Image: Ai Weiwei
Andy Wong  /  AP
Ai WeiWei has been allowed his first family visit after more than a month in detention, his sister said Monday, May 16, 2011 in a case that the U.S. and other governments have criticized as a sign of China's deteriorating human rights.
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updated 5/16/2011 4:19:58 AM ET 2011-05-16T08:19:58

Groundbreaking Chinese artist Ai Weiwei appeared healthy but tense during his first meeting with family since he was detained more than a month ago, and authorities still haven't explained why he was seized, his wife said Monday.

Lu Qing told The Associated Press she was allowed to meet with her husband at an unknown location for around twenty minutes Sunday afternoon and that he seemed conflicted and upset, though insisted he was healthy and his physical needs were being met.

The avant-garde artist and fearless government critic was taken into custody April 3, and has been held incommunicado since though has yet to be charged with any crime. His case has prompted an outpouring of support for Ai in the art world and an outcry from officials in the U.S. and EU who said his treatment is a sign of China's deteriorating human rights.

Story: The show goes on, minus detained Chinese artist

The Foreign Ministry has said Ai is being investigated for suspected economic crimes, but his detention comes amid a crackdown on dissent apparently sparked by fears that anti-government demonstrations such as those in the Arab world could erupt in China. Ai had been keeping an informal tally on Twitter of the dozens of bloggers, writers and other intellectuals who were being detained or arrested in the campaign before he was taken away.

Lu said two other people were present during the brief meeting, including one person "who seemed to be in charge of Ai," and another who took notes.

"He seemed conflicted, contained, his face was tense," Lu said. "I could see redness in his eyes. It was obvious that without freedom to express himself he was not behaving naturally even with me, someone from his family."

Lu said Ai was not handcuffed and was wearing his own clothes instead of a detention center uniform. His trademark beard had not been shaven.

Lu said the people that arranged the visit, who showed her no identification, made it clear that no questions other than health-related ones were allowed.

"We could not talk about the economic charges or other stuff, mainly about the family and health," she said. "We were careful, we knew that the deal could be broken at any moment, so we were careful."

Residential surveillance
Ai, 53, suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes. He told his wife that he takes long walks everyday, has his blood pressure checked 7 times a day, is often weighted, and that he eats and sleeps very well.

Image: Lu Qing
Ng Han Guan  /  AP
Lu Qing, wife of missing groundbreaking Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, was taken to an undisclosed location Sunday night where she was able to see and talk briefly with her husband who seemed healthy, said the artist's sister Gao Ge.

Despite the visit, much about Ai's case remains murky. Family visits are rarely allowed for suspects under criminal investigation until after they are formally charged.

Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer and friend of Ai's, said it sounded like Ai was being held under residential surveillance somewhere outside Beijing.

Chinese law allows police to impose residential surveillance for up to six months before requiring them to make a decision about how to proceed with a case, as opposed to 30 days under criminal detention, said Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based research manager for the U.S. human rights group Dui Hua Foundation.

Chinese artist’s arrest shows escalating crackdown

Such surveillance usually takes place at the suspect's home and is "supposed to be a less restrictive measure than detention," Rosenzweig said in an email. "Instead, the police seem to be using residential surveillance as a way to legitimize extended, incommunicado detention outside of a regular detention facility."

Ai's elder sister Gao Ge said that her family is relieved to know that Ai is well, but hopes the government can clarify what is going on with his case.

"Now that we've seen that his health is OK, of course we are a bit less anxious, but that's not to say we want him to stay where he is," Gao said. "We really want this case to be dealt with as soon as possible and for the government to follow proper procedures in keeping with Chinese law."

Social activist
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and officials from the European Union and elsewhere have called on China to release Ai and criticized Beijing for what they say is backsliding on human rights.

Ai is famous in artistic circles for performance pieces that explored the dizzying change of contemporary China and, more popularly, for being a designer on the iconic "Bird's Nest" national stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Slideshow: The artist strikes a nerve (on this page)

One of his photo series shows him giving the middle finger to international landmarks such as Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the U.S. White House.

His influence has ranged far beyond that of the usual contemporary artist. His outrage at the deaths of so many students in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 turned him into a social activist and tapped into anger among many Chinese at official corruption and indifference. He took to Twitter, prolifically tweeting not only his social criticism but his everyday doings, attracting more than 70,000 followers, even though Twitter is blocked by China's Internet filtering.

Art museums such as the Tate in London, collectors and artists have rallied behind him since he disappeared. At the launch of exhibition of Ai's sculpture earlier this month, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said fearlessness in the face of official intimidation spoke to "the indomitable desire for freedom that is inside every human being."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Artist Ai Wei Wei strikes a nerve

