If Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China is the result of an expat writer spending his twenties in Beijing, then we – expat writers spending our twenties in Beijing – only have one thing to say: Damn. What are we doing with our lives?
Don’t let our jokes fool you, though – Wish Lanterns is serious. It’s also funny. And informative. And, well, frankly – everything top-notch literary journalism ought to be.
Wish Lanterns reads like a novel – a good one, at that – but is in fact based on years of intensive reporting. Author Alec Ash, whom you may recognize from the website and self-described ‘writers’ colony’ The Anthill, follows six Chinese youths of the post-80s generation. The six represent a diversity of perspectives – more or less. (We include that final caveat because this is one book, and one huge country. Also, all are educated urban dwellers.)
There’s Fred, a midlevel Party official’s daughter who studies political theory at Peking University, through whom Ash discusses recent Chinese politics. There’s Mia, a rebellious Urumqi native working her way up in the world of fashion in Beijing, through whom Ash discusses the increasing number of high-powered careerwomen in China. Via Lucifer, a musician, we learn about the arts and pop culture. Xiaoxiao and Dahai’s romance teaches us about love and marriage, and Snail’s journey from Anhui to Beijing sheds light on China’s rapid urbanization.
Ash weaves in and out of their stories, and the reader is left with not only an enjoyable read, but a wide-reaching potpourri of China knowledge. The way the scenes shift from character to character may remind Westerners of Girls or Sex and the City – or China watchers of Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition, a National Book Award-winning title and shimmering example of China-based literary nonfiction.
Peppered throughout, like signposts to a larger China narrative, are stories that news junkies will recognize from recent years: The city dwellers moving into tiny underground apartments to save on rent; Xi Jinping’s appointment as President in 2012; and the advent of military-style boot camps designed to cure young men of their Internet addictions. Although these stories have been reported again and again, Ash breathes new life into them by framing them within the context of his subjects’ lives.
A note on the nebulous territory of English-language ‘China books’: The genre can be problematic, with the worst examples falling into the ‘White Dudes Explain China’ canon that can oversimplify, or worse patronize towards, this diverse country. But by focusing in-depth on his subjects, Ash avoids making sweeping statements about China and lets them tell their own stories. His tone is neither condescending nor patronizing; it is humanizing.
There’s an extra charm to reading Wish Lanterns as a Beijinger, and we feel twinges of excitement when we recognize places in the book from our own lives. for example, the ‘Popular livehouse Yugong Yishan.’
At times, Ash’s brand of literary journalism (hell, all literary journalism) straddles the line between the genuinely moving and the overly sentimental. We finished this book feeling a cathartic sense of closure, which might be somewhat unjustified, given that the narratives of the book’s subjects are still unfolding as we write this.
In other words, we may have closed the book, but the book is far from closed.
Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China (Picador) is now available via Amazon UK.
Disclaimer: Alec Ash has previously contributed to That’s Beijing.