Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China
As read on BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week.
This is the generation that will change China. The youth, over 320 million of them in their teens and twenties, more than the population of the USA. Born after Mao, with no memory of Tiananmen, they are destined to transform both their nation and the world.
These millennials, offspring of the one-child policy, face fierce competition to succeed. Pressure starts young, and their road isn't easy. Their stories are also like those of young people all over the world: moving out of home, starting a career, falling in love.
Wish Lanterns follows the lives of six young Chinese. 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.
Alec Ash, a writer in Beijing of the same generation, has given us a vivid, gripping account of young China as it comes of age. Through individual stories, Wish Lanterns shows with empathy and insight the challenges and dreams that will define China's future global impact.
A provocative portrait of a fast-changing society riven by internal contradictions . . . a fine addition to the field, one of the best I have read about the individuals who make up a country that is all too often regarded as a monolith, but which abounds with diversity on multiple levels. Fluently written with nice touches of humour . . . this books supplies much food for thought, informing the wider debate while retaining its value as a closely observed picture of how some Chinese live today (Financial Times)An intimate portrait of six young Chinese ― three women and three men ― on a journey from high school into the workforce . . . Lyrical, with its characters finely drawn, Ash’s book paints a telling portrait of this most restless generation raised in a system that has provided them with unprecedented personal opportunities while denying them political ones . . . a gifted observer (The Washington Post)Wish Lanterns is a beautiful and thoughtful book about the life of young people in China. Alec Ash has succeeded in giving us an intimate and complex portrait of the one child policy generation. It skillfully documents their features, modes of life and dreams of the future. I enthusiastically recommend you to read it (Xiaolu Guo, author of I Am China)Without listening to Young Chinese, you won't understand what today's China, the woke up dragon, wants to do next. Alec Ash's book has opened a window in the wall between China and the west for us to see the hopes and fears of these young Chinesewho are struggling to build their lives in a world that their parents could never dream of (Xinran, author of The Good Women of China)Wish Lanterns announces the arrival of a talented young observer of today’s China. Alec Ash documents the lives of Chinese millennials with detail, insight, and sympathy, and his book is an invaluable resource for anybody hoping to understand the country’s future possibilities. (Peter Hessler, author of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze)A gem of a book. Its brief chapters flow like a skillfully crafted set of interconnected short stories, yet all are rooted in the real life experiences of six individuals. An impressive debut book by a writer to watch, who makes the most of all he learned while spending his twenties coming of age in the same shapeshifting China as the half dozen Chinese youths whose varied passages to adulthood he chronicles so elegantly and empathetically. (Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of China in the 21st Century)In Wish Lanterns Alec Ash hangs out with China's "post-80s" generations to give us a series of fascinating and insightful snapshots of where the country might be heading. The Rat Tribes, Leftover Women, Ant Tribes and Bare Branches are all revealed as complex and conflicted, yet filled with hopes and dreams for their own, and their country's, future. (Paul French, author of Midnight in Peking)Here is a completely novel take on contemporary China. Alec Ash embarks on a different sort of Chinese journey, following six Millennials from the nation's far-flung corners as they make their way to university, on stage, deep underground, and even abroad. The result is a work of heart-felt reportage, and also great suspense, as we wait to learn each character's fate. I couldn't put it down (Michael Meyer, author of In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China and The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed)Through series of profiles of young Chinese from various walks of life and different geographic regions, Alec Ash has assembled a fascinating mosaic that gives us a wonderfully vivid sense of what it's like to grow up today in the People's Republic of China. By simply describing the lives of six youths, Wish Lanterns enables a reader to get an immediate feel of how contradictory life in this dynamic but still unresolved country often is (Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director, Center on US-China Relations, Asia Society, New York City)A wonderfully readable and engaging account of that most mysterious of all groups - Chinese millennials. Alec Ash weaves the joy, heartbreak, drama and trauma of this group through disparate stories, making up a highly realistic, and at times poetic, account of the people who are likely to have the greatest future impact of any one group in the world today. (Kerry Brown, Professor of China Studies, King's College London)Compelling and beautifully written (Prospect)At a time when the future of China is so important, it is surprising that so little is understood, outside the world of specialised studies, about the hopes and fears of those most likely to shape it: the roughly 200 million people in the People's Republic currently between the ages of 15 and 24. It is this conspicuous lacuna that Alec Ash's Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China seeks to fill. He does so by telling the stories of six young Chinese born between 1985 and 1990 from the time they entered the world practically up to the present day. His deft style, welcome restraint (he writes the lives of his subjects but does not comment on them or, with a couple of exceptions, appear himself) yet discreet sympathy for the travails of those who have plainly become close friends, make the stories more compelling than they might otherwise have been. Some idea of the predicament of China's young makes this book more valuable still (Standpoint)A masterfully crafted collection of interwoven portraits of six young Chinese. Three men, three women. Millennials born between 1985 and 1990. Their journeys from childhood, balancing parental expectations against personal desires, hopes, dreams, achievements and stumbles . . . through the telling of these six stories, Ash cleverly weaves information about demographics, government policies, political history, as well as social and cultural trends . . . The richness of Ash's book is in the character development, the details of everyday life, dreams, frustrations, and contradictions of these particular individuals. Ash enters their worlds as a peer (he is their same age) and he's a sensitive listener, reporter, and storyteller (LA Review of Books)The people currently ruling China lived through the upheavels of the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen. The millennials who will shape China's future face very different pressures and challenges. In a study that is both literary and political, Ash tries to understand China's future through the lives and aspirations of its rising generation (Gideon Rachman Financial Times)You should read this book . . . Alec Ash presents us with a China we've never seen before - a youngChina, China that's growing not just economically but in its ways, and one that isn't scared to question itself . .. a reporter's approach to everyday stories, with thoughtful insights and historical references chosen with medical precision . . . In true journalistic fashion, the book is as in depth as it is literarily sound . . . The chapters masterfully allow the reader to make up their own mind about each of the subjects . . . it becomes a study of the self (or selves) as much as a study of China (City Weekend)Alec Ash’s storytelling gift in Wish Lanterns: Young lives in new China is essentially a novelist’s. Vivid character portraits such as rockstar wannabe Lucifer, Mia the media diva or Snail the country mouse trying not to be a total loser in the urban minefield are drawn with a humane understanding of some tricky balancing acts achieved between aspiration and compromise, as these “one-child policy” millennials come of age (Jonathan Keates Times Literary Supplement)
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