[Mr. Ash’s new book, “Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China,” profiles six young Chinese born from 1985 to 1990. In an interview, he discussed why millennials in
matter, why a common criticism of them as
apolitical materialists is wrong and how they deal with pressures to conform.] China
By Ian Johnson
Young commuters crowding a subway car in
follows six Chinese millennials whose dreams and decisions provide signposts for their
country’s direction. Credit How Hwee Young/European Pressphoto Agency
Alec Ash is a 30-year-old British writer and editor living in
who first came to Beijing in 2007 to teach English in a Tibetan
village. From 2008 to 2010, he studied Chinese at China Peking and Tsinghua universities and started a blog
on student life. In 2012, he founded the Anthill, a website dedicated to
fiction, nonfiction and poetry about that resulted in the recent anthology “While
We’re Here: China Stories from a Writers’ Colony,” which he edited with Tom
Mr. Ash’s new book, “Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China,” profiles six young Chinese born from 1985 to 1990. In an interview, he discussed why millennials in
matter, why a common criticism of them as
apolitical materialists is wrong and how they deal with pressures to conform. China
Young people are important in every country. Why do we need to know specifically about this generation of young Chinese?
I like to think of this generation as the thin end of a wedge that is slowly prying
open through generational and societal
shifts, in a way that politics clearly hasn’t. So they are hugely important, because
it is the generation that will bring about the change that we haven’t seen
since 2008, when I first came to live in China . We just need to be more patient and wait
for these generation shifts to come to fruition. Beijing
How do you define this generation?
I would define this particular generation, born between 1985 and 1990, as being stuck in the middle. The generation before them came of age during the first flash of reform and opening up, whose idealism was very much crushed in 1989 with the Tiananmen massacre. The generation of students after them know nothing except a more confident, brash
. The transition between these two states is
embodied in the lives of the generation I write about, whose childhoods were
defined by the crackdown after Tiananmen. China
You are the same age as the people you write about, but were there difficulties winning their trust?
Instead of just having formal interviews, I hung out with them, went to KTV with them, traveled with them. Of course, I was always the lanky white guy in the karaoke, literally and figuratively, and my background is different from most of their backgrounds.
But I find if you spend enough time with people, it doesn’t take too long to bridge that empathetic gap and get a real sense of someone as an individual. So it’s really a question of how long you’re willing to spend with them — not necessarily trying to nail the story, but simply building the relationship and sharing something of your own story while mining for theirs.
How much time did that take?
I worked on the book for four years. Of that, two or three were spent with the six characters, including the intensive writing and rewriting. But this, of course, is just a fraction of their own lives. The way I engineered the book, the first two-thirds — it’s told chronologically — is back-reported and then the stuff that I witnessed myself is in the final third of the book, when I catch up, so to speak. So a lot of it was delving into the past with them, digging up old photos, old videos, traveling with them back to their hometowns, talking to their parents and friends.
What can we learn from their stories?
I think they are already bringing change to
at a deeper societal level, if not on the
political level, which is what we tend to read about. Han Han [a prominent
blogger], who was once the spokesman of this generation, said fundamentally he
was optimistic, because they are fundamentally better than previous generations.
They don’t spit on the street; they don’t cut queues. China
I’d go beyond that and say it’s increasingly true of young urban generations in China that they’re more liberal about social issues such as L.G.B.T., more aware of women’s rights, more intolerant of injustice and have fewer inhibitions to speaking up when they see it. They are better educated, more international in their outlook and connected online to each other.
Contrary to conventional wisdom on
right now, I’m a meliorist. I think that
Chinese society is improving despite regressive politics, and I think that
comes down to these new generations who are more open while they still have
very different opinions from a lot of us. China
How much can we generalize about people who end up in
? Would we find the same thing, or something
similar, if we were in Beijing or Changsha ? Nanchang
I am talking about the urban vanguard because social change has so often happened in
through those groups. But, yes, when I go
out to the boondocks and talk to young Chinese a step or three down the ladder,
more often than not they are totally consumed by their own personal challenges
in finding a job or finding a partner and have little time to think about
anything else. But that’s also true of city dwellers, and I would still emphasize
the same positives. China
Young people in China are sometimes portrayed quite negatively, both in
and abroad. China
It comes in two varieties. First, that they don’t believe in anything. They are materialist consumerists whose political consciousness has been bought off by economic growth. And second is the opposite: that they are true believers, especially as nationalists.
There’s an element of truth to both of these views, but it’s fundamentally wrong to think it can be so simple. First and foremost, let’s put to bed this ridiculous notion that they don’t care about their country. On the contrary, I think they’re deeply engaged with their country’s direction, even if so many feel powerless to change anything outside of their own lives.
Toward the end of the book, your characters end up compromising with the system.
Like all of their generation except the most privileged, they face huge pressures in an intensively competitive society to a degree that is unprecedented. Compromise was a common thread I saw in their lives. Disillusionment is also a fair term to use.
They had such high hopes, and their aspirations and dreams are what defined them, as well as a major theme in the book. But in the end, many of those dreams just came up against a brick wall.
Follow Ian Johnson on Twitter @iandenisjohnson.