In 2011 the studio of the major Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei was bulldozed by the Communist authorities as a response to his outspoken criticism of their stance on democracy and human rights.  That was a prelude to his imprisonment for 81 days when he was kept in a tiny room with constant light and constant surveillance by two guards.

Ai’s response

Recently I went to an exhibition in London to see what Ai Wei Wei’s response was to the vandalism inflicted on his studio.  One of the installations there was a huge rectangle laid out on the ground and filled with porcelain fragments.  They are all that remains from sculptures that Ai had crafted.   Far from collapsing, he had displayed his resilience not only in surviving the attack on his work and on his person but in transforming destruction into art.  The exhibit also provided evidence of Ai’s repression at the hands of the Communist state. (It was interesting to see quite a few mainland Chinese visitors at the exhibition learning what they certainly won’t learn at home).

Teapots and coat hangers

Many other installations filled the exhibition.  One was porcelain bones which were replicas of human bones excavated from a 1950s labour camp operated under the rule of Mao Zedong.  Another was a massive display of 250,000 medieval porcelain spouts from teapots.  If a pot was defective when it was made, the spout was broken off.  Ai was making a comment about free speech with these spouts – or mouths – that had been removed.  Yet another exhibit was a crystal coat hanger, one of the few possessions Ai was permitted during his detention.

Unbowed, Ai Wei Wei now lives in exile in Europe, where he continues his work as an artist, a film maker, an activist and a collector.  (He is also an architect – witness his 2008 Bird’s Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics).


As I have suggested, Ai’s resilience is impressive indeed.  It is a testimony to the strength of the human spirit.  Resilience is all about doing better than might be expected in difficult circumstances.  It is, in fact, fundamentally about the ability to survive.  As has been pointed out, it is built in and through relationships with others, not least in early emotional experiences.* (In the case of Ai Wei Wei it may be relevant that he grew up in arduous circumstances with his father when the latter was exiled to the Gobi desert).

A survivor mindset

Writing on the Verywell website, Kendra Cherry talks about the characteristics of resilient people.  Among them is a survivor mentality.  ‘They know that even when things are difficult, they can keep going until they make it through.’  They see themselves as fighters rather than victims of circumstance.

Other signs of resilience

This also involves being in touch with one’s inner life and having the capacity to manage emotions (‘affect regulation’) in the face of stress.  Cherry writes that it ‘doesn’t mean that resilient people don’t experience strong emotions such as anger, sadness or fear.  It means that they recognize those feelings are temporary and can be managed until they pass.’

Resilient people also often have ‘a strong internal locus of control and feel that their actions can play a part in determining the outcome of events’.  They are good at problem-solving too and they demonstrate self-acceptance and compassion for themselves when things get tough.  In addition, they can ask for help when they need it and they tend to be part of ‘a solid network of supportive people’.

When resilience can’t grow

I said above that resilience is formed in early relationships.  But if things don’t go so well in that department then problems may arise.  If a child has negative parenting experiences – aggressive or abusive behaviour, yes, but also over-protectiveness or over-indulgence –  then the growth of resilience may be stunted.

Slings and arrows

And even if the foundations of resilience were well laid, experiences in later life can sometimes be difficult, challenging or even devastating for anyone.  Living through bereavement, divorce or unemployment, for instance, can be a body blow to the most emotionally robust people.


For all these adverse circumstances a period of psychotherapy can be very beneficial.  Given that ‘resilience emerges as a characteristic that is closely related to the social context of the [individual],’** then the social context provided by group therapy may be particularly appropriate.


*/** Resilience and psychoanalysis: a systematic review by Bibiana Malgarim, Màrcia Santana, Amanda Machado, Andre Bastos and Lucia Freitas in ‘ResearchGate’, August 2018