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Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China by Alec Ash

Despite the fact that they live in one of the world’s most important—and most rapidly changing—economies, the motivations and beliefs of the “post-80s generation” largely remain a mystery. They are certainly not “democrats-in-waiting,” as many hoped they would be. But nor do they unthinkingly support the Chinese state.

Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China by Alec Ash
Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China, Alec Ash (Picador, June 2016)

Alec Ash, in his debut work Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China, helps to illuminate the lives of some of the “post-80s generation” by following six young Chinese through their twenties. Ash describes their lives as they leave for university, find their first jobs, and grow up in the Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping administrations.

There’s Dahai, son of a military family and an engineer toiling away at a train tunnel. There is Xiaoxiao, who sets up her own boutique café/clothing store after graduation. There’s Fred, daughter of a high-ranking cadre who studies political philosophy in university. There’s Snail, who develops an addiction to online gaming upon leaving home. There’s Lucifer, the rocker whose aspirations to be an international superstar remain largely, well, aspirations. And, finally, there’s Mia, who jarringly matches her skinhead fashion style with a job at the glossy Harper’s Bazaar.

Wish Lanterns skillfully moves from one subject’s story to another, and Ash describes the everyday struggles of his subjects in vivid detail. From discussions of China’s demographic problems to the use of emojis amongst China’s youth, Ash ties his characters’ stories to other changes happening around the country. For example, when Mia returns to her home in Xinjiang after the Uighur riots of 5 July 2009:

 

In that respect she identified with the Uighurs. They had become like skinheads in society’s eyes—threatening, even violent—but no one took the effort to understand their culture or the reasons for their rebellion. Like them, she wanted to be apart from the rest of China. But her mindfulness of Xinjiang’s status ended there. It would always be the home she wanted to leave behind. She didn’t follow its politics, or politics at all. The only Zhongnanhai she cared about were the cigarettes she smoked. And if July 5th was a failed independence day for radical Uighurs, Mia was concerned only with her own independence.

 

Nor is Ash’s eye for detail limited to purely “Chinese” information. Wish Lanterns has perhaps the most detailed description of the online videogame World of Warcraft (which appears in the gaming addict Snail’s story) that I have seen in a work of this kind—not content to just write some filler about orcs and elves, Ash takes the time to cite place names, characters, and game mechanics.  

 

The book is obviously set in China, and refers to Chinese developments. The shift from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping—and the subsequent shift to a more “patriotic” and controlled society—is reflected in the lives of all of Ash’s subjects. And, like all young people, Ash’s subjects view of themselves, of their communities, and of China as a whole, end up changing radically throughout their lives.

Fred’s story is perhaps the one that is the most “political”. Remaining an academic—and thus isolated from the day-to-day grind of the others—she is perhaps freest to have complex opinions about China’s politics. But Fred’s opinions are anything but stable. She enters college as a supporter of democracy, human rights and a strong legal system. She leaves college as a full supporter of China’s socialist government—a view she comes to naturally, and not as a result of any propaganda. She ends up somewhere in between: a professor of Western political philosophy in a Communist government college, with the firm belief that China’s system of government is, while not perfect, better than all the alternatives, yet still reads the Taiwanese press for an outside perspective.

But Ash’s subjects are concerned with more day-to-day problems. They need to find, and hold, a job—and then, when they find one, they find the work dull and unfulfilling. They need to find an apartment—a challenge in increasingly expensive Beijing. And finally—but no less importantly to some—is the challenge of dating. With China’s changing demographics, the men struggle to find and attract a partner, while tradition encourages women to “settle”.

These are stories about “growing up”. It’s a time when people mellow—what seemed like an injustice at age 21 is more tolerable at age 29. It becomes more difficult to challenge a system—political, economic, social or otherwise—when one becomes a part of it. Ash’s subjects gain responsibilities. What they want from life changes. China, with all of its opportunities and social pressures, molds Ash’s subjects into very different people by the book’s end.

The exception that proves the rule is Lucifer, whose ambition to become an international superstar is admirable, despite life constantly throwing up obstacles to his success. His story ends with a reaffirmation of his dream to make it big. There is no evidence to suggest he will succeed. But his resistance to social pressures is commendable—if perhaps unfounded.

* * *

I will admit that reading Wish Lanterns was, for lack of a better word, eerie. It follows young Chinese people as they enter university, graduate, find their first job, their first apartment, first partner, and so on. All are challenged. All are forced to make compromises, with themselves and with others.

There was a point about two-thirds of the way through Wish Lanterns where I realized that Ash’s subjects were, at that point in the book, the same age that I am now: twenty-five years old. I can sympathize with having to change life plans once they come into contact with reality, or having political viewpoints change radically over the span of a few years.

Obviously my choices were made in a very different context. Ash’s subjects (with the exception of Fred) are middle-class at best—calling them “aspirational young”, of course, assumes they have yet to achieve what they want. But it is nice to see that some worries are recognizable across political and cultural boundaries.

Wish Lanterns is not a book about what China’s youth are like in general—what they want, what they believe, what they hope China will become. There is a trend in Western media to paint anyone under the age of thirty-five with a broad brush and label them “the young” (or, worse, millennials). One assumes that many both inside and outside of China say the same when talking about China’s youth. There may be good evidence for making such claims, but this can obscure a great deal of variance among the larger population.

Alec Ash avoids this problem in its in-depth narrative exploration of his subjects. Each of his subjects face the same challenges in different ways, making it one of the best explorations of the topic that I have yet read.


Nicholas Gordon has an MPhil from Oxford in International Relations and a BA from Harvard. He works at a think tank in Hong Kong. His writing has also appeared in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, China Daily and Caixin.