“Wish Lanterns” by Alec Ash

The hopes, dreams, desires and life paths of young Chinese are a matter of great interest to advertisers and marketers, who seek to understand this burgeoning youth market and find better ways to sell to it. Yet, oddly, there has been little in English addressing China’s young beyond demonstrating and validating common media tropes: the tuhao rich, the ever increasing numbers studying abroad (with their effects on local housing markets), those enduring the horrors of the gaokao, the “little emperors” born in the “4-2-1” family system, the fenqing angry youth, and sometimes (if you read these things) the rebels into Western rock and metal. But there has been little giving a more solid identity and personhood to China’s young – until now.

Alec Ash’s “Wish Lanterns” is a very welcome book. It traces the lives and aspirations of six young Chinese, all millennials who converge in Beijing from various parts of the country. There’s Lucifer, a wannabe rock star (you might have seen him in Dos Kolegas); Snail, from a village in Anhui who arrives to study but finds his time more taken up in internet bars; Fred from Hainan, the daughter of a mid-ranking government official; Mia, a hipster with a yearning for self-expression; Xiaoxiao, who dreams of entrepreneurship and settles into marriage; and Dahai, who gets caught up in online dissent before life beats some compromise into him.

All the characters are skilfully drawn, their actions reflecting their inner lives and vice versa. Ash follows the fortunes of each, chapter by chapter, their stories rich with telling details and illustrative incidents. Some will be familiar to anyone with Chinese friends of that era (arduous study, Journey To The West, political indifference, a desire to live more fully than their parents), though it is great to see their lives and feelings so fully fleshed out. While one would have liked a broader character range (all are clever, all converge in Beijing), their stories are different enough to be broadly representative of a generation struggling to make its way in a new, ungenerous, unmapped world.

Published in Tianjin Plus

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