yorker.  Here Mr. Ai explains what it is about communicating via the Internet that he finds “so beautiful”.
2/  Students create a classroom blog or website where they showcase some of the following creations where students respond to the question:  What does freedom of expression mean to you?

  • Rant: Students script, perform and film a Rick Mercer style rant video  (see the requirements of a proper rant Here)
  • inspired by the themes of Ai Weiwei’s life/art.  The rant should also reflects their knowledge of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and their opinion(s) of the Chinese government’s violation of Ai’s rights.
  •   iMovie:  Students script and perform a creative film inspired by the themes of Ai Weiwei’s life/art.  The movie should also reflects their knowledge of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and their opinion(s) of the Chinese government’s violation of Ai’s rights.
  •   Artwork: Students create a work of art inspired by the themes of Ai Weiwei’s life/art.  The work of art should also reflect their knowledge of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and their opinion (s) of the Chinese government’s violation of Ai’s rights.  This art might push against government authority by responding to censorship, a social justice issue and/or a human rights violation.  Students will create a digital recording of the piece with an artist statement.


• Teacher and students can reflect on their entire learning process by revisiting the Guiding Questions.
• How did the unit of study open inquiry, create cross–curricular learning opportunities and/or apply learning to real life situations? Has this unit of inquiry changed your opinions, values and worldview? In what ways, if any, has it helped you grow as a learner?


Ideas for Cross-Curricular Access

• Language Arts –Creating Graphic Novels and/or Making Stories
Create a fictional graphic or non-graphic story inspired by the themes of Ai Weiwei’s life/art. Students can use any of the following tools or other tools they are familiar with:

  • free StoryKit app to create books from scratch;
  • online comic generator Pixton or Toondoo;
  • draw the images themselves;
  • find images on the internet and place these into Comic Life;
  • use Adobe Fireworks to manipulate and combine images

For a comparative review of the strengths and weaknesses of these options; watch this video on a student’s perspective.

Fine Arts: How did Duchamp’s ready-mades, Warhol’s pop art, and Johns’ abstract expressionist paintings influence Ai Weiwei’s artwork?
As a young man, Ai Weiwei moved to the US to attend the Parsons School of Design in New York City.  He lived there for twelve years and discovered the artists who would become his main artistic influences: Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns.
 In groups, students compare and contrast 5 of Ai Weiwei’s works of art with those of  Duchamp, Warhol and or Johns noting similarities and differences. Groups present their findings to the class using a video-creation platform like Animoto. (Educators can get a free Animoto account here)


Written by: Stephanie Anderson Redmond, B.A.; B.Ed.; M.Ed.; Ph.D. Student, Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy, UBC

Art Image: Silent Protest, Rita Liao (Cheng Ying Liao), 2011

©2014 Vancouver Biennale