John Pomfret is author of a history of U.S.-China relations, “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom,” and editor at large at SupChina.
In the past 100 years, there have been three great generations of Chinese. The first were those who were born in the last years of the 19th century, went to the United States to study and returned to China to establish all of the modern Western disciplines from law to medicine to the sciences. The second embraced Marxism in the 1920s, founded the Chinese Communist Party and, profiting from Japan’s invasion of China, conquered China in 1949. China’s third great generation emerged in the 1980s from the ashes of the Cultural Revolution and came of age in a country that had finally embraced market-oriented economic reforms. Steeled by years in China’s poverty-stricken countryside where they had been banished by Chairman Mao Zedong, they returned to China’s cities to drive the changes that have turned China into the world’s second largest economy.
The only thing great about China’s millennial generation, born after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, however, appears to be its size. There are 320 million Chinese between the ages of 16 and 30. Raised in a China far richer than that of their parents, with scant knowledge of the epochal events of China’s recent history such as the famine of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution or the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests around Tiananmen Square, China’s millennials are the cause of endless hand-wringing among their elders and even the Chinese Communist Party. Children of the “one-child” policy, they are said to exhibit symptoms of what the Chinese call the “little emperor” complex. As single children, they garnered excessive amounts of attention from their parents and grandparents, making for grown-ups with weak social skills, incapable of independent thought. Pampered by their relatives, Chinese young men, in particular, face what Tiantian Zheng, a professor of anthropology at State University of New York, has called a “crisis of masculinity.” Some party officials have even expressed the concern that China’s “effeminate generation” threatens to return China to its colonial past when it was bullied by the West. China’s ministry of education has even issued a handbook — called “Little Men” — to encourage China’s boys to be, well, boys.
Against this angst-filled backdrop, Alec Ash has written one of the first books in English about China’s millennials. “Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China” is an intimate portrait of six young Chinese — three women and three men — on a journey from high school into the workforce. We meet a rock-and-roll wannabe, a tattooed fashion stylist, an engineer, an addict of online gaming, a girl desperate to leave the confines of her one-rice-paddy town and a budding nationalist who calls herself Fred — after her muse, Frederic Chopin. About three-quarters of the way through, two of the main subjects meet and marry — but I won’t spoil it. 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.
Ash gets a lot about China very right. Several decades ago, Western writers were agog with the fact that the Chinese liked rock-and-roll and had sex. Ash takes these in stride. His subjects inhabit a globalized youth culture in a highly caffeinated country (yes, young Chinese drink more coffee than tea) where, as Ash writes, there’s “a generation gap every five years.” Ash’s most interesting character, Mia, grabbed one of her nicknames from the film “Pulp Fiction.” Another character, Lucifer, takes his inspiration from South Korean pop and Japanese porn. Ash parses the particulars of China’s hookup culture and has written probably the best paragraph in the modern Western oeuvre describing how Chinese women approach dating, getting just right how they often feign helplessness to make their male friends feel strong. Ash is also attune to the yawning divide between country-bumpkin climbers and the urban cool.
Reading the book, I had two questions: Are these really the men and women who are going to help make China into a world power? If so, China doesn’t really seem like such a threat. Ash identifies the restless energy and furtive search of this Chinese generation. But he also has discovered that, as he writes, “to get anything worth having in China . . . either you had to play dirty or bend to the system completely.” All of his characters seem bereft of idealism or dreams bigger than themselves. “He was thoroughly disabused of the belief that he could better his society,” Ash writes of one man. “Instead, he focused on improving himself.”
This leads to my next question: What does Ash think about this generation that will have a key voice in China’s future? At only one point in the book does he express an opinion about his subjects, noting that they were “mollycoddled to comic extremes during infancy,” then “helped up after every fall, and wrapped in more layers of protection than a porcelain vase in transit.” But that’s it. Ash has said that he purposely avoided passing judgment on the generation because it would be unfair to generalize from such a small sample. But I’d argue that especially because Ash is a fellow millennial and such a gifted observer, he’s uniquely placed to draw conclusions about this group. The fate of a large portion of humanity turns on the answer. He should have given it a try.
By Alec Ash
Arcade. 320 pp. $25.99