Beijing-based Alec Ash has just published Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China (Picador) a vivid account of young people in China – people born after Mao, with no memory of Tiananmen – seen through the lens of six millennials’ lives. Dahai is a military child and netizen; Fred is a daughter of the Party. Lucifer is an aspiring superstar; Snail a country migrant addicted to online games. Xiaoxiao is a hipster from the freezing north; Mia a rebel from Xinjiang in the far west. They are the offspring of the one-child policy, and they face fierce competition to succeed: pressure starts young; their road isn't easy. Through their stories, Wish Lanterns shows with empathy and insight the challenges and dreams that will define China's future – but at the same time their stories are those of young people all over the world. They are moving out of home, starting careers, falling in love...
My interest in young people in China started when I was one of them. It was the Olympic summer of 2008, and all eyes were on Beijing. I had recently graduated from university in my native England, and I was now at Peking University, learning Mandarin like so many other young foreigners looking for something to do with themselves. But while the world’s press was talking about the Olympics and whether it signalled any change in China, I was more fascinated by my Chinese peers and the generational changes that they embodied.
These young Chinese, of my own age, were the first post-Tiananmen generation, with no memory of China before the crackdown that set the tone for the decades to follow. They had no idea of the Mao era beyond what little their parents had told them about it, and it felt like they were divorced from history. Instead, they were natives of a rising and newly confident China that, like them, was still developing at a rapid pace. As such, I felt they were the ones who would be most impactful on China’s future.
To chronicle some of their stories I started a blog, called Six, in which I followed six of my peers – mostly students, and several of them my language partners, as well as an environmentalist and an entrepreneur – over the course of two years. Little did I know that the germ planted in that blog would eventually grow into a book, following a different selection of people but with the same philosophy: to show the broader currents of young Chinese society through the narrow lens of individual lives.
In Wish Lanterns I follow six people born between 1985 and 1990. There’s Lucifer, an aspiring superstar who plays rock music and goes on reality TV in the quest for fame. There’s Snail, a migrant from the countryside who gets addicted to online gaming. There’s Fred, the daughter of a Communist Party official from the southern tropical island of Hainan; and Mia, a fashionista and rebel from Xinjiang in the far west. And there’s a love story with a flash marriage, although I won’t ruin the surprise by saying who.
Separately they have their own winding narratives, their ups and downs. Together, they hint at a larger story with much wider implications. The story of a generation caught between the conservative mores of twentieth century China and the new age that they usher in. A generation with aspirations their parents could never have dreamed of, even if their environment makes it hard to fulfil those hopes. A digital-native generation, whose attitudes have been transformed by new technologies.
The problem with making big statements about China is that you can immediately think of ten examples to suggest the opposite. But discrete lives can form a mosaic of something larger – and what is a new generation if not a different crowd of single individuals? The English poet William Blake once said: “To generalise is to be an idiot.” Sometimes the best thing is to find stories, then get out of the way and tell them.