“Wish Lanterns”: Poignant Entertainment for All Levels of China-Watcher

This was originally published on The Nanfang July 29, 2016

Steven Pinker, author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, has cited literacy as a major force for world peace. He points out that at times of increasing literacy books like “Oliver Twist”, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” helped bring to light the sufferings of people who might otherwise have been ignored.

“Wish Lanterns” by Alec Ash does not focus on extremes of poverty and upheaval, but instead describes in intimate detail the lives of six people whose experiences will be alien to much of the readership. They are China’s millenials, the generation born after the political catastrophes of the Mao era when Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to the People’s Republic.

By minutely focusing on these lives, “Wish Lanterns” serves to both demystify a nation which is by turns demonized and exoticized as well as educate even the most experienced China watchers about the people who will write the next chapter in the Middle Kingdom’s history. The three male and three female subjects were born within five years of each other, all have a university education and all have lived in Beijing.

It is not a comprehensive portrait, but the depth and quality of the writing make it well worth anybody’s time. By removing himself from the action – though Ash was present at some of the key scenes described – the book gets fully under the skins of six Chinese people who have come of age at the beginning of what some say will be the Chinese Century.

One of the characters flies to Shanxi Province to meet a person with whom she has exchanged flirtatious WeChat messages. Within eight pages they have shaken hands, flirted, declared their love, been to bed, met the parents, and married, a series of events that covers a timespan of thirty-five days.

This might seem profoundly weird to a cosmopolitan person of the same age. In another writer’s hands, the chapter would probably be a frontrunner for the Bad Sex Award, but Alec Ash has so comprehensively evoked the pressures, dilemmas and uncertainties that the subjects face, that readers will find it difficult to imagine themselves doing things differently. The spare prose and rugged, unforgiving setting even help make it romantic, despite the immediacy with which the couple discusses marriage as a practical arrangement.

“Wish Lanterns” is littered with exquisite touches. When the rebellious, tomboyish Mia is offered a fashion stylist job at Bazaar, it is described as the kind of job her more demure friends “would have given a gloved arm and stockinged leg for.” The weekend bonanza of families visiting Ikea describes scenes in which couples “have real domestics in fake kitchens.”

Perhaps the strongest and most dramatic chapter in the whole book involves Snail, a boy from the Anhui countryside who is the first in his family to go to college, making it all the way to the nation’s capital for his studies. The scene is set in the mid-2000s when World of Warcraft was at the height of its popularity. Standout lines include: “The game offered a sense of accomplishment that three-dimensional life lacked”.

Snail is apprehended by his parents for neglecting his studies due to his gaming addiction. Like the rest of the book, the moment is brilliantly grounded in the five senses (“Snail was pulled out of World of Warcraft to face something he hadn’t seen in a long time: sunlight”.) Every viewpoint is poignantly observed and no person is judged (“With the supervisor’s help, the first time his mother used the Internet was to look up the website for an Internet-addiction rehab center”.)

The book covers issues with which any China-follower of the past decade will be familiar, from the Wang Yue tragedy to the downfall of Bo Xilai. Yet as well as looking at old issues in a new light, it will teach just about any China hand things they did not know.

One subject Fred, a Tsinghua University graduate from a privileged Hainan family, encounters the New Left thinker Pan Wei who is too radical for even the left wing of the Communist Party. The West, Pan Wei argues, is historically a nomadic society which by nature favours individualism, while China is by tradition agrarian and better suited to traditionalism. The evolution of Fred’s political thinking is one of the most engaging elements.

Yet politics is only a tiny part of “Wish Lanterns”. Through his interviewing skills and keen observations, Alec Ash has interwoven six compelling stories and unobtrusively presented the economic, historic and cultural realities that lie within.

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