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  1. An assistant walks across the installation "Stools" in the atrium of the Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibition hall in Berlin, Germany on March 21, 2014. The worldwide largest one-man exhibition of Ai Weiwei was dubbed "Evidence" and will be shown from April 3, 2014 to July 7, 2014. The show, which is comprised of 6,000 stools, includes works that were specifically created for the Marin-Gropius-Bau exhibition. (Kay Nietfeld / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Museum patrons walk past the "According To What?" exhibit at the Perez Art Museum Miami on February 18, 2014. On February 16, a person broke one of the vases in the exhibit and is facing a criminal charge after police say he smashed the $1 million vase in what appears to be a form of protest against the lack of lack of local artist on display. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ai holds up his phone on speaker as he and journalists listen to the verdict of his court hearing at the courtyard of his studio in Beijing on July 20, 2012. After barring him from attending the hearing, Chinese courts upheld a $2 million fine for tax evasion. (Petar Kujundzic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei opens his jacket to reveal a shirt bearing his portrait as he walks into the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau, Nov. 16, 2011. The acclaimed artist is also known for is criticism of the Chinese government, which held him for 81 days without charge. Ai's latest provocative piece was handed to him by the Chinese government: a $2.4 million tax bill that he says is a trumped-up effort to silence him. Supporters responded and sent in nearly $1.4 million to help. (Andy Wong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A woman looks at an art installation named "Forever Bicycles" by artist Ai Weiwei during a media preview of the "Ai Weiwei Absent" exhibition in Taipei, Oct. 28, 2011. The exhibition is scheduled to run from October 29, 2011 to January 29, 2012 at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, and features 21sets of Ai's works, including installation pieces, photography, sculpture, and videos. (Pichi Chuang / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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    This handout image shows Chinese artist Ai Weiwei posing with women in the nude in Beijing. Chinese police are investigating Ai Weiwei on pornography charges after his assistant was taken in for questioning. Ai told AFP authorities had accused him before of producing pornography, but he had not taken the charge seriously. The accusations apparently center on racy photographs posted on the Internet showing Ai with women, he said.

    In a chat with msnbc.com readers, Ai Weiwei responded to a question about the depictions of nudity: "What authorities are afraid of is the naked truth, the truth about ourselves and the truth of recognition." (Afp / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Ai Weiwei, a high-profile artist and ardent Chinese government critic, in Beijing on March 6, 2011. His detention appears to be part of a crackdown by the Chinese authorities that began in February amid anti-government uprisings in the Mideast. (Shiho Fukada / The New York Times via Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. This picture taken in suburban Shanghai on January 11, 2011 shows the newly built Shanghai studio of Ai being demolished. The 53-year-old Ai, one of China's most famous and controversial artists, said the demolition was linked to his political activism. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ai Weiwei, shown here on June 30, 2009 in China, was arrested while boarding a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong on April 4, 2011, as part of a crackdown to suppress a feared uprising in China. As activists moved for a Jasmine Revolution, inspired by the protests and regime changes in the Middle East, the communist nation has begun to arrest writers, activists, bloggers and other dissidents. (Sharron Lovell / Polaris) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A time-lapse photograph shows spectators leaving the National Stadium of China, also known as the Bird's Nest, after the closing ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 24, 2008. Ai Weiwei was a consultant on the building of this stadium. (Michael Reynolds / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Sotheby's employee Laura Tendil poses for photographs with part of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's handmade porcelain sunflower seeds at the auction house's premises in London on Jan. 31, 2011. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Workers rake the seeds of Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei's Unilever Installation 'Sunflower Seeds' at The Tate Modern on October 11, 2010 in London. The installation comprises 100 million handmade porcelain replica sunflower seeds. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. The animal heads, like this monkey, in Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads were inspired by an 18th-century fountain in the Yuanming Yuan (the Garden of Perfect Brightness), an 800-acre imperial retreat near Beijing. (www.awasiany.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The fountain acted as water clock, based on the 12 animals of the zodiac—the ox, rabbit, snake, sheep, rooster, dog, tiger, dragon, horse, monkey, boar and this animal, the rat. (www.awasiany.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Each animal represented a two-hour period of the day, and would spout water when its time came. At noon, all the animals would spout at once. This is the tiger. (www.awasiany.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Yi Lantai: West Facade of the Hall of the Calm Seas (Haiyan Tang ximian). Tenth in a suite of 20 engravings, “The European Pavilions at the Garden of Perfect Brightness,” 1783-1786. The fountain of zodiac heads is shown here. (www.awasiany.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Ai poses amid his work "Rooted Upon," which is made of 100 pieces of trees, at the "Haus der Kunst" (House of Art) during the presentation of his exhibition "So Sorry" on October 9, 2009 in Munich. (Joerg Koch / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A man points to the installation Ai's "Template" during the "So Sorry" exhibition opening at 'Haus der Kunst' on October 11, 2009 in Munich. (Miguel Villagran / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Visitors stand behind Ai's wooden installation "without title" during the "So Sorry" exhibition on October 11, 2009, in Munich. (Miguel Villagran / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A man looks at Ai's "Cube light" on October 9, 2009, in Munich. (Miguel Villagran / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ai's "Remembering" at the Haus der Kunst ahead of the exhibition "So Sorry," on Oct. 8, 2009, in Munich. "Remembering" is a memorial to the victims of the devastating May 2008 quake in Sichuan province that killed 5,300 children. It is composed of 9,000 backpacks in five colors that write out a sentence in Chinese told to the artist by a mother of one of the quake victims: "For seven years she lived happily on this Earth." (Joerg Koch / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Ai's "June 1994" photograph shows his wife in front of Tiananmen Square, where the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters took place in June 1989. (www.awasiany.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Ai's "Snake Ceiling" is a memorial to the children who died in the Sichuan quake, according to the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, where this work was shown in 2009. It is made up of about 1,000 backpacks. (Watanabe Osamu / www.awasiany.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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Timeline: China cracks down

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