Book review: Wish Lanterns illuminates modern China by focusing on six twenty-somethings
As Alec Ash’s subjects grow and adapt over a decade, they reveal something of how China is changing, but this isn’t a study of Chinese youth in general
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 China’s “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.
Alec Ash, in his debut work Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China, helps to illuminate the lives of some members of this 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 among China’s youth, Ash ties his characters’ stories to other changes happening around the country.
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, their 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 – there 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 the age of 21 is more tolerable at 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, moulds 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.
Reading Wish Lanterns can be, 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.
It’s 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 35 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.
Ash avoids this problem with his 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 read.
Asian Review of Books