Under Red Skies is being plugged as the first English-language memoir by a Chinese millennial, which already sets it apart from other books about China’s younger generation. Books like Alec Ash’s Wish Lanterns or Zak Dychtwald’s Young China, for all of their merits, were written by expats. In contrast, Chinese-born Karoline Kan tells the story of her life from its beginning in her own words.
Kan—a former New York Times writer, and currently an editor at China Dialogue—is a clear and straightforward writer, walking readers through her own life and that of her family. “Issues” start immediately upon her birth: Kan is a second child, conceived in violation of the One Child Policy. Under Red Skies continues through Kan’s life right up to the present day, starting in her early childhood marked by disagreements between her paternal grandparents and her headstrong mother, to a move to a small rural town in pursuit of a better education, and finally capped by Kan’s move to Beijing to attend university.
Kan’s story is an impressive one. Through sheer determination, she broke into the English-language media sphere in Beijing. She did not study overseas, nor did she grow up in any elite urban circle. In some ways, Under Red Skies is a Chinese version of a story told time and time again in Western markets: a young man or woman from the countryside reaches the big city where, due to their own moxie, they are able to break into an elite industry.
It’s also a telling insight into the life of the local staff that supports much of the foreign reporting about China. Kan worked as a “researcher” at the New York Times: a title that hides the depth of work local staff do in reporting, fact-checking and writing, in support of the foreign reporter dispatched from overseas. Several foreign reporters in China swear by the dedication and hard work of their staff, but we haven’t—up to now—seen a story that reflects where these people come from.
It can be striking how familiar much of Kan’s story sounds.
It can be striking how familiar much of Kan’s story sounds. Her time in rural and semi-urban China feels like it could have been a story told by someone a decade, or even two decades, older. It’s only when Kan references external events, such as the SARS epidemic or the Beijing Olympics that the reader is reminded of when Kan is coming of age: the late ’90s and early ’00s.
It’s a reminder that, even as China was opening to the outside world in the ’80s, ’90s and early ’00s, many of the indicators of “prosperity” had yet to percolate to China’s rural heartland. It can be easy to forget that China’s development did not penetrate (and in many ways, still hasn’t penetrated) very far outside of China’s big urban centers. Kan’s memoir is a reminder of how far parts of China still need to go.
This tells us that the bigger generational split in China may not be between “Generation X” and millennials, but between millennials and what might be called “Generation Z”. Millennials like Kan, especially those that may have grown up outside of the major cities, still lived lives that were roughly the same as their parents, only seeing China’s massive growth after they had come of age. In contrast, China’s “Generation Z” have only ever known an increasingly prosperous China, which may influence their views about China and its society.
It is, of course, too early to tell how this generational difference might express itself. One might expect that younger Chinese may be more confident, due to China’s successful rise. Millennials, who likely still remember a time when things were less prosperous, may be more circumspect. Alternately, China’s “Generation Z” may be less willing to excuse certain social problems in China as “the cost of development”: burdens that previous generations may have been more willing to bear.
Burdening Kan with being a spokesperson for all Chinese millennials may be asking too much of Under Red Skies.
That being said, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Kan’s story is one that appeals almost perfectly to a Western audience. The arguable climax of Kan’s story is her discovery of the June 4th Tiananmen massacre, which drives her to question both China and her own personal choices, and is eventually what pushes her towards the truth-seeking world of English-language media. Kan’s story is her waking up to the injustices of her own country, and pursuing the truth despite disapproval from her family.
This is not to doubt the sincerity of her story; in fact, Kan’s earnest descriptions of her colleagues and friends might lead to some sheepish conversations among her Beijing-based network. But, instead, it’s to strike a note of caution against celebrating Under Red Skies as somehow indicative of what Chinese millennials think about politics—as the book is currently being marketed and endorsed as.
Under Red Skies is perhaps best read as a personal story of one particular Chinese millennial. Assuming that most Chinese millennials have followed her path—or, alternatively, that they are merely one revelation away from thinking like Westerners—may be expanding too much from one anecdote. Burdening Kan with being a spokesperson for all Chinese millennials may be asking too much of Under Red Skies which is, at its core, a personal story about growing up in the Chinese countryside right before the Chinese economy exploded, and one person’s determination to find a unique path for herself in an unfamiliar environment. That should be enough.