Alec Ash on young lives in new China

23 June 2016

There are over 320 million in their teens and twenties in China today, more than the entire population of the USA. Born after Mao, they’ve grown-up in a world their parents could never have dreamed of and they are likely to have a huge impact on the wider world in the next few decades.

Alec Ash, author of Wish Lanterns, explains why the world should be paying attention to China’s young people.

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 and 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 grew 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 of 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 net native generation, whose attitudes have been transformed by new technologies and channels of communication.

The plot still thickens. 2008 was an exciting time to arrive, but 2016 is just as crucial a moment in China’s history. If the economic growth spurt of the nineties was her puberty, and the post-Olympics years her debutante twenties, then now is the time when she finds a place in the world, just like her young generation in their own formative years. It has been a delight to follow that maturation – while making the same journey myself – and to slowly connect the dots.

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. 

As William Blake 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.

Alec Ash’s Wish Lanterns is out now. Read an extract here.

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