Ai WeiWei was detained from April to June 2011 on charges of tax evasion; he remains unable to leave China. This column is adapted from a speech he is to present May 3 via Skype as part of the PEN World Voices Festival.

In May 2008, an 8.0-magnitude earthquake struck China . At its epicenter in Wenchuan, Sichuan province, thousands of children lost their lives . Many died at schools that collapsed into rubble; they were built to subpar standards so that developers and local officials could skim money off the top, effectively profiting off the students’ lack of safety. When I visited Wen­chuan soon after the quake, hundreds of children’s backpacks were strewn across the ground.

When I saw those backpacks, I wanted to know to whom they belonged. But Chinese authorities used the natural disaster to avoid addressing campus construction issues, evading proper explanation about the students’ deaths. No clear death toll was given, nor was information released about the conditions of earthquake sites or causes of the school collapses. In response to anxiety and anger over people’s inability to access even basic facts about the loss of these precious lives, the group Citizens’ Investigation was created to collect personal information about the children who perished. We aimed to provide the deceased with at least the very basic level of respect. The most fundamental civil right of any person is to their name; this is the smallest unit that allows us to attest to an individual’s existence.

Volunteers were recruited through my blog, and hundreds went through great difficulties to investigate. Several dozens of us went into the field. Despite the devastation at the earthquake sites, we managed to reach out to parents, conducting interviews and collecting names. We filmed the process. During our visits, 25 volunteers encountered 45 instances of police harassment, arrests, beatings and detentions. In August 2009, I tried to testify for the writer and activist Tan Zuoren, who was accused of subversion of state power for conducting similar research, but I was detained in Sichuan and beaten by police. I suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and required emergency surgery four weeks later, when I was preparing for the “So Sorry” exhibition in Munich to honor the children who died. Despite all these hardships and with the support of many people over the Internet, we completed the list with more than 5,000 student names, birthdays, addresses and school information.

A courageous person is most identifiable in situations where two sides of a confrontation are unbalanced in power and strength. It takes courage for individuals to stand up for the weaker party, but by expressing our beliefs and positions we gained courage. The issue of the death count was seen as politically untouchable, but our refusal to accept the government’s silence was a call for change and a challenge to those in power.

Courage is not a fixed entity that belongs to a single moment; rather, it accumulates and is tested over time. It takes courage to face a challenge. That process, in turn, generates further courage. Our life experiences enhance our ability to understand our roles in society and strengthen our will to take further actions. A society can have courage only when its members can have faith in justice and fairness and know that their constitutional rights are protected. Civil courage is born of openness to education, access to information and recognition of a society’s strengths.