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Tales from China’s Millennials

Alec Ash defines the nation’s 1985 to 1990 generation

04·12·2017

A journalist and writer in Beijing, Alec Ash is known for his Beijing-based website, the Anthill, and his recent work, Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China, was featured as a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. Wish Lanterns, which will debut in the US on March 7, 2017, follows six young Chinese born between 1985 and 1990 in their journeys to professional and personal fulfillment.

CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE MORE ABOUT THE PEOPLE WHOSE STORIES YOU CHOSE TO FOLLOW?

I’ve always been a fan of the approach of the “universal through the individual” as a window into China and as a window into this generation that I’m writing about. Rather than try to sum up this generation—which I would obviously totally mess up if I attempted—I found six people from a variety of different backgrounds whose stories interested me and told their stories in a straight narrative style with interwoven short chapters, almost like a novel would be constructed, but chronologically and with no editorial gloss. I don’t even appear in the book until the Author’s Note. I took a lot of care in choosing people whose stories touched on different aspects of the generation, like a Venn diagram with six circles. There is an aspiring international superstar, whose English name is Lucifer. There is the daughter of a Party official from Hainan called Fred. There’s a rural migrant from Anhui, Snail, who gets addicted to World of Warcraft, and the child of a former PLA soldier, Dahai, who grew up in a military compound and becomes quite active as a netizen. And there’s a fashionista from Xinjiang and a small business owner from the far north, freezing Dongbei. Two of these characters meet about two-thirds through the book and get married, though for the purposes of suspense I won’t tell you which two.

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO COMPLETELY REPRESENT A GENERATION LIKE THIS. THERE ARE NO FACTORY WORKERS, RURAL TRADESMEN, FARMERS, MARGINAL CHARACTERS. IS THAT SOMETHING YOU WANTED TO COVER A BIT MORE?

Yes and no. Obviously this Venn diagram has acres of white space around its borders and there are so many facets of the generation I’ve missed. So it’s far from a comprehensive portrait. There are no ethnic minorities. There are no central LGBT stories. There’s no mention of the diaspora. And all six of the characters live in a city, Beijing, the central location, even if they come from different locales. All of them have a university education. So I was very conscious from the start that I was writing about aspirational Chinese in the city. Not necessarily super rich or privileged, but young, urban Chinese. Inevitably, it misses much of the wider story of, say, migrant workers, on whom, incidentally, Leslie Chang has already done such a stand-up job in Factory Girls. But I’m quite happy, reasonably comfortable missing all that stuff because I want to tell a good story, not necessarily a complete story.

THERE IS, IN THE LARGER DISCOURSE, IMMENSE PRESSURE ON THE MILLENNIAL GENERATION. HOW DO THE PRESSURES AFFECT THE OUTLOOK OF THESE INDIVIDUALS?

One of the stereotypes of this generation which offends me, both inside and outside of China, is a spoiled, coddled, materialistic generation, made up of pampered single children who have it easy somehow. I think the opposite is true in many ways because as single children, all of that pressure is heaped on their shoulders. Of all of the people I spoke to, not a single one didn’t talk about the pressure from their families: whether it’s a young girl who is called daily by her mother wondering when she’s going to get married or the young guy expected to slog at a job he hates after studying a subject he dislikes in order to put away enough savings for a flat. So I think both those pressures and the reaction to them, the attempts to break free of those strictures, are some of the wider narratives that define the generation born after 1985.

WHAT SORT OF CONFLICT IS THE GENERATION GAP DRIVING?

Well, I don’t think we can underestimate the generation gap, or chasm. As we—people from the Anglophone world living in China—think about our mums and dads, they’re not so dissimilar from us. Maybe they smoked a little weed in the 60s, but there’s no equivalence to the difference between the people born in the 1980s and their parents, who lived through the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward. The effects of that generation gap, of that disconnect, are, I found, some of the biggest complaints of this generation, that their parents just don’t understand them. But, as well as that malaise, I think it also breeds a desire to do something very different, a sort of freedom when you can shrug off your parents as belonging to a bygone age, the freedom to really explore something on your own. Add that to the fact that many young people are living in big cities, there are a lot of possibilities they are trying to explore. Maybe another frustration is that anyone in a position of power tends to be of an older generation, whether it’s a top-level official in Zhongnanhai or your boss, your leader. I wish I had a penny for every time a young Chinese working in a company told me that they wish their boss would just retire. They see that generation as more risk-averse and less willing to experiment.

DO YOU KEEP IN TOUCH WITH EVERYONE FROM WISH LANTERNS?

Well, in the US edition, which will be out March 7, there are a couple of paragraphs I added to the author’s note as a “Where Are They Now.” Three have left Beijing or are leaving. Snail is back in Anhui working in IT at a sewage disposal plant attached to a high speed rail station—

THAT IS A BIT WORLD OF WARCRAFT-Y.

Yeah, mining for gold. Dahai got assigned to Urumqi, building the subway system in Urumqi, and Fred will soon be going back to Hainan to hopefully join a think-tank on the South China Sea. Yeah, I keep in touch, and those in Beijing I see on occasion. I’m keeping an eye on how their stories are developing. I think it takes a lot of trust for someone to trust a foreign author with their stories. I hope I did them justice. I could only promise them that I would not write anything wrong, though clearly, I would miss lots of the elements of their lives.

DO THEY FEEL YOU’VE REPRESENTED THEM FAIRLY?

They’ve all read it—those who have the English skills. Dahai just liked the photo of him at the back. And I was pleasantly surprised that they all liked it. I didn’t get any negative feedback, besides a few mistakes which I’ve corrected, so I was quite pleased with that. I spoke with Fred a few weeks ago, and she was quite pleased with it. She wrote quite a nice review of the book which I plan to put up on my blog, the Anthill.


“Tales from China’s Millennials” is a story from our issue, “Fantasy”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store

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